Andrew Garfield

“The point of being here is art” – Andrew Garfield is finding his meaning
By Fabien Kruszelnicki | Film+TV | 14 January 2020
This article is part of HERO Vault – Gems from back in time

Above image: Sweater by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello FW19 

Andrew Garfield doesn’t take it easy. His last few roles – paralysed disability advocate Robin Cavendish in Andy Serkis’ Breathe, Jesuit missionary in Scorsese’s Silence and Desmond T. Doss, the American pacifist combat medic in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, are all undeniably heavyweight undertakings that demanded everything from him, both mentally and physically. Add in a stretch as Prior Walter for Angels in America at London’s National Theatre and, in a relatively short time-frame, Garfield has defined a career based on highly-selective, thoroughly character-driven performances.

His latest role in David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake is some light relief, an ebullient, weird and trip-tastic world of dog-killers, hidden messages and mysterious cults. Now, after a solid decade on the silver screen, Garfield carves his own path – an honest quest for truth.

James West: Congratulations on such an interesting and diverse body of work, I mean not to butt suck too hard but you have a real solid mix of projects under your belt. I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on young actors, especially the generation below you, to churn out lots of films very quickly to shape a career.
Andrew Garfield: Yes. It’s obviously a different world now for young artists and actors, and young people generally. Everything moves so much quicker and there’s a pressure to gain a certain status, and then hold on to that status. The only way young people, I think, are being sold to do that is by, as you say, churning out work after work until you repeat yourself and you kind of hate the job. You’re chasing something that you actually never set out to chase, just because of cultural pressure, because of fear of not surviving, of being found out, of being told you’re not cutting the mustard. I think our generation was just on the cusp of that, but I still think we’re affected by it. I know that I was very fortunate, and unfortunate in a certain way, in that the first film I did was directed by Robert Redford and it was me, him, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep. [laughs]

James: A rubbish cast of nobodies. [all laugh]
Andrew: The fact that was my first experience of making a film meant that I’d already tasted the best high-grade toro tuna sushi in some far-flung place in Japan. So I think I have to acknowledge I was very privileged and fortunate because it set me up, psychologically, in a way, of going, “Well, I just want to have those experiences and I’m not going to settle for things that aren’t totally, uniquely challenging, or actually no, even more specifically than that, that don’t speak to my soul.” And I think that the majority of actors don’t get to have that kind of choice, but that’s a different conversation. There are lots of factors at play, but I think the one that upsets me is the one that you touched on, this cultural pressure to always be producing, to always be sustaining a career and to always be keeping your status in a world that is incredibly fickle and will turn on you if it chooses. It’s like being in a relationship with a partner that needs you when it needs you and then will drop you when something shinier and prettier comes along, and it’s just not a healthy relationship to have.

Fabien Kruszelnicki: How did you get into that first film, Lions for Lambs [2007]? It’s a great political drama.
Andrew: I can’t explain. It was luck, good fortune and right place right time that my sensibilities matched up with a film that was being made by a specific director in a specific moment of time. There were lots of different things that led to that – I was doing a play in London that [director] Stephen Daldry’s assistant came and saw, he told Steven to come see it because Steven was casting a film – that never actually got made – based on the book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. So he came and saw the play and then he sent Scott Rudin to see it…

Shirt by Isabel Marant FW19, jeans by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello SS19

James: Did you know this was happening at the time?
Andrew: Yes I did-ish. Scott Rudin is one of the great living film producers and he signed-off on me coming in for screen tests for this Kavalier & Clay film, it was me, Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy, Tobey Maguire, Jamie Bell, Jason Schwartzman and Ryan Gosling. I’d only ever done theatre and suddenly I’m on a film set doing a screen test for this incredible film. The casting director on that was a woman called Avy Kaufman, who then saw my screen test and showed it to Robert Redford.

James: Just like that, easy.
Andrew: It was just a series of very, very fortunate events that led to that being my first experience with those people; it’s deeply mysterious to me how that was the beginning. I’m pretty good at analysing and finding meaning, but other than the fact I was doing this play and Steven’s assistant came and saw it, it was just good fortune. I guess my part in that was I was doing something that I loved and I was doing it as well as I could.

James: And as things picked up, how did you keep balanced? You seem to have a good perspective.
Andrew: It’s not an easy one to sustain, to be a salmon swimming upstream, I get side-tracked a lot. I get seduced, I get confused, I get upset, I get competitive, I get envious. I’m a human being and I struggle with it, but I don’t know, I feel grateful to something, some deeper part of myself that sees things a bit clearer. I think it’s about being in touch with your own being, and honouring the deepest part of yourself rather than the part of you that wants the quick fix, which we all have. The part of you that wants the immediate, or the part of you that wants to be perceived in a certain way, or the ego aspect. You know, the ego can’t lead, it’s not meant to lead, look what happens when the ego leads…

James: The ego has already arrived.
Andrew: The ego is now king. That’s why culture is in the mess that it’s in, that’s why the political landscape is in the mess that it’s in, that’s why the movie industry is in the mess that it’s in, you know, it’s because of giving the ego the thrown.

