Andrew Garfield on Loss, Art, Televangelism and Those Pesky ‘Spider-Man’ Rumors

By Matt Donnelly

It’s Sunday in North Carolina, as two movie stars sneak into church. Skipping the standard celebrity camouflage of oversize sunglasses and vintage baseball caps, they hide in the back, hoping to avoid attention and the kind of gawking that could distract from the sermon. Only the Starbucks cups they clutch betray them as newbies to the congregation.

The two are on a respectful mission to research characters for an upcoming movie about a fallen evangelist couple who spread the word of God and invoked the ire of the IRS. The leading man in the pew recognizes a churchgoer from his studies and braves a walk up the aisle with his co-star to ask him for a chat. They are met with silence and suspicion and led from the chapel to a back room. The two film stars fear they are about to be hauled out, but the churchgoer confers with a young male staffer and returns to look the leading man in the eye.

“Were you Spider-Man?” he asks.

This isn’t the first sticky situation that Andrew Garfield has extricated himself from with a little superhuman charm. Garfield, who played the webslinger in two Sony films in 2012 and 2014, returned to that church — where the couple used to preach — over many subsequent Sundays with his colleague Jessica Chastain. There they delved into the tangled lives and legacies of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, whom they portray in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a biopic premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

The Searchlight Pictures release, from director Michael Showalter, reexamines the cultural impact of the Bakkers, whom Garfield describes to Variety as “the first reality show couple.” Jim and Tammy Faye were pioneering televangelist superstars from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s; they combined their preaching with the standard talk show format in a way that had never been done. Their doctrine, Garfield says, was “prosperity” — a perfect theme for the “greed is good” era, but also an obsession with materialism that ultimately led to the couple’s downfall. In 1988, Jim was indicted on counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy, all surrounding donations solicited from viewers and investors in his church.

Still baby-faced at 38 years old, Garfield is tasked with aging over four decades and selling the complicated story of Bakker. The man was a cherubic young pastor whose self-worth issues and deep belief in his interpretation of Scripture led to disgrace. Later this fall, Garfield will bookend the festival season with the November AFI Fest premiere of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature directorial debut “Tick, Tick … Boom!” The Netflix musical follows the artistic and emotional journey of late “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson. In his most demanding screen role to date, one that requires him to sing and dance, Garfield embodies the trailblazing, multitalented lyricist and composer who brought issues of race, classism and homophobia to the establishment’s front door before his sudden death.

Both premieres come after a more-than-two-year hiatus from film acting, during which Garfield starred in West End and Broadway productions of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” a role that earned him the Tony Award for best actor in 2018. While dealing with tragedies both onstage and in his personal life, Garfield reveals, he developed a newfound appreciation for his craft.

Born in Los Angeles and raised in a suburb of London, Garfield began training in youth theater at age 9 before studying speech and drama in primary and secondary school. His breakout roles came in the popular U.K. series “Doctor Who” and the 2007 Robert Redford drama “Lions for Lambs.” With each subsequent part, Garfield has amped up his skill and intensity, evidenced by films like “The Social Network,” “99 Homes, “ “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Silence.” This fall he hits a new stride, one that could land him in the thick of the Oscar race.

Chastain spent 10 years developing a scripted feature based on the 2000 documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” For much of that time she was hustling for financing as a producer and perfecting her Tammy Faye voice as an actor. Garfield was a “get,” she says, one that helped her rise to the occasion on set.

“He sent me a video of his very first makeup test, and he was already doing his accent. To be honest, it scared me a little bit. It was a kick in my butt, working with Andrew. He’s someone that you have to show up for every day or no one is going to notice you in the movie,” she says.

Garfield says he was thrilled to be chosen by Chastain, but had certain reservations when it came to portraying Bakker. After all, Jim and Tammy Faye became tabloid fodder and “Saturday Night Live” punchlines (she was a particular target of satirists, thanks to her signature heavy makeup, false eyelashes and fondness for shoulder pads in peak ’80s fashion).

“I was very honored to be asked to partner with her in that way and help her realize her vision,” Garfield says of Chastain. “My only caveat was ‘I’m not going to be a mustache-twirling villain.’ She said, ‘Of course not. I want you to do this because you’ll make him a full person.’ We weren’t looking to make fun of anybody or do anything but tell an essential truth about their dynamic. The universality of their story and how we can all get lost and follow the wrong god. And how beautiful it is to be humbled.”

