Andrew Garfield is smiling beatifically and clasping his hands together as if in prayer. The pose suits an actor who has cornered the market in the holy and heroic, from a Jesuit priest in Silence to a Seventh-day Adventist saving lives on the battlefield in Hacksaw Ridge; from a man left paralysed by polio in Breathe to a credulous innocent who dies surrendering his organs in Never Let Me Go. He is a remarkable actor, but watch too many of his movies back to back and you are liable to hear celestial trumpets.
His prayerlike gesture of gratitude comes in response to my promise not to ask whether he and his fellow former webslinger Tobey Maguire will be appearing in the new Spider-Man: No Way Home. “I appreciate that,” says the 38-year-old, speaking over Zoom from Calgary, where he is shooting the murder-and-Mormons series Under the Banner of Heaven. There seems no point posing the Spidey question when he has greeted each identical inquiry this year with a display of shrugging bafflement that may or may not be genuine. (Let’s see when the movie opens next month.)
I had a lot of fun creating a really extreme character, and I haven't had a chance to hang out in those regions of myself in such an extreme kind of uncensored and shadowy, dark way
Besides, there is enough to discuss without speculating about projects in which he may not even appear. Mainstream, the first of his three new movies, is a kind of Network for the internet age. Garfield plays a street-corner situationist who becomes a superstar when a video of him haranguing shoppers while dressed as a rat goes viral. He also howls at the moon, pretends to be a ninja and runs through Los Angeles naked but for a giant prosthetic penis. The film couldn’t be any wackier if people started vomiting emojis. Oh wait, they do.
Such exuberance may be in short supply today, he warns. “A few of us went up a mountain yesterday. It was an insane 11-mile climb, so now I’m slightly not-a-person.” He is slumped on a sofa, his notoriously sculptural hair nowhere to be seen; in a classic can’t-be-arsed move, he is hiding his locks under a baseball cap. But if this is him on half-speed, it is still impressive. Just wind him up and watch him go.
Take the subject of Mainstream. “I had a lot of fun creating a really extreme character, and I haven’t had a chance to hang out in those regions of myself – the ego and the id – in such an extreme kind of uncensored and shadowy, dark way, so what was appealing was that I got to go to very outlandish, outrageous, unlikable – or not even that, beyond likability or unlikability; that wasn’t even a consideration. It was attempting to reach the places that great liberated artists like Kanye West can sometimes get to, where he just goes beyond any form of delineation or box-making or pigeon-holing; it just is, it’s that id place, those pure unconscious primal urges.” Splendid. Now breathe.
Even admirers of Mainstream won’t be expecting it to figure in the Oscars race, whereas it will be a pity if Garfield isn’t nominated for one of the other two. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s musical Tick, Tick … Boom! Garfield hurls himself into the role of that frantic, gifted playwright, who died in 1996 just hours before the off-Broadway opening of his soon-to-be-hit-show Rent. He is also excellent in The Eyes of Tammy Faye as the corrupt televangelist Jim Bakker, opposite Jessica Chastain as his doting wife, Tammy Faye.
Aside from the misunderstood modern noir Under the Silver Lake, where Garfield was an amateur gumshoe prone to voyeurism and stalking, Mainstream and The Eyes of Tammy Faye represent the first time he has played anyone who could be described as a jerk. “Let me see if I can correct you,” he says. “Um. Yeah. No. Maybe my character in Red Riding exhibits some self-centred kind of…?” On the contrary: in that Channel 4 crime drama from early in Garfield’s career, his character goes out in a blaze of glory, martyring himself for the cause of justice. “He does, yeah, you’re right. For whatever reason, I’ve found myself more in heroic, altruistic, champion-of-the-light kinds of characters and stories.”
He understands the desire to see performers explore moral ambiguity: “Tom Hanks is one of my favourite actors, and I would love him to expose those darker regions of humanity that we all have in us.” Hanks has admitted that villains “require some degree of malevolence that I don’t think I can fake”.
I don't agree with that. I don't think I present as goody-goody. And now I have to prove I'm not a goody-goody
Does Garfield have malevolence in him? “I think if I said no, I’d probably have a nightmare tonight in which I’m shown all my malevolence. Any denial of it would probably pique its interest: ‘Oh, you reckon?’ I think we are vastly unknowable unless we meditate 18 hours a day and/or go on mushroom trips to discover all the nooks and crannies of ourselves.”
What have his own mushroom trips taught him? “Ah, that may be a bit too personal to go into.” In 10 words or fewer? “Haha! Yeah, right. I’m definitely aware that I’m not aware of the majority of what I am.”
Unlike his Silence co-star Adam Driver, who can drop anchor anywhere between tenderness and savagery, Garfield is on the side of the angels – literally so in his Tony-winning performance on stage in Angels in America. As with the actor, so with the man. He is warm, conscientious and affable – I could happily talk with him for another hour or two – but he also comes across as a bit of a goody-goody. “Really?” he laughs. “I don’t agree with that! I don’t think I present as goody-goody. But that’s your story, and you can stick to it if you want.”
