NEW YORK -- In the last months before he becomes a household name, Andrew Garfield has decided to hide in plain sight.
The British-raised actor, who will star in the reboot of the "Spider-Man" films this summer, is far from Hollywood but still under the lights: He's starring opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in a revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway.
Having spoken to his predecessor, Tobey Maguire, about what it's like to be at the center of a white-hot franchise, the 28-year-old actor is enjoying a little me-time in anticipation of the media mayhem to come.
"There wll be a certain stepping out, yes. I think right now all I'm trying to do is step in," he says. "Not in a shy way. Not in a defensive way. Not in a keep-away-from-me way. It's just that I need to know myself so well if I'm going to be able to handle this."
A thoughtful, even brooding, man with an angular face, penetrating eyes, taut muscularity from his years as a gymnast and a thick mob of hair, Garfield has been steadily rising in the entertainment business, but he seems determined not to let the swiftness change him.
"There's something about letting go of your ego within the work you do which I think will be my everlasting job to attempt. I don't think I'll ever achieve it," he says. "When it feels best is when it's not about you and it's about the thing."
The "thing" right now is just as much an American masterpiece as Spider-Man. Garfield on Broadway is playing the son of the world's most tragic traveling salesman, Willy Loman.
"Death of a Salesman" is a wrenching, powerful play, one that Garfield, making his Broadway debut, says is as elusive as Shakespeare. Moments of clarity lead to confusion and new things to handle. "It's like one of those Whac-A-Mole games," he says, sadly.
"You don't ever want to feel like you're done because you never are. And if you think you are done, you're deluded and you're not working as hard as you should," he adds.
Born in the United States and raised in Britain, Garfield has been working steadily since leaving the Central School of Speech & Drama in London in 2004. Theater work in Manchester – "Kes" and "Romeo & Juliet" – led to work in London, including "Beautiful Thing" and a trilogy of plays at the Royal National Theatre – "Burn," "Citizenship" and "Chatroom." He won an Evening Standard award for outstanding newcomer in 2006.
"It was just sheer volume which got me that recognition," he says with a chuckle. "I just worked a lot. Everyone was like, `You worked a lot. Give him something. He must not have slept, poor kid.'"
Even so, Garfield, whose natural accent is American, got the attention of producer Scott Rudin, who went to "Chatroom" to see if the young actor might be right for the part of Clay in a film version of "Kavalier and Clay." Rudin was impressed with what he saw. "He was the great actor he is now, with a growing skill-set but the same incredible extraordinary availability," Rudin says.
Plans for "Kavalier and Clay" didn't immediately pan out, but Garfield kept going. In 2007 he was voted one of Variety's "top 10 to watch" and appeared in the films "Boy A" and in Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs." Other credits include Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," the British TV series "Red Riding" and the sci-fi thriller "Never Let Me Go" alongside Keira Knightley.
But his breakout performance became Eduardo Saverin in 2010's "The Social Network," a part that Rudin, who produced the film, believed was perfect for Garfield from the moment he read the script. Garfield earned a Golden Globe nomination for the part.
He captured the role of Peter Parker in "The Amazing Spider-Man" after a long audition process, beating several candidates, including the former "Billy Elliot" star Jamie Bell. Garfield had been a fan of the web-crawler since he was a child, and while he hasn't managed to catch the musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," he has watched all the Sam Raimi films.
"All the way through filming the Spider-Man movie, I felt like I was serving something greater than me. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't. That character has been an important character to me since I was a kid. And all my concern was to make sure that Peter Parker and the symbol of Spider-Man were treated with the reverence that I have for them."
Initially, Garfield was hesitant about putting on the mask. He would be replacing Maguire in a franchise he loved. "I thought, `Why would I do this to myself?' But of course you can't consider what people are thinking. You have to just follow your heart and do what you can," he says.
Garfield asked Rudin's advice when he was in the Spider-Man sweepstakes. "I said, `Why would you do it?'" Rudin recalls. "He said, `Because I've wanted to play Spider-Man since I was 15.' And I said, `That's a great reason to do it. It's probably the only reason to do it.' It's really smart. If you have something to say about it, then of course do it."
