A Deep Dive On Celebrity Culture With Andrew Garfield

The actor's new movie, "99 Homes," opens this weekend.

No one wants to work on Labor Day, so when I sat down with Andrew Garfield at a Manhattan coffee shop, I wasn't expecting much. I was wrong. What unfolded during our 25-minute conversation was a typhoon of well-considered reflections on celebrity culture. It came at the right time, too, seeing as we were discussing the new sell-your-soul drama "99 Homes," directed by indie wunderkind Ramin Bahrani ("Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop"). Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a struggling single father who takes a job working for the same corrupt real-estate broker (Michael Shannon) who evicted him and his mother (Laura Dern) from their home. Told in the vein of a spellbinding thriller, "99 Homes" is Garfield's first release since the third "Amazing Spider-Man" installment was axed. Amid the ebbs and flows of endless relationship rumors and mild Oscar buzz, Garfield was in the mood to wax poetic about the state of fame. 

This movie premiered at Venice and Toronto last year, so it feels like the initial buzz was forever ago. Does it feel that way to you?

It feels like a long time, but it’s weird -- you make the film and then, as an actor, you kind of have to forget about it. This was different because I was a producer on it, so I was able to have a bit more hands-on input from inception to completion, so that felt really good.

It's your first time producing. Was that your idea or were you approached to do it?

It was something that was important to me to set up so I didn’t feel like I was banging my head against a door trying to get in, which I’ve felt in the past on certain productions.

"99 Homes" is the story of a guy who sells his soul in order to put a roof over his family's head. By the time he's fallen down the rabbit hole, you have to ask, "Is it worth it?"

I think that’s the question for all of us to answer and ask ourselves if we watch the film, and in our lives on a day-to-day basis: How do we forego our true selves in order to -- what? In order to make money? In order to not rock the boat? In order to survive financially, economically, putting food in our mouths and roofs over our heads? Or in order to survive in a culture that will reject us and put us out on the street, emotionally speaking, if we call it on its shit? It’s a very strange thing to go to, but not all that strange. You look at the life of Jesus. No matter what you believe -- whether you believe he was just a man that had this divine connection, or whether he was literally the son of God, or whether he was saying that we are all the sons and daughters of God -- he was someone who was so unpopular for talking shit about the moneylenders, the money collectors, the taxmen, the evils in his society. He was literally crucified and killed for it. You look at John Lennon, you look at Gandhi, you look at Martin Luther King. Look at all these people that are executed for speaking out against the evils of the system and you kind of go, “Well, fuck, I ain’t gonna say shit. I’m going to compromise what I know and what I feel just so that I can survive and get along and not rock the boat, and be liked and be cute and have everyone understand that I’m just a regular person like everyone else.” It’s like, “I’m cute, but I’m also, like, super humble but I also have confidence.” Everyone is a brand at this point. I’m going off-topic a little bit.

Well, the idea that everyone is a brand is very relevant to your profession. Do you see that about the decisions you’re required to make regarding how you portray yourself onscreen or offscreen?

I can’t do it. I can’t do it. And there is a pressure that I think all people feel -- it’s the film industry and it’s the music industry, especially -- to be accepted, to be liked, to be loved by everybody so that you stay on top. It’s a way of life that permeates our culture so much, and it’s every Facebook page and every Twitter feed. We’re always going, "Am I liked, am I accepted?" I know it in myself -- I know the temptation and the pull to be like, “Cut your hair, man” or “Take off the mustache, it’s not attractive” or "Fucking tuck in your shirt.” Whatever it is. "Be charming, be likable, be sweet. Don’t be too serious -- be a bit serious, but not too serious. Be authentic, but not too authentic." It’s like, what the fuck? I just want to break something on a red carpet most of the time because no one is fucking talking to each other and no one is going deep.

You sound like you’re cycling through a range of things a publicist might tell you to do.

Right. But no, I don’t have that in my life, thank God. My publicist isn’t a publicist -- he’s a friend, and he’s like, “Fuck yeah, fuck it.”

Has he been with you since the beginning?

Yeah. But the world is a publicist at this point. The Internet is a publicist, every comment is a publicist saying, “Fuck you.” Everything can be misinterpreted, reinterpreted, pulled apart and criticized. There’s no way of moving. I especially think about it with young female pop stars and actors, mostly female. That’s where most of the pressure I see happening is. That’s my perspective -- I see young, female, brilliant, artistic, creative people being looked at under this microscope and being pressured into being everything that a patriarchy is asking them to be by being perfect in all of these different ways. It’s not something that anyone can live up to, and it creates all of this projection.

Think of Marilyn Monroe, think of Lindsay Lohan. People will probably be mad at me for mentioning those two people in the same sentence, but fuck it. Fuck off. They are responding to the same kind of external projection, unless you go down into who you actually are, with all of the shit, as well as all of this gold. Because you can’t deny that Lindsay Lohan was this beautiful, bright, vibrant actress who was sweet and lovely and had this quality about her. But if you’re not in contact with that grounding, human, failing, fucking-up, mistake-making that we all share -- we all trip over our shoelaces and take a shit daily -- then this perfection idea is unattainable. It’s killing us from the inside.

In some sense, it's lose-lose. About a year or two ago, a trendy interview question was to ask every celebrity to “come out” as a feminist. It’s wonderful to promote those values, but then when people say, “Well, I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist,” or some other all-inclusive mentality that’s oriented toward equal rights, they get slammed. Sarah Jessica Parker experienced that just a few months ago. The good intentions get mutated into a negative domino effect. Do you feel like that’s accurate?

