An Interview with Andrew Garfield
Esmé Weijun Wang
I first became interested in Andrew Garfield and his work not from his starring role in the two big-budget Amazing Spider-Man films (2012, 2014), nor from his famous laptop-smashing scene in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), but from a conversation between him and Amy Adams from Variety Studio’s Actors on Actors series. His thoughtfulness in engaging with tough questions about commercialism and art led me to seek out the National Theatre proshot of Angels in America, in which he plays Prior Walter. That recording helped sustain me through the first difficult year of the COVID-19 pandemic; I quickly found the rest of his work.
Andrew Garfield was born in Los Angeles in August 1983, though he was raised in Surrey, England, by his Jewish-American father and English mother. After studying at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, he proceeded to perform on both stage and screen with some of the most admired filmmakers and actors of our time, winning him a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award and a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, as well as nominations for Golden Globe Awards, an Academy Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. In 2020 and 2021, he starred in three films: Mainstream, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and tick, tick… Boom!
After much back-and-forth about whether we could make this interview happen, I found myself on the East Coast for work while he was filming in Calgary, Canada, for the miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven, based on the book of the same title by Jon Krakauer. We spoke on the phone one night after he’d wrapped shooting for the day: he was in a car on his way home, and I was sitting at my best friend’s dining table.
—Esmé Weijun Wang
I. “AIR GUITAR WITH A DORITO”
THE BELIEVER: Something I was thinking about when I was preparing for this conversation and reviewing your body of work was how either healthy or unhealthy people must be to do what you do, because it seems to require, on top of everything else, so much physical, mental, and psychic endurance. How do you approach that?
ANDREW GARFIELD: It’s a good question that I’m always asking myself. There’s no getting there in terms of finding that balance. It’s always a practice and a process. And one thing will work for a while and then it won’t work anymore; you have to find another practice to keep you centered. I think the trickiest part is just coming back to a level of real relaxation and ease in between working.
I’m lucky to have great people in my life. I have great friends, I have a great family, and I have interests outside of what I do, thank god. And, to be honest, for me, it’s nature, it’s the ocean, it’s surfing, it’s basketball. It’s shifting rhythms, that’s the hard thing. It usually takes me a couple of weeks to come back to a more languid, natural, not-so-adrenalized rhythm.
There’s lots of practices I have, but the other problem is that I love what I do so much, but it can take me over. And that’s a great thing, and it’s a gift, but there’s a wound in that as well, as you’re kind of alluding to. I’m thinking about something like doing Angels in America onstage for a year and a half, and you can’t help but surrender to the theater gods and that character and the ideas in the story and the story itself, because all you want to do when you wake up every morning is serve the audience and serve that story for them on a plate. But at the same time, your human body is like, The last thing I wanna do is get on that stage.
I keep thinking about Simone Biles and the news she made at the Olympics, which I thought was one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in a while: for a kind of superhuman athlete to own their humanity, own their limits, and stand in self-ownership and self-love with a very hard decision, where they could be perceived as being by themselves. Probably most of the issue is, I think, that people who work at that kind of level are harder on themselves than anyone else. And if I had had to miss a show for Angels in America for whatever reason—which, thankfully, I didn’t—I would have considered myself a failure or weak or all that negative self-talk, which is an unfair judgment, because there’s something so powerful about owning—
BLVR: That you have a human body.
AG: Yeah, flexing your limitation. And one of the keys in what we do is we get to feel like we are extending beyond that human body, that human limitation, and we are touching something divine in what we do, if we’re lucky—or at least we’re reaching for it. But then what goes up must come down, and we have to honor the human body as well, so it’s a constant process.
BLVR: I feel like addressing what artists do so they can meet their own ambitions was such a big part of tick, tick… Boom! I think there’s something really astonishing about being able to make a living doing something I find soulful and that I love. Tick, tick… Boom! is so much about that and the difficulties that come with it—about the culture of theater, having to be frugal, hustling to make it work. And I did wonder if you had a moment, or a series of moments, when you realized you were going to be able to make a living as an actor.
AG: I think tick, tick… Boom! is about everything you just mentioned—and the struggle. I went to drama school and then I got lucky. I did two or three plays, maybe two plays, straightaway in great theaters in the UK, and I felt so lucky and grateful. And then I got lulled into this whole sense of security, like that’s how it was always going to be, and then, lo and behold, I had a year of unemployment in acting. I had to go back to my temp jobs, which were telemarketing and waiting tables and being a cricket coach’s assistant in the UK.
It was grim. And then it just so happened during that year that I went through my first big breakup, my first big heartbreak. It was just the perfect storm of things falling apart.
