Interview: Tom Ellen
Photography: Art Streiber (main image: Rex)
Andrew Garfield is about to tell what he confidently describes as a “very ShortList story”. He sets aside his plate of grilled beef and salad, and leaps up from the sofa in order to act it out properly.
“It was 2010, around the time of The Social Network,” he says, pacing the room. “I was being invited to all these LA parties, and three of my mates from home [Epsom, Surrey] came out for one. Everyone there was famous, and we didn’t know what to do, so we ended up creating a little square in the middle of the room, looking in at each other. We couldn’t think of anything to say, so my mate George says, ‘Let’s all say “rhubarb”.’ So we’re all just standing there, these four tall, awkward English boys, muttering ‘rhubarb’. And then at one point, oh my God...”
He breaks off to literally – this is no exaggeration – shake with laughter. “At one point, my mate James accidentally kissed Taylor Swift on the ear! We finally started talking to people, and as we were leaving Taylor Swift says, ‘Bye guys,’ and James leans in, but he doesn’t know if it’s a hug or what, so for some reason he just... kisses her on the ear.” More shaking. He regains composure for the final chapter. “Then at the end of the night – and I won’t explain how this happened – all four of us ended up dancing in pyjamas at Quincy Jones’s house.”
Whether this is or is not a “very ShortList story” is up for debate. It is, however, a very Andrew Garfield story. During the hour I spend with him in this sun-dappled West Hollywood studio, the 33-year-old tells several similar anecdotes, and each one ultimately boils down to this: Andrew Garfield is a celebrity who finds the very notion of celebrity ridiculous.
“I spend a lot of time convincing people they don’t want a photo with me,” he laughs. “A guy came up recently, I was a bit drunk, and I said, ‘Let’s have a hug instead.’ As we hugged, I could feel how uncomfortable he was, so I didn’t let go, and he was literally trying to push me off. So, most of the time, people don’t really want to meet you. They just want proof they’ve met you. But I like actually connecting with people. I like finding stuff out.”
ON THE BATTLEFIELD
This last statement is proved accurate within the very first minute of our interview. Fresh from hopping about on hedges for ShortList’s photographer, Garfield plonks himself down in front of my Dictaphone and immediately starts plying me with questions: about life, work, interests, everything. Only once I’ve sketched the bare bones of my working week, and we’ve both agreed that Kendrick Lamar is great, can we move on to the real reason we’re here: the new Mel Gibson film, Hacksaw Ridge.
Garfield plays the lead role, Desmond Doss, a real-life Second World War combat medic who refused to touch a rifle on religious grounds but still managed to save 75 lives at the Battle of Okinawa. It’s a genuinely astonishing film – part romantic drama, part shockingly visceral war film – and Garfield’s performance is arguably his finest yet. The crumpled, boyish grins of the first half, in which Doss meets his small-town sweetheart, will be familiar to those who know the actor from The Social Network and the last two Spider-Man films. But the wild-eyed horror he displays on the battlefield represents new and exciting terrain.
However, while Doss’s tale is, in Garfield’s words, “miraculous and insane”, there’s another compelling story here; namely, Mel Gibson, back from the wilderness, directing his first film in 10 years. Did Garfield – who is Jewish – have any reservations about working with him?
He shrugs: “I’d heard the stuff we’ve all heard about events 10 years ago, but whenever I talked to anyone who actually knew him, they would tear up about him. They’d speak with so much love. Then I met him, and I got it. It was like, ‘You’re amazing. You’re a good man who’s been through some rough times, and taken responsibility for that. Now, let’s go to work.’”
Work, in this case, meant trying to successfully channel Doss, a peace-loving Seventh-day Adventist whose unshakable faith sets the film in motion. “He inhabited a different space to other people,” Garfield notes. “Every religious doctrine says, ‘This is the only way,’ but Doss’s credo was, ‘This is my way, that’s yours, and I love you.’ He was about live and let live: we’re all on our way out anyway.”
DAZED AND CONFUSED
Religion is something of a theme for Garfield right now. As well as playing Doss, he can also currently be seen as a 17th-century Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese’s continent-crossing epic, Silence. The actor’s personal religious views are, by his own admission, “mostly confused”, but you do get the feeling both roles have instilled in him a kind of spiritual curiosity.
“I definitely have some longing for meaning,” he says. “The older I get, the more I want to make sense of this nonsense. But, honestly, the first time I really understood the concept of spirituality was when I saw my first play. I was 16, it was this Theatre de Complicité piece, and it was like something waking up inside me, saying, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ It was mysterious. Almost like being on mushrooms; the doors of perception fell away.”
