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Andrew Garfield Has Perfected the Irresistible Sleazeball

After shedding the Spider-Man suit, the actor has carved out his own niche playing greasy dirtbags you can’t take your eyes off of

Searchlight Pictures/Ringer illustration

“I struggled with the value system, I suppose, of corporate America, really—it’s really a corporate enterprise,” Andrew Garfield tells Amy Adams about his impression of Hollywood as part of Variety’s “Actors on Actors” series. Though the conversation happened in 2016, this excerpt was recently shared on Twitter, with particular attention paid to how Adams niftily avoids decrying Hollywood’s money-making priorities to talk about how big-budget movies present unique challenges to the Acting Process™—the original post, and many responses, suggested that the actress was trying to stop Garfield from imploding his career by biting the hand that feeds him. But while Adams deserves credit for some on-the-fly PR management, this wasn’t an isolated incident for Garfield, nor has it been exactly career ending: He’s been candid about his disdain for celebrity and the relationship between art and commerce for years.

You can understand why Garfield might feel a little jaded. After a breakout role as Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin in 2010’s The Social Network, Garfield was whisked into the ever-growing superhero industrial complex as the second live-action iteration of Peter Parker, which, combined with an off-screen relationship with The Amazing Spider-Man costar Emma Stone, brought the actor A-list status and all the attention that comes with it. (Garfield and Stone famously carried signs with the names of charities on them in an effort to co-opt the shuttering lenses of paparazzi.) But Garfield’s nagging issue with The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, which he was harping on during that Variety sit-down, was that the story and characters weren’t at the top of Sony Pictures’ priorities. Given how quickly Sony moved on from the Garfield-led movies and partnered with Marvel Studios for a new new Peter Parker (played by Tom Holland) with a higher box office ceiling, it’s hard to argue he was wrong. At the same time, “major studio cares mostly about profits with its superhero property” shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, let alone an actor in the middle of the Hollywood machinery.

But just as quickly as the actor jumped into superhero blockbusters, he made the sharp pivot to Serious Prestige Roles™ by 2016, courtesy of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge and Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the former of which netted him a Best Actor nomination. (Perhaps even more impressive than the Oscar nom was the fact that, in preparation for Silence, Garfield underwent the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, a series of Jesuit practices meant to bring its practitioner closer to God; Daniel Day-Lewis, eat your heart out.) By cutting his teeth in a superhero franchise, netting an Oscar nomination, and being chosen as the lead of a decades-long passion project for one of the greatest directors on the planet, Garfield made significant headway as a movie star despite a fairly thin filmography. And now that the big franchise commitment is in the rearview—a potential cameo in the multiverse-hopping Spider-Man: No Way Home notwithstanding—Garfield is starting to follow a similar trajectory to former Twilight star Robert Pattinson: using his elevated profile to carve out weirder and more ambitious roles in smaller-scale projects. Basically, he’s found his niche playing irresistible sleazebags.

Garfield’s latest career turn began with 2018’s Under the Silver Lake, a neo-noir that both satirizes modern pop-culture fixations over Easter eggs and mystery boxes and invites obsessive analysis of its own twisty, bonkers plot. (The movie’s very active subreddit is, uh, something else.) As the disillusioned slacker Sam, who becomes convinced that the overnight disappearance of his attractive neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) is part of some larger conspiracy he can’t yet wrap his head around, Garfield brings the same meandering energy as the sprawling narrative that sees his character find hidden messages in everything from pop songs to decades-old cereal boxes. If there was any doubt as to whether writer-director David Robert Mitchell is in on the joke with the film’s purposeful purposelessness in a sea of pop culture, at one point, Garfield’s character wakes up with a Spider-Man comic stuck to his hand.

But as Sam goes farther down the rabbit hole—naturally, every nonsensical clue leads him down a path to galaxy-brained enlightenment—his aimlessness belies a more sinister nature. Sam treats women less as people than as disposable objects, gets needlessly violent with a child who eggs his sports car, and reenacts Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video on a mysterious songwriter’s bashed-in skull. Somehow, Garfield’s performance straddles a line between an amusing stoner sleuth and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, having fully deluded himself into believing he’s a savior when in fact he’s perpetrating the same sort of violence as the evil billionaires at the center of the film’s winding conspiracy.

