Life & Culture

Andrew Garfield: 'I value my Jewish heritage so much'

The Hollywood star tells Stephen Applebaum how his Jewish roots helped him tackle his role in Tick,Tick...Boom!


Andrew Garfield is an actor who can seemingly do anything.

The first time I saw him was in 2007, on Channel 4, playing a young man struggling to reintegrate into society with a new identity, after serving 14 years in a juvenile prison, in the moving drama Boy A. The performance earned him a TV Bafta for best actor.

In the same year that Boy A aired, Garfield made his cinema debut in Lions for Lambs, holding his own against Hollywood heavyweights Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise.

Since then he has stretched himself in a wide range of projects including David Fincher’s The Social Network, in which he played the Jewish Brazilian Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.

He even put on the Spider-Man suit for two outings as Marvel’s web-slinging superhero (by now most readers will know if he slipped it on again for the latest Tom Holland-led instalment, Spider-Man: No Way Home).

Garfield has proved himself as a theatre beast, too. In 2012, his Broadway debut in Mike Nichols’ production of Death of a Salesman, opposite the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, earned him a Tony nomination.

Although he didn’t win on that occasion, he walked off with the Tony for best leading actor six years later, for his performance as Prior Walter, in Tony Kushner’s epic AIDS drama, Angels in America.

When Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, saw Garfield during the latter play’s London run, it took him no time at all to decide that he was the actor who should headline the screen adaptation of the Jewish Rent-composer Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical, Tick, Tick . . . Boom!, with which he was planning to make his feature-directing debut.

Garfield is in Calgary on the day I catch-up with him to discuss the film, shooting a miniseries, Under the Banner of Heaven, about some “gruesome murders in a high-up Mormon family back in the 80s”, and has just been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award for his performance as Larson. An Oscar nod is likely to follow.

This is quite an achievement given that he had never done a musical before Miranda proposed the project to him over sushi in New York.

According to a report in Variety, when Miranda asked him if he could sing, the actor asked him how long he’d have to prepare. At least a year, he was told. “Andrew just looked at me,” recalled Miranda, “and goes, ‘In that case, I can sing.’”

For Garfield, the latest nominations are the cherry on top of a many-layered cake, because, cliché’s be damned, he already feels like a winner.

Tick, Tick . . . Boom! chronicles a period in Larson’s life when he was battling to raise funding for an ambitious sci-fi musical called Superbia and feeling that time was running out.

He failed, but the experience of fighting for a play while gay friends with AIDS were fighting for their lives, led to a breakthrough in thinking about how he could use his art that ultimately enabled him to write Rent.

Tragically, he never got to see his groundbreaking opus about bohemian life in Manhattan’s East Village become a hit. He died in 1996, aged 35, from an aortic dissection, on the eve of the show’s first off-Broadway preview. Subsequently, Larson the man has often got lost in the story of his untimely death. Miranda’s film corrects this.

“Telling the story of Jonathan Larson, especially during this particular part of his life — it’s such an incredible, universal story to hold up, especially for young artists, but for everyone who’s ever had a dream —I find that to be the victory,” enthuses Garfield.

“And then having the opportunity, simultaneously, to try to expand my voice and to be able to sing, and to be able to sing on behalf of Jonathan Larson on behalf of the people that he was singing on behalf of, that’s the win. And then, of course, you add to that this strange thing of awards for art, and you can’t help but just feel a little bit too lucky.”

His key to getting at Larson was the late composer’s older sister, Julie, who worked as an executive producer on the film. She and her family have worked hard to protect Larson’s legacy, but she wasn’t on board to sanctify her sibling.

“I think for a lot of people, Jonathan Larson is this iconic, idealised, legendary figure, who died so young and is remembered in this kind of golden gilded way,” says Garfield, “and it was important to me that I didn’t disrespect him with too much of an honouring. I wanted the whole person to be there.”

