Yuri Lowenthal always wanted to be Spider-Man — and he’s got proof. As we chat over Zoom weeks ahead of the release of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, he excitedly whips out a photo of himself as a child, clad in that signature Spidey mask.
“That’s me and my sister. I must have been, like, five. That’s her as Batman. And me wearing the Spider-Man mask. If you had told that kid that when he got older, and arguably, too old, that he’d get to play Spider-Man…” he trails off. “That doesn’t even compute. It really is just a dream that I hope I never wake up from.”
The veteran voice actor has portrayed Peter Parker in various projects since 2011, but he really hit it big when he landed the titular role in Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man series, the first game of which was published in 2018. For his work, Lowenthal was nominated for best performance at The Game Awards that year.
When he returned to portray Peter for the highly-anticipated sequel, which dropped on Oct. 20, Lowenthal couldn’t rest on his laurels. In the game, Peter becomes entangled with Venom, a murderous alien symbiote with a frightening hive mind. As the symbiote takes hold, Peter becomes increasingly aggressive (both verbally and in combat), a significant departure from the happy-go-lucky character fans are accustomed to.
“I’m gonna be honest with you, it was hard for me, because Peter is your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” Lowenthal tells Variety. “To make Peter not friendly was difficult for me, because I’d gotten into a place where Pete was easy. Pete is me. We’re friendly and we’re helpful, and I understood all the decisions as we went along.”
“Getting him to the place that he gets to was difficult, because it felt so antithetical to who Pete is. I was exhausted at the end of those sessions in a way that I’m not usually exhausted. Psychologically, it was difficult to push Pete into those things, and it tired me out in a way that I was not expecting,” he continues.
Of course, Lowenthal didn’t work alone in crafting the symbiotized Peter, collaborating with Venom actor and horror icon Tony Todd. A big grin flashes across Lowenthal’s face when I mention Todd. “Can we just talk for a second about how awesome Tony is? He’s so cool. So cool. He’s so cool!”
“I’ve loved getting to work with him,” he adds. “That was a really big part of the process for us, because we knew it was an important part of the story. We really had to figure out how the symbiote affects Peter, not just as a blanket thing: At the beginning, how does it affect him? How does it affect him an hour into having the suit? How about two days into having the suit?”
In developing Peter’s dark side, Lowenthal drew inspiration from the properties of addiction. “At the beginning, when Pete first gets the suit, it is the best thing in the world. He’s jazzed: ‘I’ve got all these new powers, I can be a better Spider Man. It’s a win-win! I am the greatest! This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me!’ Which is how drugs are that first time, and then it starts to take its toll,” he says. “That shiny new energy wears off. You’re more a slave to what it does to you than in control of it.”
Lowenthal didn’t have to live in that headspace for the entirety of recording, though. He also played on the opposite end of the spectrum, portraying teenage Peter in a series of flashbacks. While the first Insomniac Spider-Man game picked up years after Peter became a superhero, these scenes give a rare glimpse at a naïve kid adjusting to his new powers. At one point, he even forgets where he’s stored his spare web-shooters.
“I was excited that Insomniac decided to make that first game eight years after he gets bitten by a radioactive spider, because we’ve seen that so many times,” Lowenthal says. “You didn’t get to see that part of Peter’s experience and his life in that first game at all. And while we didn’t need it, hopefully seeing some of it in this game, you’ll realize how much maybe you missed it a little bit. It’s okay to go back.”
These scenes gave 52-year-old Lowenthal a chance to flex his ability to sound significantly younger. “When I first came out to Los Angeles to be a movie star, like everybody else, so much of that work was about how I looked. I couldn’t play that if I didn’t look like that. Whereas in this world, if I can sound like that, I could be that. So, luckily, I’ve had a little a little practice in the ‘sounding like a teenager’ department.”
In the flashbacks, fans also get more details on Peter’s friendship with Harry Osborne (Graham Phillips), who returns in this game after being seemingly cured from the illness that kept him isolated for years. “We’ve talked about the relationship between Pete and Harry. We haven’t gotten to experience it yet,” Lowenthal says. “It’d be one thing to say, ‘Hey, Harry’s back. Remember? We love Harry! They’re good friends.’ What a brilliant way for them to create the relationship that we all need to feel in this game between Pete and Harry for anything to work.”
Spider-Man isn’t the only big project Lowenthal has rolled out recently. He voiced fan-favorite character Smoke in Warner Bros. Games’ Mortal Kombat 1, which released in September. Lowenthal admits he wasn’t as familiar with the franchise as he was with Marvel, though.
“I’m steeped in Spider-Man. I grew up reading comic books. I was not a big Mortal Kombat player,” he says. “In my first session with Dominic Cianciolo, who was the writer and the voice director, I’m like, ‘I love that I get to play a new character in Mortal Kombat!’ He’s like, ‘Oh, honey. Smoke is not a new character. We haven’t seen him in a while, but he’s not a new character.’”
Lowenthal adds that roles like that don’t just fall into his lap, even at his level of expertise and notoriety. “I know everybody thinks that at this stage of my career, I don’t have to audition for anything anymore, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If I’m lucky, I’m still auditioning multiple times in one day.”
And perhaps it’s this constant auditioning that makes Lowenthal feel so connected to Hollywood’s ongoing labor disputes. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con in July, where Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 became the first game to appear in Hall H for a panel, he made an impassioned plea in support of striking creatives. “We are here this weekend, but we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters and everybody at the WGA and SAG,” he said. “We’re able to be here because we’re in a different contract for games, but that might not last forever.”
Within months, that prediction became much more real, as SAG-AFTRA members voted overwhelmingly in September to authorize a strike against 10 major video game companies (including Insomniac and WB Games).
“We’re fighting for essentially the same things that the writers were fighting for. The same thing that our film and TV actor brothers and sisters are fighting for,” Lowenthal says. “I’m hoping that the gains that were made by the writers recently will help make our strike shorter.”
“Something that I think will affect everyone going forward is the application of AI. None of us are against technology,” he adds. “But I think because it’s so new, and has such a potential to exploit the people who helped create it — the performances that were fed into machines to create it — we just need to establish some guidelines, and an open line of communication between performers, writers, creatives and AI companies, so that we can all be on the same page.”
Lowenthal continues, “I know a lot of people are like, ‘Y’all just want more money.’ Sure, I would love to be paid for work that I contributed to. But even more than that, it’s a consent issue. If all of a sudden, you can take our data and just make us do whatever you want to, it feels bad. I think anybody can sympathize with that and go, ‘Yeah, I would hate to get puppeted into saying something or doing something that I never did or wanted to do.’”
On Oct. 16, SAG-AFTRA announced that it will schedule more bargaining sessions on a new video game contract, in hopes of averting a second strike. For now, Lowenthal can bask in the glory of the new Spider-Man release.
“The people who work on this game truly love Spider-Man and love telling these stories,” he says. “Nobody’s coasting on that first game. Nobody’s like, ‘Well, that was good enough.’ What they tried to do with this game was to up everything, and I just hope that people feel that.”