How Andrew Garfield Went From Jonathan Larson to Jim Bakker to Spider-Man in One Crazy Year

TheWrap magazine: ”It was a very mystical, profound thing, a kind of storytelling ritual of grief and even gratitude,“ says Garfield of his role in ”tick, tick…BOOM!“

A version of this story about Andrew Garfield first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Before he starred as Jonathan Larson in “tick, tick…BOOM!” for director Lin-Manuel Miranda, Andrew Garfield’s go-to karaoke song was Will Smith’s “Miami.” The number was catchy enough for a crowded bar (“Party in the city where the heat is on/All night on the beach ‘til the break of dawn”), but it was definitely not a song designed to make you think that the guy had the vocal chops to play a musical-theater trailblazer like Larson, who revolutionized Broadway with “Rent” before dying unexpectedly at the age of 35.

“It didn’t require any skill, particularly,” Garfield said with a grin of “Miami.” “It requires a vocal dexterity and an ability to tell a story, but it doesn’t require pipes in any way.”

He paused. “Maybe sometimes, late, late, late in the evening of a karaoke session, I might try ‘End of the Road’ by Boyz II Men, which is an incredibly impossible song to sing. But I get very shy at karaoke.”

Based on the evidence provided by “tick, tick…BOOM!,” though, Garfield appears to have gotten over his shyness about singing. It took more than a year of studying with a voice teacher, but the 38-year-old British-American actor fully embraced the world of musical theater through the character of the driven, joyous and doomed Larson.

It added another key role to a filmography that was already long on intense and deeply felt performances (“Hacksaw Ridge,” “Silence,” “99 Homes,” “The Social Network” … ). It also joined two other memorable 2021 appearances: his creepily charming portrayal of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and his (spoiler alert) return as Spider-Man alongside fellow Spideys Tom Holland and Tobey Maguire in a few priceless scenes in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” And it plunged him into an arena that he’d thought of as “this undiscovered land of impossible terror” when he was a young actor appearing in film and in non-musical theater.

“When you look at musical theater performers, there’s a need to be so alive and expressive and almost superhuman in their capacity for energy and breath,” said Garfield, who in conversation is simultaneously enthusiastic, thoughtful and loquacious. “Great musicals demand of actors the whole scale of human experience played to the hilt, and there’s no shying away. It’s a longing that I’ve had to express myself in that way through singing and dancing —  you know, I watch Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and it’s kind of the purest performative expression. And I watch Sondheim musicals and go, ‘How does he do that?’ And Lin knocked on that door for me.”

Miranda knocked on Garfield’s door because he’d seen the actor on Broadway in a 2018 revival of Tony Kushner’s mammoth “Angels in America.” That role won Garfield a Tony but didn’t prove that he was capable of singing Larson’s songs, but Miranda arranged for the actor to meet with noted vocal coach Liz Caplan.

“It was a semi-secret audition, I think,” Garfield said. “They were having a back-alley text chain going on while I was there, with him saying, ‘What do you think, can the kid do it?’ And she backed me.”

Miranda’s schedule prevented the film from beginning production for more than a year, which gave Garfield time for vocal lessons. It also allowed him to immerse himself in the life and work of Larson, a composer and performer who struggled for years to whip up interest in work that explored his life and those of his friends who were trying to create art in New York City during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. The film is based on (but greatly expanded from) a one-man show originally called “Boho Days,” later renamed “tick, tick…BOOM!,” which achieved its greatest exposure when it was reworked into a stage musical after Larson’s death of an aortic dissection (a tear in the aorta) on the day of the first off-Broadway preview performance of “Rent.” After his death, that musical would win him three posthumous Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

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“For me, one of the keys was that if you watch him perform, it’s as urgent as if his life depended on it, which it did,” Garfield said. “And not only his life, but he was singing for everyone else around him. He was singing for the lives of a generation lost to another epidemic, the AIDS epidemic. His way of being a frontline worker in the trenches was at the piano. It was a reclaiming of the soul of theater for himself and his comrades.

