A Hero Is Born
His cinematic career threatened to stall after his premature release from the perpetually rebooting Spider-Man franchise, but with his newest roles portraying principled real-life figures, Andrew Garfield has not only seen his stock rise in the world of cinema, but has found a higher purpose in his work that echoes his own spiritual journey…
W hen it comes to some actors’ careers, there often appears a moment in which that star ‘came of age’ on the silver screen. For Andrew Garfield, it seems that this transformation from cinematic novice to Hollywood stalwart can be attributed to two epic productions: Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge – documenting the outstanding efforts of the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honour – and Martin Scorsese’s thoughtful tour de force Silence, following the plight of two Jesuit priests who risk capture and torture as they attempt to find their mentor in 17th- century Japan.
It’s a far cry from the fresh-faced actor who in 2015 had the planned third instalment to his well-received iteration as Spider-Man abruptly cancelled by Sony, with the role transferring to teenager Tom Holland. For a less talented actor, an ejection from a popular film franchise may well have spelled the end to a career or the beginning of a new one elsewhere, but in Garfield’s case the loss of such a recognisable role – and the potential pigeonholing this kind of publicity often incurs – proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“I can’t believe how things worked out the way they have,” the 33-year-old agrees. “I feel very lucky and very grateful to have been able to work with these two master filmmakers. What’s ironic is that after my experience on Spider-Man I made a list of directors whom I would like to work with and two of those names were Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson. I’m very aware of how rare these opportunities are.”
For his part, Garfield is grasping such opportunities with both hands. His performance as Private Desmond T. Doss in Hacksaw Ridge has attracted widespread critical acclaim, an irony perhaps when you consider the courageous man he is portraying – a man who, despite saving over 75 lives in one of World War Two’s most brutal and uncompromising arenas, never strove for personal glory or exaltation.
“His beliefs forbade him to take the life of another man, yet he still wanted to commit himself to an important cause and found his own way to do that,” says Garfield. “Doss is an outstanding role model, a man who stood by his principles and became a hero even though he never thought of himself as one. He found his own way to be himself even though he was under intense pressure to become someone else.
“He was also never interested in honours and awards. He felt he was merely doing his duty, like many ordinary people whose actions are rarely acknowledged and who never become celebrities. That’s why for a very long period he never wanted his story told or to be glorified in any way.”
Unwaivering belief and selfless action
He continues: “What is remarkable is how he never wavered from his beliefs and endured an incredible amount of abuse as a soldier for refusing to pick up a weapon. Yet he stuck to his beliefs and managed to save all those men who without his selfless actions would never have seen their families again.”
And for the slender Garfield – known more for his soulful brown eyes than his bulging biceps – the incredible feats of strength achieved by devoted Seventh Day Adventist Doss appear to hint at some sort of higher power being behind the Virginia-born medic’s battlefield heroics.
“I still can’t understand how he did it,” Garfield muses. “I’m in pretty good shape and I was completely exhausted after trying to drag just two men. Also, he was doing this in very rugged terrain and under constant fire and with explosions going on around him.
“Just the physical part of what he did is staggering. I could train for months and never be able to have the strength to do what he did. I truly believe there was some kind of divine power, or however you want to describe it, that enabled him to rescue all those soldiers.”
The sheer scale of Doss’ actions at Okinawa – where “he acted without any regard for his own life” – even led Garfield to favourably compare this unassuming Virginian with the web-slinging hero who gave the actor his big break into the upper echelons of Hollywood.
“Of course Desmond Doss can be considered a superhero,” he says. “I would say that he is even more of a superhero than Spider-Man! He accomplished an incredible feat, dragging 75 wounded soldiers back to safety while under terrific enemy fire. I think it’s a beautiful story and one I hope inspires audiences to have more respect and consideration for veterans who return from the battlefield and have endured the most terrible situations.”
Though strength training made up a large part of Garfield’s preparation for Hacksaw Ridge, his characterisation of Doss was aided by the fact he had recently undergone exhaustive groundwork for Scorsese’s intense theological magnum opus. In order to play Father Sebastião Rodrigues in Silence – an adaptation of Shusako Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name – Garfield became a pupil of Jesuit priest and author Father James Martin. The latter would tutor the actor through St Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises – and Garfield would also spend his time studying, meditating and fasting in secluded locations with co-star Adam Driver, such as a silent retreat in the furthest reaches of the Welsh countryside.
Garfield’s commitment and enthusiasm in the lead-up to these challenging performances was subsequently hailed by both iconic directors as being a key component that allowed each to bring their vision to the big screen.
