Andrew Garfield had a moment.
There he was, 16 years old in Epsom, England, sitting in the Kingston Playhouse seeing a play for the first time in his life. It was Mnemonic, a work that explores memory, produced by avant-garde director and actor Simon McBurney. The players contorted their bodies in haunting slo-mo shapes, and recited intense and abstract dialogue. Garfield lost his sense of time and space. The walls of the theater dissolved. The sense of what was real or imagined blurred. His mind? Blown. Destiny? Discovered.
“I wanted to do that to people. I wanted it done to me,” he says. “I want to help people ask questions about their own lives—life itself.”
Call it a gift to the gifted.
Turns out, Garfield, now 35, was a natural. Beneath his slick tuft of brown hair and malleable facial features lies a guy who deliberately searches for roles that will challenge him at the cellular level. There’s been no shortage: He’s played Spiderman (twice), a Jesuit priest in Silence, a rookie techpreneur in The Social Network and a pacifist combat medic in Hacksaw Ridge. He was nominated for Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA awards for the latter, and a Golden Globe for The Social Network. On Broadway, Garfield scored a Tony Award for his leading role in the eight-hour production of Angels in America. “My work is my attempt to get to the center of things,” he says. “I get to explore what it means to be a human being and to, you know, live all these separate lives. And, yeah, I like going as deep as possible because what else are we going to do?”
Right now, he’s meandering around Brooklyn killing time before Paul Simon’s Farewell Tour concert. He’s checked out Supreme, the designer skateboarding and apparel boutique, which fired up his thoughts on modern-day culture. “I really like a lot of the designs here,” he says, “and [the owners] are genius because of what they pose [with the merchandise]. There’s a security guy at the door, so immediately your brain goes, ‘I’m about to enter a place that I should value more than another store.’ It’s all these psychological tricks that are being played constantly.” He credits Naomi Klein’s book No Logo with shifting his perspective. “It really changed my view on what I was told to care about. We’re in such a time where how things look is so much more important than how they actually are.”
Head games and existential questions are at the root of Garfield’s next film, Under the Silver Lake, out this spring. Garfield plays Sam, a likable but jaded sluggard, chugging beers and chasing skirts in Los Angeles’ painfully hipster neighborhood of Silver Lake. When he meets Sarah, a sassy lass (played by Riley Keough) swimming topless in his apartment complex’s pool, he thinks he’s hit the jackpot. He knocks on her door the following day only to discover that she—and all of her belongings—have vanished. So begins a trippy neo-noir thriller of alt-rockers, murder, billionaires, subliminal advertising... even skunks. “It’s bonkers,” he says. Garfield prepared by devouring the history of L.A., Hollywood films, advertising and self-reflecting. “It was like going down my own rabbit hole, much the way my character, Sam, does.”
Falling down a rabbit hole is a breeze compared to Garfield’s preparation for some of his other roles. The actor is notorious for immersing himself in a character’s life months before a camera rolls. He traveled to Chattanooga, Tenn., to retrace the footsteps and handle the tools of his Hacksaw Ridge character, dropped 40 pounds and went on a silent retreat for Silence, and pumped iron six hours a day to become Spiderman. Mentally, the transitions were easier than you’d think. “There’s not much difference to me. I’m not saying that to be cute,” he says, laughing. “Peter Parker [Spiderman] and Father Rodrigues [Silence] are two warriors—two spiritual warriors. Peter Parker has to go on a journey about how to use his gifts, and he’s a teenager simultaneously. ... Rodrigues attempted to bring light and love to a place that was very hopeless. He has to understand that he’s not God. They are both boyhood-to-manhood themes, I think.”
Garfield grew up with his brother, Ben, in Epsom, a market town in Surrey, England. Their father, Richard, worked as a swimming coach, while their mom, Lynn, taught at a nursery school. He attended Priory Prep School, City of London Freemen’s School, then trained at University of London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. If he had not discovered acting, Garfield thinks he would have become a dancer or a photojournalist. “I am really in awe of the guys who go out and are on the front lines,” he says. “I would have had to do something unconventional and creative.” Storytelling was a staple in the Garfield household. “My mother read The Hobbit to me at bedtime, and my dad was a movie buff. Story has been one of the most important things in my life.” His university honors acting professor, Senior Lecturer Vanessa Ewan, was struck by Garfield’s innate skill set. “Andrew had to remind me that he was only 18 when he began the acting course. He was driven and ever-searching,” Ewan says. “The imagination was always live in his body. He worked from a place of humanity and of fragility. There was no hiding in his process—never holding back or letting himself get in the way.”
Garfield is humble when asked why he made it over the throngs of other male actors in Hollywood. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he says. “I know I am devoted because my dad raised me to stick to what I’m doing. He’s an amazing man, and one of the things he gave me and my brother is discipline and a work ethic. So that’s something. And I feel passionate about what I do. Here’s the thing: I want my work to be seen. I want to have an impact on people. I want it to be about greater things—things greater than myself.” For Under the Silver Lake director David Robert Mitchell, of It Follows fame, Garfield’s success is clear. “He’s a damn great actor,” Mitchell says. “His range is incredible. His energy, empathy and dedication can be felt in his performances.”
One thing is certain: Fame is not part of the criteria for Garfield. He felt the impact early on after starring as Spiderman and dating co-star Emma Stone. That sort of limelight was not for him. “I feel a little like an anomaly right now in terms of what I share with the world,” he says. “I’m not interested in people knowing about me in that way or having that kind of celebrity. We have to set up boundaries and do what’s right for us.” For Garfield, that means finding personal outlets that connect to the inner self. Surfing, dancing and meditating are some of his current practices. “Right now, I’m refilling the well. I’d been doing this project for so long,” he says. “So it’s about seeing other people’s art, going to see films and plays, and being in nature. And then I jump back into the deep end.”
Grooming by Sonia Lee at Exclusive Artists Management