tv on the radio in a movie

How Tunde Adebimpe Went From Indie-Rock Star to Having One Line in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Tunde Adebimpe, right. Photo: CTMG and Getty Images

There are no small parts, only small actors, even when some of those parts involve flying through the air, defeating evil, and others involve … wearing glasses. To that point, in my opinion, the standout role from this summer’s blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming was not Spider-Man himself, but rather, Mr. Cobbwell. Yes, Mr. Cobbwell. Peter Parker’s chemistry teacher! Remember? Mr. Cobbwell? He has approximately one line, and you can see him walking through the hallway?? You know! Mr. Cobbwell!!!

Okay, so the part is mostly memorable because Mr. Cobbwell is played by Tunde Adebimpe, best known as the lead singer of seminal indie-rock band TV on the Radio. Though Adebimpe has acted before — most famously as the groom in Rachel Getting Married, who sings a Neil Young song at the altar that destroys everyone in the room — he’s not a guy you’d expect to see in a giant Marvel movie. Vulture caught up with Adebimpe a few weeks after the film’s release (he was in France when the film was released — ooh la la! — hence our delayed conversation) to get the story of how it all came to be.

Before we talk Spider-Man, I just wanted to ask you about acting in general. You’ve done it before, most famously in Rachel Getting Married. What’s the history of your relationship to acting? 
I did plays and things like that in high school and grade school, but it was definitely more for fun. But when I was in film school at NYU [for animation], I ended up being in a student film called Jorge, which a friend of mine was writing, and I was kind of co-writing it with him. Last minute, he was just like, “Why don’t you play this character?” And then I got the Best Actor award at the NYU Film Festival that year, much to the chagrin of a lot of my acting friends. After that, he got some money from the BBC to make a feature of that called Jump Tomorrow. I remember going to Sundance for it in 2000 and having all these meetings scheduled. Apparently I said all the wrong things because when they asked me, “Well, what do you want to do acting-wise?” and I said, “I don’t really know — I’m just kind of testing it out,” and I told them who my favorite actors were, Crispin Glover and Harry Dean Stanton, they were like, “We can’t really figure out what to do with you.” That was kind of that. Then the band pretty much took over everything else I was doing, which was great.

And then Rachel Getting Married happened?
Yeah, in 2008, I guess we were on a break band-wise, and I was talking to our manager, [who] was suddenly in a position where she was working with William Morris. And this thing came up where Jonathan Demme was looking for a musician who could act for this movie. That audition just ended up being a conversation. The usual situation is, there’s a casting director reading the lines with you, but when I walked into the room, it was Jonathan Demme and the producer and, like, 12 other people. All I remember is meeting Jonathan and sitting next to him, and we just talked about music and art for about 15 minutes. He said some nice things about the band. He [was] just a super-wonderful person. I walked out thinking, Oh, that’s great, if nothing comes of this, I got to meet one of my favorite directors. Then about two weeks later, he called me when I was walking to brand practice. He just said, “Tunde, it’s Jonathan,” and I just did not know who it was. He said, “It’s Jonathan Demme, you got the part. I’ll see you on Tuesday.” It was a fantastic experience, absolutely. I got offered a few things after that, but again, this band stuff was going pretty full steam, so there were a lot of things that I just couldn’t do or couldn’t fill in for audition-wise.

Which brings us to Spider-Man, of all things.
That was funny, because the director, Jon Watts, directed the “Wolf Like Me” video for TV on the Radio.

Oh wow. Wow! Wow.
I did try out, but I can’t safely say that there wasn’t a tiny bit of nepotism attached. 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 months later, I got asked to try out for a different role, which I did not get.

Can you say what part you auditioned for? 
I think I can. I don’t even know if they named him in the movie, but he would be the Tinkerer, the Vulture’s assistant. He’s kind of the geek in the chair for the Vulture. I tried out for that, and seeing what that actor did with that part, it’s pretty obvious to me why I didn’t get it.  Then they were casting for the teachers, trying to find character actors to fill those parts, so I got the part of Mr. Cobbwell, Peter Parker’s chemistry teacher.

What did he tell you about the part? 
They said, “We’d like you to be Mr. Cobbwell, Peter’s chemistry teacher.” They did mention there would be a montage of Peter slugging his way through classes, alluding to the fact that he’s Spider-Man in cutaway. I didn’t know how big or small the part would be.

Did you look up who Mr. Cobbwell is in the comic books?
I summoned my internal white guy with a big white mustache. No, I didn’t really. I just glanced over it. The issues I found with him were from the ’60s or ’70s. It was overblown side-character stuff. I think he ended up turning into a villain at some point. Something happens to him.

He introduced Peter Parker to the Tinkerer. It’s funny that he gets to come back as you.
Exactly. I was like, “Whatever you want to do with this guy, it’s fine.” There was almost zero research. He was part of the Marvel pantheon.

Which you got to contribute to, because you did get a line!
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.

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?”

At first when I saw you in the film, it reminded of this joke John Mulaney has about watching an episode of Law & Order where Dean Cain is in a police lineup and expecting someone to be like, “Is that Dean Cain?” I was like, Is that Tunde? Is he playing a version of himself where he, like, teaches music classes to give back? But, in retrospect, having all these character actors or recognizable people in the teacher roles made the world feel real. It made it feel very Queens.
Oh, absolutely. You get there and you realize what’s going on. It just made me feel, even then, that it was going to be a special movie. An example of breaking it down would be while we were waiting for some of the scenes, the waiting rooms were just classrooms. It would be me and Martin Starr and Selenis Leyva and Hannibal Buress sitting in this classroom with Tom Holland and Zendaya and Jorge Lendeborg, who are teenagers or in their early 20s. There’s a significant age gap, so it was a little awkward. Eventually, the room, without anyone saying anything, it became all the adults, and all the kids were in another room. I was like, “It’s weird. It feels like we’re in the teacher’s lounge. We’re in a high school and it smells like a high school. It’s a little depressing. All the kids are in the next room laughing and having fun, and we’re sitting there wishing they would just shut up, waiting for the day to be over.” [Laughs.]

You knew Jon, but did you have any reservations about appearing in a giant big-studio movie?
Absolutely not. I just like being on set. It’s fascinating and oftentimes ridiculous. Anywhere you go, you can learn something. I didn’t get to see any hard-core super special effects, but I was there, talking to the guys who were working the rig for when Peter Parker lifts the entire bank of lockers. When am I going to get to do that [again]?

Would you be in Spider-Man 2? Do you know if Mr. Cobbwell will still be part of the faculty at that point?
I don’t know. I’m not allowed to say anything, but he might be the main character. [Laughs.]

That’s good. [Laughs.]
I’m not allowed to say anything, but he eats something weird that falls into some chemicals and he becomes an 80-foot-tall chemistry nerd stomping all over shit. But no, I have zero idea.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How Tunde Adebimpe Found Himself in Spider-Man