“Obviously he was banging his head against the wall in terms of getting paid for his work, but it was a stake in the ground. He was saying, “I’m going to spend my time this way, and it’s worthwhile to honor the sacredness of the lives that are not being treated as sacred right now by the culture, by the government and by the world at large.

“And that’s what it felt like while we were shooting the one-man show at the New York Theatre Workshop. It was like sitting vigil. It was a very mystical, profound thing, a kind of storytelling ritual of grief and even gratitude. It felt like a ritual of integrating and accepting loss as part of living and as the only way of making life meaningful.”

The film also focuses on a moment in Larson’s life when he was not achieving success but was learning that the key was to let go of the idea that his big break was imminent and simply continue to work. It’s a lesson, Garfield said, that can apply to every artist, including himself.

“I was lucky enough to start working in earnest when I was 20 or 21, out of drama school,” he said. “So it’s been almost two decades, and the illusion that there’s any getting there started to crack for me after about 10 years. Then you realize that no, I’m just lucky that I get to step into a rehearsal room. I started to understand that it’s the doing, the process. Not to sound pretentious, but the work of a life is an unfinished creative act.”

But if Garfield’s work is unfinished, it’s not for a lack of trying. Before making” tick, tick…BOOM!” in 2020, he played Jim Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a film Jessica Chastain had worked to get off the ground for almost a decade. And while he speaks glowingly of collaborating with Chastain, who plays Tammy Faye Bakker, he was more troubled about taking on the role of a man who preached the gospel of prosperity while paying hush money to a woman who accused him of rape, and who was sent to jail in 1988 for defrauding investors and using ministry funds to bankroll his lavish lifestyle.

“Oh, it was so painful,” he said of the role. “It was so, so uncomfortable because he’s so uncomfortable. He’s in so much pain, with his behavior towards excess and never-enoughness, all shrouded in his own self-delusion that this was for God. He’d think, ‘This is what God wants me to do’ to cover up this terribly wounded little boy inside him that doesn’t feel worthy.

“This is obviously just my interpretation, but I think that desire for more and more comes from a real spiritual absence. We’ve all known people like that, and it’s on the rise because we are in a culture that encourages that kind of not-enoughness. We are encouraged to think we never have enough, which keeps us as good consumers. I think he was this epic example of a cultural sickness really. And I didn’t particularly enjoy inhabiting that.”

But Garfield did enjoy his third 2021 role, which came in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” The blockbuster hit uses the concept of the multi-verse to bring together all three actors who have played the web-slinging superhero over the past two decades: “No Way Home” stars the current Spider-Man, Tom Holland, but also brings in Tobey Maguire, who played the role in three movies between 2002 and 2007, and Garfield, who took the part for films in 2012 and 2014.

The triple-Spidey scenes are gems of brotherly bickering, and Garfield did his best to keep them secret before release by relentlessly and vociferously lying every time he was asked about the rumors. “It was rather stressful but also weirdly enjoyable,” he said of the deception. But the filming itself, he said, was a complete pleasure.

“When they first asked me about it, I thought, ‘This could be incredible or it could just be a stunt,” he said. “It could be a round of applause in the theater and that’s that. But where they wanted to go and where we went was so heartening. It was like, we got to actually create a Spider-Man support group!”

He laughed. “The dynamics in those scenes was life imitating art, in a way. I look up to Tobey as this older brother figure — I want his attention, I want him to like me and be impressed by me. And we all feel protective of Tom. And so we worked on infusing as much of that truthfulness as possible. It was surprisingly fertile soil to work with.”

With his recent Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination for “tick, tick…BOOM!,” Garfield now finds himself in the strange situation of going up against the guy who had provided him with his karaoke tune of choice, Will Smith. “I mean, gosh,” he said. “How do you even begin to compute that?”  

And it also raises another question: Now that he’s made his mark as a musical-theater icon, is his new karaoke go-to going to change from Smith’s rap song to a show tune?

“It better,” he said. “I’ve got to figure that out.” Then he paused. “Maybe it’s good that we can’t do things in person for a while, because nobody wants to hear me doing Stephen Sondheim.”

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

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Photo by Matt Sayles for TheWrap