Andrew Garfield is telling me about the lean years. He worked at Sainsbury's supermarket in the unglamorous London suburb that is Hendon. He worked as – if you can believe it – "assistant to a cricket teacher". He worked in Starbucks. Then there was the grim staple that sustains so many young actors.
“I was a telemarketer,” he says with a sigh. “That was hell. Yeah, that was pure hell. And I was going through my first big heartbreak, the breakup of my first love. I was just spending lots of time in stock rooms at different jobs I was in, sobbing, going to the toilet far too often, just to sit and cry. Thinking: when am I going to be able to work again?”
You hardly need to be told that things worked out all right. He won a Bafta for his role in John Crowley's TV drama, Boy A. He worked with Martin Scorsese on Silence. He received an Academy Award nomination for playing war hero Desmond Doss in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge. He has every chance of securing a second Oscar nod next week for Tick, Tick… Boom!, Lin-Manuel Miranda's adaptation of Steven Levenson's rock musical. And we also have to discuss a certain Spider-Man.
I felt like I was on an acid trip ... I realised I needed to be on stage with these freaks and lunatic who were creating worlds out of nothing. That was exactly where I wanted to be
Throughout it all, undertones of that sensitive kid have remained. Garfield has considerable range, but his trademark – if we can be so reductive – is a ready access to emotional release. Nobody breaks down like Andrew Garfield. He was the Spider-Man you wanted to hug.
One might reasonably suspect that The Eyes of Tammy Faye would give him an opportunity to move towards the dark side. Playing opposite a transcendent Jessica Chastain, he is excellent as Jim Bakker, the American televangelist who, working with his heavily painted wife Tammy Faye, created a faith-based empire in the 1970s and 1980s. Bakker was convicted of fraud in 1989 and served five years in prison. As I am making noises about having fun playing a wrong'un, Garfield is already wagging his head.
“It wasn’t fun in any way, shape, or form,” he says good-naturedly. “Because it was dark. He was grappling with his own darkness and avoiding his own darkness. It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to run away all the time. It’s exhausting to distract and obfuscate and trick yourself and lie to yourself. It’s anxiety-inducing. It’s an absolutely horrendous way to live. Yeah. And only when we fall to our knees and hit rock bottom can we start again. It was very important that he wasn’t a villain. He wasn’t twirling his moustache and going: ‘I’m going to screw all these people over.’ He was going: ‘How do I feel worthy? How do I feel like I’m enough?’ That was the driving, propulsive heartbeat.”
You get a sense there of the investment Garfield brings to his performances. As he walks me through his life – and the man really can talk – we return again and again to his emotional connection with the art. Born in Los Angeles, he moved to Surrey in the UK with his parents when he was just three. He retains dual citizenship, but that upbringing could hardly sound more English. His parents ran an interior design business. His dad coached Guildford City Swimming Club. I had read that his mum – who sadly died a few years ago – edged him towards acting when he was having problems at school.
“She was amazing,” he says. “She had the courage to see that I was having a really hard time. I was an athlete, but all of that fell to the wayside because I stopped growing. I got concussed three times playing rugby. I wasn’t keeping up in terms of my swimming. I just stopped growing. I was stunted – though I had a huge growth spurt later on. I was kind of stuck. I wasn’t interested in academia. I wasn’t interested in being a doctor or a lawyer or a business person, or any of the things that my school and my culture valued. I was always an idiot-clown-monkey-boy. That was my essence. But she was very wise and sensitive and prioritised my happiness.”
He remembers that he tried painting. He tried sculpture. The last thing he tried was acting and it “rang a bell”. As is so often the case, an inspirational teacher intervened. He brought him to the theatre and, in particular, introduced him to the work of Simon McBurney’s Théâtre de Complicité.
“I felt like I was on an acid trip,” Garfield says. “My brain was melting. The doors of perception just opened and I realised I needed to be on stage with these freaks and lunatics who were creating worlds out of nothing. That was exactly where I wanted to be.”
