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For Yuri Lowenthal, Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2 was a case of real life colliding with fiction. In the game, he worked with his wife, Tara Platt, who voices Captain Yuri Watanabe. And he became close with actor Nadji Jeter, who plays young Spider-Man/Miles Morales.
“My real-life relationship with Nadji, at various times, would echo the relationship that we have in the game,” Lowenthal tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think that just comes from me being a lot older than him and maybe having acted longer. But it just started to grow that way with us in real life too.”
The game also included some dark moments for Peter, via his relationship with the symbiote.
“I was drained at the end of sessions, because it was hard pushing Peter and that character into a very unfamiliar and mean place,” says the actor.
Lowenthal has dabbled in the world of Spider-Man for more than a decade in animation and gaming in titles such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 mobile game. Then the 2018 Insomniac game Spider-Man changed everything for his relationship with the character when it became a phenomenon, selling 13.8 million copies worldwide. He reprised the role for the 2020 spinoff Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and is now back with Spider-Man 2, which earlier this week set a record as the fastest selling PlayStation game in the company’s history, with 2.5 million copies sold in the first 24 hours.
In a conversation with THR, Lowenthal also talks his work in the Mortal Kombat franchise, and bringing Peter to a darker place in this installment.
I think one of the great things about the first game, in addition to the gameplay and mechanics, was the story. What were your first thoughts reading this script?
For people who’ve read The Last Hunt with Kraven, or all those classic Spider-Man stories — Insomniac is going to give you all that stuff that you love about that character, but it’s also going to be different. So it keeps you on your toes, and it’s fresh. Much like the first game, it’s not just about one villain. It’s not just about one event or one relationship. It’s how it all ties together. And every little piece contributes to something that’s bigger than any one of those stories.
In Spider-Man 2, Kraven has a more psychological edge with his attacks on Spider-Man, as opposed to Venom and Lizard, who battle Spider-Man in other ways. How does that affect Pete?
It was great for me, because on one hand, we all know Kraven. But Peter, in this world, he doesn’t have a background of Kraven. He’s learning just as we are. You could approach that character as a big guy who’s really strong and has weapons and hunts, but they included the psychological edge with him. So I asked myself, what does it make Peter feel? What direction does it push him? Especially when you add the symbiote element into it, what happens when Kraven threatens somebody that Peter loves? (Insomniac creative director) Bryan (Intihar) always says, “When Peter wins, Spider-Man has to lose. When Spider-Man wins, Peter loses.”
You also get to play a darker Peter when he has the symbiote.
You ask any actor, “Would you rather play a hero or a villain,” and they’ll say villain. Playing a villain, you get to be bad and play in that world, but not go to jail. (Laughs.) But I underestimated how hard it would be to make your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, not friendly. I’ve settled into such a zone with Peter to make him the opposite of that… I was drained at the end of sessions, because it was hard pushing Peter and that character into a very unfamiliar and mean place.
When we’re recording a game on a non-linear schedule, Chris Zimmerman, the performance director, and the rest of the team were always tracking where we were in the story. So sometimes I’d maybe say something too mean or not mean enough, and we’d have to sort of bring me back to where we were on that timeline, which was something we never really had to do. Before, Peter was Peter. He was always saving people. But, this brought out a different story.
What was the game’s recording process like?
With a video game, they have very specific things that they need to make that game work. And I’m often very reluctant to go loosey goosey with it, because I know it can affect something down the line that I’m not even aware of. They always had a writer on set, so sometimes they’ll say, “That’s a really good idea. Let’s try it.” At the very beginning (of the first game), I was afraid to do it. But as I got more comfortable with the character and the team, I felt okay. It really feels like a family, you know? It’s never “your work” or “my work,” it’s “our work.”
This game takes place nine months after the events of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Peter’s relationship has grown with Miles. What was recording like for you and Nadji Jeter, who’s played Miles throughout the Insomniac series?
My real-life relationship with Nadji, at various times, would echo the relationship that we have in the game. I think that just comes from me being a lot older than him and maybe having acted longer. But it just started to grow that way with us in real life too. Which is fun! I’ve also become a father in real life since the first game. In no way is Peter trying to become the father that Miles lost. But he does see that Miles may need some care in the Spider-Man training area.
Now that Peter’s Spider-Man is older and in a mentorship role, how did you find that motivating in your performances?
I think we naturally would find some of these dynamics in the room. I love that we get to shoot those game cinematics like we’re performing a play or shooting a movie — we get to feed off of things that we couldn’t possibly imagine. I do my preparation, my memorization, all that stuff. But then when I show up on the day with Nadji, it never goes exactly the way I think it’s going to go. I love that we get to do it that way. We could do it all solo, and our performances would be fine. Everybody who works on this game is super talented, but if you get us in a room together? It’s like alchemy.
I imagine it’s a different relationship between you, Tony Todd (Venom), and Jim Pirri (Kraven)?
Jim, I’ve never worked with before! He’s phenomenally talented and really just came in and embodied the character. It was kind of a surprise to me, because when I met him, he’s super kind and humble and giving – not at all that character. With Tony, I’ll fanboy out a little bit — I’ve been a fan of Tony’s for forever. In a funny turn of events, we had gotten to work on a show together called DOTA: Dragon’s Blood. He plays a dragon that kind of inhabits my body, so we had a very similar relationship as we do in Spider-Man 2.