Shirt, trousers, belts and shoes all by Prada FW19

James: Well, there have been a lot of funding cuts in the arts, it doesn’t take long for that to become the norm for a new generation. What do you think we need to do to encourage people to be more interested in art, movies, genuine creativity?
Andrew: Weirdly, before last night I would have probably answered that question differently, but I went to Central Saint Martins college and saw their graduate fashion show and I got to hang out with all these young people afterwards and dance and be stupid with them. It’s the first time I felt like a student again in the last ten, fifteen years, it was like I was in a student union and I was getting drunk and dancing with a bunch of 21-year-olds, it was amazing. The vitality and creativity that I saw, and the sense of hope and joy, but that’s obviously a very specific subset of artistic individuals that care about the things that you’re asking about. When the arts get sidelined, isn’t that the foreshadowing of the death of that particular culture?

James: That sounds about right.
Andrew: It’s like the death of that particular empire. I think that’s a wise old proverb and I believe that. Look at America, it’s a prime example of the Commander-in-Chief having zero artistic inclination and living in the least artful way imaginable and I mean, from the outside, it does feel like America is dying. An old idea of America is dying anyway, in order for a new one to be born. But I wouldn’t deem to comment on the younger generation because I don’t understand them as well as they do themselves, however I do perceive young people turning away from these devices and turning away from the quick fix, even though of course, equally, a lot of young people’s laziest and basest impulses are being catered to on a moment-to-moment basis. Again, it’s very hard to be a salmon swimming upstream, it’s very hard to say no to something that is not sitting right in the soul, because how do you know it’s not sitting right in your soul if you don’t know any different? So it’s a huge question and I feel reassured that anyone who lives in London, or lives in the UK, has access to great government-funded culture still, even though the current regime have de-prioritised it, but I can only speak for myself and for me, that’s my access to meaning: the point of being here is art.

James: It frames everything, doesn’t it?
Andrew: It does. It’s church to me, it’s spiritual. That’s not for everybody… I think it is for everybody actually… I do believe that, and not in a didactic way. But I have friends from school who don’t go to the theatre unless I’m in the play, but then when they do come, they get enriched by it. It always makes them go, “I need to see more plays, I need to see more art, because I just got reminded about of a bunch of stuff that I care about,” or, “I started questioning who I am again,” you know? More awareness can only be good. But one thing that I would say to young people who feel pressure to compromise themselves in order to succeed – to create a position for themselves that is externally validated – just be aware that is happening. Be aware that you have a choice in that. Then you can either choose to continue down that road or radicalise yourself in the sense of just being truly who you are. Not a branded version, but actually do the hard work of living as the very unique being you are and expressing it from that very special place. That is what we need more of, and it’s the hardest thing in the world, I think, for anyone to do right now.


Above image: Sweater by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello FW19

James: Do you feel there was a moment where you ‘grew up’? I mean it’s a gradual thing for everyone but were there moments where you were like, “OK, maybe I’m more mature now in the way I’m thinking now.”
Andrew: I think it’s happening even now for me, I imagine it’ll be like that forever. I hope it will be forever, like you’re becoming more and more multi-dimensional and you’re stripping away more and more layers that you don’t need, that have been wrapped around you for protection, or to fit in, or to win. For me, I think it happened a lot during the Spider-Man [2012] stuff, where I had to be willing to sacrifice those superficial things in order to be true to myself and it was very, very hard. It was painful and scary, because I thought that by being true to my heart, by being true to my soul in every move I make within this performance and within the stuff around it, I’m going to upset people and people are going to want me to do things that I don’t want to do. And if I say no to the things that I don’t want to do, then I might lose some things that the ego wants, or the little boy in me wants. Because the little boy in me, like the little children in all of us, I think, wants to please mummy and daddy. We want to be fed, we want to be clothed and we want to have a roof over our heads. So that early dynamic then equates, I believe, to the rest of your life and I think that’s what becoming an adult means to me, becoming yourself means, “I don’t need you to clothe me anymore, I’m going to clothe myself, on my own terms, and I’m not going to compromise who I am in order to belong. I’m going to know my belonging with or without you.” And I think that’s really powerful.

Fabien: So where do you find that compromise? If you say no to things that you don’t want to do, but equally you know that you might close other doors that way.
Andrew: Well it’s not a compromise for me in my experience, because then, for me anyway, when I say no to the door that isn’t right for me then I have space to say yes to the door that is. I think what I mean is that, right now for instance, I’m taking a sabbatical, like I’m taking some time to myself, for many reasons, personal and otherwise. I’m reflecting and I’m changing. If I’m on a train journey I want to look out the window sometimes. So I’m looking out the window right now and it’s lovely… But, more specifically, I’ve been offered things that people would think I’m crazy for saying no to. But I know that they just weren’t right for me and I’m very happy to wait right now, which is scary, because who knows if the right thing will show up? But I’m in a very privileged position where I get to wait. It’s a position that I’ve created myself, it’s not something that has just been handed to me, it’s a position I’ve definitely worked hard to get to.