Julie was key to this, he says. “She knew the warts. She knew the insides, the outs, and all of the pain in the ass that Jonathan was, as well as the brilliance. All of her insights and the memory that she carried was vital for me and for Lin to make sure that we weren’t just idolising him.”

Researching Larson was like suddenly finding a “long-lost brother”, says the actor. He felt an “immediate” connection, and realised that they both shared the same desire to “make ripples in the world through art. Ripples that are healing, ripples that are illuminating, that remind us of our interconnectedness. Ripples that are sometimes painful, tough, but ultimately loving.”

The film doesn’t dwell on Larson’s Jewishness, but neither does it erase it. In one scene, while waiting tables at a diner, he wearily corrects a customer’s repeated mispronunciation of challah, while in another he rages about “parents under 50 saying Kaddish for their children” because of AIDS.

Garfield is Jewish on his American father Richard’s side; his British mother died during production on the soon-to-be released biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye, in which Garfield plays disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker.

The family moved to the UK when Garfield was three, and while he grew up in a secular household, he also connected with Larson’s Jewishness, albeit “in a more unconscious way”.

“I think it’s just a given,” he muses. “The fact that we both have a Jewish heritage in our blood, it probably enabled me to feel that kindred, bone ancestral feeling. And the fact that we’re both Jewish artists, I think that’s a very specific breed.

“It’s just like, ‘Oh, we come from the same tribe,’ and how beautiful to find not only a member of my tribe in art but a member of my tribe in Jewish heritage, which I value so much and which I feel so grateful that I have in my system.”

If he considers Jewish artists a “specific breed”, how does he think his Jewish roots have influenced him and his work? I ask.

“Oh God, it’s so interesting,” he says excitedly. “The first thing I’d go to is empathy. Because of the ancestral memory of what it is to be persecuted, of what it is to be told that you don’t belong on this earth, that there’s a physical threat of violence and extermination, and how deeply moving it is that we have survived that threat, that can only enhance our empathy for anyone else going through that same kind of injustice and threat of physical annihilation.”

He believes that this might have been one reason why Larson, as a “straight-identifying Jewish man”, empathised so deeply with and advocated for “his tribe of LGBTQA+ people and the community around him” who were experiencing the AIDS epidemic when he was trying to get Superbia produced.

“Jon didn’t have firsthand experience of being a homosexual man, but maybe through his Jewishness he had this ability to know exactly what that feeling was through his ancestry, and that awareness of having to fight for one’s life.”

This makes me think of when Garfield described Peter Parker/Spider-Man as Jewish. It wasn’t just an idea he hit on when he played the character, but something he had always felt, he tells me today, because of the character’s Jewish creator, Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber).

The character is not defined that way, he hastens to add, “because it’s really important that any human being, from any walk of life, or religious background, or creed, or colour, is able to project themselves into that character, into that suit, but that’s how I identified.”

In the past, Garfield has said that he was bullied at school, so it is perhaps not surprising that when he looked at the character, he saw, as he tells me now, someone who appeals to anyone “who has ever felt maligned, or has a kind of sense of being an underdog, and not on the centre.”

These were the people Larson also wrote about. People like Michael (Robin de Jesus), his gay friend in Tick, Tick . . . Boom!, whose right to be himself is threatened by the Moral Majority at the same time as his very existence is threatened by AIDS.

It seems appropriate that the film has come out during a pandemic that affects us all, to differing degrees, and makes the themes of Larson’s musical feel, I suggest, urgent all over again.

“I think that’s right,” says Garfield, “because we have been thrown back on ourselves in a way that is forcing us to reckon with our own mortality, maybe in a deeper way than ever before, as a collective.

“This pandemic is definitely brutal for everyone. But, but, but there is light within it. There are cracks of light in the dark. There are graces that it’s giving us in terms of reminding us of what matters to us because of that awareness of the shortness of life.”

A shortness which Larson personifies, while his art lives on.

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