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This fall, Andrew Garfield—erstwhile Spider-Man, an Oscar nominee for Hacksaw Ridge, and the ex-boyfriend of Emma Stone—will rely on an unlikely superpower: his eyebrows. Garfield stars in Breathe, the inspiring true story of Robin Cavendish, who was stricken with polio in 1958 and left paralyzed from the neck down. Cavendish might have lived out his days in a British hospital ward had his very tenacious wife
(played by The Crown’s Claire Foy) not rescued him—with a mobile respirator—and encouraged him to become an advocate for people with disabilities. It’s a revelatory performance, a testament to the human spirit, and entirely in line with Garfield’s current streak of important, actors’-actor work. He recently received rapturous reviews for a London revival of the landmark AIDS drama Angels in America, which will transfer to Broadway this February. Garfield, 34, also caught flak for joking that he’d prepared so thoroughly for the role that he was now a gay man, “just without the physical act.” His intention wasn’t to make light of anyone’s struggle—he’s just an immersive kind of guy: Before filming Scorsese’s 2016 Silence, Garfield had a transformative religious experience studying with a Jesuit priest for several months. Here, he addresses that moment and also airs his concerns about…online dating?
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Whenever an actor plays someone in a wheelchair—Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, James McAvoy in Rory O’Shea Was Here—the industry calls it “Oscar bait.” How do you respond?
Andrew Garfield: I don’t have anything to say to those people. This is a beautiful love story about this man who got polio at a young age. He was a sportsman, a captain in the army, who experienced the world through physicality. One of the things that drew me toward telling this incredible story was, How do you let go? How do you reconcile this new way of being into your understanding of life and fate?
The movie makes the case for love at first sight. Your parents met at a party. Was that love at first sight?
My mum would say no. [Laughs] She was a bit more sensible. And rightfully so. Because my dad’s opening line was—he’d be terribly embarrassed with me sharing this—but it was “Do you want to see the creases in my jeans?”
What does that even mean?
Exactly. I don’t think it was a sexual come-on. It was just a weird icebreaker. Also, he’d brought another girl to the party.
Have you inherited his skill with opening lines?
I’ve inherited his fumbling. I’m not very good at that kind of thing.
You should join Raya, the Tinder for famous people. Maybe you already have?
[Laughs] How many people have found actual love on Raya? That’s what I want to know. I want to see hard data; I want to see the wedding pictures; I want to see the children that have been born.…
I’m sure Raya would say the app hasn’t been around long enough.
True. I’m not on Raya. But I have friends who are. And they’re having a fine time.
You were celibate for six months while prepping for Silence. What did you learn?
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What did I learn from being celibate? God, I mean—
I hope you learned something.
By keeping that energy inside, I found myself being a much more loving person. The priests I spoke to would say, “By sacrificing in order to serve God, you are given many blessings.” You get the gift of love in all of its other forms. Which I don’t think we give as much credence to in our modern culture.
Were you ever seduced by fame?
There is so much temptation. I have very strong feelings about what modern fame means, and the toxicity of it. I read Naomi Klein’s No Logo when I was 15. It’s one of the things that’s shaped my relationship to fame—to endorsements, to selling things. I’ve taken a certain path in terms of all that stuff.
So we won’t be seeing you in a cologne ad next year?
Well, never say never. But I find that stuff really tricky. We’re always serving something, even if we’re not aware of it. We’re usually serving capitalism.
Were you thinking about capitalism when you worked at Starbucks in your twenties?
No. I was thinking, How do I make money to keep paying rent?
Didn’t you get fired from that job?
I self-sabotaged it. I worked in a Starbucks that wasn’t very popular—before the big coffee boom in London. My boss didn’t take kindly to my incessant sitting. I was like, Look, I’ve dusted everything, the stockroom is all figured out.… I would rather sit now so I have the energy when a customer does come in.
Why is this the right time to revive Angels in America?
Tony [Kushner] busts this false idea that there’s any shame in loving whom you are naturally created to love. This play is doing that healing work and exposing this lie—which has been propagated by a very white, straight male, fear-based, Republican, Judeo-Christian idea—that there is anything wrong with a man loving a man. Prior gets to tell the audience, “The world only spins forward.” He’s giving voice to a new set of truths about compassion, empathy, community.
I can sense your sincerity. How did it feel when the internet turned on you?
Tricky…I mean, I really can’t speak to that. Because it felt unrelated to what was happening in the room, in that conversation, and in my life. My truth, you know? I can just focus on doing this play and keeping the conversation moving forward in a way that is about love.
In those same remarks, you mentioned loving RuPaul’s Drag Race. Prove it.
It’s the best show in the history of shows! Having met [contestants] Detox and Kim Chi recently…it was really overwhelming. I kind of fell deeply in love with Detox. She’s got one of those souls that you can feel is very, very deep.
This article originally appears in the November 2017 issue of ELLE.