BLVR: But you kept going.
AG: Well, that’s the thing. I think what those moments do is they force you to reckon with this thing that is called your life in terms of that wonderful thing Rilke talks about: If you wake up in the middle of night with this burning desire where you know you… There’s no way that you can’t not write. It’s the same thing for anyone who feels a calling for something. So that year was a real test of my mettle and of this feeling about what I felt called to. And, yeah, I’m a lucky person in the sense that I stuck with it and I didn’t give up. I didn’t give up what felt right to me, as you say, in my soul.
I remember I thought I’d really made when I got my first commercial. I did a Doritos commercial in Spain.
BLVR: Yes. I’ve seen that commercial.
AG: I was playing air guitar with a Dorito. I think I earned maybe 2,200 pounds for two days of work. And I was like, Holy fuck, that’s it. I’m done. I’m in. It’s happened. I’ve made it, and that’s that.
I genuinely felt that. I would have been satisfied with that. But then I got spoiled by the theater I was doing and by the first film I did. And I thought, Oh god, now I’ve tasted this kind of work with this caliber of people, and I didn’t know… Oh no: now I know this exists. This is a problem.
II. “THE SHORELINE OF OURSELVES”
BLVR: I read that you are a fan of the Andy Goldsworthy documentary Rivers and Tides, which I also love.
AG: Yeah. It’s so beautiful.
BLVR: I’m curious: What are some things you find interesting in learning about the processes of other kinds of artists: performers like Jonathan Larson [the writer of the autobiographical musical on which tick, tick… Boom! is based and the creator of Rent], who are out front in their work, and nonperformers like visual artists and sculptors?
AG: I love learning about other artists’ processes so much; I don’t know why. It’s like a magpie-collecting hobby of mine. I find it incredibly inspiring, and just as a human being, I’m like, God, I love people. I love it when people devote themselves to something that is greater than themselves, and they work at it.
I was working on my home in London, and I went to this little workshop factory, a little storehouse that’s part of the Howe brand in the UK, which is a boutique furniture brand. The woman who worked there was talking to me in this room of textiles, and every single one had a story. She was obsessively aware of the history of every roll of fabric she was walking past, to the point where it felt like you were getting a guided tour of the Natural History Museum.
And it’s like, Oh my god, humans can be so wonderful when we’re making things, when we’re creating. We’re joining the grand creator, or however you want to describe it. Because we are in creation. I’m not necessarily talking about God. I’m saying there’s something that has been created through a series of natural processes, as far as I’m concerned.
So to be in line with and to join in that creativity is, I think, maybe the highest calling. I think it’s all of our callings, to whatever degree or in whatever context, in whatever corner of the garden we’re meant to tend. And we know it. We know when we’re in the right corner, you know what I mean? We can feel it. We can feel it in our bones. Our blood starts to flow, our cheeks flush, we get that feeling of spring in our bodies, and we come alive. We can feel it when we’re close to the shoreline of ourselves, and then it’s harder to identify when we don’t feel it. It’s a strange thing.
That’s what I find, anyway. When I veer off my path, it’s much harder to notice that. It’s much easier to miss when I’m on the path. There are so many numbing agents available to us now, and we can so easily distract ourselves.
I watched Dune recently, and then I went back and revisited Jodorowsky’s Dune, which is kind of similar to Rivers and Tides in the sense of showing a mad artistic process and an ephemeral thing that gets so close to being created—and then it doesn’t. The ripples of that. Even the act of creation, the attempts at creation, creates all these ripples in the world, and I find that so moving as well.
Going back to Jonathan Larson—it ties in with him. We all leave. We all die with an unfinished song, and that’s the setup. None of us complete. None of us finish the symphony. There’s a few notes left to be done, if we’re lucky.
One of the beauties of telling Jonathan’s story and making this film [tick, tick… Boom!] was that we got to put a few more notes on his symphony for people and got to continue that melody, continue his notes, continue his song, so more and more people could be touched by someone who is worth being touched by. Jonathan was a worthy man, a worthy human being for us to pay attention to, because he had our best selves at heart. He was an advocate for art and an advocate for everyone living for their soul’s purpose. What higher calling can there be?
BLVR: Did you get a sense of his process for making that film? Because as a process nerd, I really, really wanted to see what was on those reporter’s notebook pages on the floor.
AG: There was a wealth of information, and rough drafts of Superbia, and drafts of Rent, and recordings of the one-man show of Rent that Jonathan put on in his bedroom, wearing sports shorts and a dirty T-shirt, on his two pianos, just belting it out in the middle of his East Village apartment.
