Chalk it up to image control and the studio weight behind them — comic book films have become a time-release truth bomb, with a contractually bound gap for its cast and crew between its release and when the “real story” can emerge. That can occasionally slip, but the full tale behind Marc Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man” reboot — to which actor Andrew Garfield lent a dedicated two turns as Peter Parker before the role was reset again — is still to come. If the aftermath means more films and roles for Garfield like “99 Homes” (our review) though, then consider the shift a welcome one.
Led by Ramin Bahrani, director of “Chop Shop,” “Goodbye Solo,” and “At Any Price,” the “Never Let Me Go” actor delivers an impassioned performance as Dennis Nash, on the losing side of the housing crisis in Florida when he and his mother (Laura Dern) and son (Noah Lomax) are evicted from their home. Profiting off the entire operation is Michael Shannon’s corrupt realtor character, Rick Carver, and the two actors playing off one another throughout Bahrani’s well researched, lean, and enraging narrative is a gripping sight.
As I learned talking to Garfield recently in Los Angeles, that passion in his role as Dennis reads because it’s present first of all in person. Touching on his connections to film and fan communities, his upcoming role in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” and yes, his time on “The Amazing Spider-Man,” he tread an honest account of the last few years of his career, starting with “99 Homes.”
Ramin has spoken about the intensive research he did in Florida on families affected by the housing crisis. Did you share that same level of immersion?
He did the research for all of us, in a way. He gave us access to all that he absorbed. For me, I got to go down and spend two weeks with families who were going through the same thing that my character goes through. And it felt pretty vital, because when I read the script I got hit — I was like, “I know this. How do I know this? I’ve never been evicted.” But I believe that we all know it. When I reached the scene where the Nash family gets evicted, it felt so universal, even though only a portion of people go through those specific circumstances. Just in terms of people feeling exiled, or deeming themselves worthless. I think the film speaks to that cultural conditioning that we have of treating people according to how the world values them — “What’s in your bank account, what car are you driving? Are you famous? What can I get out of you? Where am I in comparison to you?”
You feel worthless?
I think everyone feels like they’re worthless, in a way. I definitely have a part of me that feels unworthy to be here. I don’t feel that way in nature though — in the ocean or in the desert. I feel connected to all of that. I struggle in cities, where the value systems are hierarchical, and based on the idea of success. I think what [“99 Homes”] poses is success, but at what cost? If the way to survival and living a life of richness means betraying your brother, then that’s not a system that I want to participate in. But we all are participating in it, whether we’re looking at it or not.
Was that system something that you immediately felt growing up?
I was raised in a suburban environment in Surrey, which was very 2.4 children, all the trappings. I just didn’t get it. I got most of my joy from swimming, and being in a park or my backyard. That was my only taste of belonging. It continued in school — I felt like, “I’m only of value if I do these subjects well.” But what if I want to sculpt, or paint? “Well, you’re not going to make money off that, you won’t be of service to your society.” That was the subliminal messaging that I got, and I think that most young people still get in their schooling. The arts are kind of degraded to a hobby, to a piss about. So when I discovered the only thing that I was drawn into was acting, I was like, “Oh, fuck. I’m worthless.”
Which is bullshit, because the whole foundation of humanity is storytelling. We told each other stories to make sense of all this. More than ever, as far as I can feel, we’re living full of anxiety. I struggle with the iPhone, with Twitter, with everyone living in public but not being themselves in an authentic way. I’m a culprit of it as well — I’m not just going, “Everyone else is fucked.” I’ve been fucked up by it. But I’ve been doing everything I can to counter it, spending as much time in nature as possible, spending time in real community. I think what the film is focusing us toward is community, and empathy, and compassion. Those tenets of being a human being, which I believe are inherent in everyone. There’s nothing better than helping someone — for me, I go home after those days and I’m like, “I belonged here today, actually, because I gave myself in some way.”
How do you find that genuine community you’re talking about, especially when you’ve seen all sides of a business that aims — at its best — to art?
I think the secret is everyone’s needed. The producers are needed, the actors and crew are needed. There’s obviously more warmth coming from the people who are serving and honoring the story, and you feel it when an energy comes in that is honoring a false idol, money, winning the awards, bullshit. I gravitate toward the warmth, but I can’t just ignore all the stuff that doesn’t feel as good. Real community is everyone, it’s not going, “We don’t want you here, actually.” That doesn’t help anyone; that just creates more separation. And I believe deep down everyone wants to bring their gifts to something that is worthy.
Going from the Spider-Man films, where you’re partially saying to audiences, “Accept me as this version of a character,” is it a weight off to be involved in films without that context and pressure?
I had to go in the same way for Spider-Man as the others, because I had to say, “I am—for the time being—this character, and I have to honor what that is inside me.” It is a weight off though, because with a film like that there’s so much projection and expectation that is inherent in taking on a story and character like that, right? I was well up for the challenge, and I still am. I’m not going to shy away from something that a lot of people are going to see. Fuck it, bring it on, life’s short.
Because the instinct would be, you’ve just come off these massive films, now take a break and do the $2 million films for the next five years.
It does feel freeing. I do feel freer in certain ways than I did doing those films. The pressure to get it right, to please everyone — it’s not going to happen, and that’s when you make a shit film. You end up pleasing no one, or everyone just a little bit. Like, “Eh, that was good.” No, that’s mass-marketed, “We want 50-year-old white men to love it, gay teenagers to love it, bigot homophobes in Middle America to love it, 11-year-old girls to love it.” That’s canning Coke. So that aspect of it was a bummer, sure. Especially for the group of us trying to infuse it with soul, trying to make it unique, something that was worth the price of entry. It was about authenticity, flavor, and truth, but at the same time, I understand people want to make a lot of money, and they’re going to spend a lot of money so the playpen can be as big as it was. I can’t live that way, though; it sounds like a prison, to be honest, living within those expectations.
When the Sony hack hit, “Amazing Spider-Man 2” was a central topic of those emails. Were you ever tempted to take a look at the studio’s thoughts beyond what they told you?
Oh man. I felt okay. I didn’t look at any of it really. My friend scoured for any mention of me; he found one thing but it was totally benign and nothing. Everyone else, though — so many people had it so terrible. It was people’s information, and the fact that the media propagated it… saying it’s public interest to know what’s happening, and saying it’s our right to know the inner workings of an international corporation. So you’re going to go ahead and leak a bunch of innocent bystanders’ personal information, addresses, social security numbers?
You must have found some common ground ideal-wise working on “Silence,” then.
Yeah, “Silence” was five months of asking, “Is there a God?” And swimming around in that question. What is a spiritual life? Is it worship of a higher being, or is it seeing the higher being in everyone else? Respecting, as in “re-spect” — looking again, looking closer, and seeing the divine in every man and woman. Name it what you will — God, higher power, spirit, nature, cosmos. It was five months of that.
Did you find an answer?
[Laughs] Fuck no! I found some ideas, and in my bones I reacted to some things.
I think that the story holds some truth, and in the experience of attempting to live it I found that spirit is always communicating, it’s how we react to it. We just have to be awake somehow. And that’s the work of a spiritual life, as far as I can tell. I don’t know how to do it, but I’m searching always for connection to my deepest self, not exiling any part of myself, saying “I need the damaged bits, I need the hurt bits, I need the joyful and charismatic and stupid bits.” I need all of me so that I can love everything else.
“99 Homes” hits theatres on September 25th.