Mr Andrew Garfield is sitting on the rooftop of a Hollywood photo studio, collapsing into giggles. I have dared to suggest that the star of The Amazing Spider-Man franchise – LA-born, London-raised – has done rather well for himself.
“I don’t know about thriving,” he says. “It depends what you mean by thriving.” Well, blessed, perhaps? While he was appearing opposite the late Mr Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death Of A Salesman on Broadway in 2012 (to rapturous reviews), he made a shortlist of five directors he’d drop everything to work with, including Messrs Mel Gibson and Martin Scorsese. And guess what? Both came through.
I’m still winded from Mr Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, in which Mr Garfield plays real-life US War hero, Corporal Desmond Doss, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his services in the Battle of Okinawa, 1945. It’s a role no one else could have done better, a signature blend of ludic vulnerability and stubborn resilience. Mr Garfield is also about to grace our screens in Mr Scorsese’s Silence, starring alongside Messrs Liam Neeson and Adam Driver, as a Portuguese priest in 17th-century Japan.
Still, he blows a raspberry when I say the word “Oscar”. “Argh. You know, it’s funny, isn’t it? I’ve just ordered this book called The New Better Off: Reinventing The American Dream. It goes right back to everything we see around us now and how sick and empty and false and foundationless it is. And how it mostly creates misery for everyone involved, even those who have it.” He includes himself in this, clearly. “Hmm, thriving is an interesting word. I’m not sure if I am.”
Well, handsome, wealthy, rich, successful and about as creatively challenged as an actor could hope to be. He has turned up looking elegant and breezy in a peach Sandro shirt, loose green Japanese-style trousers and Burberry green suede boots. When he was playing Spider-Man, he deliberately dressed like garbage, he says, as a way of deflecting attention. Now that he’s passed the spandex onto young Mr Tom Holland, he feels freer to express himself: he likes Japanese designers, surf culture, the classic 1970s Hollywood style of Messrs Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. It’s a strong look.
He also has a tremendously endearing habit of saying something rather heavy and then creasing up afterwards. “It’s a very silly time we’re living in. Everything’s become a bit absurd. You have to laugh to keep from crying.” He teeters between playing the little-boy-lost and someone who has learnt from experience that whatever it looks like from the outside, it doesn’t always feel that way on the inside.
The conflicting feelings, I suspect, come from his most famous role as Peter Parker in two of The Amazing Spider-Man movies, a role to which he brought a gawky soulfulness – even if he famously couldn’t produce a convincing screen kiss with his then-girlfriend, costar Ms Emma Stone (the two have amicably separated and he is now single). Once, he announced that he saw no reason why Peter Parker shouldn’t be gay. He also turned up to Comic Con dressed up in a cheap homemade Spider-Man costume, pretending to be a member of the fandom. “That’s just where I felt most comfortable,” he says. “According to the value system of the times that we’re in, Spider-Man was the best thing that could have happened to me.” And from Mr Garfield’s perspective? “I have so many different perspectives on that moment. I was really excited to be Spider-Man. I had a real hope that it would be something that young people could connect with, that wasn’t just about commodifying everything. But I had to fight a lot for my freedom within that. And I’d often get in trouble as I’d say things I wasn’t supposed to.”
Still, he admits that it’s a relief to be making grown-up films again. While he’s often filed alongside the likes of Messrs Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch (the British private-school system is as reliable a production line as the US Mickey Mouse Club), he’s cut from slightly a different cloth. His American father and British mother moved away from California when he was two and he grew up in suburban Surrey. He was sent to fee-paying boys’ school, City of London Freemen’s School, but spent a lot of his teenage years skateboarding the graffiti-scrawled ramps underneath London’s Southbank Centre. “The best moment of my life was kick-flipping down the Southbank stairs,” he says in all seriousness. And his tastes are not predictable, either. I had him down as a winsome singer-songwriter type; in fact, his musical heroes are all hip-hop: Messrs Kendrick Lamar (“I’m really reassured that he’s out there for young people right now”), Frank Ocean and Kanye West (“He’s such a pure artist”).
And now that he need never swing from a silken rope again, he can build on his promising early roles, such as the wronged Mr Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network (2010), or the cloned orphan alongside Mses Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go (2010). He’s already bared his social conscious in the foreclosure drama 99 Homes (2014) and will soon play a young man diagnosed with polio in Breathe, directed by Mr Andy “Gollum” Serkis. But given his beatific, holy fool vibe, it feels apt that we’ll next see him in two highly religious roles.
Hacksaw Ridge is an extraordinary true story – and almost certainly the best work he’s done. His character, Corporal Doss, was a Seventh-Day Adventist and conscientious objector from Lynchburg, Virginia. He enlisted in the army as a doctor, even though his faith and his conscience forbade him from taking up arms – and throughout the war, he refused so much as to touch a rifle. You can imagine how that went down with his superiors and his comrades. The first section of the film follows Corporal Doss in training as Mr Vince Vaughn’s character, a foul-mouthed drill sergeant, tries to bully the gawky young believer into discharging. However, that only raises tension for the hellish final battle scene. The real-life Battle of Okinawa claimed more than 12,000 American soldiers and around 110,000 Japanese. Unarmed in this real-life hell, Mr Doss carried 75 casualties, one-by-one, back to the edge of escarpment and lowered them on a rope-supported litter, down a cliff, to safety. When the film premiered at Venice Film Festival earlier this year, it prompted a 10-minute standing ovation.
