Tunde Adebimpe has had an odd little acting career since coming to prominence as the lead singer of TV On The Radio. Most notably, he played the groom (and sang Neil Young) in Jonathan Demme’s 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, but he was also in Portlandia and Nasty Baby and the recent TV series Search Party, and that’s not counting his pre-TVOTR starring role in the 2001 indie Jump Tomorrow. But his biggest movie so far — albeit possibly his smallest role — is Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which he plays Mr. Cobbwell, Peter Parker’s chemistry teacher. And in a new interview with Vulture, he discusses how he ended up getting the part in the movie, which was, perhaps not coincidentally, directed by Jon Watts, who also directed the “Wolf Like Me” music video for TVOTR.
“I did try out, but I can’t safely say that there wasn’t a tiny bit of nepotism attached,” Adebimpe says. “If they didn’t want me there, I wouldn’t have been there, but I do know [Watts], and his wife subsequently became a manager of mine. We had reconnected in L.A. a little while ago, and we were having dinner, and I remember asking him, ‘What are you up to?’ He was like, ‘I’m kind of in the midst of getting this Spider-Man movie. Cop Car [Watts’s last movie] is a weird movie. It’s not a movie you watch and think, Oh, let’s give this guy Spider-Man. Let’s give this guy scads of money to secure the franchise. I told him right then, ‘That’s awesome. I don’t know what you would do, but I would love to see that in your hands.’ I said, ‘If you need someone to fall down a set of stairs in a scene, I will totally do that. Just, someone to sneeze or yell or something, I’m totally down.’ And then I forgot about it. Until I remember reading in the trades that he got it and I was so psyched.”
A couple of months later, he got asked to try out for the part of the Tinkerer, the Vulture’s assistant, which he didn’t get. But then, when they were casting for the teachers, they decided he was perfect for Mr. Cobbwell. “They said, ‘We’d like you to be Mr. Cobbwell, Peter’s chemistry teacher,'” Adebimpe says. “My montage stuff was the first day of shooting, first shot of the film. Everyone’s sitting there and figuring it out. About 9 the night before, Jon came to my room and gave me a manila envelope with one sheet of dialogue in it. Basically nothing. I was like, ‘Okay, this is fine.’ And then Jon said, ‘This is the gist of what they’re learning, if you just want to improv some science jokes before it.’ That’s what I did. One got in.”
Elsewhere in the interview, he discusses his shooting schedule, the experience of filming in Atlanta, and his nephew not giving a shit about his role:
Considering the amount of screen time, how long were you shooting for?
I was in Atlanta for three weeks. I was there at the beginning of shooting and the feeling I got with a Marvel production is that if you’re not central to the plot, it’s like being sent on a secret mission. I was staying in the hotel, just hanging out like Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, waiting for someone to tell me what to do. No script, no nothing. And you get told, “We’ll let you know the day before we need you on set, and you’ll get your lines that night.” It was a pretty strange situation. We were in a very small Holiday Inn in Atlanta, and you’re walking out through the lobby and there are a bunch of people on vacation, and you walk past Bokeem Woodbine, and you’re like, Bokeem? Is he in the movie? There are all these people and I wanted to say hi, but it’s like, Are you allowed to ask if they’re in Spider-Man? It was a really surreal experience, but it was great.
How many scenes did you end up shooting?
I was there for three weeks, and the first shot of the first day was the classroom [scene], where Peter is figuring out his web fluid in a drawer, or something. That was that, and then there were two more things. There was a scene at the homecoming dance — it was me and Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr hanging out by the punch table at the homecoming dance. Students were coming up and we were telling them things about life and love. There were a lot of things, like any movie, that get shaved down for time. Every scene, no matter how fun it might be. I was there for three weeks, and I probably shot six days — like two days a week.
What was it like watching the movie and seeing yourself in this world?
It was funny, because I was out of the country. I was in France. My wife’s from France, so I went to see it with my nephew, who’s a Spider-Man fanatic. My French is terrible and his English is burgeoning. He’s 7 years old, so it’s very spotty. I don’t tell anyone when I’m in anything until it comes out, but my wife was like, “Tunde’s in Spider-Man.” He was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe it! Can I go?” I got to take him. I think the first scene where Peter’s walking through the hallway in the school, and there’s a lot of background activity, I walk by and I was like, “Yeah, that’s me,” and [my nephew] just gave me a look and nodded, “Okay, got it.” [Laughs.] He didn’t care at all. I put myself in his place and I also would not care, like, “I have not yet seen Spider-Man, which is why I am in this room.”
Did the size of your role surprise you?
I knew it was not going to be that much, because [director] Jon [Watts] and I had already discussed that. When the movie came out, I started getting texts when I was overseas from friends being like, “Did you see it yet? It’s really good. Have you seen it?” People were like, “Maybe they’ll wise up next time and give you more screen time.” I hadn’t seen it yet so I didn’t really know how to reply to that. I should have milked it a little bit and been like, “What do you mean? I’m not in it for 40 minutes?”
“I thought I was Spider-Man!”
Like, “Why did they make me wear that fucking thing?”