Andrew Garfield has been busy. 2021 has seen him play the lead role in three very different movies: Mainstream, The Eyes of Tammy Faye and tick, tick…BOOM!. And going by the fact that he’s been receiving major awards consideration in recent months, the fruits of his labour are evidently paying off.
“It always comes back to gratitude”, he tells NME. “I need nothing more than to be able to tell stories that I feel passionate about for the rest of my life. The rest of it is gravy and icing.”
If Garfield’s workload sounds a bit tiring, you’d never know it when chatting with him. The actor answers with passion when NME quizzes him on everything from the most creative way he’s been asked if he’s in Spider-Man: No Way Home (“everyone’s pretty tricky”) to his award-worthy performance in tick, tick…BOOM!.
The latter film marks the directorial debut of Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, who sought out Garfield after watching him on stage in Angels in America, a performance that earned the actor a Tony award. Garfield didn’t know how to sing or play the piano before taking on the role of acclaimed musical talent Jonathan Larson, but, after a year of prepping to make sure he was ready for when the cameras were rolling, the results speak for themselves.
“If I can’t do a thing, then I’m much more compelled to say yes to a role”, he says. “But what ultimately decides whether it’s a yes or no is the project itself, and if I feel like I’m the person that’s meant to be a part of telling the story in this way. There have been times where I’ve been asked to do things that were really challenging and really expensive, but for whatever reason it didn’t feel like my story to tell, and then I was proven right.”
Garfield was the right person for tick, tick…BOOM!. Many will know of the tragic end to Larson’s story – he suffered an aortic aneurysm on the morning of the first preview performance of Rent in 1996, dying before he could enjoy its tremendous success. Miranda’s film takes place five years prior to Larson’s death, with the film’s title referring to a solo musical Larson wrote about his existential struggle to make his artistic breakthrough before he turned 30. Garfield fully embodies Larson’s self-absorption in his immersive performance in the movie.
“I like the idea that the only way we can get back in touch with living lives of meaning is if we remember that we’re only here for a finite amount of time, and that’s what this film is dealing with as well”, the LA-born actor says. “This ticking clock that John feels is all of our ticking clocks. What effect does that have on the choices we make? It’s one of the things that this film, and Jon’s life and legacy, speaks to quite brilliantly and beautifully.”
There are quite a few big musical numbers in tick, tick…BOOM!, from the catchy opener ‘30/90’ to ‘Sunday’, a tribute to the late, great Stephen Sondheim. But the song that Garfield was most nervous to film was ‘Why’, a big piano solo at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park which represented a key emotional turning point in Larson’s life.
“It’s a really tricky needle to thread because that song has got to feel improvised, and so I needed to sing it live,” he recalls. “It was me alone at the piano, and I knew that it was important to get at least one really good live take because it needed to be emotionally cracked open and sincere and authentic.”
Added pressure came from the fact that Miranda wasn’t the only one behind the cameras on the day the sequence was being shot. “I was very scared because Julie Lawson [Jon’s sister] was there that night, and I felt a lot of spiritual pressure from Jon, too. But one of the lyrics is: ‘Over and over and over until I get it right / What a way to spend the day’. So the things that I was struggling with within the song as an actor were the same things that Jon was singing about. It all kind of fell into line in quite a sweet way.”
The ‘Why’ sequence is not the only case of curious serendipity when it comes to Garfield and tick, tick…BOOM!. A few months before he started shooting the film, he lost his mother to pancreatic cancer. With this performance, Garfield is not just honouring Larson, but his mother as well.
“It’s hard for me to imagine making tick, tick…BOOM! at any other time in my life,” he says. “It was the exact story that I needed for my own healing. I got to wake up every morning and honour Jon and make him come alive again. But also to be able to sing my mum’s unfinished song as well, and to give my energy and my voice in my heart to her legacy as well as Jon’s legacy.
“Every day was a ritual of singing her song for her, and keeping her image and her memory and her essence alive.”
In many respects, then, it’s clear that Garfield enjoyed being in Larson’s skin. But his role in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (due out in UK cinemas in February 2022) was a much different prospect. Starring as Jim Bakker, an enthusiastic young pastor whose wayward interpretations of the Bible lead to disgrace and ruin, Garfield had to dig deep to connect with the character.
“It was very painful to step into Jim’s shoes, because he was someone that was so far away from himself,” Garfield offers. “Jon [Larson] was singing from his soul every day, so that was so much more pleasurable because he was just so aligned and uncompromising with himself. Jim was seduced by all of the things that we humans can get seduced by – greed, avarice, money, fame, attention – that take us away from our connection to ourselves and each other. I had to find that lostness, that never-enoughness in myself that aligned with Jim and enabled me to have compassion for him.”
In his own life, Garfield is very self-aware about not being seduced by the perks that come along with being a Hollywood star. Indeed, with his name firmly in this year’s awards conversation, there is only more money, fame and attention coming his way.
“I have to keep my ego in check,” he admits. “And I have to make sure that I’m not getting seduced by things that aren’t eternal.”
One distraction that Garfield will surely be taking advantage of is the new season of Cobra Kai, which is dropping on Netflix on December 31. It’s no secret that he’s a big fan of the series, which continues the story that began with The Karate Kid all the way back in 1984. Despite being well within his rights to request preview screeners from the streaming giant, Garfield has instead elected to “tease himself with it” and wait for it to drop online like everyone else.
But when he’s not watching his favourite TV shows, it’s a safe bet that Garfield will be pushing himself to take on more challenging roles, and then striving to merge with them on a near-cellular level to create the best possible performance. That commitment to his craft has helped him remain a compelling screen presence for the last decade – and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“I owe it to the story, the director, the character I’m playing and the audience to give all of myself to this thing. It doesn’t feel like I can do it in any other way.”
tick, tick…BOOM! is streaming on Netflix now.