Clearly, it’s a point of pride to Mr Garfield. “It’s really hard to watch your own work – it’s like listening to your own voicemail multiplied by one million. With this one, after a certain point, I just switched that part of me off, which I felt was a good sign. The way the story is told is so physical, it’s like someone’s reaching out from the screen, grabbing your spine and shaking it. I had this visceral response that I had no jurisdiction over.” He says the only film that has given him a comparable feeling is Mr Paul Greengrass’ 9/11 reconstruction, United 93 (2006).
The film has been loudly trumpeted as Mr Gibson’s redemption, a means of atoning for his anti-semitic rants and the “sugar-tits” episode. Did Mr Garfield get that impression on set? “I just felt he was itching to tell a story that he felt connected to. This was the first story that came along since Apocalypto that did that for him.” Indeed, he’s full of praise for the Braveheart director. “He’s such a good parent to everybody on set and confident enough to let the best idea win. It was a weirdly fun experience. He had energy and passion and an abundance of love for everybody.” As Mr Vaughn’s drill commander says, “A company is only a strong as its weakest member”, and this seems to have extended to the shoot. “They were really good actors, all these young Aussies, and there was a real sense of kinship that developed. It was a green, wide-eyed, let’s all fall in love with one another, aren’t we lucky thing.”
It’s also a strongly religious film – this is the director who made The Passion Of The Christ (2004), after all. Mr Garfield initially hesitated, but was eventually convinced that the message would be in line with his own “belief system”. Which is? “Agnostic… and yearning!” He begins to laugh. “Longing for meaning? When you see him saving Japanese soldiers as well, that’s when you realise there’s something else going on. It’s not a religious film so much as a deeply spiritual film about a deeply spiritual man who just happens to be Christian. Both Mel and I agreed that the Christian aspect should absolutely be a part of the character, but we also had to communicate that it was more about…” He falters for a while, searching for an appropriate branch of metaphysics.
“It’s a bit like when you read a Rumi poem,” he finally says, reaching for the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, as people often do in LA. “It’s like: there’s God, and there’s God, and there’s God,” he points to random objects around us: an iPhone, a table leg, a can of Perrier. “Oh, there’s God, right there!” He corners a passing fly. “Hey, God!” he calls to the fly. “How do I make love to you?” He looks up to me. “You know what I mean?”
I’m not sure I do. Is Mr Garfield confessing to me that he has sexual feelings towards insects? He laughs and composes himself. “I mean, it transcends Christianity. I would have to be Rumi to get near to explaining the mystery of what he was able to do. It is totally mysterious and divine.” He bursts out laughing. “Good luck trying to make sense of that!”
Well, at the very least Corporal Doss – who died in 2006 – has given him a measure of perspective on his own life. Spider-Man brought Mr Garfield a sudden level of fame, which multiplied when he started dating his Ms Stone. How did he deal with that? “You just need to go home and be with friends, be with family. But I’m still learning, to be honest. I love being an actor, but I’m not crazy about celebrity culture. When you look at Desmond Doss and then you look at our generation, you do ask questions. What do we value? Is it service, humility, our capacity to love, our capacity to be true? Or are we going to honour and value physical attractiveness or braggadocio or arrogance?”
He’s a big fan of the show Billions, which stars Mr Damien Lewis as an oleaginous plutocrat. “He’s the American dream – private jets, swimming pools, numerous empty houses. But I’m so on the side of Paul Giamatti’s character in the Justice Department who rides the subway and wants to bring this guy down.” While he was Spider-Man, he says, he was many times offered the “opportunity to glorify myself”, but turned them down. Like what? He’s not saying. “That would be another form of glorifying. But when people are saying this is what success is, it’s hard to resist. And perhaps all of this narcissism and self-glorification is what’s leading us to Trumpism. Even if there’s always this gnawing part of you thinking: ‘You fucking idiot! Why didn’t you take that opportunity?’”
As we say goodbye, there’s something I’ve have to ask. Has he seen his cameo in BoJack Horseman, the animated Hollywood satire? In one episode, the dysfunctional former child star Ms Sarah Lynn forms a celebrity power couple with Mr Garfield, before stabbing herself in a furniture store. “No, I hear my character likes lasagne, right? People say it’s really funny but I’m nervous to watch it. Am I all big hair and angst?” Pretty much, I tell him. “Well, it’s not far from the truth,” and he creases up once more.
Hacksaw Ridge is out now (US); 27 January (UK). Silence is out in January (US); 1 January (UK)
Words by Mr Richard Godwin