PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASON BELL
On a Saturday night in April, after spending seven and a half hours writhing in pain, laughing hysterically, dancing in sequined gowns, screaming like a 9-year-old girl, and soaring through the air with a black-winged angel, Andrew Garfield takes a bow. The audience at New York’s sold-out Neil Simon Theatre demands three curtain calls, and he and his castmates, including Nathan Lane, happily oblige. Finally Garfield raises his hands to quiet the raucous crowd. “Tony’s written two extra acts, and we’re going to perform them,” he shouts. It’s nearly midnight, but 1,400 people roar their approval while Garfield grins and wipes tears from his eyes.
Three days later, Garfield, 34, sits in a restaurant on Manhattan’s West Side, cradling a cup of chamomile tea in his hands and wearing a camel coat over a gray hoodie. It’s one of his two days off a week from performing playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, one of the most epic pieces of theater ever written—a “gay fantasia,” as the show’s subtitle declares, about the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York—which is currently enjoying a revival on Broadway after a lauded run on London’s West End last year. (It will go on to net a record-setting 11 Tony nominations, including one for Garfield, for best actor.) Garfield is exhausted and nursing a cold. “It’s like the Olympics of theater acting,” he says, his rich brown eyes heavy with fatigue. “And every time, it’s really scary because you never feel safe in it. You never feel like you know what you’re doing. It always feels slippery and dangerous. But, I think, simultaneously, it’s the most rewarding thing you could ever hope to do as an actor.”
The play, which won a Pulitzer Prize (and basically every other theater award in existence) in 1993, centers on the stories of three very different gay men: There’s Prior Walter (Garfield), a drag queen whose partner abandons him after learning Prior has HIV; Joe Pitt, a Mormon lawyer struggling to come out of the closet; and a fictionalized version of power-broker Republican lawyer and Trump mentor Roy Cohn, who is dying of AIDS and protests his straightness until the bitter end. It’s very much of a time (only those over a certain age get the Ed Koch joke in the first act), but the basic themes of love and forgiveness and purpose are universal and just as relevant 25 years on. It’s a show about struggle: struggling with who the world thinks you should be, who you are, and, ultimately, who you really want to be.
These struggles are also Garfield’s. Maybe more than any actor of his generation, he’s talked openly and critically of our celebrity-obsessed culture and how it’s becoming more and more difficult to simply create art for art’s sake. Three years ago, an interview he did with New York magazine to promote the film 99 Homes led many outlets to imply he was having a mental breakdown. “Why the f*** am I doing this?” he asked the journalist before launching into a diatribe against the fame machine and questioning his role in all of it.
Today, though, he feels sure that he’s right where he should be. “The first problem is finding out what your calling is, and then the second problem, once you find it, is how do you wrangle that beast?” he says. “That’s how I feel with acting, with storytelling. It’s like, Oh f***, I found this thing that is a good vehicle for who I am and for what I feel I have to offer to the world, but then it becomes really hard because you have this responsibility to this thing.”
Review Garfield’s film credits and it’s clear he takes this responsibility seriously. There are no romantic comedies or horror flicks, no raunchy bro-fests or machine-gun action flicks. He’s drawn to characters with a strong moral compass, people who, weak or ostracized as they may be, try to rise above their circumstances to be their best selves. There’s the polio victim in Breathe, who defies the doctor’s predictions and changes the world’s perception of the disease; the pacifist World War II combat medic in Hacksaw Ridge who refuses to bear arms, much to the military’s chagrin, and wins the Medal of Honor for saving 75 men at Okinawa; the Jesuit priest in Silence who remains faithful even though doing so is a death wish; the broke single dad in 99 Homes who realizes humanity trumps money. You can even argue that his Spider-Man—he played Peter Parker in 2012 and 2014 before the Marvel Universe subsumed our world—is a virtuous character, set on stopping crime but in a just way (and without leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, like every other superhero these days).
Considering this roll call of characters from the last decade of his career, Garfield nods. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “I see that I’m trying to get to the center of something, I’m trying to get to the center of being here. I’m just trying to get to the point.” He laughs. “For me, that’s what art does: It connects you to yourself. It connects you to being here.”
Garfield likes to share the fact that he was conceived in New York, born in Los Angeles, and raised in England. “So I have this weird split DNA, and I feel at home in those three places and kind of crave each,” he says. But home is definitely England; he grew up in Surrey and started acting as a kid, appearing in local and school productions before scoring a spot at the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He got an agent at 20, after a drama school showcase at the Globe Theatre in London, where he performed the “get thee to a nunnery” scene from Hamlet. As Ophelia.
“Risking failure is so f****** inspiring to me,” says Garfield. “I’m proud of anyone, including myself, who risks failing, who risks rejection, who risks being disliked, who risks being discluded in order to express something that’s authentic to themselves. That’s so sexy!” He slams his hands on the table and smiles broadly. “That’s so f****** hot! Is it not? That’s just a turn-on.”
Taking on the role of Prior Walter in Angels in America might be the biggest risk of his career so far. Garfield knew he would face all sorts of backlash for being a straight man and playing one of the most important gay roles ever written. But when Kushner asked Garfield to do it, the actor knew the only answer was yes. In an interview that the two did with Christiane Amanpour in March, Amanpour asked whether a gay actor should have been cast. Kushner all but rolled his eyes. “The idea of asking an actor who they sleep with before I cast them is repellent to me,” he said. “I would never do that. I don’t even think it’s legal.” He went on to heap praise on Garfield, calling him “one of the best actors alive” and saying that he’d “never seen any straight man perform a gay character with more intimate knowledge. … But that’s the miracle of the empathic imagination. That’s what actors do.”
