“You look like the Unabomber.” Those are the first words that slip out of my mouth when I greet Andrew Garfield at a hotel suite in Downtown Toronto. The typically fresh-faced, photogenic 31-year-old actor is sporting a bushy, unkempt, downright Biblical-looking beard. It is, he says, for a role as a 17th century priest in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film Silence, which is in pre-production. He’ll star opposite Liam Neeson and Adam Driver as a trio of bible-thumpers who travel to Japan to spread the gospel.
But the man otherwise known as Peter Parker/Spider-Man is here at the Toronto Film Festival to unveil his latest film, 99 Homes. Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, the movie centers on Dennis Nash (Garfield), a carpenter-father who, after being evicted from his home, chooses to disregard his moral compass and work for the rapacious real-estate broker (Michael Shannon) who had him evicted in order to reclaim his house. The foreclosure-drama is a fascinating study of greed and class warfare, boasting excellent turns by Garfield and Shannon.
Unruly beard aside, Garfield is a surprisingly introspective fella—which perhaps explains the complex characters he chooses to tackle onscreen, from a reformed killer in Boy A to the Abel to Mark Zuckerberg’s Cain in The Social Network to the aforementioned web-slinger.
What attracted you to 99 Homes? I understand you have dual citizenship, but it’s a pretty American story.
I think it’s a Western, capitalist story where people are being treated like figures on a page and not being recognized as flesh and blood and noble, as we all are. The situation that Dennis Nash finds himself in, and that we all find ourselves in in this culture right now, is that our nobility is not being seen, encouraged, or revered. We’re all very, very separate, and all hungry animals terrified of not eating. The post-Industrial Revolution capitalist system was set up with the best of intentions, but it’s been morphed, taken apart, and put back together until a handful of people are billionaires and the rest are struggling. There was some healing that had to be done in my family and with me being a man in this system.
Why did you feel there was a need for healing? What is the wound?
The “wound” is the ignorance of the nobility of the individual and of man, and the separation of all of us. I feel like this movie can be one very small step back towards caring for each other within a community. We’ve been taught that the only way to have worldly success is by trampling on each other and literally beating each other. The film speaks to the power of community, and the power of knowing that if I hurt you, I hurt myself. We live in a very cynical world of people assassinating each other from a distance without any human consequence. The Internet is a big example of that.
You mentioned the Internet, and there’s this celebrity nude hacking scandal in the news of late that targeted many of your fellow actors. It seems to be ingrained in the culture—this misguided notion that the public is entitled to famous people’s lives.
It’s disgusting. “I have a right to your naked body or images that you’ve sent to your husband, or lover.” It’s disgusting. It’s this violent, abusive violation of womanhood—of divine womanhood. It’s violent, and it’s misogynistic, and it’s revolting, and it’s another example of what this distance has enabled us to do—it’s enabled us to be disassociated from each other. There’s enough awful shit coming from it that hopefully we’ll get to the point of, “OK, wait a second.” What’s scary is that we haven’t reached that point yet, and there hasn’t been a referendum put on it. The Internet is the new Wild West. There’s a guy now taking these pictures and putting them up in an art gallery. What fucking right does he have to do that? It’s absolutely revolting.
But as far as hacking goes, our government is doing it too—infringing on the rights of citizens. So, if even our own government is doing it, there doesn’t seem to be a model for these younger, messed-up hacker kids to follow.
Exactly. It’s trickling down. If Daddy says it’s OK, fine. That’s a sickness. I feel frightened and concerned about our reputation rather than character. Reputation, or how we seem, seems to be much more important these days than who we are—which is obviously backward. It’s the tail wagging the dog. And this movie is talking about the dollar signs wagging the soul. It’s not soul first, it’s survival first at any cost, and then once you survive and prosper then you can give to charity. Only when I get to a certain bank balance, and my kids and their kids are going to be put through Ivy League schools, can we give to charity.