We all know him — he’s Candyman! He’s this super talented actor, who’s also kind and warm and super cool. He even loves whiskey as much as I do! (Laughs.) So when Brian said we’ve got our Venom and told me to listen to Tony’s reading, I just said, “That’s it.”
Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane Watson (voiced by Laura Bailey) has grown as well. How does that come into play in this game?
Even though he’s a superhero, Pete still has to grow in his relationship with MJ. Of course thrown in the middle of that, Peter becomes a monster, so how do they weather that? Obviously, she knows it’s not Peter, but some things you can’t take back. How does that leave them in the end? And I’m not going to tell you, so you have to play the game for yourself.
I’m going to try and web you against the wall here with this next one…
Appreciate the pun.
Outside of yours and Nadji’s roles, who’s your personal favorite Spider-Man? I know you’re a big comic book reader.
In the movies, Tobey (Maguire) was always my guy. Watching Spider-Man: No Way Home, I watched all the joys of those guys hanging out together. Honestly, I could have watched an entire movie of those three Spider-Men sitting in a room, shooting the shit. I think it’s unfair for me to just say Josh Keaton (The Spectacular Spider-Man) because we’re friends, but he’s… well, he’s spectacular. Brian Michael Bendis (in comics), he gets Spider-Man, and he’s not the only writer who does. Dan Slott, too. There have been a lot of great Spider-Man stories.
I wish I could remember which writer said this — he says that he loves that Miles is more “Spider-Man” to a lot of kids out there, and Peter is that old guy who cracks jokes that they don’t think is funny. I love this, I think it’s awesome that Spider-Man can be an enduring character in and of himself. A new generation can find their own Spider-Man.
And not to mention an entire Spider-Verse where your own Insomniac’s Spider-Man was seen…
Now we’ve got a stage where those Spider-Men can can play together in the same universe, which is crazy! Once upon a time, it would be like, well, I like this Nick Fury or that Nick Fury, but you’d never see those two Nick Fury’s hanging out on the same page. But now you can, you can do that! Spider-Cop is canon!
Speaking of Spider-Cop, your wife Tara Platt, plays Captain Yuri Watanabe in the game.
Ben (Arfman) was at his wits end trying to figure out a way to make tutorials interesting in the first game, but nothing clicked. He stayed up late the night before the recording and told me, “This isn’t going to work, but we have to record something today.” You never know what’s going to resonate. And then the fact that her name is “Yuri” in the game and it’s my name in real life, but I know it’s my wife … there’s so many layers. It never wasn’t weird.
The new Mortal Kombat 1 that was released on Sept. 14. You play Smoke in this game, but I’ve heard you didn’t really play it growing up?
Look, who doesn’t know what Mortal Kombat is? I’m old enough to have been pumping quarters into arcades back in the day. When Mortal Kombat came out, everybody was like, what is that? Are you allowed to do that? But that’s probably the last time I played it until IGN! I loved the world though, and I’m probably dating myself, but I used to have a clock radio that woke me up with what was in the CD player. It was always the Mortal Kombat theme from that movie. (Yuri proceeded to impressively sing the Mortal Kombat song, “Techno Syndrome”)
When they came to me and said we want you to play Smoke, I mistakenly showed up saying, “Smoke’s a new character, right? I’m so excited!” Dominic Cianciolo (story & voiceover director for NetherRealm Studios) let me know he wasn’t a new character, and I assumed I blew it. But they worked with me and we created a new version of the character for this game. I was super excited to become part of that, although technically, I had played a character named Kobra in a direct to video Mortal Kombat animated film Mortal Kombat Legends: Snow Blind before this game came out.
Was recording for the game what you originally imagined?
In my head, Mortal Kombat was just a fighting game and there wasn’t a lot of story to it. Dom quickly said “No, no, we’ve created this whole universe here.” Smoke has two brothers with very different relationships. One is much more antagonistic, and the other is more brotherly. Dom would give me the background about who I’m speaking to, and the relationship to that character. We weren’t just going to beat each other up. It was really fun to see how the character grew as I learned more about the world and the relationships and the history. I got a chance for the first time to see some of it when we were at Comic-Con.
What’s it like for you, going to Comic Con?
(Laughs.) I’m mostly invisible.
You get to see your work everywhere there, while being a genuine fan?
I’ve been going to these conventions since high school, just saving up my money to go. I was on the other side of the table, waiting in line for people’s autographs. It’s been really amazing to see how conventions and fandom have grown, and how it’s becoming more mainstream.
What do you take away from getting to play Spider-Man over these years, particularly growing up as a fan?
I feel so lucky, not only that I get to be Spider-Man, but Insomniac’s Spider-Man. It didn’t occur to me right away, but when my son was really young, I would say, “Hey buddy, I’m sorry, Daddy’s gotta go to work today. But he’s Spider-Man!” Maybe, he thought I was actually Spider-Man. Maybe, that may be the last time that my son ever thinks of me as a real, you know, hero. Hopefully, hopefully it will last longer. But I at least have that.