What I understand is that Jonathan needed to be reined in by his collaborators, especially with Boho Days, with the rock monologue, and with Rent. He had a tendency to want to go deeper and deeper, and darker and darker, and to become more and more edgy and uncompromising in tone and in spirit. He really wanted to hold a mirror up in the realest way possible.
I think he was lucky he had collaborators that helped bring out his natural exuberance and lightness and joy and appreciation of life and beauty. And bear in mind that this is a guy who never saw his own success. He was always living in that have-not, less-than, ignored, rejected, kind of waiting-to-be-noticed place. He had moments, for sure, of really vital mentorship from Sondheim and other people in the community, but ultimately he was hatching just as he passed away. He was just about to reach the harvest time for all the seeds he had planted, and then he wasn’t incarnate to receive that harvest.
III. US WATER MOLECULES
BLVR: Something I admire is that you really disappear into your characters. In everything I’ve seen of yours, I truly feel like all your roles are wildly different people. I wanted to ask a kind of mystical question: Do you carry around those people you’ve been? Where do they go?
AG: Well, it’s different every time. But with Jonathan there was some possession that occurred. I did feel a sense of his spirit near me, and I worked at that. My job was to invoke his spirit and to find that spirit in myself and allow him to live as fully as possible through me as the vessel.
Generally speaking, the way I work is inside out, so I’m searching and digging and scouring and on a treasure hunt for the character within myself, rather than finding it outside myself. So, actually, rather than How do you shake off the character? or Where does the character go?, it’s How do I find the parts of myself that I didn’t know existed, that reside in me, and bring them up and let them live? And then they are reintegrated into my being for all time.
For instance, I think about [my character Desmond Doss] in Hacksaw Ridge, that wonderful man of total, insane faith and goodness, and with such a nurturing spirit. It was so joyful to be able to live in that space while shooting, to the point where I didn’t want to leave. I was full of grief that I didn’t get to keep bringing up those very particular aspects of that character.
I have a teacher who is a mystical teacher and an acting teacher, and she talks about how it has to be healing. As artists and actors and storytellers, we are bringing up our own wounds and, therefore, the wounds of an audience—for them to be healed, for us to be healed. And if it’s not healing, then we’re missing the mark somehow. That’s how she approaches the work and that’s how I approach the work. I absolutely love it.
BLVR: You talk about Jonathan’s early passing and the passing of your mother and how those impacted tick, tick… Boom! Do you think about your own legacy and what that might be?
AG: I think about the unfinished song. I do think about my mother. I think about a mentor of mine, Mike Nichols, who passed away in his eighties and was in the middle of prepping his next film. He was in the middle of his favorite pasta dinner with his favorite person on earth, his beautiful wife, Diane Sawyer. I think, Oh, what would that project have been? My mum was in the middle of knitting eighteen different things for her grandkids—and so it’s all these unfinished songs.
And then the responsibility, the beautiful responsibility you feel when someone whom you’ve had the privilege of connecting with in a very, very deep and profound way is no longer physically incarnate here. The grief you feel, the privilege of that grief leaves me with a great, never-ending yearning to honor that person for the rest of my time. I’ve had that with a few people. I have it with Mike. I have it with my mother and a couple of others.
I guess that is love. I guess grief is that well of unconditional love, and the only way to get in touch with that source of love is, for better or worse, set up through loss and the awareness of loss, which is what Jonathan goes through with [his friend Michael] and his friends all around him. And with himself. That’s the ticking for me: he knows he’s not going to be here for a long time.
But in terms of legacy, it’s not something that really interests me. I think I’ve developed a pretty healthy awareness of how small I am. Honestly, I think it’s because I’ve had to, because I have a pretty healthy ego and it can be boring. It’s a practice to be constantly remembering the perspective of the moon. You know what I mean? Like looking down on all my little problems and going, Dude, shush.
I think about a profound moment when my mom was sick with cancer. I was struggling with it, and before she passed, I was, like any person, resistant and angry and having terrible anxiety about it and what it meant and where it was leading. It was a really hard thing to accept, of course. And it still is. I still find it hard to accept that she’s no longer here.
But I remember I was walking along—I was on Fire Island, in New York, prepping for tick, tick… Boom! or Tammy Faye, and I had to take a break because I had this knot in my chest and I just couldn’t get rid of it.
I went for a walk on the beach. The sun was setting and it was freezing. I found I needed to jump, so I just jumped into the ocean. And it’s funny: as soon as my full body and head were submerged, it was like I got the medicine, and my chest released, and I let it all go. My interpretation of that moment was that it was the wisdom of nature, the wisdom of the earth, the wisdom of the ocean letting me know, Hey. Yeah, it’s hard, it’s horrible. I’m not taking away this unique pain you’re feeling, but just so you know, us out here, us water molecules—we’ve been seeing this for millennia. And actually, this is the best-case scenario for you to lose her, rather than for her to lose you. This is a much better situation.
