The last time Andrew Garfield was shortlisted for Leading Man was in 2016 for his role as true-life pacifist hero Desmond Doss in Mel Gibson’s war drama Hacksaw Ridge. His performance in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick… BOOM! could not be more different. In this stylized, unconventional biopic, he stars as Jonathan Larson, a playwright working in musical theater who died in January 1996 on the morning of the biggest day of his life—the first preview of his Broadway hit Rent. Many expected tick, tick… BOOM! to tell the story of that artistic and commercial triumph, but no—it tells instead of the myriad failures that Larson experienced, with dogged determination, in the run-up.
Larson is one of three very American roles that the LA-born but British-raised Garfield played this year, alongside The Eyes Of Tammy Faye’s Jim Bakker and Spider-Man: No Way Home’s Spider-Man, a surprise cameo with original Spider-Man Tobey Maguire that Sony battled to keep secret during its Covid-compliant shoot. Here, Garfield reflects on a very fortunate year and the dark times that preceded it.
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DEADLINE: Where were you when you heard you’d been nominated?
ANDREW GARFIELD: I was in bed, of course, because it was 5am—I’m in Los Angeles. It was 5am, and it was exciting, and terrifying and lots of other things. But I just feel lucky that I had a good reason to wake up at 5am.
DEADLINE: You took a lot of chances on this movie. What thoughts went through your mind?
ANDREW GARFIELD: It’s a funny thing. I had a feeling in my body when Lin said he wanted to meet me, and that rarely happens. It happened when Tony Kushner asked to talk to me about Angels in America. It happened when Mike Nichols asked me about Death of a Salesman, it happened when I auditioned for The Social Network, and when I read the script for Hacksaw Ridge, and when I auditioned for Martin Scorsese [for Silence]. But it happens very rarely—especially before I’ve read the script or even known what the project was. But when Lin asked to talk to me about something, I knew I was going to do it, and I knew it was going to be spectacular, because of who he is, as a creator.
And then, lo and behold, he presents me with Jonathan Larson, and he introduces me to his back catalog of work—specifically tick, tick… BOOM!. And then there’s this whole other element: I’d never sung before, or danced, or played the piano. And these are three things that I’ve always longed to do and learn, and to have the opportunity to do that while working on this character—to be able to devote my time for that in honor of Jon—was this insanely perfect whirlwind of cosmic serendipity and synchronicity. I find it all really moving, specifically because—as you know—Jon didn’t live long enough to receive any recognition or see the success of his work. So this feels like a way of honoring him and keeping his memory alive by keeping his songs being sung. So, yeah, of course it’s surprising, but I did know that Lin was going to make something special. I just maybe didn’t know all the ramifications of that.
DEADLINE: It’s also surprising in the sense that it’s not the story that people were perhaps expecting to see.
GARFIELD: No. It’s a story about failure, which is not usually the thing that we honor, is it? I think that’s really, really beautiful, and I think there’s a reason why so many young people— specifically young artists, actors, storytellers or whatever—are being so deeply affected by this story, because it’s giving them a kind of a roadmap, or a bit of a treasure map, of where they’re heading in their own unique way. Jonathan was such an incredible symbol of inspiration for young artists, you know?
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DEADLINE: Have you been surprised by the strength of the reaction to the movie?
GARFIELD: It’s wonderful having it being well-reviewed, and having this honor [of being nominated] is deeply moving, but there’s something else that’s happening. It’s striking a chord with young people who are trying to figure out what to study, but then I have other friends who are middle-aged or older saying, “Gosh, I remember that dream that I had, that I need to dust off.” Or, “I need to start writing again.” Or, “I need to clean off that saxophone,” Or, “I need to go back to the thing that calls to me, that I’ve been scared to pick up.” It’s reminded people of the thing that actually brings them alive, or it’s kind of re-galvanized them. It’s like the film is transcending just being a film.
DEADLINE: Why do you think that is?
GARFIELD: Jon was someone who so honored his own calling. He so honored his inner self, his true self, and he’s such an inspiration in that way. We all know what it’s like to have a friend in our lives who walks to the beat of their own drum. It can be contagious, but it can be quite confronting as well, because it makes us look at ourselves, and we suddenly go, “Gosh, am I walking to the beat of my own drum? Because that looks really good, but I also know how hard it is and I know how lonely it can be.” To me, this film expresses that so beautifully—like, it’s not easy to be the salmon swimming upstream. But people of all ages are responding to that idea, that they may have to take the slightly harder road in order to be more true to themselves.
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DEADLINE: Talking of galvanizing, this has been a very good year for you. You’ve had three great roles, and all those films have been honored in some way. Was lockdown a dark time for you, or did you always know that you’d come out the other end?
GARFIELD: Oh God. I mean. I don’t really know how to answer that. It’s so funny. I finished Angels in America in 2018, I think, and that was really an apex experience for me. And I kind of thought, “Well, I don’t know what else I’m going to do now. I feel very tired and I feel like I’ve achieved a lot, and I feel very kind of pleased, and I need a rest.” I didn’t know where inspiration was going to come from next. Then I lost my mom [in 2019] and that was really very, very painful and difficult, and there was a lot of quiet grief time. And then Lin, asked me to do tick, tick… , which was obviously a big gift, but it was far down the line and I didn’t really think about it.
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DEADLINE: Why not?
GARFIELD: I was just dealing with life—life as it is, rather than life as I wanted it to be. And that was a big, huge lesson for me. You know, I love making films. I love doing plays. It’s what I love to do. And tick, tick… BOOM!, that was the story, and the character, and the group of people that really reconnected with me with myself and my creative self. It was a place for me to put all of these questions that I was feeling about life, about the meaning of life, with my newfound awareness of the shortness and sacredness of it.
So Jonathan became the perfect vessel for me to explore the questions that I was exploring personally—and I hope I became the perfect vessel for him to live through again. It was a kind of mutually beneficial relationship that I found with Jonathan Larson’s spirit and soul, as a long-lost brother in art, and in life, and in theatre, that became this kind of healing ritual. [Laughs] God, I wish I’d written that down beforehand! I hadn’t put it in those words before, but, like, I feel like we were both helping each other through a very, very difficult time. And I think it just so happened that the world has also been going through the same difficult time together.
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DEADLINE: You’ve appeared in three very American films this year. How does it feel, being a Brit in Hollywood?
GARFIELD: It’s the reason why I don’t support any football team or basketball team, because I’m a split person. I’m divided because of being born in LA and then being raised in the UK in the south of England. I kind of feel like I belong in both and neither. It’s funny, I don’t particularly distinguish between roles or characters, in terms of my work, I just find myself drawn to what I’m drawn to, I suppose. It just happens that, recently, I’ve been doing more American pieces than British. But one of the first movies I ever made is still one of my favorites—and that’s Boy A, which is a very, very British film, with a very, very British crew and cast [and an Irish director].
DEADLINE: Last year was also the year you could finally reveal the secrets of Spider-Man: No Way Home. Was that a difficult secret to keep?
GARFIELD: It was fun, and I really enjoyed keeping it. It’s just kind of a bummer that the secret’s out now. It was really enjoyable to have such a powerful secret that no one else had. It was great because I knew that it was only going to enhance the audience’s experience of seeing the movie in the theater—I think it made people want to go to the theater and be a part of something, you know?
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