Andrew Garfield Just Wants to Be Understood

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Photo: Laurie Sparham / Bleecker Street | Participant Media

Andrew Garfield grins as I come in. “Good to see you again,” he says, sitting in the middle of an anonymous Toronto conference room. “Last time I saw you, we did an interview that got quite a lot of airplay.”

He wasn’t kidding. That Vulture interview, meant to promote his 2015 housing-crisis drama 99 Homes, was a spiky but fascinating chat where Garfield aired out his frustrations not just with politics but with Hollywood, and his own stardom, after two big-budget films playing Spider-Man. In a world where actors go through the chipper motions on their press tours, Garfield’s candor was so striking that some outlets framed his quotes as part of a potential breakdown. “Who am I?” he had sighed to me. “Do I have anything to say?”

In truth, Garfield has plenty to say, and he’s never shy about expressing himself, even if those words can land him in hot water. When I spoke to Garfield on the phone again several months ago to promote Silence, it was just after Donald Trump’s election, and Garfield likened Trump’s campaign manager to the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. This past summer, he was criticized for comments he made while starring in the London revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which the British star will reprise when the play comes to Broadway early next year. Discussing his utter commitment to the lead role of AIDS-afflicted Prior, as well as his weekend diversion watching episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Garfield joked, “I am a gay man right now, just without the physical act.”

The 34-year-old Garfield is a passionate speaker whose words tumble out of him as though he has no other choice but to speak; he would rather be ebullient than careful. His new role in the film Breathe leverages his intense desire to connect better than any part he’s had so far. In the fact-based drama, directed by Andy Serkis, Garfield plays British polio patient Robin Cavendish, whose near-total paralysis ultimately cannot stifle his spirit or his devotion to wife Diana (Claire Foy). It’s a character that Garfield acts solely from the neck up, using his big eyes, plummy voice, and movie-star charisma to pull you in. We talked about the film for Vulture, but first talked about the process of doing interviews in general.

When we talked about 99 Homes, you were unusually candid, and I think people weren’t prepared for that. But I really enjoyed the conversation.
I did, too. And that’s what breaks my heart sometimes, especially when you go deep with someone and you actually get somewhere. It’s usually in those moments that things get spun out [by other outlets] and made into something that they’re not.

Listen, movie stars have a pretty good life, by and large. But you do make yourselves vulnerable in ways that people may not appreciate. First, you put yourself in the hands of a director and editor who get to be the definitive authors of your performance …
Mmm-hmm.

… And then also, when you talk to people like me, you have no idea how we’re going to frame the things you say. So to be vulnerable with the press requires a lot of faith.
But it’s inevitable, isn’t it? Especially in print, because this is your interview. This isn’t my interview — this is through your prism, your perspective. I find that really interesting, and occasionally frustrating.

Well, let’s talk about Breathe. I do feel like this was the role that your eyebrows were meant to play.
[Laughs.] I appreciate that.

When your physical movement as an actor is restricted solely to your face, what do you learn about your technique?
In film, there’s this kind of constant fear that you’re going to be doing too much. That may be an unfounded fear because I love sizable performances on film, especially when they’re by performers who push the boundaries of what people deem the right kind of size.

I feel like we’re coming out of this era of screen naturalism, where performances are allowed to be more maximal again.
I think the same could be said for Robin in this instance, because once he decided to truly say yes to staying alive for as long as he’s able to, his life force comes back. Everything that can’t be expressed by his body goes to the place where it can be expressed, and it only is in the face. So very naturally, without being aware of it, my face and my eyes began to do things that might look quite overwhelming, especially in a close-up. But Bob Richardson was our genius [director of photography] and Andy Serkis is a master of performance capture, so I trusted that they would let me know if it was too much.

There’s a contagious sense of delight I can sense you having in this role. 
Well, Robin’s essence was delight, and it had a richness to it. He was a sensualist who was obsessed with living and was so curious about life. He was very religious before the polio hit, and he forsook his Christianity straight after, but I believe from an objective point of view that he became an even more spiritual person than before because of his devotion to being present and his awareness of his own fragility. Every breath of his existence was a miracle.