James: Without going into specifics about any particular project, I’m interested to know if there’s a way to articulate the kinds of things that don’t sit right with you, that make you say no? Are there common things that put you off?
Andrew: It changes every moment, you know? I said yes to Spider-Man because it felt absolutely right to. On paper there were many red flags for me, but I just knew in my gut that it was an experience I had to have, that I wanted to have. And I was right. But no, it’s never one thing.

James: I hate the word ‘process’, but I do think that there’s something interesting in how people prepare for any kind of creative work. What’s that like for you? I know with Silence [2016], for example, you put a lot of prep in. But do you see that as being necessary for every role?
Andrew: It changes every time. But I do like to have a lot of time to immerse myself in something, especially if I just love that thing. I love the word ‘process’, I don’t see what the issue with the word is?

James: Just because I always feel like, “OK, so tell me about your process?” It sounds like such a template question.
Andrew: No, I love it. I love other artists’ processes too, like some of my favourite films… There’s a documentary about [artist] Andy Goldsworthy’s process called Rivers and Tides [2001] and it’s a beautiful film that I could watch over and over again. I recently saw a great documentary on Netflix called House of Z [2017], which is about the fashion designer Zac Posen. It focuses on his process and life. That was very beautiful. I also watched Jodorowsky’s Dune [2013], which is amazing. I love that shit so much, learning about how creative people work. I went to the Christian Dior show at the V&A recently, it’s gorgeous stuff, I just love it.


Leather jacket and trousers by Fendi FW19, t-shirt by Ron Dorff, sneakers by Camper SS19

James: So what’s your process [laughs]?
Andrew: I really do like having a lot of time, again especially if it’s a piece of work I’m fascinated by. Like for Angels in America [Garfield starred in the play at the National Theatre], the amount of research and information that could be harvested was endless. It would never have been enough work, and I love that period of time where you’re just a student of something very specific for a few months. So with Silence, I had a year to really do a deep-dive on what it is to be a man of faith, specifically a Jesuit. I got a real spiritual education, not just in a cerebral way, in a very deep, visceral way with this amazing priest, Father James Martin in New York. It’s a huge part of the joy, like I’m prepping for something now that I’m not going to be doing for another year, but I’m learning an instrument and I’m learning how to sing. It’s great, I’m so lucky. Under the Silver Lake [2018] was different, weirdly, it’s the only one so far where my prep was radically different from anything else I’ve ever done.

James: By choice?
Andrew: By necessity, because it’s such a weird film and there wasn’t much I could really do other than create the character from what was written and try and make it my own.

James: I love [director] David Robert Mitchell’s visual style, do you get a sense of that weirdness as you’re filming or does it feel like you’re shooting something regular and then it’s all in the editing?
Andrew: It feels weird while you’re shooting it, I expected it to feel more creepy… but it didn’t really. It felt very technical actually, because he’s very technical, David.

James: His cinematography…
Andrew: Yeah, David and his cinematographer Mike [Gioulakis] are very technical and precise, especially with colour and props. But for that role, I think because of the character, I wanted to feel lost a lot. I wanted to be finding out what was going on in the moment. I wanted to be as spontaneous as possible. There wasn’t much research to do, plus I’m already very much into conspiracy theories and into the hidden messages in advertising. I’m fascinated by all that; hidden societies and who actually holds the power in any system.


Jacket and top by Balenciaga FW19


Fabien: Can you ever fully understand something like that?
Andrew: I definitely don’t. I love that about the film too, it’s a mystery on top of a mystery on top of a mystery.

James: Did it feel a bit unnerving having no prep?
Andrew: It was odd, but it felt totally appropriate. It was a strange thing. But also there were other things going on in my life, like I’d just finished another film that involved a lot of prep and was really difficult, called Breathe [2017]. At the same time I was doing lots of press and the Oscars stuff for the Scorsese film [Silence] and the Mel Gibson film [Hacksaw Ridge, 2016], so I was exhausted and also David [Robert Mitchell] is the sort of director where you go, “This is so your vision and so your baby, I’m going to not be as challenging [laughs] as I usually am, as an actor, I’m not going to be as annoying, I’m just going to do what you ask of me to the best of my ability.” I wanted to be pliable and really trust his vision, while showing up with my own creativity as well.

James: How would you imagine you’re difficult for people to work with? This sounds like such a leading question, but you brought it up [laughs].
Andrew: No, I think some filmmakers have found me difficult, I think the majority haven’t but I know a couple have, because I’m very demanding of myself and I’m very exacting of myself. Like I’m a fucking taskmaster, a slave driver with myself.

James: Does that mean lots of takes?
Andrew: If we have the time and money for that, but just with everything. Just with truth. We’re trying to get to the truth of a moment, a scene. Trying to get to the best possible version of what we’re doing. My dad’s a swimming coach, which is a super devotional sport, it’s laser-focused and second place is the first loser. That kind of mindset in acting is quite interesting [laughs]. But I’m just very hard on myself in a way that I’m quite into, I like it. I think I’ve loosened up a little bit. I know that I demand the same from people around me, in terms of accessing the truth of something, in terms of getting something to its potential.

Full interview available in the latest HERO, Issue 21, HOT WIRED, available now. 

Read Next