I challenge him to name the last time he behaved like an arsehole, or used his fame to gain advantage. He can even treat this interview as a forum in which to apologise to someone he wronged. “That’s very sweet of you,” he says. “And now I have to prove I’m not a goody-goody.” His eyes search the room. “I don’t think I’ve ever used my fame to be an arsehole. I think I would be able to admit it. Maybe I might have used it to get a table at a restaurant occasionally.” Come on, I tell him, everyone says that. “I’m sorry!” he says. “I guess I’m a goody-goody, then. Maybe that’s the extent of it.”
The worst you could say is that he misspoke during an interview at the National Theatre in London in 2017. Referring to his preparation for Angels in America, he described himself as “a gay man right now, just without the physical act” – that old dilettante routine, of which LGBTQ+ people have justifiably grown sick.
Leaked emails in 2015 also described him refusing to leave his hotel room for a prestigious Sony jamboree at which the release date for his third Spider-Man outing – later scrapped, after the critical and commercial disappointment of the second – was due to be announced: “Here we are about one hour away from our gala event and Andrew decides he doesn’t want to attend. He has a rather scruffy beard and he just wants to be left alone.” Still, it is small potatoes compared with some of his colleagues; Mel Gibson or Shia LaBeouf he is not.
Mainstream and The Eyes of Tammy Faye demonstrate that media attention can be toxic. How has he avoided being corrupted by it? “Well, I will cosign that,” he says, smiling. “I appreciate you saying that. I think I’ve surrounded myself with things that make the deeper parts of me come alive rather than the ones that will be a coke-filled orgy of a moment and will then feel like total s**t the next morning. I know that s**t doesn’t last.”
He gives some of the credit to his mother. “She would always go back to nature and find herself being nourished by the small, natural things in life, in that pantheistic kind of way – the rabbits at the bottom of her garden – rather than anything flashy or fancy. I’ve had that awareness since I was a kid, so maybe it was her.”
My mother knew I probably wouldn't make any money from acting, but she saw her son was having trouble and was not feeling a sense of joy about being alive
His mother died of cancer two years ago. Knowing the end was near, Garfield flew home from the set of The Eyes of Tammy Faye to be with her for the final weeks of her life. “It was the best possible version,” he says. “Me losing her rather than her losing me.” What was she like? “She was someone who had an awareness of the beauty that’s around us, and the kindness she could exhibit to someone in the street or at the store. That’s a good life. That’s a life well lived.”
It was she who nudged him towards acting when he was having a tough time at school. “What a dangerous, bold, loving, soulful thing to do. She knew I probably wouldn’t make any money from it, but she saw her son was having trouble and was not feeling a sense of joy about being alive. And it turned out to be the best worst decision she ever made, because now I’m talking to you about her and she’s embarrassed somewhere.”
Garfield’s mother was British and his father is American. He was born in Los Angeles and his family moved to Surrey, south of London, when he was three. “I was raised in a sports household. Very competitive with my older brother. My dad’s a swimming coach, I did gymnastics and swimming, rugby and cricket and football.”
What he experienced as a sports prodigy, he says, was "a micro version of the Simone Biles thing". He has been thinking a lot lately about Biles, the 24-year-old US gymnast who withdrew from five of her six Olympics finals this year to safeguard her mental health. "The fact that she decided to publicly honour her own fallibility may be the most inspiring move she could make. Most of us seeing that will go, 'Oh my God! That means I can fail. I don't always have to be ascending.'"
He had a similar epiphany. “I said: ‘I don’t want a big fat Russian gymnastics coach to be sitting on my back while I do the box splits at the age of nine. I want to go be a punk with my friends and go skateboarding and listen to Rage Against the Machine and be a bit of a f**kup for a minute.’ There was a natural inclination to own being a f**king idiot.”
Hearing this, it is hard not to think back to him in that hotel room, nursing his scruffy beard and refusing to play ball with the bigwigs. His spell as Spider-Man now seems like a source of anguish. Speaking about it in 2017, he said: “I got my heart broken a little bit.” How so?
“I went from being a naive boy to growing up,” he says. “How could I ever imagine that it was going to be a pure experience?” He gives a dry, joyless laugh. “There are millions of dollars at stake, and that’s what guides the ship. It was a big awakening, and it hurt.
“Comic-Con in San Diego is full of grown men and women still in touch with that pure thing the character meant to them. [But you] add in market forces and test groups and suddenly the focus is less on the soul of it and more on ensuring we make as much money as possible. And I found that – find that – heartbreaking in all matters of the culture. Money is the thing that has corrupted all of us and led to the terrible ecological collapse that we are all about to die under.”
He cracks up suddenly at his own portentousness, a full-blown goofy guffaw. “I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding!” Pause. “I mean, it’ll take a bunch of years before that happens.” Even the apocalypse doesn’t sound too bad coming from Mr Goody-Goody. – Guardian
Mainstream is available on digital download; Tick, Tick … Boom! is on limited release from Friday, November 12th, and on Netflix from Friday, November 19th; The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens in cinemas on February 4th, 2022