Searching for Andrew Garfield

The 'tick, tick… BOOM!' actor excels at playing lost characters trying to be found

Eric Eidelstein
big feelings

The first time I fell for Andrew Garfield, he was giving a wide-eyed impression of Mark Zuckerberg’s first victim, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, in The Social Network. It was one of those latent, formative crushes that materialize during that adolescent spell when shame and horniness first intersect. The shame is still dominant enough to disqualify the more overt, but everything subtextual, anything implied, is safe for viewing. And still, that wasn’t it.

There’s nothing gay about the role, nothing to “queer” for those thirsty for something that simply isn’t. It’s special only in that it’s a remedy to Aaron Sorkin’s greatest flaw as a writer, his prioritization of wit over any recognizable human emotion. Garfield’s Saverin is fragile, a foil to the didactic nature of the source material and Fincher’s icy direction. He’s an actual human being who grounds the film with genuine emotion. His much-memed climactic fight with Zuckerberg — ”You better lawyer up, asshole!” — transcends mere theatrics and leaves us with a core hurt: it blows to be betrayed by your best friend.

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Garfield received his second best actor Oscar nomination for tick, tick… BOOM! this week, where he channels Jonathan Larson, the genius (or fraud, if you’re in the camp of people who believe his opus, Rent, was robbed from novelist Sarah Schulman’s novel People in Trouble) composer and playwright. While amassing critical praise for his turn, Garfield has also been making the standard press rounds. Typical to him, he’s been giving the expected seasonal award-groveling a taste of wisdom and warmth, sharing a Rilke quote and waxing poetic about the power of grief. He’s good with press because he’s sincere, and while it often feels like we all have very little space for that, especially at the hands of someone, you know, hot and rich, the soundbites are contagious.

He’s not quite Jeremy Strong, but in a Variety podcast Garfield described playing Larson as “this kind of spiritual devotional experience where every morning, I would wake up and I would devote myself at the altar of Jon Larson, and therefore the altar of art and the altar of carrying on with one’s creative calling.” It’s an insane thing to say, pretentious and self-serious, but it encapsulates what makes him so appealing — devotion.

What draws us to a performer is often some intangible quality. What we feel when watching someone on stage or film can have less to do with acting ability and more with a specific, almost mystical blending of who the actor is as a person and what the text calls for. Garfield, in my estimation, is always Garfield in every single role he takes on. This isn’t a failure to disappear or blend, because he does that, but there’s always a constant. It’s a rare softness, for sure — but I think with his utter devotion to character, something else pops up. There’s a deep well of empathy in each of his performances, and with that, a sense that his men are grappling with something larger: a growing understanding of the world, the human condition, the self. What is more appealing than seeing someone who is lost trying to become found?

Before The Social Network, Garfield had an astonishing debut in Boy A, an ambitious British drama from 2007 about a young man who is released from prison after committing a murder as a young boy. It’s an ideas film, but Garfield’s portrayal is tender and he moves through it with the discomfort of someone who perpetually feels like they’re taking up too much space.

But 2010 was the turning point year, not only with The Social Network, but with a quieter, haunting indie – the underrated Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel. This is where Garfield first comes into his own, and if The Social Network first piqued my curiosity, Never Let Me Go hooked me for good. He plays a good-natured clone who fantasizes about a life where his identity is not defined by his intended purpose: to have his organs harvested for the “real human” population. He’s in love with Carey Mulligan, and the delusion he carries about a future away from the predetermined is heartbreaking. When the inevitability of his fate finally sets, he explodes. He pulls over onto the road and lets out a guttural shriek that makes Meryl’s grief cry in Big Little Lies look like… acting. He heaves, he spits up, and as in The Social Network, he’s once again our anchor in material that is otherwise cold and matter-of-fact. He is the king of big, confused feelings.

We see this again in his Spider-Man films, which succeeded more as indie romances than action films. Then in Hacksaw Ridge, which garnered him his first Oscar nomination, where he plays a conscientious objector whose faith is put to a test in the face of unfathomable violence. Faith appears again in Scorsese’s colonialism epic, Silence, where Garfield portrays a 16th century Portuguese priest whose religious absolutism begins to waver when he’s confronted with unshakable questions, and also, again, a lot of violence. In Under the Silver Lake, his sleaze-bag, millennial appropriation of Philip Marlowe is once again grounded by an incessant searching quality in Garfield’s eyes. All these characters seek to understand why the world is the way it is, and what their role in it may be.

Garfield is often the emotional anchor in material that is otherwise cold and matter-of-fact.

Perhaps this is what I respond to — maybe it’s not simply a crush. I’ve always thought of myself this way, as someone in perpetual state of searching, always slightly unnerved, on my toes, my shoulders tight by sides. It’s hard to be satiated, but it’s also beautiful to be hungry. I get that from Garfield. I believe it’s what others sense too.

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Before Psycho destroyed Anthony Perkins’s career, or distorted his boyish charm into something we could only ever see again as monstrous, he was a 50s heartthrob. In Split Life, a biography of Perkins, the author notes that he continued to be cast alongside the likes of Sophia Loren and Ingrid Bergman, even when his onscreen chemistry with the legends were negligible. He belonged to a class of actors whose sex appeal was directly linked to their vulnerability. Monty Clift, Gene Kelly, Cary Grant, Farley Granger had the same energy, as did James Dean. They were replaced by the Redfords, McQueens, Belmondos — ”tough guys,” usually aloof, more physically imposing, hot in what we’d now consider a Marvel way.

Today, we like to talk about gawkish, soft boys – Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Jaden Smith, Harry Styles — as pioneers of a revolutionary new masculinity. But this type, what I like to call “I-Don’t-Know-What-To-Do-In-My-Own-Body” hot, is nothing new. It’s just a part of the ebb and flow of what we want our men to be, which also may explain why Garfield is currently “in.” (Of course these famous faces are not embraced by all — a friend who works on a popular TV show, for instance, has encountered executives who veil their distaste of this type of guy in not-even euphemisms. He’s very sweet. He’s cute, but he’s a little feminine? I’m just trying to think like a teenage girl.)

Garfield, like Perkins, has made a career of being gangly. He may have the ability to feel hulking, but is more often seen cowering. Both actors are not exactly quiet. Instead, they’re natural questioners. Their work is marked by an unmovable inquisitiveness, a curiosity that lingers scene to scene. I think of devotion, again, as the operative word. It’s a rare gift to move through movies with such a thirst for knowledge, experience, and connection. It’s the reason tick, tick… BOOM! works so well. We know Larson’s time on Earth is short, but Garfield keeps his appetite for answers alive.

Eric Eidelstein is New York-based screenwriter who currently writes for HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot. He has previously written about film and television for Vulture, IndieWire, and Complex.