Andrew Garfield bent over and began puking his guts out in an alley.

His first movie audition was minutes away, but he wasn't tossing his cookies because he was nervous. If anything, the future star of The Social Network had been a tad too cavalier.

Garfield, a veteran of two esteemed Hollywood springboards—the British stage and barista training at Starbucks—was barely out of his teens. He'd recently moved from England to California to try his luck with casting agents: That morning he'd rented a car—he hadn't yet bought his beloved Vespa—and gone out to Venice Beach for his first big-screen tryout.

He had some time to kill. So he wandered out to the basketball courts by the shore—and inspired by White Men Can't Jump, one of his favorite movies—talked his way into a pickup game. In spite of his slight frame, he played hard and managed to avoid embarrassing himself. When the time came for him to bow out, Garfield started back toward the boardwalk but had to duck into an alley and empty his stomach. "I had to sit there for about 30 minutes—I couldn't move," he says. "I was so exhausted. I had my first audition, and my breath smelled terrible. I went through it with my hand over my mouth." He did not get the part.

Several years later, on a drizzly Saturday morning in November, Garfield is recalling this memory not far from the scene of the slime: We're taking a stroll along the paint-peeling, hemp-scented, Beat-poetic carnival of the Venice Beach boardwalk, where turbaned guitarists roller-skate past medical-marijuana evaluation centers and shops hawking Botox on the Beach.

Garfield has a fondness for these fringe-y spots that have nothing to do with Hollywood and the whole studio hierarchy. By now he's hovering vertiginously on the cusp of fame, where he finds himself fielding questions about Oscar buzz and massive starring roles, but he's nostalgic about a slower, poorer, quieter time when he used to come here alone and wander around, shooting hoops or riding a skateboard on the concrete ramps. "I knew no one. I got to know the city as a solitary individual," he says. "This old part here, with these ledges—that's where I used to skate." Although Garfield grew up outside London, he was born in Los Angeles in 1983, and on returning in 2006 he adopted the Cali surf-and-skate ethos with the passion of a native. Without physical activity, he has a tendency to withdraw and brood. "I think too much," he says. "Being in my body is much more satisfying than being in my head."

Still, it's not as though his body is angst-free. As he talks, he places an elbow into the palm of the opposite hand, gives his neck and shoulders a slow, hard twist, and winces. He's been working out a lot lately—enough that you can see comic-book biceps swelling beneath his red flannel shirt—and frankly, he's aching. From the head standpoint, he's overtaxed, too. He's been swept up in the Oscar campaign for The Social Network (not long after our sojourn in Venice Beach, he'll wake up to a promising augury in the form of a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor), and in a few days he'll start shooting the next movie that's bound to change his life radically. "I really have no time to talk to you," he says with a nervous laugh. "I really should not be here right now. I should be worrying somewhere." Garfield doesn't puke, but you couldn't blame the guy if he did. After all, it was just a few months ago that this stick-thin Brit with the disarmingly Cubist smile was chosen to play a character who has been embedded in his own wiring (and probably yours) since he was 5 years old. We give you the ultimate stressed-out geek turned superstar . . .Spider-Man.

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Back in the early part of Garfield's career, once the pre-audition upchucking had subsided and he'd been cast in his first movie, 2007's Lions for Lambs, his scenes consisted mostly of a rhetorical sparring match with the film's director, silver-screen eminence Robert Redford. Naturally Garfield couldn't resist the chance to lob the Sundance Kid a question. "I asked him, 'What was the happiest time in your career?' " Garfield recalls. "And he said, 'Before. Before it got easy. The struggle.'"

For Andrew Garfield, the "before" phase would seem to be history now—having ended the day he landed the role of Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin, the Ivy League entrepreneur who was on the receiving end of Mark Zuckerberg's epically cold act of backstabbing in The Social Network. When the movie came out last fall, of course, it turned into more than a mere hit. It became, like Easy Rider and Saturday Night Fever and Wall Street before it, that rarest of planetary alignments: a popular phenomenon that distills and magnifies a generational moment. It also made Garfield a contender for an Oscar.