He’s been Spider-Man. He’s been a Portuguese missionary in 17th century Japan. He’s been a pacifist at war. And in his latest role, Andrew Garfield is Sam, a pop culture obsessed slacker on a down-the-rabbit-hole neo-noir quest in David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake. He stopped by the Empire Podcast to talk all things silvery and lake-like, as well as divulging his personal pop culture obsessions and reflecting on his hugely impressive filmography. Listen to the interview here, and read the full conversation below.
EMPIRE: Under The Silver Lake is an absolute trip of a film. Sam is a pop culture obsessed guy on this weird journey into... who knows what. What was David Robert Mitchell's pitch to you?
ANDREW GARFIELD: He didn't really have to pitch it to me. I'd seen It Follows and I loved it, and I had seen The Myth Of The American Sleepover and I thought it was so unique and specific in its vision. And then of course It Follows was just this kind of genre reinvention, in the horror genre. I was just so impressed with him as a filmmaker. I got sent the script for Under The Silver Lake and it was as mind-bending in word, as it was, in deed, as it were. It was 160-odd pages, which is about 30 or 40 pages more than the usual script, and it was like- I like describing, it's as if Sean Astin's character, Mikey, from The Goonies is far too old to still be going on adventures, but he still wants to. But now he's in a David Lynch film that's set in a Los Angeles that's like the antithesis of the La La Land Los Angeles. The deep, dark underbelly of L.A. And I read it and I just thought, this is totally marvellous and totally unique, and as I'm sure you hear all the time and that you feel as a film journalist, it's very, very rare that you get a unique piece of cinema in this day and age. I thought, well, I love The Goonies, and I love David Lynch, and I love Los Angeles.
Also I loved it because it was quite skewering of Hollywood and a kind of patriarchal abusive system. I think Sam sees himself as a Travis Bickle. He sees himself as this liberator, he's fully deluded in this self-assessment. He sees himself as this vigilante liberator of the divine, sacred feminine in Hollywood. But actually he has a tendency to perpetuate the same abuse in an unconscious way perhaps. I just found it really, really interesting, and as you say, it's a mystery, within a mystery, within a mystery, and there's no getting to the centre of it. I think that's maybe the point – we're on a constant quest towards the centre of things. And perhaps that's enough, just being on the quest is enough.
How did you feel about Sam when you were reading the script? He's innocuous, but at the same time he is really strange.
As a reader and as an audience member, I felt real sympathy for him because he's incredibly lost, as far as I could see. But actually from a more subjective point of view, as I was reading it, of course I was thinking, do I want to play this? Is this a character that I want to explore? And it evidently was, and I just found it so... I'd never done anything like it before. I've never played a kind of anti-hero in that way before. Somebody who believes themselves to be a hero, and maybe in certain situations could be and would be, but I loved that he was lost. I love that he was, um, a loser in the truest sense of the word. I love that he had all the privilege and all the opportunity, and squandered it. I love that he became obsessed with something so superficial at first glance, but actually the obsession maybe is masking deeper, darker, a greater devastation underneath.
I think that the need to fixate on something shiny and bright and blonde and idealised and romanticised means that you're trying to remain a kid, you're trying to remain in reality as it was when you were a child when things were binary and things were simple. The good guy did get the girl. He's a man that is a child still, resisting reality, resisting being in reality as it is. That's really fun to play. One of my favorite films of this kind of genre, if it's included in any genre, is The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould, who I think is just so stunning in that film. The performance in that film, the kind of louche, gumshoe, what-does-it-all-mean?, but also maybe it means nothing, going with the flow, kind of hazy L.A. noir, is such a fun and sexy environment and space to inhabit. I was in the middle of shooting Hacksaw Ridge in Australia at that moment, so I think it was a tonic to read something so opposite. I thought, 'Oh yeah, I want to go and do that'.
When did the shoot happen? Was it before or after Angels In America? Were you in that kind of stage mindset?
