The Soul Of Andrew Garfield
In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick… Boom!, the Oscar nominee plays a different kind of hero — and this one can sing.
In 2019, along with 11 of his friends, Andrew Garfield formed a dodgeball team in London. They picked a name, the Ball Saints, and ordered screen-printed tees, but on the day of their first match, the Ball Saints hadn’t practiced and were only roughly familiar with the rules. They lined up against a small gymnasium’s walls all the same. A whistle was blown. Players raced toward the center line, Garfield chief among them.
“Things kind of happen when Andy is around. They come to life,” says Eleanor Matsuura, the Walking Dead actor who met Garfield in drama school when he was 19 years old. In that February match, the Ball Saints triumphed 2-1 over their opponents. “We had two or three great offensive players on our team, and he was one of them,” she says. “Look, truthfully, Andy is annoyingly excellent at most things.” A few weeks later, after another winning round, someone commented on an Instagram photo of the Ball Saints, “Is it not cheating having Spider-Man in your team?”
Things do kind of happen for Garfield, a sensitive theater kid from Surrey whose upbringing did not foretell a life in Hollywood or the fun house of contemporary celebrity. By now his career trajectory is well documented — the breakout performance in The Social Network, followed by the most coveted role in the Marvel universe — as is the disillusionment that saw him walk away from the franchise and into more cerebral, smaller projects like Silence and Hacksaw Ridge. But it was his Tony-winning turn in the 2018 Broadway revival of Angels in America that caught the eye of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, who saw his performance and asked him for lunch. Soon after, Garfield agreed to play musical theater legend Jonathan Larson in the Miranda-directed Tick, Tick… Boom!, which will premiere in theaters Nov. 12 and on Netflix on Nov. 19.
“I’ve had a handful of no-brainers in my life, and this was one of them,” says Garfield of the project. “There’s this childlike, 8-year-old [quality about Miranda], which is constant. Everything is possible.”
Garfield is sitting in a fold-up lounge chair in a derelict spot along the East River in Brooklyn. He’s exhausted, he says, having arrived in New York on a red-eye flight that morning from Canada, where he’s shooting a TV miniseries. “I want to be able to do the work that feels like it’s an expression of my soul and services something greater,” he says. The sun shines directly into his eyes as he talks, but he declines to move to the shade. “There’s a nonnegotiable relationship with your own soul, and therefore, every other relationship has to be constantly renegotiated to stay true to that nonnegotiable relationship.”
Garfield, who’s 38, takes the soul very seriously, his own and those of his characters. It’s part of what drew him to the character of Larson. “He was only about soul,” Garfield says. “He was about a life of meaning and joy, as a resistance to the forces of capitalism and materialism that are killing us.”
In Tick, Tick… Boom!, we meet Larson as a struggling, unknown lyricist who nonetheless considers himself the “future of musical theater.” He is chased by a sense that time is running out, as emphasized by a metronomic ticking that pulses in the background at various points in the film, and not just for his career. Around him, friends and co-workers are contracting a fatal virus few people understand. Left unsaid is what most audiences know: Soon Larson will start writing a new show, about a fictional mélange of creatives living and dying in New York’s very real AIDS crisis. He’ll call it Rent.
On the morning of Rent’s first off-Broadway preview performance in 1996, Larson died of a footlong tear in his aorta, likely caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition of weakened connective tissue. He was 35 years old.
As Larson, Garfield embodies a new and different physicality, more frenetic and neurotic than Peter Parker’s teenage showmanship. He’s always tapping, sprinting, clenching toward something just beyond his grasp — unlike Garfield himself, whose striving evidently results in quieter, lower-energy introspection. “I think there’s an unconscious knowing, like a spiritual, mystical knowing,” he says of Larson’s state of mind in the years leading up to his untimely death. “And that’s what I think the ticking was, making sure that he got Rent out before his heart stopped.”
Before Tick, Tick… Boom!, Garfield had never sung professionally. The first time he carried a tune in front of Miranda was at an early table-read where he belted out a song called “30/90,” one of the movie’s most difficult. Liz Caplan, who gave Garfield voice lessons from 2018 to 2020, remembers the moment: “He sings all these crazy high notes, so easily that Lin-Manuel took his shoe and threw it at him, like, ‘How dare you come from being a nonsinger to singing those notes so freely?’ Like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’”
If you’re in a committed monogamous relationship, there’s something very beautiful about the sacrifice of other possibilities.
