Andrew Garfield on Silence and ‘This Sick Man’ Donald Trump

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Photo: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

The last time Vulture spoke to Andrew Garfield, we caught him in the middle of an existential moment. Promoting his 2015 foreclosure drama 99 Homes just as the presidential election was about to get underway, Garfield quite candidly wrestled with the notion that anything he could say as an actor would really, truly matter.

A little more than a year later, so much has changed. With Donald Trump about to assume the presidency and his native England splitting off from the European Union, the ground underneath Garfield’s feet has shifted and so, too, have his own self-doubts about speaking out. Over the course of a long and candid conversation with Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan and KPCC’s John Horn for their podcast the Awards Show Show, Garfield discussed two of his acclaimed films: Silence, where he plays a Jesuit priest whose attempt to spread the gospel of Christianty in 17th-century Japan goes horribly awry, and Hacksaw Ridge, a true story about Desmond Doss, a gun-averse conscientious objector who nevertheless saved dozens of men during World War II. Garfield also passionately weighed in on Trump (“the sickness, the toxicity … you can just feel it”), his right-hand woman Kellyanne Conway (who Garfield compared to a Nazi propagandist), and Meryl Streep’s -much-talked-about Golden Globes speech.

Listen to the discussion below, and subscribe to the Awards Show Show on iTunes. An edited transcript of their conversation follows underneath.

Kyle Buchanan: Andrew, your characters in Hacksaw Ridge and Silence are distinguished by their moral compass, but what I appreciate is that it’s not all there is to them. They grapple with things, and I’m thinking particularly of Rodrigues in Silence. At times, he’s almost seduced by the acclaim and worship of his constituents. That brings me to wonder, in sort of a long-winded way: As a film actor, how do you keep your moral compass? How do you keep your true north when there are so many other things that go into being a celebrity these days?
That’s a wonderful question, and I think that’s one of the reasons I was drawn to Father Rodrigues. He’s a man of deep faith and longing to serve … but there’s something else going on, which I think is evident in the book and the script that I read and, ultimately, the film: There’s a lot of ego there, a lot of ambition and personal glory that he’s after. I don’t think he’s all that aware of it when he first sets foot in this foreign territory of Japan, and I believe that is what is really, truly tested, this strong-willed and forceful ego. He had a very clear idea of what his life was supposed to look and feel like: He was going to be martyred, he was going to be sainted, he was going to have all the glory of one of the great men of the faith … but the thing that he was actually called to Japan for was to have his ego totally pulverized so that he could actually begin truly serving God and his fellow man in the most humble and sincere way.

For me, as an actor and an artist — and I think for all actors and musicians and artists — there’s this fine line that we all have to walk. One of my favorite films this year was Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island movie, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and one of my favorite lines in that is after they leave the AquaSpin [showroom]. They’ve just been shown this endorsement where they’re gonna have Conner’s music coming out of every single appliance in the United States, and his DJ says, “I don’t know about this.” And Andy Samberg’s character says, “Don’t worry, man: There’s no such thing as selling out anymore. If you don’t sell out, people will just be wondering if someone gave you the chance to sell out.” It’s so true now. There’s really no such thing as moral code, or even a kind of inner self that is guiding. It’s all defined by cultural forces now, and I’m alarmed by it.

For me, my long-winded answer to your supposedly long-winded question — and I don’t know if we can call it long-winded after this answer — is that I depend on certain people to keep me where I am supposed to be going, that true-north thing. The person that I rely upon most is myself, and secondary to myself is those closest to me, whether they’re high-school friends, drama-school friends. Frankly, I have a couple of Hollywood friends who are actually sincere, good people that want me to be a creative person and artist and have no interest in me as anything but. I’m incredibly grateful for those people.

John Horn: Part of the preparation that you did for this role was essentially going through a crash course in seminary and really walking the walk that this character went through. It’s an amazing amount of preparation to understand the character, but I’m also wondering if it helped you understand yourself and your role as an artist.
I hope so. I’m not able to say that for sure, but I definitely would like to believe that. I think that’s the intention with every single project, or every single moment if I’m living right. I’m gonna learn something, find something, have to face something in myself that maybe I hadn’t faced or known before. That’s always my intention. It’s a really hard life to live, but ultimately it’s the only one that I know how. Especially with [Silence], I underwent the spiritual exercises that I’ve spoken a lot about in the press, but I think the reason I have spoken about them so much is because they are truly transformational. They do reveal your self to you, and they reveal where you long to be as opposed to where you’ve been told you long to be. That’s a really interesting thing, to identify that still small voice inside.