It was a really intense time. I’d just finished a film that Andy Serkis directed called Breathe. We had finished filming that, and I was due to start Under The Silver Lake I believe in September, October. We were shooting in L.A., and around that time is when all of the Oscar campaign stuff is happening, which is a full-time job for anyone fortunate enough to be in that position, to have a film considered in that way. I was very lucky that year and I had two films that I'm really proud of. Hacksaw Ridge is one of them, and Silence, the Martin Scorsese film, is the other one. So it was a very intense time in that really impossible-to-complain-about way, because everything was really wonderful. I just didn't have the energy to really be in 18 places at once. I was making this incredibly wild and weird film with this incredible young filmmaker, while simultaneously I was doing press for these two films that I was incredibly proud to be a part of, and I really wanted to give myself to each of those things. And simultaneously I knew I was about to go into rehearsals for Angels In America in January, and I was a little spread thin and a little burnt out.
So, strangely, doing Silver Lake at that time was an antidote. I was able to go on set, I loved the crew, I loved the makeup and the hair department so much. I was cosy at work for the first time, in a different way than I've ever been, because everything else was so intense at that moment. Silver Lake was this kind of place of rest for me in a strange way. So all that was happening, and then we finished early 2017. I went back to London, straight into rehearsals for this eight-hour masterpiece of a play, Angels In America. I was just like jetlagged, and just kind of fucked really. I was on my knees. But then you start working on that play, and that invigorates you. But then I get a call from David, the director saying, 'Hey, we just need a couple of pickup shots on blah, blah, blah.' And I'm like, 'You fucking kid- I can't.' And I was having to fly back for Oscar stuff anyway. It's all dreams coming true, and all I wanted to do was be in bed. That's, I guess, how it works out. So it was all kind of happening simultaneously.
I imagine that feeds into Sam, who's in a daze. He is in his own little world, so if you're kind of whacked-out from all this other stuff going on-
Totally. I think that's smart. Yeah, I was trying to use it. I'm kind of anally-retentive when it comes to my work. Usually I'm very preparation-focused. I like to be so fucking prepared, so that I can get onto set and totally let go and fully trust the moment. With Sam, my process had to change because of circumstances, but also the film itself I think there was a sense of- I just want to let myself be totally lost, totally spontaneous, and be constantly questioning whether I'm in a dream or not. I think that that was my main approach. That was a really fun way to do it.
The songwriter scene in Silver Lake has some pretty out-there, crazy gore. How are you with all that stuff?
Oh, I love it. That was really fun, because I'm not a big Hammer Horror kind of- that's not the kind of movie I'm usually into. But having the opportunity to do it was a different story. It was such good fun, it was so wild and it was so weird. It's a really intense sequence, that songwriter sequence, and it's also really intellectual, and it's also really kind of emotional, and it's incredibly violent, and it's also oddly funny. So I mean, if that doesn't sell the weirdness of this film, I don't know what will. I love that. How often does a scene like that get put together? It reminds me of that great film The Square, I love that movie. The big sequence, the centerpiece of that, with the performance artist playing the gorilla. Something like that, where you feel true, unique danger being captured on film. You're just like, holy fucking shit. You feel like you're in the room.
One of my favorite films of this year was Free Solo. I have never seen anything like that on film. I've seen incredible extreme sports documentaries and I love all that stuff anyway, but there was something- Obviously what this guy did is unlike anything I think the world has ever seen. Interesting segue to that songwriter sequence in Under The Silver Lake – I think one of the reasons why maybe you love it, I love it, is that it's totally its own thing. There are so many elements and dimensions to it, and it's so odd, and it's so weird, and it's so kind of uncategorisable that I think, it's like water in the desert for a cinemagoer. We're being fed the same thing over and over again for the most part.
There are so many guitars and instruments in that scene – presumably they were replicas? Did you have any actual memorabilia there, were you geeking out around the guitars?
No, we couldn't afford any memorabilia! It was strangely an incredibly low budget film, but it doesn't look like it, because I think David really knows how to use the money well, and he wanted to make something that felt bigger and a bit broader in scope than It Follows and Myth Of The American Sleepover. He filmed it really well, he filmed the sets and the props very well.
Channelling your inner Sam, what are your pop culture obsessions?
That's one of the other reasons why I love the film – there were so many things that lined up. I got to play Super Mario Brothers with Topher Grace, you know, that was like a surreal dream come true. My pop cultural obsessions, they're quite far-ranging. I'm an '80s kid, and '80s movies are really my jam. Anything with Michael J. Fox in it, from Teen Wolf to Secret Of My Success, to The Hard Way. Do you know that movie, The Hard Way? It's the fucking best. It's James Woods – who's a super problematic person at this point, but an incredible actor – and Michael J. Fox. James Woods plays this hardened New York cop and Michael J. Fox plays an actor who is researching playing a cop. It's like a buddy comedy. And the bad guy is that- who's the bad guy in Avatar, the main bad guy?