It’s hardly a shock that Under the Silver Lake was met with a polarizing response, or that A24 burying its release only helped turn it into a cult movie. What was surprising was seeing a former franchise star embrace a film skewering the same pop-culture ecosystem that elevated his career in the first place. And yet, even as unrestrained and weird as Garfield is in Under the Silver Lake, the performance is understated compared to what he would bring to another L.A.-based satire.

Originally premiering at the 2020 Venice Film Festival before releasing to little fanfare in May 2021, Gia Coppola’s Mainstream attempts to explore (and lampoon) modern celebrity culture via internet virality. The film follows Frankie (Maya Hawke), who goes viral by making parodic YouTube videos with an eccentric street performer named Link (Garfield), who essentially plays a self-aware Paul brother. Of course, Link’s sudden celebrity goes to his head, and it isn’t long before his antics grow grating and hostile as he becomes the very thing the duo meant to satirize.

Mainstream isn’t for everyone—IndieWire boldly called Link “one of the most obnoxious characters in cinema history”—but Garfield’s gonzo performance goes a long way toward selling it. Link is indeed obnoxious, but in the actor’s hands, it’s also easy to understand how his antics would grab the internet’s attention, whether you like him or not. Once Garfield is running around the streets of L.A. with a strap-on penis, there’s no denying that he’s fully committed to the bit:

Ultimately, the biggest issue with Mainstream is that its concept of virality already seems outdated. YouTube is viewed as the golden ticket, but there isn’t a single mention of TikTok, which has arguably surpassed it; even the movie’s Jake Paul cameo doesn’t land because he’s already rebranded from a YouTube star to an amateur boxer. Combined with the overwhelmingly negative reviews, it’s not surprising that the movie was dead on arrival. But Mainstream’s shortcomings are through no fault of Garfield, whose comical descent into full-blown megalomania deserves the same attention as his self-absorbed character.

On the surface, Garfield following up two go-for-broke indies about L.A.-based weirdos with a biopic centered on televangelists would seem like a tonal departure. But The Eyes of Tammy Faye, out on Friday, underscores how much religion has overlapped with the toxic elements of celebrity and consumer culture. Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, The Eyes of Tammy Faye charts the rise and fall of Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) and Jim Bakker (Garfield), the power couple whose television network preached the gospel of “prosperity” up until it was swallowed by greed.

While Tammy Faye is largely an Oscar-bait showcase for Chastain, Garfield makes the most of his comparatively small spotlight. Garfield brings a boyish charm and a Mister Rogers–like affectation to his character, especially in early scenes when he’s first meeting Tammy or trying to reach children through singing, bible verses, and hand puppets. But as the couple amass a platform that allows them to reach millions of viewers across the world, the grin across his face feels increasingly off-putting: He’s a snake-oil salesman whose hunger for donations can never be sated.

As much as Tammy Faye paints a sympathetic portrait of its title character, it spares little for her disgraced, and eventually convicted, ex-husband. Playing a character caught in a destructive cycle of greed, clout-chasing, and religious disillusionment, Garfield’s performance in The Eyes of Tammy Faye is strangely of a piece with Mainstream and Under the Silver Lake. They’re showy roles that, in their respective films, reveal hidden depths and unseemly layers behind a disarmingly handsome figure.

After a period of relative inactivity on the big screen, Garfield isn’t even done with glitzy biopics in 2021: He’ll be playing the late Rent creator Jonathan Larson for Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Tick, Tick ... Boom!, coming to Netflix in November. (Based on the trailer, Garfield is pulling all the stops to sing and dance his way to another Oscar nomination.) And if the rumors are to be believed, he’ll cap off a busy year by reprising his version of Peter Parker in No Way Home. The fact that he’s repeatedly denied any involvement in the film has, ironically, only fueled speculation that he’ll definitely show up in it.

Considering Jamie Foxx’s Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is already confirmed to appear in No Way Home, I’m inclined to take the internet’s side and assume that Garfield’s second coming as Spider-Man is inevitable—which isn’t a bad thing by any means, especially when the former franchise star whose career trajectory he’s most closely followed happens to be the new Batman. But if the past seven years are any indication, the lack of franchise commitments hasn’t taken any shine off Andrew Garfield’s movie stardom. If anything, escaping the web of superhero blockbusters has been the best thing for his wacky and unpredictable career.