Andrew Garfield as Biff in Mike Nichols' Broadway revival of "Death… (Brigitte Lacombe, Brigitte…)
NEW YORK — Seeing as he grew up in the county of Surrey in southeast England and was called one of Britain's rising stage actors at an early age, you might expect that Andrew Garfield has Sir Laurence Olivier as one of his role models.
But his adolescent hero was an entirely different kind of star: Muggsy Bogues, the short, quick, ball-stealing guard for the Charlotte Hornets NBA team in the 1980s and '90s.
"I never wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be the next Muggsy," recalls the 28-year-old Garfield. "I was skinny and short. I'm no longer short [6-foot-1]. But I'm still skinny. I'm OK with that now. But I struggled with it. It's very weird to beat yourself up for being born in the wrong body."
Feelings of displacement are central to two roles that have raised Garfield's profile since his performance as Eduardo Saverin in "The Social Network"put him on the map. First, there's Peter Parker in the forthcoming "The Amazing Spider-Man." And then there's Biff, the onetime football hero-turned-fugitive loser, in Mike Nichols' Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."
"Salesman," which was scheduled to conclude its sold-out limited run Saturday, has earned seven Tony Award nominations, including best production, best director, and for three of its actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the wounded and flailing Willy Loman, Linda Emond, as his patiently suffering wife, and Garfield, as Biff, the victim of his father's fierce ambitions for him and his own pathetic self-delusions.
Critics seemed pleasantly surprised by the power of Garfield's performance. Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty singled the actor out for his fearlessness in exposing "primal wounds that in real life are too painful to reopen," noting that it provided the "turbo-charged catharsis" of a great play. The New York Times' Ben Brantley praised the "searing heat" the actor brought to his confrontations with Hoffman.
Nichols says he'd seen Garfield in earlier movies such as "Lions for Lambs" and"Boy A"but it was "The Social Network" that demonstrated for him the actor's "astonishing emotional power." The director added, "That scene in which they are trying to get him to sign something and he senses the betrayal? Extraordinary. He has a tremendous career ahead of him."
Sipping a ginger ale in a coffee shop before an evening performance of "Salesman," Garfield is thoughtful, affable and wryly self-mocking. He moves his hands through a thick mop of hair and furrows his brow before expressing himself in a torrent of words. The British accent belies his birth in Los Angeles, where he lived until age 3, when he and his elder brother were whisked to London by his American father and English mother.
Wearing khakis and a pinstriped sport shirt over a V-neck sweater, he becomes increasingly animated, whether quoting from a favorite Gil Scott-Heron song or recalling, with a laugh, how he'd imitate his idol Michael Jackson in the days when rock star ambitions supplanted his basketball dreams.
On this late afternoon, he's feeling "spread thin," after one of the hectic theater awards-season receptions.
"It's an honor to be included," he says. "But I get so nervous and anxious at these things that I actually become ill."
He considers the chance to meet his peers a perk. "I met Ricky Martin," he says brightly of the star of the revival of "Evita." "He's so sweet, and when he says goodbye to you, he puts his hand on his heart and says, 'Love and light.' And I thought, 'Aaaah, nice, Ricky, really nice. That's so lovely.'"
If there's no irony, it's because Garfield considers himself heliotropic — "The sun to me is everything" — even while he is trying to balance a love of light with his darker struggles. Like Biff, he says that he is much more comfortable physically. But the former gymnast and swimmer, now an avid surfer, says he lives in his head a good part of the time.
"I am neurotic that way," he says. "I know myself pretty well, why I am the way I am comes very, very easily. That can be both a gift and a curse because you can tend to over-analyze."
It has been a difficult, if rewarding, experience to plumb his own feelings of shame, guilt and "never measuring up" to play Biff. In previous stage roles, Garfield says, he's always been able "to finagle my way" through a performance. Not this time.
"There is something in this play that doesn't allow you to feel truthful unless you are literally baring every aspect of your soul," he says.
Garfield says that the pressure to succeed came from him, not his father, a swimming coach, or his mother, a nursery school assistant.
That self-imposed tension is what he calls "getting on the fridge." This is how he explains it. Children draw out of the purest of desires, happily lost in a pleasurable and unencumbered artistic impulse. "Then mum, or someone you need validation or love from, comes along and says, 'Oh, that's good,' and they put it on the fridge," says Garfield.