Andrew Garfield is enjoying the company. "I love that I'm part of a group that includes Bing Crosby and Roy Scheider and James Cagney and Joaquin Phoenix," he tells A.frame, merrily listing off the names of performers who have earned Best Actor Oscar nominations for their work in a musical, a rarefied group of which Garfield is now the 21st member. (The last to win was Rex Harrison in 1964 for My Fair Lady.)
Garfield gained entry with his portrayal of theater composer and playwright Jonathan Larson in tick, tick... BOOM!, director Lin-Manuel Miranda's adaptation of Larson's semi-autobiographical "rock monologue." Onstage, Larson turned the failure of his first musical into a one-man show, years before he would revolutionize the medium with Rent. Onscreen, Garfield revealed a new side to himself as an actor, which led to his newfound place in Oscars history. "I find that to be deeply moving," he says. "I can't quite believe my good fortune, really."
The 38-year-old's inclusion is especially unexpected because up to this point, he was not a song and dance man. Garfield's previous Oscar nomination was for the World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge, the type of film he is perhaps better known for—excluding the occasional stint as Spider-Man. And though he is a Tony-winning stage veteran, his theater work was not of the breaking-into-song variety. He won his Tony for Angels in America.
Miranda, who knows a thing or two about creative genius, saw Garfield in Angels in America on Broadway in 2018 and suddenly pictured him playing Larson. Miranda asked a mutual friend if Garfield could sing and was reassured that he could. Which left Garfield with one year to actually learn to sing—and to play the piano, and to learn choreography—which he did with the help of vocal coach Liz Caplan and Miranda's team of executive music producers, Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman and Kurt Crowley.
"I really just thought, 'Well, if I sound bad, they will tell me,'" Garfield remembers. "Or we will just keep doing it until it sounds good."
For Garfield, the true test of how far he'd come would be tick, tick... BOOM!'s emotional climax, "Why," a piano ballad in which Larson grapples with the news that his best friend, Michael, has been diagnosed HIV positive amid the ongoing AIDS epidemic of the 1990s. "I knew it had to be live," Garfield says, "because it's an emotionally raw song." What he didn't know is that Miranda had scheduled "Why" for the first week of filming.
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"When I saw it on the schedule, I was like, 'Wait, wait, wait. What is this?'" Garfield recalls now, his incredulity resurfacing. "Lin said, 'Oh, yeah. We're doing that the first week.' I was like, 'What?! Why?!' And he said, 'We're going to get it out of the way. You're going to get it under your belt and the rest is going to be [smooth sailing].' I said, 'You're not telling me something.' I could just smell it. And he was like, 'Well, we're going to lose the location if we don't shoot it in the first week. We're going to lose the Delacorte.' But both things were true. We did get it under the belt and it felt really kind of amazing to be freed from the pressure of that sequence early on."
Still, when Garfield found himself sitting alone at the piano in the historic Delacorte Theater in Central Park, preparing himself to sing live for the first time, it was "terrifying. Petrifying. All of the things you expect it to feel," he recalls. "You just have to let go, get out of the way, and hope that the work has paid off."
The upside to committing himself to so many untested talents is that Garfield was forced to trust the abilities he'd been honing since he took his first acting class at 9 years old. "My ego and my controlling conscious mind was distracted with these news skills—with the singing and the piano and the choreography—so the acting felt much more trusted," he says. "I trusted myself much more as an actor and allowed myself to be spontaneous and to make it up as I went, to trust [my] instinct and trust that Jonathan's spirit was going to move through [me]."
Garfield's Larson had to feel almost too large for his own biopic, like the frames of the movie could barely contain him. He had to be bold and theatrical, wild and sensual and abandoned, and simultaneously, tender and sensitive and kind, and also anxious and unfulfilled, all while conveying an uncompromising creative genius. "His head was always bursting, his heart was always bursting, and he was always turned up to an 11," he explains. "How do you make an audience feel like you're in the imagination of Willy Wonka?"
Honestly, it did feel occasionally like some kind of possession was happening in a really beautiful way.
For Garfield, that part of the process is proving trickier to put into words. Because to become Jonathan Larson, it never felt like a calculated approach to his craft. He just had to be.
"I think for the most part, it just happened," he says. "I wanted to be at the place where I could just get out of the way and let Jon follow his impulses using my body, using my voice, using my heart. I think that's what I managed to get to. Honestly, it did feel occasionally like some kind of possession was happening in a really beautiful way, because I really opened myself up to it and I wanted so sincerely to honor him in all of his facets and I think he was willing to help me do that. I think—I hope—he's going to remain with me in a chamber of my heart forever."
Larson died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm at age 35, the same day his new musical, Rent, was set to premiere off-Broadway. With the benefit of hindsight, tick, tick... BOOM! feels prescient. Larson left behind a legacy of being true to yourself as an artist, but more so as a human being, with all of the agony and the beauty and the awe of being alive. Now, Garfield is forever a part of that legacy.
"I'm so proud of the film. I'm so proud of everyone involved in this film, particularly Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda and this cast of actors. It's just very special, because this one felt so personal for all of us," Garfield reflects. "It felt incredibly personal for me and a real—I wouldn't even say a labor of love, but an offering of love and an opportunity to create something out of love and devoted to Jonathan Larson."
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