Before he made Tick, Tick… Boom!, Andrew Garfield was not much of a singer. “In the first play I did — just a kids’ community theatre production when I was 14 — we did Bugsy Malone, but I played Fat Sam, the one non-singing role,” he says. “Later I failed miserably in my singing strand at drama school. After that, I put my singing ambitions on the shelf.”
Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was the one who inspired him to dust off that shelf. After seeing Garfield perform on stage in Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, Miranda invited the actor for lunch and told him about Jonathan Larson and Tick, Tick… Boom!, Miranda’s adaptation of Larson’s one-man show about his struggles for success before creating the hit stage musical Rent. Garfield recalls the director telling him, “If you’re not tone-deaf, I think you can get your voice to a place where you can be Jon.”
Garfield thought it could work if he was willing to put in the vocal training, and also because Larson himself was not “a highly trained, refined singer. He was an incredibly passionate rock singer… I think the key for me was this guy was singing as if it’s life and death, [metaphorically] for him and his own life, and also [literally] for the lives of people like his friend [Matt O’Grady, who inspired the character Michael], who was HIV-positive.”
Garfield then dedicated a full year to vocal training before the shoot. “I put in the hours, on the breathing, working on my range,” he recalls. “I had a whole village helping me — Liz Caplan, the amazing singing teacher, plus Lin’s musical team, Alex Lacamoire, Bill Sherman and Kurt Crowley [executive music producers] and Lin himself.” Going all in, Garfield also learned to play piano.
All the while he also had to overcome his fears that he might let Miranda and the team down, especially when singing in the same production as “thoroughbreds” such as Robin de Jesus and Vanessa Hudgens. “I was wondering, ‘Do I have the chops? Can I get this skillset to be of service to the film?’”
Garfield — who picked up a SAG best actor nomination for Tick, Tick… Boom! — adds that this is something most actors feel with any role. “It happens every single time. Am I letting the side down? The last thing I want to be is the slow coach at the back of the pack. That’s the nightmare.”
Even though it was a personal risk, Garfield jumped at the chance to work with Miranda on his feature-directing debut. “I knew this was going to be a rich meal of a story and it was going to be full of emotional depth and ambition. When you look at Lin’s work, it’s all these things.”
Garfield also connected to the director’s enthusiastic style of working. “I find him so joyful and full of life and optimism, and he has this kind of six‑year‑old’s creative energy that’s untameable and unbridled. It’s contagious.”
Brothers in arms
Before meeting Miranda, Garfield had appreciated Rent but did not know Larson’s full story. As seen in Tick, Tick… Boom!, Larson was a struggling young composer waiting tables at a New York diner while trying to write the next great American musical, and feeling the pressure to make it before he turned 30. (Tragically, Larson died at the age of 35 of an aortic aneurysm just before Rent’s first Broadway preview.) “The more I dipped my being into Jonathan Larson, the more I realised I was meeting this long-lost brother that I didn’t realise I had. I felt this kinship with him,” explains Garfield.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Garfield had even more time to think about the role — the Netflix-backed production shut down after just eight days shooting in March 2020 before resuming in October that year. That pandemic pause left Garfield thinking even more about the part entertainment plays in people’s lives and also what kinds of roles are important to him. “My brother is a doctor in London and I’m just so impressed by everything he has had to face these last two years. And I realised at the end of the day, he goes home and he wants to watch something and escape or be entertained. During these last two years, it became much more vivid to us what matters. That’s exactly the journey Jon goes on, the awareness of this shortness of life.
“One of the things I find moving about this film is that it’s the story of the artist as a young person and it’s a story of a failure, not success,” he continues. “Then what do you do in the face of failure and loss? Which direction do we go in? Do we reaffirm our dream?”
Garfield enjoyed an eclectic 2021, thanks to his brief appearance in global blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home and also playing disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker opposite Jessica Chastain in Searchlight Pictures’ The Eyes Of Tammy Faye. Garfield shot the latter project in late 2019, and segued straight into Tick, Tick… Boom! rehearsals.
“Our second workshop was just after we wrapped Tammy Faye. Lin said to me, ‘I’m hearing a Jim Bakker/Jonathan amalgamation hybrid and I definitely don’t want this,’” Garfield recalls with a laugh.
“These two characters are just so opposite. Jon is full of life and full of connection to spirit and Jim is lost and empty and in disconnection to himself and spirit and so connected to ego. It was a painful place to be [playing Jim], and then playing Jon became the soothing balm.”
Garfield tackles another real-life story in FX miniseries Under The Banner Of Heaven, which wrapped shooting in Calgary in December. Based on Jon Krakauer’s true-crime novel of the same name, adapted by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and directed by David Mackenzie (Hell Or High Water), Garfield plays a Mormon police detective investigating a murder. “It’s an ensemble cast and it has these wild themes, and is based on an amazing true story,” he says. “I’m excited for people to see it.”