The big dildo was Andrew Garfield’s idea. It was a sunny afternoon in the summer of 2019 when the actor formerly known as Spider-Man ran through downtown Hollywood stark naked save for the floppy strap-on bouncing around between his legs.
Garfield seemed manic, possessed by the spirit of something even better than fame as he high-fived tourists and howled to the sky that “I just woke up in my soul and my heart!” The social media footage that made its way onto “Entertainment Tonight” would show the recent Oscar nominee barking at pedestrians with evangelical zeal while a cop handcuffed him against the windows of a head shop. “Are you feeling me, baby!? I know you’re feeling me!”
Anyone who rubbernecked long enough would’ve seen “Mainstream” writer-director Gia Coppola drive up in the van where she’d been gleefully watching the chaos on her monitor from across the street. Those unwitting extras were the only “real” part of a scene in Coppola’s loud and lacerating new satire of viral fame, and they had front-row seats to the most honest spectacle you could ever hope to see in a town full of people who will do anything to make you look at them.
When IFC Films releases “Mainstream” in theaters and on VOD this Friday, the rest of the world will be able to marvel at it too.
“It was like riding on a rollercoaster,” Garfield remembered over the phone from a friend’s house somewhere along the cliffs of Big Sur. “That day was like ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do it. I’m going to vomit. I’m going to die.’ And then after the first take Gia says ‘Holy shit, that was amazing, we got it, get into the van.’ And I was like, ‘No. No, no, no. We’re doing this five more times.’”
Coppola was shocked, but not surprised. “Originally it was just going to be some nude underwear that we’d blur out,” she told IndieWire. “We didn’t have the budget to lock the street off. But Andrew was like ‘Okay, but what about a large strap-on?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’ I think it was liberating for him.”
Flaccid as that strap-on might have been, it nevertheless symbolizes the lust for freedom that fuels every aspect of Garfield as both person and performer — that separates him from all of the other fit white British actors who are so much easier to pin down. He’s willing to get weird.
“I go back to the fact that we’re all going to die,” he said a few minutes into a conversation that had gone so many places so fast that it had already touched upon the finite nature of human existence. “What do I want to do while I’m here? On my deathbed am I going to be like ‘Fuck, I wish hadn’t run around Hollywood Blvd naked wearing a dildo,’ or am I going to be like ‘Fuck, I wish I would have known what that felt like?’”
Talk to Garfield about the choices he’s made and you soon get the sense that he became an actor because he didn’t want to spend his entire life asking himself rhetorical questions. “I was a fucking idiot when I was a kid,” he said. “I was a very free kind of monkey child, and somewhere down the line — like most other children and monkey children — you start to feel threatened for being so free and uncensored and un-self-conscious.”
Garfield has been trotting out the “monkey child” to describe his childhood for years, and it seems to be the simplest explanation he’s found as to why he embraced acting as a teenager. “I found a place where I was actually allowed to embrace all of the things I was told not to be when I was growing up,” he said. “I was suddenly encouraged towards messiness, vulnerability, rage; I was given a place to be ugly, to be grotesque, to be all of the things that we as human beings try to deny ourselves in order to be loved and accepted because we want our finger paintings on the fridge. We want mommy and daddy’s love.”
He looped back without taking a breath: “Of course, we have to be socialized and fit into the culture in a way. We can’t just go around shitting on tables all the time.”
So far is Garfield is concerned, we should only shit on tables some of the time, preferably when self-aggrandizing YouTube stars like Jake Paul are sitting at them. That’s another thing Garfield does in “Mainstream,” the anarchic spirit of which traces back to Garfield and Coppola’s shared love of “Jackass” (Johnny Knoxville himself cameos in the aforementioned scene with the fake turd and the real asshole).
In fact, everything the actor does in this movie feels as visceral and impishly primitive as someone dropping their pants and squeezing one out on screen. As Nicholas Barber put it in his review: “You have to hand it to Andrew Garfield. Not everyone has the talent and the no-holds-barred commitment to create one of the most obnoxious characters in cinema history.”