It’s a very British film. Maybe the most British film you’ve made in the last several years.
Or maybe ever. It’s an interesting thing: I had never been drawn to British films, particularly British films that were set in this [upper] class. Those kinds of films haven’t spoken to me until this one came along, and I think that’s because it’s not a film about class; Robin’s class just happens to be his class. It’s a film about something so much greater than that: How do you live a full life of joy within such struggle?

The film, essentially, is about making an attitude adjustment. That even dire things can be faced with good humor.
It’s an attitude of, “What else is there to lose?” I think that is a big secret of living, to live so close to the possibility of death. That was a big part of the cosmology of most indigenous cultures. The Native American shamans would teach people to live with death in the far-left corner of their eyes, so they were constantly aware of how lucky you were and how temporary everything is. I think Robin was given that opportunity through the terrible loss of his body that he suffered.

Almost everyone has worked with Andy Serkis in some fashion, but the two of you had never met before this project, right?
No, but I’d been a fan of his work as an actor. I was sent the script and they were kind of eager for me to read it because they wanted to make it quite quickly. I didn’t imagine it was something I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I started reading that I thought, Oh dear, there’s no choice but to do this. It’s one of the most profound film scripts I’ve ever read and one of the most profound stories I’ve been aware of. It really has everything. It’s a template for how to live.

I want to ask about some of your upcoming projects. I know you shot Under the Silver Lake, the new noir from It Follows director David Robert Mitchell. What should I expect?
It’s wild. Don’t think about it, just come. It’s the weirdest, wildest, most unique thing I’ve been a part of.

Have you seen a cut of it, or you could just tell while filming it that it was so wild?
I could tell reading the script, from his writing. It’s brilliant and so of its own voice. During the production, there were so many days where I was like, “What the fuck is going on today?” But you go with it because David is a visionary. He really knows who he is and what he wants to see, and he’s very specific and clear, which I really appreciated. I was able to fully relinquish control and let him tell me what he wanted, because it so comes from his own psyche in that David Lynch kind of way. If David Lynch asks you to lick the bunny rabbit, then you’ll lick the bunny rabbit, you know?

How do you feel coming out of your initial run of Angels in America?
My God. Well, it’s the best play ever. Tony is up there with Shakespeare, Miller, and Tennessee Williams, as far as I’m concerned. I feel so humbled and grateful that he thought I could do it, and it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done as far as what it costs.

What it costs physically? Or …
… physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically. The character is in a spiritual emergency where the other world is crashing into his and he believes he is losing his mind and is going to die at any second. He experiences loss after loss after loss after loss and it takes the actors seven and a half hours to track his journey of coming to terms with it. It’s about the question, how do people change? I think that’s what Tony was trying to figure out. How do we transform and incorporate loss and suffering and tragedy and an occasionally unjust universe into our understanding of life? [Pause.] I’m getting choked up thinking about it because it’s still kind of fresh in me.

Are you happy to have this break before you tackle it again on Broadway?
Oh my God. I need it! We were all concerned for ourselves and each other because it’s the hardest thing I ever hope to do. The lucky thing is that we’re all in it together and we all get to hold each other up, but it’s also very lonely, especially in Part Two. All the characters are so on their own track.

We were talking earlier about how your remarks in an interview may be interpreted by other outlets. How do you feel about the controversy that ensued when you said you were a gay man without the physical act?
I don’t think I do have anything to say about it. I was in a room with people, and that was the context it was in. I can comment on the conversation, but I really can’t comment on what happened outside of the room [after the press picked it up]. It’s none of my business, actually.

But I will say this. I am so, so happy and grateful that I get to be a part of moving the conversation and actively keeping the world spinning forward for a community that I care so deeply about and that I feel so proud to be an ally to. I have this deep longing to continue to serve in any way I’m meant to, as humbly as I’m meant to. I’m just grateful to play this role and be welcomed by a community that I admire and find so beautiful and long to be a part of.

All that said, how did you feel about this last season of Drag Race?
[Garfield laughs. His publicist, perhaps sensing the potential for another sound bite that could spin out of control, interrupts the interview: “We have to end it.” And then Garfield laughs some more. He can’t help but offer one comment.] Every moment of Drag Race, I’m profoundly happy about.

Andrew Garfield Just Wants to Be Understood