When producers Avi Arad, Laura Ziskin, and Matt Tolmach were drawing a list of potential villains who would tangle with the wall-crawling webhead in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” they had one of the greatest and most colorful rogues’ gallery in comic book history to draw upon. The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Electro, The Sandman, Mysterio, Venom, The Hobgoblin, The Rhino, The Scorpion… all classic Spidey villains, with some of them waiting to make their big-screen bow.
But there was only really ever one contender: The Lizard.
A giant reptilian powerhouse with superhuman strength, jagged claws and fangs, and a prehensile tail which can be used as a weapon, The Lizard is the alter-ego of the tragic scientist, Dr. Curt Connors, the world’s foremost authority on genetic engineering. Which may prove useful, as Connors is consumed with one particular quest above all others: to, somehow, find a way to regrow the right arm that he lost in an accident years ago.
When he teams up with the brilliant budding young scientist, Peter Parker, Connors finally finds a formula that works, including the DNA of reptiles. His joy at regrowing his missing arm doesn’t last long, as Connors slowly finds himself transforming into The Lizard, the vicious, twisted, scaly-skinned Hyde to his mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll.
So why was The Lizard the overwhelming favorite to be the new Spider-nemesis?
Because he just happens to be Avi Arad’s favorite Spider-Man villain. “The first animated show I did was called ‘Night Of The Lizard,’” says Arad of the 1994 “Spider-Man” animated series, which began with an episode in which Peter Parker confronts the horrible truth about his college professor, Dr. Connors. “For me, Connors is one of the most amazing stories ever. I love the ideas behind it, and once we got Rhys, it was a no-brainer.”
In the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, Connors was Peter Parker’s college science teacher, played—in “Spider-Man 2” and “Spider-Man 3”—by noted character actor, Dylan Baker. For “The Amazing Spider-Man,” though, Connors is played by Welsh actor, Rhys Ifans.
Ifans made his breakthrough as an actor with 1999’s “Notting Hill,” in which he played the roguish flatmate of Hugh Grant’s charmer. From there, he’s bounced dexterously between big-budget Hollywood movies like “Little Nicky” and “Anonymous,” in which he played the Earl Of Oxford, and smaller, independent films like “Mr. Nice” and “Enduring Love.” A charismatic, committed character actor, his casting as The Lizard is quite apt, according to Arad. “Rhys blew us away in the audition,” says Arad. “Talking about lizards, the word ‘chameleon’ comes to mind. He can do it with anything, he can turn himself into that. He’s a loony, a brilliant, generous, magnificent actor.”
For Ifans’ part, he didn’t feel any extra pressure bringing Arad’s favorite character to the big screen. “The pressure’s there, but I only feel it after the event,” says the 43-year-old. “It’s like doing any other film—you knuckle down and try not to look like an idiot! But Avi and Matt were there the whole time. It’s very much their baby, and they’ve been very supportive. Avi was quite moved at times to finally see his favorite villain sing and dance for the first time!”
When it comes to his on-screen villainy, Ifans’ The Lizard won’t actually be singing and dancing, of course. He’ll be too busy trying to squash the Spider, while putting together his own nefarious scheme for the people of New York. “He’s not dismissible physically, and he’s enormous, and he can seemingly better Spider-Man at a lot of turns,” says Tolmach. “It makes for some incredible sequences.”
For Ifans, though, the appeal of the role lay not just in the action sequences, but in a chance to play a genuinely tortured anti-hero, a trope which has proved popular in Spider-Man villains in the past. “Curt is a force for good throughout his life,” says Ifans. “He’s a geneticist who wants to help people like him, who are limbless. In his eagerness to advance that science, he makes a mistake and that’s an occurrence we’ve seen throughout science, throughout time, sometimes to our benefit, and sometimes to our detriment.
“There’s something of the boffin about him, but there’s also an element of the maverick as well, the hero, the genius,” continues Ifans. “He’s not just a boring lab-bound scientist. He has a big manifesto. He is a broken man who wants to fix himself. His inspiration to want to help other people is that he’s been damaged himself. The Lizard almost becomes a drug for him, an alter-ego like Jekyll and Hyde, if you like. He’s strong and brave and agile in a way that he can’t be in his own life.”
Just as Andrew Garfield worked with a trio of stunt doubles to make Spider-Man’s movements and body language distinctive and memorable, so did Ifans for The Lizard. “In terms of the physicality, we did use this huge guy who looked like a crash test dummy to do the movements, but I did a lot of work for and with him,” says Ifans. “I had a particular way I wanted The Lizard to move.”
That included compensating for The Lizard’s tail, something which meant that the actor often had to part with his dignity. “You just have to imagine yourself with a longer spine,” he laughs. “Some days I’d be standing on set and I almost looked like one of those Golf Sale people with the pole stuck down the back of my tracksuit, and on top of the pole would be a flat picture of The Lizard’s head! It was quite comical, in comparison to what you’ll see what it’s done.”
Indeed. Of course, had “The Amazing Spider-Man” been made 20 years ago, it’s entirely possible that the actor playing The Lizard would have been forced to clamber into an unconvincing Godzilla-esque suit. Not any more. The advances in CGI, in fact, encouraged Arad, Tolmach, and director Marc Webb that they could make a giant lizard work in the gritty, believable universe that Webb has created for the movie. And further advances also meant that Ifans could follow in the footsteps of digital pioneer Andy Serkis, and actually play The Lizard. “The advancements in technology are quite breathtaking, to say the least,” he adds. “They did extensive CGI maps of my face, which involved about 5,000 dots on your face. Each of your facial movements are totally repeatable, but then you add onto that the face of a lizard. I was, disturbingly, able to recognize some of my facial tics and movements.”
When he was in human form as Dr. Connors, Ifans also had to come to terms with wearing a greenscreen sock on his arm, which would later be erased digitally. “I called it Kermit,” laughs Ifans. “Every scene we got to shoot, I would say, ‘where’s Kermit?’ You have to keep your arm still, and you do self-consciously swing your arm. But I didn’t want it to look like I was swinging a stump, so I had a weight strapped around my wrist to keep that computer-generated part of me still enough. That was strange, but it’s amazing what you get used to.”
One major change to Connors’ backstory for “The Amazing Spider-Man” was the decision to change the nature of his involvement with Peter Parker’s life. Whereas, previously, Connors had been involved with Peter academically, for “The Amazing Spider-Man” he is now directly involved with Peter’s past, as a former colleague of Richard Parker, Peter’s father. When Peter seeks out Connors, the two become fast friends, and Peter is even complicit, albeit unwittingly so, in the origin of The Lizard. “There is a much greater sense that their destinies are intertwined,” says Tolmach. “Here’s this man who is the only person from Peter’s father’s world. Peter emotionally avails himself to this guy because it’s the next best thing. He’s got no kindred spirit, and he finds it in Connors.”