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.
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— 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.
That, along with his haunting performances in films like Never Let Me Go and Boy A, would be enough to justify the It Boy buzz that now swarms around him—in his mind, apparently, like a cloud of gnats. Tell him he's in an enviable place and he grimaces. "I'm going to ignore everything you just said," he says with a wary dip of the chin. "Because it doesn't mean anything." He resists talking about his girlfriend, actress Shannon Woodward, and he's openly disdainful of the Young Hollywood party circuit. "Those events that look like so much fun in the photos you see—it's mostly people looking over their shoulders at everyone," he says. "They're miserable, those parties."
Okay, but isn't he ever tempted to ring up, say, The Bazaar by José Andrés and make a midnight reservation for "Spider-Man, party of 27"? "I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I had done anything so crass and obscene as that," he says. "No fucking way. I would literally be sick on myself throughout the dinner."
Nevertheless, when an international entertainment conglomerate decides to "reboot" a superhero franchise and heap upon your skinny shoulders the burden of producing billions of dollars in potential revenue, brushing off the outsize expectations (and the prying media) is no longer an option. "I see it as a massive challenge in many ways," Garfield says. "To make it authentic. To make the character live and breathe in a new way. The audience already has a relationship with many different incarnations of the character. I do, as well. I'm probably going to be the guy in the movie theater shouting abuse at myself. But I have to let that go. No turning back. And I wouldn't want to."
Not to fry his nerves even more, but it's worth pointing out that for every actor who has expertly squeezed his cool indie sensibility into a spandex unitard—Christian Bale, say, or Garfield's own arachnid predecessor, Tobey Maguire—there's another newly hatched superhero who's been foiled again. Ask Brandon Routh. Or Eric Bana. Or Ben Affleck. It would've been safer for Garfield to take the Ryan Gosling and Joseph Gordon-Levitt route: Just keep plugging away at the arty prestige flicks until adoring critics drag you into the glare.
But he's right. He can't turn back. By now, all the physical training for Spider-Man (including a lot of yoga and pilates) has transformed his physique. "I want to feel stronger than I've ever felt, and I want to feel more flexible than I've ever felt," he says. "I want to feel powerful. You don't just want to be a pack of meat—it has to be an open body. It does something to your psyche, and it does something to the way you move." As far as the psyche is concerned, anxiety about whether he's man enough for the job is part of the Peter Parker gestalt. "Whenever I have a moment of doubt, I'm very easily able to equate it with the character struggle I'm stepping into," Garfield says. "And that's immediately reassuring—it feels like I'm in the right place for this."
He already has a sense of how the wrong place would feel: Thanks to a misunderstanding, Garfield was convinced that after endless hours of screen-testing for Marc Webb, the (500) Days of Summer director who has signed on to make the new Spider-Man, he'd once again managed to bungle an audition. Garfield and a few Social Network castmates, including Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg, had flown down to Cancn to promote a slate of Sony movies. The air hummed with anticipation; Sony was supposed to make a Spider-Man announcement soon. Garfield was already racked with uncertainty. "I was genuinely expecting 'You're just a shit actor' instead of 'We want you to do it.' "
Amy Pascal, cochair of Sony Pictures, invited the Social Network posse to a private dinner on the beach. "I was reading her like she had the answers to the universe," Garfield says. Someone at the table asked, "So, Amy, what's going on with the new Spider-Man?" Garfield tensed up, fighting the urge to flee. He and Timberlake shot each other glances across the table. Pascal slowly spun toward the questioner—turning her back to Garfield—and proceeded to deflect the query. "No news at all."
The impromptu inquisition went on and on as Mr. Oblivious kept needling away with questions like "Wasn't there anybody you guys liked?" It got painful. "Andrew assumed my silence meant that he didn't get it," Pascal says. "I practically broke into tears. This poor kid—who is Spider-Man—was going to be in for a terrible 24 hours." Garfield pinched her leg under the table—"not in, like, a weird way," he says. "I was just trying to make her giggle and let her know that it's absolutely fine." Even if it wasn't.
Garfield went back to his hotel room. Hell, there's always Birdman, right? "So I go to bed and I'm like, 'Oh well. I'm still happy to be in Cancn. I'm part of a film that I'm proud to be a part of. This is amazing. Whatever. It's fine.' "
"No," he says. "Of course not. I felt disappointed. I felt exposed. It was one of the most awkward fucking things ever."