On set, Garfield disappeared into his character, so much so that co-star Vanessa Hudgens would accidentally call him “Jonathan” on set. “He wasn’t afraid to lean into the pain of everything Jonathan went through,” says Hudgens, a Rent alumna herself, as is Robin de Jesús, who plays Larson’s best friend, Michael, in the film. After filming a combative scene between their characters, “He turned to me, and said, ‘I’m sorry, I need to do one more take,’” de Jesús recalls. “‘You’re doing such beautiful work, and I need to make sure I’m right there with you.’”
When Matsuura saw an early screening of the movie musical, she recognized someone she hadn’t seen on screen in a long time: her sometimes-messy former roommate who still texts her silly memes and who will always, without fail, pick up when her daughter, his goddaughter, FaceTimes. “I was like ‘Oh, that’s the Andy I’ve been hanging out with recently,’” she says. “He’s been thinking about who he is in the world, the legacy that he’s leaving, and where he puts his energy.”
When Andrew Garfield was 3 years old, his American father and British mother relocated their family from Los Angeles to the United Kingdom. And while his accent might still be British, the things coming out of Garfield’s mouth feel very apt for a native Angelino. “Life is sacred; life is a church,” he says in a digression about Larson’s own spirituality. “We should just be bowing down to the earth and kissing the ground every day and tending to it and being custodians of it.”
Garfield gives the impression of a man voraciously looking for meaning, often in the words of other enlightenment-seekers. During the course of our conversation he shouts out Rumi, William Blake, and Camus, together with “a really great poet and writer and thinker called David Whyte, W-H-Y-T-E,” whose audiobook, The Poetry of Self Compassion, lulled him to sleep in his 20s. “I have lots of different spiritual practices, but the main one is to fly close to the sun, get singed, fall to earth, break a few bones, and then do it all over again,” he says. “In order to remember who we are, we have to hit rock bottom over and over. ... I struggle with that like anyone. I’m just like, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to be humbled over and over. I don’t want to have to die and be resurrected.’ It sucks.”
It’s an approach he learned from his father, Richard, who went bankrupt when Garfield was 12 or 13. “That was the best thing to happen to our family,” he says. “He realized all the people he loved were still there. His wife, his kids, his friends, himself. He was brought to his knees and totally humbled, and then he started doing more of what he was called to do,” which was to coach swimming at a local club. It’s a model Garfield now seeks for himself. “My main goal in this life is to cultivate and rub up against the people, the places, the projects, the practices — that’s alliteration there with the p’s — that make me feel most alive.”
Tick, Tick… Boom! is a story about loss, among other things, and during filming, Garfield himself was grieving. His mother, Lynn, passed away of pancreatic cancer in November 2019 in London. Just eight days into the shoot in New York City, in March 2020, Miranda shut down production because of COVID-19. Garfield spent the next three months in lockdown in Manhattan, an ocean away from his remaining family: his dad and his older brother, Ben.
“It was actually a beautiful grief period for me,” he says. “I was solo in the city, and I had a really lovely bed. I was watching The West Wing, crying, and FaceTiming with my family back home every day. I had all this time and space to myself, to say goodbye to my mother.”
As Manhattan’s upper crust fled New York City for a less cramped quarantine, Garfield bought a road bike and took to the empty streets every day. He’d ride Central Park’s 6.1-mile loop, fully dressed the part in a Lycra cycling suit, while, back in London, his brother, a hospital physician and pulmonologist in a critical care unit, was also confronting death at work.
“Pressure was on him to decide who’s on a ventilator, who’s on ECMO, and who gets a bed,” Garfield says. “I became kind of his emotional support animal from afar.” (It also put his filming hiatus in perspective. When we meet in Greenpoint, fully masked, Garfield returns my handshake invitation with an elbow bump instead.)
That June, when New Yorkers marched for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, Garfield joined on two wheels. “[The cyclists] would be radioed from the person organizing the march behind [them], saying, ‘OK, we’re actually going to take a right on Broome,’ or whatever. It’s like, ‘OK, great, so we’re going to block off this [street].’ It was cool.”
You won’t find his participation splashed across his social media pages. For one thing, he doesn’t have any public ones — no Instagram, no Twitter, no TikTok. For another, he doesn’t believe in proselytizing. “For me, art is where I feel I can be political, and that’s where I find more potency and power,” he says.