The only way you’re able to do that is if you get underneath the noise, distraction, and seduction that you’re surrounded by in daily life. There’s not many quiet places left on planet Earth, and it’s a vital thing that we all [need], especially now as we move into this new year. Especially moving into this in England with Brexit, and the man who shall remain nameless taking over this country. There’s a real need to look inward and identify what we’re all meant to do as individuals in order to keep the world turning in the way that it’s meant to turn. I guess what I’m saying is, [we should be] evolving and progressing toward a greater understanding of our need for one another and what it means to live a life of soul and a life of meaning, because our president-elect is not a soul man as far as I can see.

JH: Do you think that changes the role of the artist and the obligation an artist has right now?
Oh, yeah. I think the artist is always called upon to reflect the times we’re in, in the most urgent way and urgent manner possible. I’m so grateful that I get to go to London this week to start rehearsing Angels in America, a classic play that is not set in present-day New York but still feels more urgent than ever. You could put on Death of a Salesman now and it would feel more urgent than ever, or All My Sons — any of those classic American plays. I feel grateful that I have a vessel in which I can put myself into. It’s not enough, and it’s never going to be enough, but yes, I’m incredibly excited to see what my favorite artists do within this climate we’re in.

KB: Andrew, I remember that when I talked to you about your film 99 Homes, we discussed how it very cogently expressed how you can get lower-class people to vote against their own best interests because of the promise of this million-dollar windfall that could always be one day away. I wonder if playing a role like that — and diving into all of those working-class themes in a very smart expression of where we are today — gave you a window into this populist fervor that has come to the fore when we look at Brexit or when we look at Trump?
That’s really interesting. I’m not sure if I have any more insight than anybody else, but I definitely resonate with what you’re saying. I think your insights are always wonderful, Kyle, and I feel very educated when I speak to you. I love it, I really do.

KB: Keep going, Andrew. Keep going. [Laughs.]
No, I mean it! I have a longing to understand. I have a longing to fully, deeply listen and not to dismiss. I think there’s lots of dismissing going on, there’s lots of ignorance going on, on both sides of the argument. I look at someone like Van Jones and I’m super-inspired with what he’s doing with the messy truth by staying within the tension of the debate, by not taking any easy way out, and by allowing emotions to be there, by allowing misunderstanding to be there until some kind of common ground is reached. That common ground only gets reached, we find out, through difficult discussion and very hot emotional exchange.

Ultimately, I believe — and I think this is ancient wisdom, really — if you stay in the tension, something will break and crack open and some healing can happen and some meeting can occur. So I have no idea, but I’m desperate to understand. I’m desperate to understand how these men and women have voted so against their own interests and how easy it has been to manipulate a very disenfranchised portion of the population. You watch Kellyanne Goebbels — sorry, I mean Kellyanne Conway — on Seth Meyers, and you go, “Oh my goodness, how can you not see that it’s all a ruse and a game and she’s pointing to herself going, ‘I’m lying to you! I’m pivoting here! I’m full off shit and enabling evil, ha ha ha!’”

KB: She can’t help but telegraph that.
It’s shocking that we are in a post-truth world and everything has become meaningless, in a way. I guess I’m heartened because that means that everything is going to become very meaningful as a response. It has to be — that’s just the way it goes. That’s cause and effect, I believe.

JH: Do Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, together, represent a different perspective that you have that’s not just driven by your age and the kinds of offers you have, but the priorities you have and the stories you want to tell?
Again, I feel like if I’m living right, I’m forever changing and forever evolving and being revealed to myself. I’m lucky and fortunate enough that I have the stability and the ability to choose what projects I pour my heart and soul into. I feel a responsibility to myself, weirdly, and to all of those people around me, to only do the project that my soul is yearning to be a part of. That’s really the only autonomy I have as an actor, is my choices. I’d rather not work, I’d rather wait [for something worth it]. Even though it’s very tricky, it’s proven to be gratifying to wait and wait until the right vehicle comes along where I’ll be able to express the things that are bursting out of my heart.

JH: I think every talent agent in town should tell their clients, “Don’t take this part unless your soul is yearning for it.” That might do away with many franchises that are in Hollywood right now. We could say good-bye to Transformers in the blink of an eye.
Well, some people might be yearning in their souls to be fighting the giant robots.

KB: Andrew, this isn’t your first time doing the whole awards-season gauntlet. I wonder how you make it through without having a whole Holden Caulfield freakout. What are the pros and cons of attending these ceremonies?
Oh, dearie me. You know, my experience feels different this time around. I’m a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser in the sense that I know how little I know. I’m able to enjoy it a little bit more, and I do feel pretty okay and comfortable being in those rooms because I’m proud of the work I’m a part of with these two movies. That’s just a gift, really. On top of that, I get to offer gratitude and celebrate the people that I’ve worked with, and not only that, but to celebrate the other work that’s going on. And not only that, but there are people that I have a true connection with in those rooms, friends that I love and I get to celebrate their work.