You’ve lived a bit in New York City, and you mentioned the handful of billionaires vs. the rest of us issue. New York City seems to be a prime example of that, and also just as a general symbol of, like you said, the post-Industrial Revolution capitalist system. I think that’s part of the reason why terrorists who despise the West choose to attack it. And they attacked the tallest building. In the olden days, you weren’t allowed to build any higher than the church in a village, town, or city. Legally, the church was to be the highest building, and everything else had to be an inch below. You know what the religion of a city is by the tallest building. So, what’s the religion of New York City? It’s a dollar bill. Trade. That’s God. Money is God. And that’s a shame. But we’re all somehow part of it and chained to the system. The beautiful thing about the film is that it’s not going to change the world, but it can bring us closer together as a community. It’s hard to create a community when all we’re trying to do is fuck each other over. Recently, I’ve been having not an allergic reaction, but a panicked response to cities. It’s weird to have so many people living together in a 2-mile plot of land.
You also starred in Death of a Salesman on Broadway with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. I had the pleasure of taking my little sister to see the play front row, and it was brilliant. What was it like working in such close proximity with him as his son for four months?
It’s one that I will never forget, and will always go back to it. He was a benchmark, a mentor as an artist and as a man, and I just loved him with all my heart. I feel so privileged that I got to be in the shit with him every night for four months. We were able to really have our souls brush up against each other in a very intimate—and scary—way. It was a wonderful experience.
How has it been balancing smaller passion projects like 99 Homes with your superhero duties as Spider-Man?
Well, Spider-Man is a passion project, too. I’m very passionate about Spider-Man. I can’t go to work unless it’s a passion project, which presents an interesting dichotomy of how those movies are perceived and how I feel about them. I try not to think too much about my career from an outside perspective. We all live in public, so there’s a camera on everything now—whether you’re famous or not—so you’re not just here in the moment with a fellow man, there’s also a camera over here watching you. What I see is people so willfully inviting the camera to watch and observe everything, and then suddenly there’s a third person there that you’re aware of and pandering to, so then you start asking questions like, “How does my career look?” “How do I look?” “Does it matter how I look, or is it important that I’m just here with my fellow man?” Sorry, I’ve taken it to sort of a macro level.
Speaking of Spider-Man, I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, but I wasn’t very high on the recent sequel. It seemed crammed with characters, and like a setup film for The Sinister Six spin-off. I’m curious what your feelings are about it.
It’s interesting. I read a lot of the reactions from people and I had to stop because I could feel I was getting away from how I actually felt about it. For me, I read the script that Alex [Kurtzman] and Bob [Orci] wrote, and I genuinely loved it. There was this thread running through it. I think what happened was, through the pre-production, production, and post-production, when you have something that works as a whole, and then you start removing portions of it—because there was even more of it than was in the final cut, and everything was related. Once you start removing things and saying, “No, that doesn’t work,” then the thread is broken, and it’s hard to go with the flow of the story. Certain people at the studio had problems with certain parts of it, and ultimately the studio is the final say in those movies because they’re the tentpoles, so you have to answer to those people.
But I’ll tell you this: Talking about the experience as opposed to how it was perceived, I got to work in deep scenes that you don’t usually see in comic book movies, and I got to explore this orphan boy—a lot of which was taken out, and which we’d explored more. It’s interesting to do a postmortem. I’m proud of a lot of it and had a good time, and was a bit taken aback by the response.
It’s a discernment thing. What are the people actually saying? What’s underneath the complaint, and how can we learn from that? We can’t go, “Oh God, we fucked up because all these people are saying all these things. It’s shit.” We have to ask ourselves, “What do we believe to be true?” Is it that this is the fifth Spider-Man movie in however many years, and there’s a bit of fatigue? Is it that there was too much in there? Is it that it didn’t link? If it linked seamlessly, would that be too much? Were there tonal issues? What is it? I think all that is valuable. Constructive criticism is different from people just being dicks, and I love constructive criticism. Hopefully, we can get underneath what the criticism was about, and if we missed anything.