Since then, Garfield has spoken to Maguire, Raimi and Kirsten Dunst and says they've been supportive. "They were all equally funny and supportive and good people. It's just one of those things where I will do the same thing when the next kid comes along," Garfield says. "I will be like, `Take it. Take it, please.'"
It was while he was filming "The Amazing Spider-Man" that Rudin called with the offer to be on Broadway in "Death of a Salesman," the first time Garfield would be onstage in six years. It was a no-brainer – an iconic play directed by Mike Nichols and opposite Hoffman, "my favorite living actor."
"It was kind of, `I want to see that show,' so why not be as close to it as possible?" Garfield says, though he admits feeling nervous: "A part of me wished it was a really small, out-of-town theater in a way. With the same cast and the same director, just in someone's living room."
His next step will be no more intimate: relaunching a comic-book movie franchise. He insists that any pressure is self-inflicted and that for all the tedious hoopla he'll have to endure, there's also all that inspiration he can give as Spider-Man. When asked if he'll get lost in the machine, he answers in a clear voice: "Not if I can help it."
Rudin isn't worried, either. "He's very smart and very clear on who he wants to be and what he wants to be. Spider-Man's a great thing for him but I think it's a job. I don't think it will be a life-changing thing for him."
NEW YORK – The first thing that Andrew Garfield does after greeting a reporter is apologize. For eating a bagel.
It hardly seems like a transgression for the rising actor, now in previews for a new Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, to grab a bite while squeezing an interview into his hectic schedule. But for Garfield, 28, good manners are not to be taken lightly.
Nor are many things, as it turns out. Certainly not Garfield's current project, in which he plays Biff Loman, the drifting, haunted son of Arthur Miller's most iconic character. Philip Seymour Hoffman is cast as Willy Loman, and Mike Nichols is directing the production, set to open March 15 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
For this American classic, Garfield, who was raised in the U.K., has ditched his British accent — and not just on stage. In the midtown offices of Salesman's publicity team, Garfield's rounded, regionally ambiguous pronunciation blends in perfectly with that of the staffers. (Biff is a Brooklyn boy, though is by no means always presented as a "Noo Yawka.")
Garfield was born in Los Angeles and has an American father, and the actor has played Yanks in several films, among them The Social Network and the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man, in which he plays the superhero lead this summer. But blunting his t's just to discuss Salesman? Is Garfield trying to promote the play in character — taking a Method approach to media?
"No, it's just that talking about it in an English accent doesn't feel right," he explains between careful bagel bites. "Whether I'm in the play or with the cast or in the world of the play in any way, I have to hear my own voice, and I don't want to confuse myself. We're all more sensitive than we realize."
During this chat, at least, Garfield's sensitivity is as much a defining trait as his seriousness. Asked about his approach to Biff, a role played on Broadway before by such notables as John Malkovich and James Farentino, he pauses and flinches.
"It's really hard to talk about," he says softly. "Everything is still gestating in my mind. It's a very mysterious process. I'm never going to fully get it — the character or the process. It's impossible to sum up who Biff is or how I relate to him, because he's as complex as any of us."
Aspects of Garfield's back story do pose a contrast to that of Biff, who yearns for independence but finds himself stifled by his father's failings and fantasies. "I'm lucky," Garfield says — as he does often — "because many people don't know what they want to do. They end up not being happy — or even more tragically, they never realize they're not happy. I knew I wanted to be passionate about something."
His British mother encouraged him "to try something creative. I tried art but wasn't very good at it; I tried music but didn't have the patience for it. Then I tried acting. I enjoyed it, and I had a great drama teacher in high school. He said, 'You know, you should think about doing this.' That's all I needed, that little bit of encouragement from someone I trusted."
Garfield wound up at London's prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama, where he performed in his first Miller play, All My Sons. He played a featured role, so he had time to study the approach of his director and fellow actors.
"It was a gut punch. Miller is a gut punch, consistently," Garfield says. Chris Keller, a disillusioned World War II veteran, "became the part I played over and over again in my head. Biff wasn't in my head at all, which is a really good thing."