Is he speaking from experience here? He pauses and smiles down at the Dictaphone. “Look,” he says, slowly, “I’m not in any way advocating young people do it, but I have had amazing experiences with mushrooms. I’ve always done it in a kind of ritualistic way, out in nature. It really can be a spiritual thing.”
He laughs suddenly, and shakes his head, as if he’s as surprised by this revelation as I am. This is presumably a hangover from his stint as Spider-Man, during which any mid-interview mention of hallucinogens would surely have seen him strong-armed from the room by an army of publicists.
But while mushrooms may be a decent catalyst for spiritual fervour, Garfield has recently experienced something more effective. To prepare for Silence,
he and his fellow missionary Adam Driver spent a week living in – you’ve guessed it – silence at a Welsh monastery.
“It was crazy,” he recalls. “You really hear yourself – and nature – more deeply. But the funniest thing was, after seven days of prayer and quiet meditation,
Adam and I got in the car, and immediately started coming out with the filthiest, foulest sh*t you’ve ever heard. We went to the darkest, most destructive places. It must be about balance; that need for release. That dark part of us was like, ‘Where the f*ck have you been all week?’”
CULT OF CELEBRITY
This is something that Garfield is genuinely fascinated – and disturbed – by: our increasing tendency to tuck certain parts of our personality away. To present only a glossy, social media-friendly form of ourselves.
“It’s a huge part of our cultural sickness,” he says. “It’s causing young people to hate themselves because the message is: only
the ‘Instagram version’ of you is welcome. The other parts are shameful and if you don’t get rid of them, you won’t get the boyfriend, the girlfriend, the awards, the magazine covers, the life you want. Well, no: I’m for integration of the self. I’m for the dark bits, the shameful bits, the sh*tty bits. That’s why I admire Kendrick so much – and Frank Ocean. They’re so balls-out honest about their own humanity and fallibility.”
He’s up off the sofa again now. He does this a lot; he’s lean and wiry and likes to move about when he’s telling a story. And the story he’s now barrelling into is another of those ‘very Andrew Garfield’ ones. “I was on a red carpet recently – which is a silly concept in itself – and I was talking to a journalist who was saying, ‘Isn’t it crazy, all these celebrities?’ And I said, ‘Come on... they all sh*t. Everyone here takes a sh*t, at some point.’ Nicole Kidman’s behind us, and he says, ‘I don’t know about Nicole Kidman,’ but it’s like, no, even Nicole Kidman will occasionally take a dump. And that’s important. It’s important to know that.”
Garfield is pretty open about the fact that he reached these conclusions (not specifically the Nicole Kidman one, but the wider ones) as a result of his experience on the Spider-Man franchise. “It wasn’t so much making the films, it was everything that followed,” he tells me. “The energy around me changed. I like being anonymous, I like people-watching, and that became more difficult. And the way people reacted to me changed. I don’t like this thing of creating celebrities and worshipping them. It’s dangerous, and that danger has never been more evident than right now. We’re going to have
a reality TV star as president of the United States. The absurdity has reached a peak.”
Garfield has yet to see new Spidey Tom Holland’s first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, but says he’s excited for Homecoming this summer. And while he’s not writing off any future superhero endeavours (“never say never...”), his path at present does seem to be heading in a very different direction. He cites Ken Loach as someone he’d love to work with, and, perhaps inevitably, lists Mark Rylance as an acting inspiration.
He talks, too, about the possibility of directing in the future, and this discussion leads to what is perhaps the pièce de résistance of today’s leap-off-the-sofa mime acts: an impersonation of Mel Gibson on set. It’s a huffing, stomping, beard-twisting masterclass of physical comedy that doesn’t really translate to a print interview, unsurprisingly.
“Mel is just... It’s all on the surface, all the time,” he laughs, as he flops back down. “He’s in the scene with you. He gives a sh*t so much.” The truth is that Garfield seems to give a sh*t a fair bit, too. Talking to him, you get the sense that this is someone who’s been through the celebrity wringer, witnessed the artifice and pomposity up close, and come out more determined to speak his mind, to present the wholly non-’Instagram version’ of himself.
“It’s not that I don’t get the celebrity thing,” he concedes, as our time together nears an end. “I just don’t like it. But, obviously it affects me, too. At those early LA parties, I remember seeing an actor I really admired, and just completely losing my sh*t.”
Who was it, I ask, picturing a Hanks, a Pitt, a De Niro. “I can’t remember his name,” Garfield muses, “but he was the Fratelli brother in The Goonies who gets the most abuse off the mother. Oh, man. When I saw him, I was just...”
He hops off the sofa, crosses his eyes, and slides slowly down the wall.
Hacksaw Ridge is at cinemas nationwide from 27 January