‘Under the Banner of Heaven’: Andrew Garfield on Playing a Mormon Detective Who Has to ‘Pick Apart His Own Psychological Makeup’

Creator Dustin Lance Black also talks to TheWrap about telling Brenda Lafferty’s story

One of spring’s most anticipated new limited series, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” debuts via FX on Hulu Thursday night. Based on the true crime bestseller from Jon Krakauer, the series tells the story of the murder of Mormon Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter in 1984 in a small town in Salt Lake City

From creator and Oscar-winning “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the story is set in and around the world of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), as Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), a devout Mormon, investigates Brenda’s gruesome death. As Pyre and his partner, Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), begin to piece together what happened to Brenda and her child, they follow leads that put them in touch with a secretive fundamentalist Mormon community, whose beliefs about a woman’s place in the home and society contrast strongly with those held by Brenda.

“I got to know Brenda’s family very well, and came to love them. You know, they’re Mormon. They’re active Mormon. But it’s a more modern kind of Mormonism. Some might call it a ‘cafeteria Mormonism,’ meaning it takes the good and they leave the things behind that don’t make sense,” Black told TheWrap. “And so certainly, Brenda’s father raising all of these girls very quickly said, ‘I don’t know that I believe in these misogynist rules that were written 200 or 2000 years ago. They certainly don’t feel true to me, and I’m not going to raise my girls like that.’

“And that’s who Brenda is. That’s who she came from,” Black continued. “And so she is going to ask questions, she is going to challenge assumptions. She was not satisfied with the status quo.”

The series opens with Brenda’s murder, and utilizes flashbacks as Pyre and Taba work the case, allowing the show to look at the young woman’s life as she pursued her dreams of being a news anchor, and her marriage into the Laffertys, a well-known Mormon family in the area.

“I got that out of the way right at the top so that we can start to like, live her life. And I find her life inspiring,” Black said. “I think it speaks to the necessity for curiosity, to asking questions.”

In the series, Garfield’s Pyre finds himself asking questions, too, as the investigation causes him to examine his LDS faith at just about every turn.

“Yeah, and rightly so, and being destroyed as if a sledge hammer being taken to it by this case,” Garfield told TheWrap. “Just by the very nature of having to do his job, he has to start picking apart his own psychological makeup, the structure that lives in him, the structure that lives outside of him, the very foundations of the church that he has been raised in that is the basis of all of his understanding of how to live.”

Pyre’s internal struggle of faith comes about in moments where Garfield doesn’t always have dialgoue, and from an acting perspective, he appreciated the challenge of having to portray that struggle without words.

“Fo me, it was like the coolest thing ever and also, yes … to communicate that in a way through the lens and the physicality and the rhythm and the behavior of a Mormon detective in the ‘80s, a stoic man that is not as attuned with his emotional experience, having come from playing a flamboyant musical theater writer [in ‘Tick, Tick … Boom’] to now doing, you know, a Mormon detective, it’s a great rift that I got to kind of like, straddle, so to speak, “Garfield said. “ And yeah, I love that as a challenge to try and say a lot without saying much at all. You know, that was a challenge that I was kind of craving.”

“Under the Banner of Heaven” begins streaming Thursday on FX on Hulu, with new episodes released weekly.