And, again, my ego was holding on; my ego thought I knew better. My ego said, No, this doesn’t make sense. No, no, no, it should be this way; it should be that way. But actually it took the ocean, the greater opponent, to just hold me under and say, It’s really horrible. And sons have been losing their mothers for thousands and thousands of years, and they will continue to, and you’ve just been initiated into that awareness and into that reality. Some illusion has been lifted. You’re in a realer version of the world now, and it’s painful.
IV. “I FIND MYSELF MAKING NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS EVERY MORNING”
BLVR: You referred to Rilke earlier, but you also often refer to poets like Rumi and E. E. Cummings. I was curious if you’ve been reading anything recently that you’ve admired.
AG: I think the last book I read was Ocean Vuong’s book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Oh my god, it’s… I have a funny story.
Before I read his book, I listened to his interview with Krista Tippett [from the podcast On Being]. I was listening and I was just sobbing. I said to myself, Whoever this person is—one day I’m going to marry this woman. And I had no idea that [Ocean Vuong] was a beautiful man, because he has this very sweet, high-pitched tone of voice, and I thought, That’s my future wife. [Laughs] What are the odds?
BLVR: And the book is about his mother as well.
AG: Yeah, it was absolutely perfect. The tenderest heart, and the most eloquent, poetic soul. I just picked up The Overstory [by Richard Powers], which I’m excited to read, and I’ve read a couple of the chapters from it. They’re so profound. I picked up Dave Eggers’s new book The Every, which I haven’t started yet. I’m excited to read that.
BLVR: Something I don’t see people talk or write about is that your writing is quite beautiful. I really loved the essay about the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that you wrote for Time Out London, and I also thought the speech you wrote for the Inside the Outer Critic Luncheon was really thoughtful. As a writer, I was wondering: How do you approach writing?
AG: Well, that’s very, very kind of you. It’s a couple of deep cuts there.
When I was asked to write the Orlando piece for Time Out, it was a no-brainer. I was already writing something about the shooting just for myself, and then I felt this wonderful opportunity and responsibility to sing a melody for that tragedy and the people that were lost. But, to be honest, I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been very on set. I’ve been very much in my acting lane, but writing is definitely something I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure and joy out of.
I’ve never done it formally. I tried to write a one-man show about myself and my father at one point, but I got stuck in a pretty obvious, symbolically opportune moment. It was about when my father and I were about to crawl down into the earth, into this tunnel, into our shared woundedness. And so I was like [laughs], Let’s stop here.
But I would love to have more discipline around it, to be honest. I journal, I do morning pages. Hopefully, when I have more time in the next couple of years, there might be a couple of other ways I’ll be able to find my creativity.
BLVR: Do you find that as you grow older, your approach to acting shifts? Does anything feel less or more natural, or more challenging over time?
AG: I’m definitely in a shift right now. What I’ve been intentional toward for the last bunch of years was freedom in my work and a sense of letting go of the idea of right and wrong, the idea of getting anything right. To allow myself to just be present. Prep, prepare, work hard, and study, and then fully let it go. That’s been my approach.
I was raised as an athlete. I’m a gymnast and a swimmer and all that, so that’s been an obstacle in certain ways because there’s a tendency, or a need, to stick the landing, and it’s like, Wait a minute. No, there is no landing. You never get there. The more alive you are, the better, and that takes a lot of realization and spontaneity. That takes a trust in yourself, a trust in other actors, and a trust in the moment. So that’s where I’m always heading, toward greater freedom and play.
BLVR: In the beginning of our conversation, when I was thinking things like, There’s so much endurance involved. He’s doing an interview with me late at night, after shooting the whole day. I was also thinking about the fact that you came from competitive sports, where there is a lot of focus and endurance and concentration and discipline. Your expression of wanting to have more freedom and play is really interesting in that context.
AG: The sports discipline is definitely a big part of me. It’s a combination of things. I think there are certain things that are innate, that are in me and in my family line, in my brother and my father and my mum. We all share the drive toward full expression—toward a perfected, executed thing. My mother with her Christmas dinner or with the specific cardigan she was knitting, or the lampshade she was making, or the quilt she was creating, or the cake she was producing. I was always trying to convince her to apply for The Great British Bake Off. Because she was a genius. She was a fucking genius. But she was like, “There’s no way, because it takes me three days to make a cake, and I’ll throw away the first two tries. There’s no way I’m able to do anything within a period of half an hour.” So I think that, for whatever reason, it’s in our family line; it’s in our DNA.