Garfield was summoned to Pascal's suite the next afternoon. Pascal's assistant ushered him to the door. Marc Webb opened it, and as Garfield entered the foyer he saw a Flip video camera pointed at him. When he stepped into the room, he saw Pascal and the producers of Spider-Man and a camera crew and . . . flutes of champagne. He was Spider-Man. He felt honored. He felt overwhelmed. He felt . . . like puking. "I realized immediately how much hard work it was going to be, and how much of a minefield it was going to be in terms of all the shit that comes with it," Garfield says. "Stuff that I would like to not have any part of. I mean visibility and being recognized walking down the street. I'm holding out a naïve and ignorant hope that it won't happen."
Whatever. "I couldn't gag the 5-year-old self inside of me," Garfield says. "I said, 'What should we do?' And he was like"—at this point Garfield slips into an accent that might belong to a preschool Al Pacino—" 'DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! Are you fuckin' kiddin' me? It's Spider-Man!' My inner 5-year-old is a New Yorker with a smoker's cough and a horrible mouth."
There is a scene in The Social Network in which Garfield's character, Eduardo Saverin, finally and triumphantly loses his cool. It's the climax of the film, when Saverin comes to the sour realization that he's not only being elbowed out of the company, but he has also been tricked into signing a legal document that dilutes his shares in Facebook into next to nothing.
Saverin bolts out of a conference room, grabs Mark Zuckerberg's laptop, smashes it against a desk, and cuts loose with all the vitriol that's been welling up inside him. When you see it you think: That must've been fun.
"Are you kidding me?" Garfield says. "That day and night of shooting was one of my favorite experiences. I was actually proud of myself because I didn't care what I was doing. I was literally not judging myself. And it was so fucking beautiful for a second.
"I've gone through my whole life caring deeply what people think of me," he continues. "That was probably one of the first times where I didn't care for a second. And it was liberating. I felt more like a man than I've ever felt."
To the extent that the Spider-Man saga is about the contortions that accompany a guy's neurotic transformation into manhood, Sony seems to have picked the right guy. Pascal says Garfield possesses "both vulnerability and masculinity all at once, which is very rare."
If there's a sneering nemesis with whom Garfield is perpetually doing battle, it's self-consciousness: When left to his own devices, the guy who's on the verge of having it all seems to fret over everything. Tellingly, Garfield's most striking onscreen moments have been those in which his character flees the trap of his skull and succumbs to something feral—going ballistic in The Social Network, swallowing Ecstasy and spazzing out on the dance floor in Boy A, erupting in a howling primal scream in Never Let Me Go. "It had a profound effect on the crew," says Mark Romanek, Never Let Me Go's director. "After we shot that scene, we packed up in dead silence. For Andrew it was a complete and utter catharsis—there was no restraint or thought. He translates all that cerebral stuff into something visceral."
"That's what always excited me about other people's performances," Garfield says. "Abandon."
However, Garfield avoids watching his own work. Ask him about a particular scene with Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go and he nods, offers up a sincere "Thank you," then confesses that he's never seen it. "If I watch myself," Garfield says, "then I suddenly have a bunch of things that I'm scared to do. It just upsets me. I've stopped reading reviews, as well. If one is negative, you hold on to that. It was killing me. It was holding me back from being creative and being free." Blogs and message boards? Even worse. He looked once. That was enough. "The first thing that was written was, 'What's up with this kid's eyebrows? He looks like a friggin' Neanderthal.' "
Maybe this is why the guy is hunting for anything that will free him from that cranial interrogation chamber, whether it's surfing at Zuma or swaying with the crowd at Coachella or riding his Vespa around L.A. "I don't like that," Amy Pascal says. "Tell him to stop. I just don't want him getting hurt." Not to worry. The Spider-Man team has already brought the hammer down. "They've actually banned me from using my Vespa," Garfield says, as he directs us off the boardwalk and toward a café on Hampton Drive. Indeed, a friend is waiting there in a car to pick him up.
If Robert Redford's correct that the best time in an actor's career is the struggle, it's excellent news for Andrew Garfield. Freedom versus duty? Anonymity versus fame? Mind versus body? He's right in the thick of it. "I hope this period doesn't end," Garfield says. "I hope I never blow up. I hope that I have to audition for every single job I want. I hope that I'm always struggling, really. You develop when you're struggling. When you're struggling, you get stronger."