Bakker was certainly humbled. In addition to jail time, he was further marred by sexual assault accusations from a female church staffer named Jessica Hahn on top of allegations that he had consensual sex with two male co-workers. He was released from prison in 1994 and continues to preach today.

The film feels particularly timely, Garfield says, given the consumerist frenzy populating social media, which exists so people can share photos of elaborate vacations and shopping binges.

“The pervading religion right now is prosperity. Look at any social media platform; it’s no accident. Jim and Tammy were the first reality show couple. They announced births and had family Christmases on the air. They were pre-Kardashian Kardashians,” he says. “Look at these megachurches now; it’s alive and well. It’s all prosperity doctrine. ‘I am enough if I have this.’ That is what fascinated me about Jim, and it was painful to play: inhabiting that space of total dependence on something that is undependable and calling it God.”

While grappling with Bakker’s demons on set, Garfield was dealing with a larger test of faith at home. Before he accepted the “Tammy Faye” gig, Garfield learned that his mother, Lynn, had been diagnosed with cancer. A woman he describes as “the purest angel,” she handmade Garfield a Spider-Man costume out of felt when he was 3, some 25 years before he would don the official suit. He resisted leaving for the North Carolina shoot, but she encouraged him to go.

“She said, ‘I would struggle with you not doing it on account of me.’ I told her, ‘OK, but promise me when it’s time to come home you’ll let me know,’” Garfield says.

News of her imminent passing came during filming in late 2019, at which point Chastain and Searchlight Pictures co-chief David Greenbaum sent Garfield back to England to be by his mother’s side.

“The good news about me and her is that we left nothing unsaid,” Garfield says. “We had all the quality time we could possibly have while she was here. And those last two weeks I got to be with her were probably the most profound two weeks of my life. To be with her and my dad and my brother, all of her friends, my nephews. It was full of grace in the midst of the terrible tragedy.”

After completing the shoot, Garfield says he needed time to “be a human being, not a human doing.” He knew that, off in the distance, work would begin eventually on “Tick, Tick … Boom!” As an untrained singer, he had already begun rigorous vocal coaching. When he finally did ship off to set with Miranda, he says, his view on the ill-fated Jonathan Larson was colored by the loss of his mother and the preciousness of life.

Despite the ubiquity of “Rent,” few people know much about the musical’s creator, Larson, except for the way he died, tragically young and on the precipice of great success. Larson suffered an aortic aneurysm on the morning of the first preview performance of “Rent” in 1996 at age 35. A rare heart condition called Marfan syndrome went undiagnosed, despite his complaints of severe chest pain and dizziness for days prior. He would not live to see “Rent” win four Tony Awards including best musical, capture a Pulitzer Prize for drama, mount more than 5,000 performances to date or invent the Broadway lottery ticket system in order to feed the high demand from fans of all income brackets.

“Tick, Tick” introduces us to Larson five years before “Rent” would mount that first performance. The film’s title refers to the solo musical Larson wrote about his own existential struggle, as a man who is obsessed with making art but cannot catch a break to fund it. His world is populated with the same chosen family “Rent” depicted. It’s a community comprising all creeds, colors and sexual orientations, and one drenched in the bohemian spirit of lower Manhattan in the 1990s, a glittering moment of pre-gentrification rebelliousness.

Miranda had been toying with the idea of adapting “Tick, Tick” as a film for years. As much a student of musical theater as one of its modern masters, the “Hamilton” creator caught Garfield in the London staging of “Angels in America’’ and says he was blown away.

“I was smitten with him in that production. I locked in on him as Jonathan Larson and the idea never went away,” Miranda says. When “Angels in America” moved to Broadway and began courting American Theater Wing voters for that year’s Tony Awards, Miranda jumped at the chance to support Garfield and his cast.

“They asked me if I would moderate a panel, and I said yes just so I could grab some time with Andrew and talk to him about this,” Miranda says. “We got sushi at Katsuya on 50th Street, and it was the first time I’d ever sat down with him. He didn’t know anything about Jonathan Larson, and I gave him the whole spiel, and he seemed intrigued.”

Then came the moment of truth, when Miranda asked Garfield if he could sing. The director says the actor asked him when he planned to shoot the film, and Miranda replied he’d need at least a year before cameras could roll.

“Andrew just looked at me and goes, ‘In that case, I can sing,’” he says.