But there’s also a learned behavior there as well. Distinguishing between those two feels important because there’s times when all of us burn out. My mother, she would burn out; my father, my brother, me. We all have a similar drive, which is maybe inexplicable, where we want to offer ourselves fully to what we’re doing. My brother is a lung doctor, a pulmonary physician specialist at the Royal Brompton Hospital in Chelsea, in London, and he’s the kind of guy that stays far too long after he should have clocked out, because he has that similar drive. And he is the first person you would want to be giving you primary care in a hospital. But my life, I feel, is spent trying to convince him to take care of himself, and I’m sure I could probably do the same thing for myself.
BLVR: It’s always easier to tell other people to take care of themselves, I think, rather than doing it ourselves.
AG: Oh yeah. I see him plainly.
BLVR: Around the time of Angels in America, people would ask you what you thought you’d do next. I happened to see a clip of you singing a little bit of “Dear Theodosia” from Hamilton on the red carpet before tick, tick… Boom! was announced, and I was like, Of course he would do a musical. That would be the next thing he would do, because he hasn’t professionally sung. And of course he would spend a year learning how to do it. Do you tend to hope for certain kinds of projects before they come to fruition? And if so, are you allowed to talk about what some of your hopes are?
AG: I love that question. It’s quite ripe in my imagination right now, and I’m wondering, Where to next? But it’s strange—I’ve become like any other actor of my generation or otherwise. We idolize the ’70s and the filmmaking that was happening then. Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Cimino. And before that, Cassavetes. I was rewatching Red the other night, and then I started seeing that Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film [Licorice Pizza] is starting to screen.
I’m just like, There—that there. That’s the feeling. It ties in with the feeling of freedom and of telling stories that are unique and that are about human beings and fascinating, multidimensional characters and dynamics. That kind of feeling where you get to explore something in a deeply textured way, and to feel like you’re in safe hands as well.
The Social Network was probably the closest I got to making a ’70s movie, with that level of writing, that level of profundity in the themes, and that level of director, who spends the budget on time to make sure the actors get to the place he needs them to get to. God, it’s just the best. You’re just rehearsing. And there’s no getting there: You’re just going and going and going. Then [David] Fincher pitches the ball right at the center of the catcher’s mitt on take seventy-two, or take twelve, or take one hundred and one, and then he moves on.
BLVR: I loved reading about how satisfied you felt while filming that, because I’ve also read about actors really struggling to work with Fincher. And so reading about you being like, Yes, I have done all I can do, and this is it. I’ve done it—it’s interesting to hear how satisfying that was for you, as opposed to tedious or stressful.
AG: [Chuckles] I think it goes back to the athlete mentality of leaving it all on the field. There was no stone left unturned, and we were exhausted at the end of each day, and we gave all of ourselves. No better feeling for me.
BLVR: You’re presently shooting Under the Banner of Heaven, and you’re in a role that relates to religion, another of the many roles you’ve taken that relate to that topic. What are the different facets of organized religion that you’ve been able to look at over the years?
AG: For me, it’s more about a life of meaning and the mystery of spirituality: What are we doing here? I think the spiritual component of life is where a lot of the answers live.
Under the Banner of Heaven unpicks organized religion and the fallacy of this particular religion [fundamentalist Mormonism]. The fascinating questions it asks are: What creates a God complex? What creates someone perpetrating horrific acts in the name of God? How does someone get there? And also in this particular story there’s an element of: What’s the process of waking up from the matrix? From a cult? What are the sort of step-by-step movements that lead to that psychic break?
I think it’s fascinating. I’m endlessly drawn to these themes. But the same could be said of Jonathan Larson in tick, tick… Boom! What he sings when he’s in the Delacorte, alone at the piano after he’s found out his friend’s diagnosis. What he’s saying is: What a way to spend the day. Am I cut out to spend my time this way? I’m gonna spend my time this way.
What is the way we’re supposed to spend the small amount of time we have here? And I think turning toward spirituality—not organized religion but a sense of spirituality—is a vital route for me in terms of answering that question. And also, by the way, I don’t think there’s ever any fixed answer.
I get making New Year’s resolutions. I think that’s cool. But for whatever reason, I find myself making New Year’s resolutions every morning. It’s like, What’s today about? Who? Where? What’s happening? Who am I? Where is the meaning today? Where are those moments of eternity when I get to commune with life in a way that feels connected and beyond habitual? Really in connection with other people, myself, or nature, or something else. Something unseen.