Garfield would probably take that as a compliment. A streaming age Lonesome Rhodes who skyrockets to YouTube stardom with a show that warns against and weaponizes the banality of internet fame in equal measure, his character Link is like a coked-up youth pastor who preaches against digital pop idolism while using that same phenomenon to enrich his personal brand. He’s a sociopathic human TikTok who drifts into the limelight and becomes a megastar by insisting that he’s “No One Special” — a stage name that he leverages into a bonafide cult of personality through satirical videos about #BeingYourself (“but only your pretty parts, not that weak shit”) and later a dangerous YouTube game show called “Your Phone or Your Dignity.”
But what makes this movie’s biting take on modern celebrity as rough and textured as shark cartilage — what inspired Garfield to produce it, introduce Coppola to co-writer Tom Stuart, and workshop the project with her for years before the money fell into place — is that Jake Paul isn’t necessarily the butt of the joke. Garfield is repulsed and confused by them to a certain degree, and yet he can’t take stock of their success without seeing traces of the same unashamed freedom and ferality that he’s clung to since his monkey boy days.
“There’s something terrifyingly compelling about what voices get amplified and how we continue to elevate the worst of us as we anoint the wound,” Garfield said. “We keep sanctifying the mistake.” The actor — who once insisted that Jewishness was a defining feature of his Spider-Man — said he felt stupid using Christian terminology when talking about TikTok celebrities and the like. He found it blasphemous to suggest any kind of theological overlap between the Seventh-day Adventist he played in “Hacksaw Ridge” or the dying prophet he embodied throughout his soul-forging Broadway run of “Angels in America” and the narcissistic mega-brat he unleashes in Coppola’s film.
He just couldn’t stop himself. Maybe that’s because Garfield was holed up in a “monk-like” Manhattan apartment and preparing for his role as a Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” when he and Coppola first started emailing about “Mainstream.”
Or maybe it’s because the actor — whose first high-profile role in a major Hollywood film was as Mark Zuckerberg’s ill-fated best friend in “The Social Network” — can’t help but conceive of social media as a metaphysical battleground for our collective soul. He sees it as an amplifier of personal expression that’s become so distorted by feedback that people can no longer hear themselves think. It’s an irony reflected by the borrowed E.E. Cummings quote that forms the bedrock of the Gospel According to Andrew Garfield: “The hardest challenge is to be yourself in a world where everyone is trying to make you somebody else.”
“The idea of ‘being yourself’ has been commercialized into a hashtag,” Garfield said. “It’s like ‘be yourself, but only if you’re white, skinny, and rich.’” Going three-for-three doesn’t seem to have put Garfield’s mind at ease. “We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that money, fame, power, status, and all of those old desires will fill us up and make us feel whole,” he said. “I wanted to explore that in myself — the stuff that I attempt not to be seduced by.”
Both intensely private and also totally unguarded in a way that lends a warm spark of friction to everything he says. Garfield isn’t “on” social media, though he still maintains a long-running secret Twitter account (“Listen, I’m just like everybody else”). And why should he be? As a very successful filmmaker you know and love once confided to this writer about their own secret Twitter account: The saving grace of being famous in the 21st century is that you don’t feel like you have to be on the internet to affirm your existence.
Garfield tap dances around the recent family trauma that fed into his performance in “Mainstream” and addresses questions about social media stardom in unexpectedly dense terms. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow,” Garfield said, in what must be known history’s most unexpected response to a question about Jake Paul, “but it basically says that the quickest way to find out what’s in your shadow is to think of someone who makes you say ‘That is not me.’ Those are usually the qualities that are hiding inside you as a human being. For me, I think of a social media star like that. I actually think the main reason why I wanted to do this is because I wanted to lessen that gap somehow.”
The most frightening thing about Link — and the most impressive thing about the actor who plays him — is that you can tell they both stretch out from the same place. You can see the gap between them shrink before your eyes. Link is nothing less than monkey boy incarnate. “It goes back to this part of me that I had to put in a cage in the basement because it wasn’t pleasing to the people who were clothing and feeding me,” Garfield said. “It was annoying. But here I got to bring him out and let him roam around and do whatever the hell he wanted. It was like ‘Fuck, how lucky am I that I get to do this? That I get to be terrified, I get to be scared, I get to be in the unknown. I get to be annoying again!’”
Photo Courtesy of IFC Films.