Stephen Lang is the bad guy, called the Party Crasher and his catchphrase is, 'I'm going to crash another part-ay'. It's really cheesy, and it's really fucking good. Like, it's just genuinely amazing.
And then Tom Hanks movies. I really like the more obscure Tom Hanks movies, like Joe Versus The Volcano, The 'Burbs, which is just again in that weird comedy-horror genre, I guess, which maybe is a little bit similar to Silver Lake, very kind of suburban paranoia. It's so, so good. So it's all '80s stuff for me. But then more recently, I'm on a sabbatical right now after doing the play and the period I was describing to you, I really got burnt out. So I've had the last six months off, and I've really been catching up on a lot of stuff. I've been watching a lot of stuff.
What have you been watching?
I binged the whole of Game of Thrones.
Are you ready for the final season?
I'm so ready. Every cell in my body is ready. I'm so happy I did it, because it's all so fresh. I watched it at the beginning of last year in a month, which is insane. But it was one of the best months of my life.
Who do you think's going to end up on the Iron Throne?
You see, I don't know. And I don't really care. I just want to see it play out. It's very rare that I get to just let go and watch something unfold, so I'm really happy just to do that. What else have I been watching? Oh God, I just watched the Michael Jackson documentary, Leaving Neverland. But I don't know what I'm more obsessional over. I've been getting back into basketball. I love playing basketball, so I've been watching all my old favourites – White Men Can't Jump, which still holds up, the dialogue, the writing in that film. Wesley Snipes has never been better, and Rosie Perez obviously, and Woody Harrelson. And the music and the basketball sequences, I nerd out over that stuff.
You're a massive RuPaul's Drag Race fan as well. Are you up to date on Season 11?
I am up to date on Season 11. I've been a bit worried because they keep topping-and-tailing now, to the point where you don't really get a break from these seasons. But I'm so happy actually, because this feels like a really, really exciting season.
Miss Vanjie's back!
Miss Vanjie's back, thank God. So that's exciting, and she's killing it. Who else is exciting in that group right now? It's too early to say, but it seems like a really strong season.
Have you ever hit up RuPaul or Michelle Visage to be a guest judge? They had Kumail Nanjiani last year. Are you pulling those strings?
That would be telling. Michelle actually has become a friend. She came and saw Angels In America while we were doing it in London, because it's her favourite piece of theatre. She lived through that time and she lost lots of friends during the AIDs epidemic of the '80s in New York. She was in that scene. We've become friendly, I really think she's such a wonderful person. So there's talk. I think it might be the scariest thing to do, weirdly. You go, 'Oh, you did eight hours of the hardest play imaginable in front of 1400 people every night, and you're scared of going and hanging out with some drag queens?' Yeah, I'm fucking terrified of hanging out with drag queens.
"Don't fuck it up." That itself is pressure.
I know. But the mantra… like, Ru is such an inspirational figure. It's words to live by.
A little moment in Silver Lake involves Sam's hand getting stuck to an Amazing Spider-Man comic. Was that your idea, or David's?
I think it was in the script before I was attached to it. And actually when he asked me to do it and I said I wanted to, I brought it up. I was like, 'Tell me about this moment.' He was like, 'I know, should we take it out?' And I was like, 'No, no, no, no. I fucking love it.' It gives me an opportunity to play with that meta thing a little bit. So no, it definitely wasn't intentional on his part, but maybe unconsciously it was. But I loved it. I love that shit.
The entire Empire office is still completely obsessed with Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. Did you see it, and what did you think of it?
I did, and I loved it. It's what Spider-Man should be – wildly inventive, true to not just one but several versions of the character and the comics, and for everybody. And funny and irreverent and creative. I think maybe you can only really do that with an animation. They could take more risks, and yeah, I found it really inspiring. Yeah, I was envious.
There are references to other Spider-Men – were you asked, did you hear anything in the production? They're making a sequel – if they decided to take it that extra step of being that meta, would you pop up?
I'm forever a Spider-Man fan, I'm never going to compute that I got to play that part for two movies. I'm never going to fully be able to understand that and comprehend that. So no, I wasn't talked to about it, but you know, we'll see. I don't know. I just- To be honest, I'm really happy just being a fan again, I'm not going to lie.