One of Garfield’s main frustrations with his career is that success has made it difficult to focus on his art. Matsuura was his roommate when he was cast as Peter Parker, and watched his progression from actor to bona fide movie star. “Taking a job like Spider-Man was a huge undertaking for him,” she says. “I mean, obviously it’s a massive job, but to him personally, being propelled into the public eye has its blessings and curses. I could see him focusing on ‘Who do I want to be, and what kind of work do I want to make?’”
Garfield has talked about his disappointment around the 2012 and 2014 Spider-Man reboots. He wanted to further deepen the mythology of the character, whom he’s loved since childhood, by having Peter wrestle with concepts like heroism and altruism. But there was big money to be made, he has said, and the studio needed the film to be as palatable as possible to everyone who might watch it. In other words, Peter’s heroism couldn’t be messy. Garfield has since called his approach “naive,” and told The Hollywood Reporter he didn’t feel like the final edit reflected his work.
The bright spot of his Spider-Man run was meeting Emma Stone, his co-star-turned-amore.
I fight for my right for a private, personal life. My right to be ordinary. My right to be a mess. My right to be sorrowful. My right to lose, to get it wrong, to be stupid, to be a person.
Audiences loved their on-screen chemistry, which the couple readily displayed IRL, including a wonderfully unhinged press tour for the second film. In one video, from Moviefone’s Unscripted series, while Stone works to assemble a question for him, Garfield giggles maniacally to the point that some YouTube commenters speculated he was high. (“I don’t remember ever being high doing press, no,” he says now.) Their love story, much like that video, became publicly consumed ad infinitum, which bred another bout of disillusionment for the actor.
He’s managed to keep his love life unconfirmed since his separation from Stone around 2015. But, for the sake of scuttlebutt, he’s since been linked to actors like Susie Abromeit and Aisling Bea, and Rita Ora, and sees the perks of monogamy. “If you’re in a committed monogamous relationship, there’s something very beautiful about the sacrifice of other possibilities,” he says. “You make that connection sacred and it intensifies the joy of it and the specialness of it.”
After Spider-Man, Garfield set boundaries. “I’m not in the public eye to a great degree because I’ve designed it that way for myself,” he says. “For my work, I’m fine with it, but otherwise I fight for my right for a private, personal life. My right to be ordinary. My right to be a mess. My right to be sorrowful. My right to lose, to get it wrong, to be stupid, to be a person.”
“There’s so much demand for him, and [as] a culture, we always want more of everything,” says Matsuura. “We want Instagrams and posts and social media. He’s never given into that.”
For example, people very much want him to appear in next month’s Spider-Man: No Way Home alongside his successor, Tom Holland, egged on by unsubstantiated online rumors that Garfield has repeatedly denied. (“No matter how I answer, I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” he says later via email. “So in essence, you’ll just have to wait and see.”)
After our interview, he’ll head back to Calgary, Alberta, where he’s filming his next project: a TV adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven, the bestselling nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer, in which a Mormon detective (Garfield) investigates a local honor killing of a young mother (Daisy Edgar-Jones). From there, he’ll continue to earnestly labor at what Andrew Garfield does, resisting the worst of our culture — “In the womb we don’t have the right sneakers. Do you know what I mean? We’re not enough in the womb, and that is a loathsome state of affairs that we’re in.” — while doing projects that facilitate his introspection.
“It’s really this whole life and death thing,” he says, watching the late afternoon sun fall over Manhattan’s skyline. “Like do you want to be Rupert Murdoch, the richest man in the graveyard knowing that you’ve raped and pillaged this earth and you have made the world a much uglier place? Or do you want to be poor and destitute like Jonathan Larson, working on his art, feeling connected to his soul, and attempting to reach out to other people’s souls through song? Who do you want to be?”
I don’t answer him, assuming he’ll continue the thought. “That’s not a rhetorical question,” he says. “It’s, like, a very obvious answer.”
Top Image Credits: Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello jacket and jeans, Thom Browne shirt, Teddy Vonranson tie, Celine by Hedi Slimane shoes, The Tie Bar socks
Photographer: Amar Daved
Stylist: EJ Briones
Grooming: Amy Komorowski
Art Director: Shanelle Infante
Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Marshall Stief