His thoughts on certain topics sync up with Garfield’s in a way that suggests they’re speaking out of different sides of the same mouth like some digital age Tyler Durden. The space that separates the movie star from his shadow is so narrow that Link can sometimes make it seem like a trick of the light.
“There’s a Rilke poem,” Garfield said, “where he writes something along the lines of ‘Take your talents and stretch them between two opposing poles, because inside human beings is where God learns.’ I just love that, because I think that’s where I feel most like I’m being of service to audiences. If I can put my body between the two opposing poles and stretch, stretch, stretch, stretch, then I’m expanding and I’m hopefully giving people the opportunity to expand their own consciousness and empathies. We all have gifts to bring. If we’re concerned about how it looks, or if we’re concerned about whether or not it fits in, or if we’re concerned about whether or not it’s any good, then these are all impediments to our innate giftedness.”
Then, like a swimmer who’s just realized how far they’ve drifted from shore, Garfield flipped around and began heading back to dry land. “I guess I’m not on social media because I’m afraid of it shutting me down in certain ways. I mean… we have the capacity to be everything.”
It’s easy to imagine how Garfield might have adopted that line as a defensive mantra of sorts over the last few years, as a part like Spider-Man would make any young actor worry that audiences might only ever be able to see them as just one thing. When asked if he still feels like he’s trying to untangle himself from the superhero movie web — if his every career move is still made in relation to that life-swallowing role — Garfield cracked into the subject with the eager glee of someone who’s grateful that his life has allowed for such unusual questions.
“I wanted to be Spider-Man since before I was able to speak,” he said, “but I think a lot of what I’ve done since has been about balancing myself out in a way. I think ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and ‘Silence’ were a part of that. I think ‘99 Homes’ was a part of that.”
Always guessing, never certain (except when talking about “Angels in America,” a Sisyphean experience so profound that it left him wondering if every subsequent role would feel like a faint echo of the one that allowed him to explore the full scope of the human condition). “I felt like I had to do some work to get out of the way; to take what might distract people about my presence in a movie and just move it aside so that the audience can just experience the story,” he said. “The word ‘celebrity’ is not something I identify with.” Later, he would cackle at the “brutal” “Imagine” mash-up that Gal Gadot made at the start of the pandemic with some of her most recognizable friends, as if to posit that video as a perfect encapsulation of everything he’s not.
A lot of movie stars are embarrassed by their celebrity, but for Garfield it’s more of an obstacle than anything else. “It all goes back to some deep desire in me that wants to have freedom,” he said. “The freedom to be an actor and the freedom to just be here as fully as possible and fulfill whatever I’m supposed to do with my life, which is a mystery a lot of the time.” He wants the freedom to be afraid, and to fuck up, and to run down Hollywood Blvd naked with a fake penis wriggling from his groin. He awes at the raw vulnerability of Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” and prays at the altar of directors like Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols “who served the universal truths of their work.”
Garfield’s post-Spider-Man parts have all been bold and uncompromising in their own ways — you don’t make “Under the Silver Lake” if you’re super hung up on what other people might think — but “Mainstream” is far and away the most polarizing thing he’s ever done. It’s also his first screen performance that feels like it wasn’t created in reaction to Peter Parker. The movie is fueled by Garfield’s multiplex charisma and fringed by his lingering aura of celebrity, but its star is only allowed to become No One Special because everything we know about him — and everything new he brings to the table here — so convincingly suggests otherwise. After becoming world famous by wearing a mask, Garfield has finally tricked us into thinking of him as just another face in the crowd.
If Link is one of the most obnoxious characters in cinema history, it’s because he relentlessly goads you into looking at yourself. And in the Gospel According to Andrew Garfield, there’s a holy purpose to that. “For me, storytelling is the only real language we have that transcends the head and goes straight to the body and starts waking up aspects of ourselves that need to come online to imagine different systems and ways of living,” he said, towards the end of an impassioned speech that was far too searching and self-aware to risk feeling like a sermon. “Storytelling can wake us up to our own lives in full and freeing ways. Maybe that begins with getting off of social media.”
Garfield let that thought filter through the air for a moment. “Or maybe it begins with starting a social media account,” he said. “I don’t fucking know.”
IFC Films will release “Mainstream” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, May 7.