When Lin-Manuel Miranda approached Andrew Garfield about being the lead in his musical, there was just one problem: Garfield couldn’t sing.
“The big question mark was the singing,” Garfield says. “Because he didn’t know if I had ever sung or if I could.”
Miranda had been wanting to do a film adaptation of Tick, Tick …BOOM!, the Jonathan Larson musical that made him want to get into theater in the first place — a dream he achieved, as you may have heard (you can read more about all that in our conversation with Miranda here.) He saw Garfield in a performance of Angels in America at the National Theater in London and was struck by the Silence actor’s performance. Manuel couldn’t shake the idea that Garfield was the man for the Tick, Tick …BOOM!. Except for the singing thing.
So they met to talk it over, and Garfield was skeptical. “I wasn’t brave enough to think of ever doing a musical,” he said. “I didn’t have the courage to ever imagine I could be a part of something like this.”
But Manuel pushed him. He said if Garfield could handle the rigors of performing an eight-hour stage show, six days a week, he could learn how to sing. Garfield asked how much time he had to learn. Miranda gave him a year and a final word of encouragement: “I believe you can get there.”
“I borrowed his belief,” Garfield said. “I borrowed his confidence and his instincts.”
So Garfield spent the year in singing lessons, borrowing Miranda’s belief in him and applying his own discipline to learning how to handle the show’s musical numbers. Remember, at this point, there was no guarantee that this year of work would pay off. But a year later, Miranda snuck into the back of a rehearsal room where Garfield was practicing to see if his trust had paid off. He liked what he heard.
“He threw his shoe at me and shouted at me across the room, ‘Andrew Garfield, you can sing and I don’t have to recast you!’” Garfield says. “It was a relief for both of us.”
On the one hand, this sounds like a gamble that paid off. But Garfield doesn’t see it that way. He sees it as purpose fulfilled. “Lin-Manuel Miranda made a dream come true of mine that I didn’t even know I had.”
It’s another twist in the career of one of our generation’s most eclectic and erudite talents. As our Zoom call begins, I’m cautioned via text about having too many questions ready, since Garfield tends to give long answers. That’s true, but “long” isn’t “boring.” He responds thoughtfully and candidly, often starting with an opening thesis, illustrating his point with a story, and then re-stating his main point, thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.
He’s also one of our most unpredictable actors, having appeared in movies as widely divergent as a musical debut, the A24 noir black comedy Under the Silver Lake and a certain Marvel property you may have heard of. On the surface, these are all fairly disparate projects, but there’s a thin line of belief running through even his most mainstream efforts. In everything from his rapidly deconstructing Catholic priest in Martin Scorsese’s Silence to the corrupting real-life televangelist Jim Bakker in this year’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye to the famed pacifist soldier Desmond T. Doss in 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield has a knack for playing men of conflicted faith.
As he said about his character in Silence, “I connected with [Father Sebastian Merton] so much because he seems to be always on the knife edge between faith and doubt. He seems to understand that the opposite of doubt isn’t certainty, that living with doubt is just as much a part of living with faith as faith itself.”
In Tick, Tick …BOOM!, Garfield’s character isn’t exactly plagued by the same sort of existential faith crisis that have populated a disproportionate number of his films, but he says his character exhibits the same sort of bleeding heart desire for truth.
“It was the best possible version of work for me, in terms of the subject matter, in terms of the tone on set that Lin created, in terms giving myself permission to play, giving myself permission to improvise, giving myself permission to be spontaneous, from take to take, and be alive,” he says.
Garfield slips into a tone of reverie recounting the experience of portraying Larson — the man whose autobiographical Tick, Tick …BOOM! landed ahead of his magnum opus, the Broadway classic Rent, which debuted the very night of Larson’s tragic passing of an aortic dissection. He says that the Tick Tick …BOOM! set gave him the freedom to stretch his wings creatively and portray Larson as a free, bighearted spirit and “let John live, let John follow his impulses, and me just get out the way and sweep the path so that he could dance and play and sing and make fun of himself and make fun of everyone else and go to the depths of emotion and the heights of the high.”
“It was one of those very rare, special things where I got to inhabit a character that is so full of life and that needed to be let off the reigns,” Garfield says. “It was just a pure pleasure.”
This is another thing that sets Garfield apart from many of his contemporaries. There’s commitment to the character, and then there’s pure possession, in which the role seems less a performance than a finely tuned expression of his own experience. And maybe, in some ways, this can be a way of processing his own feelings. By portraying these characters and their own journeys with faith and doubt, fear and love, creativity and procrastination, Garfield is able to come out of the other side of his own internal tensions. Whether finding confidence in his singing voice or in his own spiritual beliefs, the lie of acting becomes the truth.
One role that ended up testing Garfield was probably his biggest box office success — suiting up as Spider-Man. Garfield has been candid both about his affection for the character and some of the struggles of working creatively and honestly in a project with so much money and editorial oversight looming over it.
“I got my heart broken a little bit,” he told the Guardian earlier this year. “I went from being a naive boy to growing up. How could I ever imagine that it was going to be a pure experience? There are millions of dollars at stake and that’s what guides the ship. It was a big awakening and it hurt.”
By the time Garfield spoke to RELEVANT, he seemed to have resolved some of his conflicted feelings about his time in the role.
“I got to play my childhood hero, and I got to work with such incredible actors and a great director and we had this incredible loving collaboration,” he says. “And I only look back on it now with a real joy and a real gratitude.”
He admits that being on the “inside” of a movie that size can be “a little bit stressful” but speaks very warmly of Tom Holland, who succeeded him in the role, and expresses relief that he is now watching the movies “as just a fan.”
“They led with soul. They led with joy and they made this kind of coming-of-age, John Hughes, Back to the Future feeling thing,” Garfield says. “I’m just so impressed with what they’ve done.”
That might be another example of Garfield’s creative journey — learning the difference between business and pleasure, what’s fun to be a part of and what’s fun to be a fan of. Another tension that was only resolved by getting in there and doing the work. Easier said than done but, at the end, you know a little more about yourself than you did.
Garfield’s got a lot more figuring himself out to do. Next up for the 38-year-old actor is Under the Banner of Heaven where he’ll play, you guessed it, another man of conflicted belief — this time a devout Mormon detective whose faith is sent into a spiral as he starts investigating a (real life) heinous double homicide. Where Garfield goes from there is a question for now, but that’s OK. He’s gotten very good at living in mystery.