“I think Marty [Scorsese] saw that I was very excited by the idea of engaging in that process of exploration with him and that was a major reason why he chose me to play the part,” Garfield agrees. “And this film also came at the right time to me because I was already interested in those spiritual questions that he wanted to investigate.”
Catching the eye of Hollywood
This dedication to his role is an element of Garfield’s work that is quickly catching the eye of Hollywood’s major players. It was the chance to work with the legendary Scorsese in a film he’d been developing in various forms for nearly his entire cinematic career, however, that made the work behind the scenes an equally punishing and rewarding task.
“Marty is the high priest of cinema and I devoted myself to his vision,” Garfield enthuses. “I think he wanted an actor who shared his interest in spiritual themes and who has also struggled with these kinds of existential questions. He’s wanted to make this film for 30 years and I’m honoured to have been able to take this journey with him. We would have many long conversations about questions involving faith and I found myself exploring what a life of faith means.”
This individual assessment of a “life of faith” had repercussions for Garfield that expanded far beyond his on-screen participation, critically acclaimed though it may have been, into his life as a whole.
“I felt I was being called to make this film in a similar way to how someone believes that they’re being called to the priesthood,” he reveals. “This role not only spurred my own spiritual development, but learning and understanding so much about the teachings of Christ made me want to impart those teachings to others. I don’t personally feel called to the priesthood, but working on this film did make me think about it.”
In fact, the work done in order to get into the mindset of those missionaries who risked their lives to spread the word of God – or indeed the attitude that the “special and humble” Desmond Doss embodied when he repeatedly put himself in harm’s way to rescue the lives of his comrades – is a journey that is ongoing for Garfield off-camera.
“I had never prayed before and then I sensed a great joy when I started praying and I did that for a year,” he adds. “It was during this time that I began to develop a relationship with a higher power, whether you want to call it God or love or something else.
“I’m still studying with Father Martin and he’s helped me develop my own specific relationship with Jesus,” the star adds. “I enjoy carrying on the enlightened process of exploration that I began with him when I did the Spiritual Exercises. I want to be able to grow as a human being and find a good way to live.”
Leaving Spiderman behind
This desire Garfield holds to draw on the literature and theological exercises he diligently studied in the run-up to Silence goes hand in hand with the actor’s reservations regarding his own career. In the aftermath of his contentious departure from the Spider-Man franchise – in which one Sony executive claimed Garfield failed to show up for a promotion event despite the actor claiming he was sick in bed – he made it abundantly clear that he was unwilling to sacrifice his personality to the machinations of Hollywood production.
And nowadays, as Garfield’s work has moved into the more mature territory of Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, his transition from fresh-faced and coiffured superhero to burgeoning cinematic giant is almost complete. However, the star’s growing incongruity with the mega-bucks Hollywood machine is thrown into stark focus – he’s simply not interested in all that. With award nominations, red carpet appearances and a new aura of fame following close behind his rise to stardom, the tranquillity Garfield found in working on Silence provided a welcome juxtaposition to the glitz- and glamour-filled life of a silver screen celebrity that suited the more traditionally reserved actor.
“We’re living in a very narcissistic time and this story enabled me to escape my own self-obsessed tendencies and look at the bigger picture in life,” he remarks. “I had always wanted to understand what it means to lead a life of faith and it was a very fulfilling experience.
Peace of mind and serenity
“I was able to enjoy the peace of mind and serenity that comes from letting go of one’s material connection to the world. You start to believe that forsaking all things worldly in order to serve a higher power and help others is a far more satisfying way to live. Occupying that kind of place for a year has had a very profound effect on me.”
It seems his tenure as the wall-crawling hero will become little more than a distant memory as Garfield’s true appeal becomes clear and is anything but fleeting. The long-lasting effects of taking on “compelling” roles like those of Doss and Rodrigues may well have influenced his next project, as polio survivor Robin Cavendish in Andy Serkis’ directorial debut Breathe, slated for release this year.
Despite this trio of films elevating Garfield to a place where he is interacting with true legends of cinema, he is adamant that the work he has done in portraying the self-sacrificing journey of Father Rodrigues held “profound meaning” to him that has inspired the star to start “exploring similar kinds of themes” in his own life off the back of his platform as one of Hollywood’s newest yet brightest stars.
“I have realised how our society is gripped by a false worship of celebrity culture and consumer goods,” he concludes. “For my part, I discovered in these two films that life is only meaningful if you are able to love and care for others.”