At best, those things are gratitude rituals. A very wise man said that to me — a mythologist called Michael Meade who I look up to very much — he watched the Oscars one year and he said, “You know what? What I saw was the possibility for a gratitude ritual. What a beautiful thing that you get to go and give thanks sincerely to all those people and forces in the world that allow you to do what you love.” So I’m feeling pretty good about it. There is the other side of it, and commerce is always going to be present, and you just have to dance with it and keep all that as light as possible. You have to keep the focus on the meaning, and we need meaning more than ever — that is for sure. The world is crying out for it, so I’m very happy to attempt to live my own version of that life.

JH: Maybe there is a way to bring meaning to these gratitude rituals, and that is to think about what Meryl Streep did at the Golden Globes.
Mmm, unbelievable.

KB: What did it feel like to be in the room with that powerful speech happening?
It was stunning, it was riveting. It was gorgeous. You could hear a pin drop. She said everything so succinctly and with such passion and sincerity. The show should have ended! That should have been the last thing said.

KB: It was a real mic-drop moment.
Beyond that, it was deeply profound. I don’t know whether there is an obligation to speak in that way, and I think everyone will come to the party with their own dish; it just so happens that Meryl Streep is incredibly engaged and cares so deeply about humanity that she took the opportunity to talk about our responsibility to each other and to highlight a lack of humanity that is occurring in our country, a lack of humanity that is being given permission by the man who is about to inhabit the top seat of power in this country. She said it with such elegance and grace — and I believe it was inarguable, what she was saying. Totally inarguable. The fact that then the man she was referencing came out with these slurs and this empty, empty response, the feeling that he had to have some kind of response, is just ugliness.

We all, I’m sure, have seen Obama’s farewell speech, his final address, which was so full of grace and love and warmth. And then you switch on the television and you see this sick man. The contrast! The sickness, the toxicity, that is emanating out of his every pore — energetically, you can just feel it, I believe, if your eyes and ears are open. It’s shocking. I’m grateful for people like Meryl Streep. She gives our profession a very, very good name because she’s focused on the things that are meaningful. She’s not trying to win votes, she’s not trying to make money or win endorsements or be popular, she’s just trying to speak the truth.

JH: A person’s life is the sum total of his or her experiences. When you look at Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, what would you say the life experiences are that you took away, that changed you?
With Silence, there was longing. I wanted my ego to get beaten up. I wanted to get past this idea of self-glory, that limited perspective on life and what’s meaningful. It was a wonderful journey to go on because it’s the pulverization of the ego and the cracking open of the small self to reveal the deeper self inside and to truly inhabit the world in a more mature way. I hope that some of that rubbed off.

Ironically, then you have Desmond Doss [in Hacksaw Ridge], who has no longing for glory and seems to be totally egoless, even though that’s not possible. He’s somehow managed to sublimate all of his own selfish instincts into a longing to serve and heal others. Because of that true humility that he lives by, he gets given the Congressional Medal of Honor. There’s some divine, magical code, some beautiful design there that the one who doesn’t want the glory gets it, and the one who desperately wants the glory does not. I think that’s the universe in balance, maybe.

KB: I wanted to wrap up by looking ahead to something hopeful. You’re doing Angels in America on the British stage very soon, and the timing is exactly right for this, especially given the political regime the story is set against. I’m curious what your introduction was to that material, and what is it about the character you’re going to play that has you vibrating?
Mmmm, juicy. So juicy. Of course, Roy Cohn was one of Trump’s mentors, right? So yes, it’s a vital play for the times we’re in. Tony Kushner asked me to do it, and I said yes very quickly. I saw Mike Nichols’s HBO series when I was in drama school, and I was left agog. I was just floored by the writing, the performances, the themes. I was overwhelmed by it and I didn’t fully get it, but I was definitely deeply affected by it.

In terms of playing Prior, I don’t know if I can answer that yet. All I know is that there’s something mysterious that called me to it, and there’s something about this man that the world needs. The last address that he makes to his audience in the second play of Angels in America is a pure expression of love and acceptance. He becomes this strange, fucked-up personification of unconditional love, and I’m very moved even just thinking about it. To attempt to go through, again, some destructive journey and internal agony in order to get to some deeper truth … I’m very, very excited to explore who Prior is and what he as for us as the prophet that he’s ultimately choosing to be. He makes his own prophecy at the end of the play, I feel.

JH: Andrew Garfield’s movies, out now, are Silence and Hacksaw Ridge. Andrew, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you, guys. Wonderful conversation, thank you.

Andrew Garfield on Silence, ‘Sick’ Donald Trump