I thought: this is going to be it for the rest of my life. I am just going to be doing plays that I Iove and making enough money to survive on. Maybe make enough to have a nice meal now and then. Ha, ha
Garfield studied at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and moved on to a career on stage. A glance at his CV suggests that he went up like a rocket. He was about 23 when he made Boy A, and appeared opposite Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in the 2007 war film Lions for Lambs. But, as he willingly ventures, there were those months spent crying in stock rooms.
“Then I got another gig doing theatre and from then on it was back-to-back,” he says. “Yeah. And suddenly everything was right with the world again. And I felt a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging again in the world that has never gone away since. I can always go to my work for that.”
Initially, he had no dreams of Hollywood. He imagined himself moving merrily enough from theatre to theatre.
“I thought: this is going to be it for the rest of my life. I am just going to be doing plays that I Iove and making enough money to survive on. Maybe make enough to have a nice meal now and then. Ha, ha!”
When did it shift up a few gears? In 2010, he was one among an astonishing array of rising talent – Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Domhnall Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough were also on the golden team – in Mark Romanek's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. That same year he played Eduardo Saverin in David Fincher's The Social Network. But nothing matters so much these days as Marvel (for good or ill). In 2012, he appeared as the web-slinger in The Amazing Spider-Man. Two years later he made the sequel.
Reading his interviews for Tick, Tick… Boom!, I am amused at how effectively he dodged questions about whether he was returning for the incoming Spider-Man: No Way Home. As the world now knows, both he and Tobey Maguire, who first played the role in 2002, joined Tom Holland as different versions of the superhero in the smash hit. It must be an enormous relief not to have to duck those questions anymore.
“To be honest, it’s much more fun to have a secret than to not have a secret,” he says, laughing mischievously. “I kind of miss having that secret. It’s a lovely, powerful position to be in that moment. And I enjoyed every last second of it. And now the cat’s out of the bag. The party has been thrown. And you’re just remembering the party, rather than still being in the build-up to the party. But you can’t sustain that for more than eight months. It was tiring, but I did enjoy it. I enjoyed having that secret.”
It can’t have been easy seeing his initial run as Spider-Man end after just two films. The character was reintegrated into Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and Holland took over for Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far from Home. What sort of negotiations took place? Did it require any arm twisting?
It was the easiest decision ever. As soon as I heard Tobey was interested as well… Oh, my God, to be able to play Spider-Man with my Spider-Man – Tobey
“Not at all. I honestly look back on that experience joyfully; the fact that I got to play that character and give my all to it,” he says. “I got to work with and meet so many incredible people and have so many incredible opportunities because of it. There’s nothing but gratitude. I kind of adore it. There was a part of me wanted to resolve some things for the character.”
He explains that Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, and Amy Pascal, former chairperson of Sony and continuing producer of the Spider-Man films, noted they had a "way of doing that". They further assured him that they could all "have a good time".
"This could be a legendary moment for comic-book fans and movie fans," he says. "And if we get it right, if it doesn't feel superficial, if it actually feels purposeful, this can be very, very cool. It was the easiest decision ever. As soon as I heard Tobey was interested as well… Oh, my God, to be able to play Spider-Man with my Spider-Man – Tobey. And to be able to serve Tom, who was just so incredible in the role. As a fan, I just had to do that."
He moved on to The Eyes of Tammy Faye while Tick, Tick… Boom! also skirts awards season. Garfield confirms that, as has been reported, he hopes to play Charles Ryder in a new TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited for Luca Guadagnino. "It's a matter of time and schedule, and financing and all that stuff," he says.
Garfield has come a long way from Sainsbury’s in Hendon. But he remains attached to good old London. When I ask what he misses when in LA, he can barely contain himself.
"Oh, I miss my nephews. I miss my dad. I miss my brother. I miss the restaurant Barrafina. I miss theatre. I miss Hampstead Heath. I miss the Hampstead Ponds. Oh my God, I miss so much. I miss Belsize Park. I miss Primrose Hill. Everything I miss. I miss walking around the West End. I just miss London."
This man really requires no drawing out.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is on general release.