Though Salesman is Garfield's Broadway debut, he already has impressed critics in the U.K., where he won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for outstanding newcomer in 2006 — five years before The Social Network earned him the Evening Standard prize for best actor in a film, over The King's Speech's Colin Firth. "There's something pure about working on a play, in my experience," he says.
The A-list company was, of course, an added incentive. "I got a call saying that (producer) Scott Rudin and Mike and Phil and Linda (Emond, the theater veteran who plays Willy's wife and Biff's mom) were interested in me playing Biff, and I was like: 'Yeah. I'll do it. I'll absolutely do it.' There was no hesitation."
Nichols hadn't seen Garfield on the British stage, but knew he wanted the young actor regardless. "He's got a very commanding presence, a lot of gravitas. He's a very good emotional actor; you could see that in Social Network. And he's funny — no first-rate actor isn't. And he's extremely dedicated, as an actor and as a member of a company."
Like any good team player, Garfield is instinctively modest. Of winning one of London's highest theater honors at 22, he says, "I had done three plays in one year. It was more about the volume of the work than real merit. And I got to explore all these different experiences, with great writing — there's nothing better."
Trying to shift the discussion to Garfield's personal life proves, perhaps predictably, a bad idea. "I used to love reading gossip sites," he says. "It's a fun thing to do, unfortunately. It appeals to the laziest part of us. But when you get a little more on the inside, and you see friends on the inside negatively affected by it, you realize you just want to be an actor, nothing else."
This is apparently a warning not to bring up Spider-Man co-star Emma Stone, whom Garfield began dating last year. When asked, gently, about the status of their relationship, he freezes in his chair, looking stricken.
"I'm not comfortable with that question at all," he says. A long, deep breath follows, then an awkward silence, Garfield staring down at his hands. "It's funny," he finally says. "Right after I — no, it's OK, it's OK." Another breath. "Right after I express to you how much I hate that kind of thing, you ask that question. But it's OK."
Indeed, within about three minutes, Garfield has recovered enough to speak animatedly about tackling Spider-Man and his alter ego, Peter Parker. Unencumbered by gestation concerns — production on the film, due July 3, has wrapped — he reveals that Peter/Spidey was a key figure in his youth, and his admiration hasn't waned.
"I was a skinny kid; (Peter) was a skinny kid. He was an underdog and I felt like an underdog. (Spider-Man)'s the most universally relatable superhero in the world, because you don't see his skin color — everything's covered by the suit.
"I just felt like I knew him, like he was a part of me. I needed him as a kid, and I need him now, so I wanted to work really hard to honor him."
On the lighter side
Spider-Man director Marc Webb reports that Garfield also dropped his English accent on the set, and specifically visited Queens, where Peter Parker hails from, to pick up local idioms. "Andrew came by while we were editing the film and said hi to the staff, and one editor was like, 'He's British?' "
Webb confirms that Garfield takes his work "very seriously," but like Nichols he emphasizes his capacity for humor. "One of Andrew's gifts that we haven't seen as much is how funny he can be, how well he does levity. Peter Parker can be light, and Andrew could be very playful when the scenes required that. But Peter's also intense, and there's a level of passion the world associates with Spider-Man. Andrew felt that, and channeled it. He can put a lot of pressure on himself."
For Garfield, in fact, acting "is painful a lot of the time — though it's self-inflicted pain. There are moments when you feel you haven't done a good enough job, or that you don't match up. There's a lot of self-doubt and self-criticism. But there are no victims in this profession, only volunteers."
He feels lucky, Garfield says again. After Salesman's run wraps June 2, he'll spend some time happily promoting Spider-Man. "It's so nice to have such a rich, diverse set of experiences in so short a time. They're contrasting, the play and the movie, but I care as deeply about one story and character as I do the other."
So what's up next? Don't ask.
"I can't think about that," Garfield says, starting to shut down again. "Thinking about it would kill me. I just have to do whatever feels right. And I'm not thinking about anything outside this play right now."
Then Garfield offers a smile, and another apology.
"You just have to just keep your head down and work as hard as you can on whatever you're working on. That's all you have control over. The rest is none of your business, I guess — I mean, none of my business."
ETA: Usually, Andrew seems like a nice guy, but he doesn't really come across that way in these interviews. Maybe fame is getting to him?