Garfield laughs when I bring up the “best actor alive” bit. “Yeah, that was a moment for me,” he admits. “He doesn’t bull****, Tony. I didn’t take that lightly. I feel … I mean … yeah. I’ma let him think that!” He pours another cup of tea and stirs in a spoonful of honey. “But I loved what Tony said about ‘empathic imagination’—that really was a striking turn of phrase that I’d never heard before, and it gives me the armor I need to go on every night, knowing that there are certain people who are watching who are going to come in with a preconditioned attitude to me even playing the part. What can I do? I’m either gonna do it fully, or I’m not going to do it. And I decided to do it fully because I love it, and I feel lucky and privileged to be able to do it, and I feel like no matter what my sexual orientation is, I feel akin to this character. I feel like I have a lot to learn from him, and I also feel able to inhabit him to whatever degree I can.”
Garfield admits that he almost didn’t make the transfer to the New York production of Angels. As soon as the show opened in London last summer, he “started to decline health-wise,” he says. “And mental health–wise, in a way. And not to be dramatic—I think it was just exhaustion. Have you ever had that, when you’ve been totally exhausted and you don’t really know what to do about it, especially knowing there’s no way to recover because every night it’s like you sleep and you fill up the tank a little bit, and then you go and give it all away again?” He looks at me, eyes wide, almost pleading for understanding.
Yes, I tell him. I have a child.
“Right.” He smiles sheepishly and shakes his head. “I don’t think I can compete, but I’m glad you have an empathetic understanding and a deeper knowledge of it than even I do.” He lets out a loud laugh and continues. “So yeah, I just got burnt out and I was concerned and, of course, it was right in the middle of when everyone was saying, ‘So do you want to do this in New York?’” He starts to fake cry and then laughs while alternately nodding and shaking his head. “It’s just like you’re giving birth and someone saying, ‘Should we have another baby?’ in the middle of the push.”
Less difficult to say yes to was the neo-noir comedy Under the Silver Lake, which premiered at Cannes in May and opens June 22. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, who helmed 2014’s hit psychological horror flick It Follows, Silver Lake is, to put it bluntly, absolutely bonkers—and absolutely wonderful. On first glance, it might seem like a massive departure from Garfield’s previous work. He plays an unemployed LA hipster who becomes obsessed with—and increasingly paranoid about—the sudden disappearance of his beautiful and mysterious neighbor (Riley Keough). Down the rabbit hole he goes, uncovering a bizarre underworld and (possibly) a vast conspiracy: There are dog killers, see-and-be-seen chess parties, homeless kings, graveyard movie screenings, owl-masked murders, eye-patched pirates, and paranoid hoarders. But at its core is a story about a guy who sees it as his job—nay, his mission—to rescue an innocent woman he barely knows.
Mitchell knew Garfield was the perfect person to carry the film. “There is a mystery to this character, and he takes the audience to some dark places,” Mitchell says. “And I felt we needed someone with a certain charm and the ability to pull an audience through this situation and these sequences. Because if it’s completely alienating, then it’s harder to follow or engage. With someone like Andrew, we see these other layers; we don’t just see the darkness. We’re also sort of hoping that there’s brightness there as well.”
The movie is an indictment of our frivolous culture, how we’ve become so consumed with money and appearances that we’ve forgotten what matters. This, of course, struck a chord with Garfield, who believes that “to love and to create” is what matters most. “And that is kind of the question,” says Mitchell. “Do you believe in love and art, or do you believe in wealth and comfort and power?”
One of the film’s best scenes sees Garfield’s character confronting an elderly man called The Songwriter who may or may not be responsible for creating all the songs, jingles, ditties, and lyrics that have defined each generation, going back 60 years. It’s a terrifying prospect, the idea that we’ve been programmed to feel, programmed to rebel, that some man—the man—is our voice. “When you were 15 and rebelling, you were rebelling to my music,” The Songwriter sneers before breaking into a Muzak-like piano version of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.”
“I think so many of us do feel a sense of self according to our playlists and the memories we have associated with certain songs and where we were when certain films came out,” says Garfield. “And yeah, I think [the film] is a very worthy investigation of how much have we been manipulated, and how much do we have agency over our own culture and existence, and how much are we just being led like sheep to the slaughter and being rinsed dry of all that we’re worth. I mean, you see it in all the stuff that’s happening with Facebook. We’ve become so immune to the concept of propaganda. We’ve become so immune to being manipulated by imagery and logos, and it’s become so much a part of the fabric of our being here, and I think that’s a really terrible thing. It shocks me that people don’t agree with that a lot of the time.”
Garfield doesn’t want to “connect” with people online, to take a selfie with strangers on the street just so they can post it on Instagram. He wants to be able to make someone actually feel something. “I went and saw Bruce Springsteen’s show recently,” he says of the rocker’s autobiographical concert residency, Springsteen on Broadway. “It’s absolutely stunning. He’s telling stories about his life, the people in his life, but he somehow makes all these tiny little details that are so specific to him totally universal. What he does is in the minutiae and in the nuance and the total uniqueness of his life.” He smiles, reliving the moment for a few brief seconds. “I felt so connected to him, to myself, to the rest of the audience, through this universal community experience. And then all I can do after an experience like that is to give praise and to give thanks for being alive. Because art, for me, provides the meaning.”