Andrew Garfield: ‘I am a mongrel. I feel English and I don’t’

The actor, who could pick up an Oscar nomination for his role in Andy Serkis’s ‘Breathe’, on working with Mel Gibson, feeling Jewish, and leaving Spider-Man behind

"Even when you're busy you're worried," says actor Andrew Garfield. "You are always frightened that you will be found out. It's healthy to feel that way."

Garfield can afford to relax. Looking younger than his 34 years, he has just stomped the red carpet for the first night of the London Film Festival. Andy Serkis's Breathe, in which he plays the pioneering polio survivor Robin Cavendish, opened the event to much blubbing.

Last year, he received an Oscar nomination for Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge. And, of course, he was Spider-Man for a spell. There are worse places to be.

Dressed in a baggy white shirt, his hair as healthy as a hedge, he speaks in clear, drawled sentences that wind themselves around big, big ideas. Garfield turns out to be a deep thinker. A lot of pondering must have gone into the role of Cavendish. Paralysed in 1958, he went on to become one of the longest-lived users of a mechanical respirator.


How hard is it for an actor to convey emotion when so many of his tools are unavailable?

“Well, that was Robin’s challenge,” Andrew says. “That was the job. I had to figure it out, as Robin did. How to engage with life in a way that didn’t feel limited? That’s something we all have to face. How do we live to our truest selves with the limitations: self-inflicted, universe inflicted, culturally inflicted? It serves as a metaphor and a universal theme for all of us.”

There also something defiantly English about Breathe. The characters exhibit an upper-middle-class stoicism that is the nation's own. Tragedy is deflected with dry humour. Cricket is played on every lawn.

‘Very English’

“Yes, I think it is very English: the stoicism, the stiff upper lip, the ability to mock things that are comfortable. That is a vital part of survival. That all helped them make meaning of it.”

Garfield counts as English. He lives in London. But potted biographies often go for “British-American”. He was born in Los Angeles to an English mum and an American dad, but he spent most of his formative years in Surrey.

“I am a mongrel. I do feel English and I don’t,” he says. “I feel like nothing a lot of the time. I feel very Jewish quite often, because of my father’s side. He has Polish-Jewish ancestry.”

Class inevitably comes into any such conversation.

"I definitely don't come from that upper-middle-class set," he says. "Middle-lower if anything. Aspirational working class. My mother's dad was a bus driver in England." However, he couldn't sound more English if he were singing Any Old Iron.

Garfield doesn’t remember having any urge to become an actor as a boy. He was a talented swimmer and a gymnast. If things had gone differently then he might have pursued one of those routes. As is so often the case, a helpful teacher ended up pushing him in the correct direction.

“I had a love for poetry and literature, but also a love for sport and the physical,” he says. “Those things combined in becoming an actor. I was a very emotional child. I still am a very emotional child. That lends itself to all that. It was a strangely good fit for me.”

Two breaks

He studied at the Central School for Speech and Drama in London and, after graduation, worked mainly on the stage. In 2007, two breaks came simultaneously: he played a troubled youth in Boy A – the powerful TV film from Irish director John Crowley – and a larger supporting role in Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs. It sounds like a busy apprenticeship. But there were long periods of inactivity.

“There was a period where I did a couple of plays after drama school and thought, this is all right,” he says. “Then I crashed back down to life. There was a whole year where I was out of work. I was a waiter at the Wigmore Hall.”

The classical music venue in Marylebone? There are worse places.

“You think? I was eating leftovers from the old patrons,” he remembers. “The food they’d make for the staff was not good. If ever an old lady would leave her rigatoni I’d hide it, put cling-film over it and microwave it. Brush the saliva off. That was a wonderful time. Ha ha!”

By the time The Amazing Spider-Man came along in 2012, Garfield was firmly established. Indeed, more than a few Marvel fans argued that, at nearly 30, he was a little old for the part. When Garfield began dating Emma Stone, his co-star in the pictures, the media attention became fiercer still. He seems like the private sort. Did he think twice before taking the role?

"Well, it meant fame, visibility and a lack of control over the outcome of such a massive project. Those were my concerns. But I still did it. I needed to. I wanted to. I really wanted to do it because of the character. And also because it would help me get other projects off the ground. It would give me a certain visibility that would help me make things like [Martin Scorsese's] Silence and Hacksaw Ridge. But also I am a huge Spider-Man fan."

Rumours of conflict

The end of Garfield's involvement with Spider-Man remains shrouded in some murk. There were rumours of conflict between him and the overlords at Sony. Eventually, after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014, Spidey was re-introduced into the wider Marvel universe and Garfield moved on to other things. Can he clarify? There's a long pause before he replies politely.

“It’s not something I really want to talk about in public,” he says.

The controversy – if that's what it was – doesn't seem to have done his career any damage. He could scrape an Oscar nomination for Breathe. This time last year he was at the centre of that conversation with prominent performances in Hacksaw Ridge and Silence.

I wonder what conversations he had with himself before taking the job with Mel Gibson – given Garfield is from a Jewish background and Gibson had got into trouble for saying ungenerous things about people from that faith.

“I just met him and talked to him,” Garfield says. “I got to a very clear place with him: you are a wonderful man and you are not anti-Semitic at all. I spoke to a mentor of mine, Mike Nichols, who sadly died since.”

What did the director of The Graduate say?

“He was a Jew himself. I asked him: ‘What do you think of Mel?’ He said: ‘Not only do I think he’s a wonderful film-maker. He is one of the most authentic and heartfelt men in our business. You won’t find anyone more loyal. Go ahead and do it.’ And we are both Jews.”

Who are we to argue with Mike Nichols?

The decision looks to have worked out well. Most decisions have gone right for him. Is there a secret plan? Or is he just pinballed about by fate?

“I believe everyone has something to do on earth,” he says. “But I do think something wants itself to be expressed within us. There is a false idea that you can be anything you want to be.”

He furrows his handsome brow and searches for the real point.

“But you can be everything you’re meant to be.”

Andrew Garfield: performances of note

Boy A (2007)

From a script by the great Irish playwright Mark O'Rowe, Boy A follows a troubled young man after he is released from a secure unit. Garfield had arrived.

Never Let Me Go (2010)
An astonishing line-up of young British and Irish talent – Andrea Riseborough, Keira Knightley, Domhnall Gleeson – joined Garfield for this underrated adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Everyone liked Garfield as Spider-Man, but the films failed to find their own identity.

99 Homes (2014)
Ramin Bahrani's Faustian tale of the US mortgage crisis features Michael Shannon as the devil and Garfield as the easily led acolyte.

Silence (2016)

Garfield was Oscar- nominated for the same year's Hacksaw Ridge, but his turn as a conflicted priest in the Martin Scorsese film was subtler.

Breathe is on release on October 27th