"Why the fuck am I doing this?" Andrew Garfield said, agitated. He was sitting in front of me in a nicely appointed Beverly Hills hotel room, recalling the feeling of dread he'd felt that morning as he faced a long day of press to promote his new film 99 Homes. "Coming in today to do interviews, I’m like, Why?" he said. "I know that I’m an actor and it's part of the job, and I feel lucky I get to do that, but with the interviews, it’s such a weird thing. What do I have to say?"
As it turned out, Garfield had quite a bit to say. 99 Homes was a good starting place: In it, he plays a poor laborer whose family is evicted during the housing crisis, after which he's quickly seduced and mentored by an amoral real-estate developer (Michael Shannon) who convinces him that the only path to prosperity is to snatch it away from others. But talk of this movie's thorny political themes soon became a treatise on Garfield's uneasy relationship with fame: The 32-year-old Brit earned global attention for his role in two Spider-Man films (and his relationship with co-star Emma Stone), but now that Garfield's been cut from the Marvel universe on the eve of another character reboot, he's got some strong opinions on the celebrity machine that sucked him in.
With his brown hair long and his formerly bushy beard (a remnant from his role in Martin Scorsese's upcoming Silence) trimmed to a tidy mustache, Garfield looked more like a 1970s movie star than a comic-book high-schooler, and you can see how the retro look would appeal to him: An era when actors could unapologetically speak their minds and then recede from view would have been a balm for his anxiety and self-doubts about fame. Still, at least when it comes to politics, he's determined to be a man of his time.
99 Homes illustrates something I’ve always noticed about American society but rarely see portrayed onscreen, which is how the upper class convinces lower-income people to vote against their own best interests.
Too heavy too soon?
I love it. It makes me feel ... how does it make me feel? Please carry on, sorry.
The character you play ought to be rioting against a system that screws over lower-income people like him, but there's this tantalizing carrot on a stick offered by the rich: Don't tear down the system because, in America, wealth could be just around the corner. Is that what you responded to when you were asked to join this movie?
Yeah, in a much less articulate way.
I didn’t think I was all that articulate, but I appreciate it.
For me, it was very articulate. You fucking said it. It’s so heavy even talking about it. Hearing you talk, I just suddenly feel like my head is wrapped in cellophane. How do we wake up, how do I wake up, what do I do? Because I can stand here and be like, "We need to fucking do shit." I can say that. But if I’m not doing anything, what the fuck am I really doing?
Art is part of it. Art can make people see things in a different way than an editorial in a newspaper.
Why don’t you just do this interview? You’re saying the right shit.
I don’t think my editors would appreciate it if I only wrote, Andrew Garfield nods periodically.
Just attribute what you’re saying to me. Yeah, I struggle with it, man. I don’t know about you, but it sounds like you do, too. I struggle with it because I'm an actor, right? I do other things, but my main source of income is acting, and my passion is that, too. And I do believe that films like this are a part of the slow change that every movement undergoes ... and it’s always fucking slow, like that Nina Simone song, "Mississippi Goddam": It’s too slow, it’s always too fucking slow.
But I think awareness is being raised all the time. There are so many people now who seem to be onto them, onto [Rupert] Murdoch and [Donald] Trump, and to whoever those folks are who are governing the system that isn’t serving the have-nots. I don’t believe it's serving the haves either, because they’re in their own gilded prisons. There’s this culture of separation that’s been created, and it makes me feel sick to walk around big cities and to know the struggles of those who are the least served by the system. The only way things do change is if everyone comes together. It takes everyone to lend who they are, and for me, it’s through storytelling and from being able to talk about the powerless feeling that I’m living in and asking the question, "What power do I have? And then how do I act upon that?"
You talk about people catching on to Trump, but I'm not sure they really are. The notion that we would want an out-of-touch capitalist in the White House when corporations already own everything — and demonstrably don’t care about people — is terrifying.
Scares the shit out of me, too. Yeah, I don’t have an answer. Of course I don’t. But I know I’m upset, I know I’m deeply offended by our culture as it stands.
Have you found wealth and power to be seductive? Are you ever taken by the trappings of money and movie-stardom in a way that would have surprised you back when you were a young, unknown actor?
That’s such a great question. It goes back your previous question, where the change has to happen within ourselves, it has to start right here through each and every one of us. So for me, yeah, I have. I started out at drama school, struggled, worked a bunch of odd jobs, like Starbucks, waited on tables, and had a very beautiful beginning doing theater and fucking starving in the best way. The work was this alchemical gold thing that I was searching for and longing for.
And then, yeah, something shifted with the Spider-Man stuff. It was a character that I wanted to play my whole life and not one part of me was indifferent ... but I got incredibly uncomfortable with the attention that just came with that job. It was nothing to do with me, it was to do with this idea of celebrity. Hopefully I’m just more myself as I get older and as I grow, but in our culture they’re telling us to be something totally fucking different.
You feel like the culture is hostile to you?
Yes. I’m not accepted. None of us are accepted in this culture. We’re only accepted if we are … well, name it.
White, famous, heterosexual ...
... Handsome, charming, charismatic, thin-enough eyebrows to be beautiful, but thick enough to still be masculine. We are told constantly we’re not enough, we’re told constantly that we don’t have enough, we’re told constantly that we’ll never be enough. It’s that dangling-carrot thing.
That was my experience with the Spider-Man thing. It’s like, "Oh, fuck, my life is now great!" But in fact, I’m still fucked up in my own ways, and insecure, and scared, and don’t really know who I am. Celebrity is the new religion, as far as I can see, along with money, power, status. It’s all the same umbrella — the seductive forces of evil, really.
It’s the only religion where you can both worship a god and aspire to be a god, too.
There’s something also beautiful about aspiration, and when there’s someone who's a true aspirational figure. The person that comes to mind is Kendrick Lamar — I believe that what he's doing is soulful and authentic to who he is. He’s being vulnerable, he’s being openhearted, and it feels like he’s being himself and he’s not playing any game of hide-and-seek or, “I’ll show you these parts and I’ll call them authentic.”
Everyone has made themselves into a commodity with Facebook, Twitter — with all of these things, you’re commodifying your life every time you post an Instagram picture.
When the paparazzi take your picture, you often hold up a sign listing charitable causes. Is that the best way to commodify your own celebrity, to figure out something worthy to channel it into?
That’s right. I struggle with this question every day. Who am I? Do I have anything to say?
Is that why you’re so envious of somebody like Kendrick Lamar, whose message is in the medium?
I wouldn’t say I was envious, I’d say I admire him. But then you go, Well, okay, I'm being given this opportunity for whatever reason. I might not believe I deserve it, I may question it, but what do I have to say? That’s a great question. What do I have to say, and what am I willing to risk?
What are you worried about risking? If you tell people what you think about world issues, is that a risk to your celebrity?
That’s the thing. My priority is the work, and the work is dependent on people not knowing very much about me. So where’s the balance? Where’s the line that I have to walk, and we all have to walk? Because I do want to make a difference in the world, I really do, and that’s a really cheesy thing to want.
Earnestness isn’t necessarily an awful thing to express.
I sincerely want to help create beauty in the world and move a culture of separateness back towards community. I really, really do, and I think art is a powerful way of doing that. I hope this film is a little step towards that in terms of a conversation. It may be an indictment of all of us.
*A version of this article appears in the October 5, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.