As Miranda sees it, Larson was both bursting with and burdened by talent. The ticking referred to in the title is not metaphorical; it is a repetitive and urgent sound he hears as the days pass. Working in a Manhattan diner as a waiter and sleeping two hours a night before he’s back at his computer writing lyrics or at his piano writing music, the Larson of the film is barely making ends meet. Worse, he struggles to take care of those who take care of him, including a long-suffering girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp); his gay best friend and former artist turned corporate lackey Michael (Robin de Jesus); and a battle-ax agent who won’t return his calls (a scene-stealing Judith Light). But it’s not all artistic anxiety. Larson is pulsing with life. He belts unprompted numbers about true love, his anger over the AIDS epidemic and even the sacred ritual of brunch. All of it is done with the joy of a natural-born ham, a part of the acting sandbox in which Garfield has almost never been invited to play.

When not spinning webs as Spider-Man, Garfield played the betrayed Eduardo Saverin in the Oscar-winning “The Social Network,” a reformed juvenile killer in the harrowing “Boy A,” a young father facing financial ruin in “99 Homes” and a tortured priest in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” Even his take on Peter Parker was considered by critics to be the broodiest of the bunch. It’s safe to say that music and laughter have not come easy to Garfield in Hollywood.

Miranda has seen “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Silence.” “No one suffers as beautifully as Andrew,” he notes. “That’s hard to do, and I think he’s sought after for that, but one of the revelations of ‘Angels’ for me was how much more Andrew showed of himself. His character in that show, Prior, suffers but also gets that beautiful monologue about wanting more life.”

While filming “Tick, Tick,” the director says it was exciting to watch Garfield “embrace the showmanship that comes with the kind of guy who would play you his whole musical as a one-man show in his apartment, as Jonathan was known to do. I think he had a wonderful time stepping into all of that.” The film is also the most commercial endeavor Garfield has pursued since “Spider-Man,” especially given Miranda’s star power and the deep pockets of Netflix contributing to marketing and awards campaigns.

After Sony scrapped Garfield’s “Spider-Man” franchise, rebooting with the less tortured Tom Holland, he spoke of feeling disillusioned by the pressure of making studio tentpole films. Years later, Garfield’s perspective has changed, and he says he has nothing but gratitude for the experience.

“It was only beautiful. I got to meet Emma [Stone] and work with her and Sally Field. I had karma with Amy Pascal, who was a mother figure, and we would fight, but ultimately, we loved each other on a deep level. We tried to meet as much in the middle as we could in terms of why I wanted to do this role, and what her needs were as the head of the studio,” Garfield says.

Former Sony Pictures chairman Pascal remembers the moment Garfield was chosen for “The Social Network,” which her studio released in 2010. “I had worked with him a long time ago on a film called ‘The Other Boleyn Girl,’ but it was after David [Fincher] and I saw him in a series called ‘Red Riding’ that I knew he was a genius,” Pascal remembers. “He perfectly captured the inner life of a high school student as Peter. He exudes such pathos and such intelligence. I think everything good is coming to Andrew.”

Garfield also expresses pride at being part of a superhero lineage with Tobey Maguire and Holland, both of whom he’s bumped into at various points in his career. He goes red-faced and laughs it off when asked about unconfirmed reports and leaked images that seem to confirm that he will appear in the upcoming “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” a Multiverse tale that is said to unite him, Maguire and Holland for the first time on-screen as Spider-Men.

“I understand why people are freaking out about the concept of that because I’m a fan as well. You can’t help but imagine scenes and moments of ‘Oh, my God, how fucking cool would it be if they did that?’” he says. “But it’s important for me to say on the record that this is not something I’m aware I am involved in. But I know I’m not going to be able to say anything that will convince anyone that I don’t know what’s happening. No matter what I say, I’m fucked. It’s either going to be really disappointing for people or it’s going to be really exciting.”

Garfield is much happier drawing the focus back to “Tick, Tick,” especially given the purpose he placed behind it — to honor his late mother. “I can feel her smiling at that. She was someone who was taken arguably too soon, even though we don’t get to decide. There are certain things you can’t control. What I started to understand through her loss is that we’re all leaving with a half-finished song,” he says. “Being a part of this film with Lin and the rest of the company, I’m able to sing Jon’s songs and I’m able to hold my mother’s unfinished song in the lyrics and the music that Jon wrote. His work has become a container for that.”

He hopes that audiences will reap the same benefit.

“It becomes a story where we can bring our individual, personal losses and we can share them,” Garfield says. “And then we can go back to living in that way where we know this is all finite.”


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