Yeah, on the first one.
What are your memories of Stan Lee and your meeting with him?
I mean, he was larger than life. He was like Mickey Mouse, you know what I mean? In the sense of like, he's a symbol. And I think he was comfortable with that. We were all just in awe of him, and he was this kind of cartoon character of joy, and creativity, and soul, and heart. Everything that he wrote into those comics, it's ideas and ethics to live by. Very simple, mythological ideas. So just to be in his presence was like being with Mickey Mouse. In like the best way. He's just a cuddly guy, and I'm very, very grateful that I got to spend any time with him.
Was that when he came on set to do his cameo in the film? Or did you meet with him around that as well?
No, actually just on set. He kinda came in and then left. He was old and a little frail at that point. But yeah, it was just a dream.
You've worked with some of the most iconic directors around. Silence is such an incredible film. What are your reflections on working on it?
Yeah. It's a film and a period of time that lives in me. You have those periods of time that just are so deeply ingrained in your body memory that you can just kind of put your hand on it and go, 'Ah, gosh, yeah, wow, that was an amazing thing.' I'm so happy that I get to carry that with me, and I'm happy that I get to carry it as an experience. Not only working with him, which is a dream come true for any actor, but getting to know him as a human being, and getting to know the workings of his mind and how he creates. But not only that – on top of that, working on such material. It's the same thing I feel about Angels In America, in the sense that you're working with ideas and themes that are universally human, and larger than you as an individual. That's what great art is to me. That's what great storytelling is to me, is that even if it's about something very specific, like Portuguese missionaries in Japan in the 1600s, it's about everyone. And I think that's where I get excited about what I do as a profession, as an actor, as a storyteller.
It's same thing with Angels In America, you leave the theater every night and you see people that are changed by watching a story, that have their minds opened, or they have their hearts cracked opened, or are more in touch with themselves than they were previously. And I think that's the effect that those kinds of great art stories have. Silence is definitely one of those. I'm very lucky, very grateful. Yeah, it's a beautiful thing.
Having got to know him, what's something that people wouldn't expect about Martin Scorsese?
How constantly funny he is, and how constantly, lightly ribbing he is of everyone and everything. For the most part, he wants an ebullient, light, joyous vibe on set. He'll make inappropriate jokes at the wrong time. I found that really endearing and wonderful. And also he has the most sensitive ears you've ever come across. There are moments where he will require absolute pin-drop silence on set, because he's so attuned to everything all the time. He's so sensitive. He's so tender. He's such a sensitive, tender man. He just picks up on everything. Sometimes he'll be at the monitors, not watching the actors but listening to the musicality of the voice, and he'll give notes about how to speak dialogue, which I didn't expect. There were so many things like that.
You’re on a sabbatical at the moment. Through your career, you've done these all-out blockbusters, large-scale character dramas, more intimate indie films. Beyond this break, where's your head at? What's calling to you?
I like that. I like that question. Because it does feel like calling. That's what it's like. It's hard to listen when you're running around all the time. It's nice to stop and look out the window of the train and take in the surroundings a bit, and listen a bit deeper. I don't know right now. There are a couple of projects that I'm going to be doing, which I'm really excited about. One of them is a film called Mainstream, which I've been working on with Gia Coppola for a couple of years. We've been writing it together with another friend of ours, Tom Stewart. That's been a passion project for her, and she's become a friend, so I'm going to throw my hat in the ring and help her get that vision realised. It's something that she needs to just get out of her. It's really heavy, in the sense that it's about modern culture, it's about celebrity culture, it's about hero worship, worshipping the wrong heroes. It's about the toxic waste that is being force-fed into our bodies through social media. But it's also a love story, and it's also about ego, and it's also about our interconnectedness. So, it's quite ambitious.
It sounds very timely.
Yeah, I think it's very of now. And that's what Gia is amazing at, capturing a moment. She's very finger-on-the-pulse of what's happening with young people right now. Especially, she's very in touch with youth culture. So that's really exciting, we're going to be making that soon, hopefully. And then there's another film that I'm not allowed to talk about yet, which I'm really excited about. It's very different. I've never done anything like it before, and that's getting harder and harder to find, things that I've never done before. That's what I'm looking for. So that's what's calling to me, stuff that I've never done. I'm curious to see what that's going to be.
Under The Silver Lake is in UK cinemas now.