Spider-Man turns holy man

Andrew Garfield.
Andrew Garfield.

LOS ANGELES • To understand how Andrew Garfield successfully made the leap from Spider- Man to holy man, it is helpful to know that when he was eight, his hero was Mahatma Gandhi.

And that one of his life goals at the time was to seek out the schoolyard bully and envelop him in a warm embrace.

"He was a brilliant terror, kind of like a mini-dictator," he recalled during a recent interview. "My first impulse was to give him a hug and a kiss and tell him he was all right, and that he didn't have to behave that way."

After a few hours of conversation with Garfield, it was evident that he sees many things deeply.

This attribute was integral to his landing starring roles in two meaty movies that are receiving awards attention this season.

The first is Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, about Desmond T. Doss, a real-life World War II hero, a Seventh- day Adventist and conscientious objector who refused to carry weaponry. The part has landed Garfield his second Golden Globe nomination.

The other is Martin Scorsese's long-awaited Silence, in which he plays a 17th-century Jesuit priest, Sebastien Rodrigues, on a mission in hostile Japan.

Both directors said Garfield possessed a moral conviction necessary for playing their protagonists, each of whom happen to be devout and forced to face down Japanese antagonists.

Garfield, 33, said he could not have done Hacksaw were it not for the intensive preparation he underwent for Silence.

For the Scorsese film, which was produced first, but released second, he spent a year under the tutelage of the Jesuit priest and author Father James Martin, praying, fasting and using a small rented West Village apartment as a quasi-monastic retreat. "I got not only a theological education, but also a deep spiritually transformative experience," Garfield said.

Lithe and nimble - not for nothing was he Spider-Man - and as finely tuned as a whippet, Garfield came across as a friendly, engaged presence, with a crackling intelligence that Gibson described as "through the roof".

Garfield met to chat at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood; he was in production for the coming noir thriller, Under The Silver Lake.

His casting as the webbed crusader for The Amazing Spider- Man (2012) and subsequent romance with co-star Emma Stone had catapulted him to wider fame, which he dreaded when he took the Peter Parker role.

Spider-Man had always been Garfield's favourite superhero and he said he adored the character and could not say no, even though being in such a spotlight made him cringe.

In 2015, when it was announced that another actor would be playing Spider-Man, he found himself relieved: He wanted to continue working on himself as an actor, which is not easy in a franchise.

"It's a money-making exercise and I don't know if I'm criticising that," he said. "I'm trying not to judge that."

But he had already been spreading his wings.

In 2012, he earned a Tony nomination for his performance as Biff in Broadway's Death Of A Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and directed by Mike Nichols. The performance was recommended to Scorsese.

In 2013, while Garfield was in the middle of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, he found himself in an audition with Scorsese that would leave the director thrilled.

"I felt the film come alive at that point," Scorsese wrote in an e-mail. "Andrew let me know right away that he had to go deep into the role and that it had to take time - he had to live it."

The production was in 2015. Shortly after Garfield returned, he read the script for Hacksaw Ridge. It was positioned as a comeback for Gibson, who had been disgraced a decade earlier for drunkenly spewing anti-Semitic epithets.

Garfield said he read the script, wept - Doss had single-handedly rescued 75 men from a brutal battleground in Japan - and that any hesitation he might have had vanished after he asked Gibson about the controversy head-on.

Garfield is also starring in a revival of Angels In America in the West End. But his immediate future is being dictated by awards - his work in Hacksaw also landed a Screen Actors Guild award.

He will be back on red carpets, schmoozing again, a reluctant cog in the Hollywood machine.

NYTIMES

•Hacksaw Ridge opens in Singapore on Jan 19. Silence opens on Feb 16.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2017, with the headline 'Spider-Man turns holy man'. Print Edition | Subscribe