I’m scared to say anything right now because I know that whatever I say in response to the very smart thing that you’re saying -- you’re not going to get torn apart for it, I’m going to get torn apart for it.

I know, and that’s a weird position. I'm not here to goad you into saying something controversial and I'm not here to flatter you. Yet obviously I want good quotes from you. We are both sitting here in this coffee shop very aware of what’s going on at this table right now.

Of course.

Yet I understand that if you say something that doesn’t translate as well in print during what is ultimately a thoughtful conversation, you could be villified.

It’s so funny, isn’t it? So what do we do? The question is, how do we actually have a deep conversation? And I think the words “feminist" and "humanist," evidently they mean something different to every single person who is saying them. It’s all subjective. I was talking to the previous interviewer about how I had said before that I had been quoted as saying, "Why can’t Spider-Man be bisexual and have an interracial love affair with Michael B. Jordan?"

Sure, that would be wonderful.

It would be pretty wonderful. So where my heart is, where my allegiance lies, is with equal opportunity for every single human being, whether they are gay, straight, lesbian, trans, genderqueer, female, male, white, black, red all over, whatever. We all, men and women, are created equal. That’s just where I’m at. And I don’t even remember what your question is, but I think it has something to do with, "How do we move in the world right now in a way that is truly authentic?"

Like I was saying earlier, being truly authentic is going to upset people, even if people are saying, "I want something authentic." That means some dark shit, too. To me, authenticity is my whole self, and that means not just the pretty parts that will charm you and make you go and see this film and watch me on a talk show, but it also means my shame, my grief, my heartbreak, my pain. I’m lucky that I get to put all that into my work and I get to put that into art. I don’t necessarily want to have a conversation about my shame with the public -- I don’t feel the need for that, but if we’re actually wanting an authentic conversation, it’s not going to be in 120 characters and it’s not going to be in headlines. It’s not even going to be in an interview. We’ve gotten somewhere pretty deep, I do think, even pretty quickly, but the majority of people will not read this whole thing. The majority of people will look at some quotes that another website that wants clicks will steal. So we’re at a culture of thin-slicing.

And also, I believe these words -- "feminist," "humanist," "whatever-ist" -- have been taken and re-appropriated and, a lot of the time, used, quite frankly. I see a lot of using of these terms in order to further someone’s brand. That confuses the fuck out of me and makes me feel a bit sick. That may be me being cynical, but I see a lot of people bandying about these things, and actually they may not know the history of the word. Because to me, the word “feminine” is an energy. It’s an archetypal energy. A woman is a woman and a man is a man, but “feminine” lives in both. So what does it mean to be a feminist?

You’re talking about something very nuanced, though.

Right, and we’re not going to get to it in a headline or a quick 20-minute lunch break. If I was blind and never knew what a feminist was or what the feminism movement was, if someone said, “Feminism, what does that mean to you?” I would say, just as a child, that feminism means being loving, being compassionate, being kind, being community-minded and fierce in one’s lovingness. But someone is going to read this and go, “That’s not what being a woman has to be.” And I know that. I’m not talking about being a woman or being a man. I’m talking about what the word "feminine" feels like to me archetypically in my bones and the images it conjures. And masculinity, which lives in both men and women, just to be clear, is that warrior, hard, slicing with a sword, detaching, if need be. Both have power. Anyway, I’m going off. 

We talked about whether Dennis' actions in “99 Homes” are worth it. Do you, as a public figure, ever question whether the litmus test you're constantly subjected to is worth it?

Yeah, I don’t want to be a public person.

Just look at your dating life. It’s all over the headlines all the time.

Right. Yeah. 

Does it ever make you wonder why you signed up?

Yeah, I have no desire for any of it. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It’s a strange thing, because I get into a lot of conversations with paparazzi in attempts to just break down the barrier of the camera and say, “Hey, just so you know, I don’t like this. You are going to do what you’re going to do and I know it’s tough out here and we all have to make a living.” I feel like I’m talking to a lot of Dennis Nashes, to be honest, when I’m talking to paparazzi. I had a conversation with a couple the other day -- a lady and a guy, really lovely people, and she said, “You’re not a person, though.” I said, “I’m a human being and I don’t want this.” She said, “You’re not a person.” And I’m like, “You know what, that makes me want to introduce you to my family. It makes me want to bring you home and introduce you to my mother and father because I feel totally detached from being who I am to you in this moment.” And we got into this conversation and she said, “Thank you for talking to us because most people treat us like trash. Our bosses treat us like trash, you guys usually treat us like trash." And that’s how Dennis feels in “99 Homes” as he’s doing the bidding of those higher-ups by doing this awful thing in order to survive, because it is hard out there. When he starts evicting people, the shame in him and the knowledge that not all is well within his soul is devastating. And I just suddenly felt like, “Oh, that’s Dennis right there.” She exposed something so vulnerable and raw to me, and we ended up having this beautiful, proper and deep conversation, underneath all of the defensive walls, about grief and pain and how fucked the situation we’re all in is.

But do you think she was able to walk away from that conversation and feel the same way?

I believe so. I believe we got to a place where we could really see each other because we spend so much time not seeing each other and not respecting each other and not looking deep into each other. I think it goes into what we’re talking about. But with the whole celebrity thing, I don’t see myself as a celebrity because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to function in my life. I didn’t become an actor to be a celebrity. Of course, I knew taking on the Spider-Man role would shift something, so I did go in with my eyes partially open, but in a lot of denial. But I don’t feel all that bothered, to be honest, because I’ve worked hard to make sure that I’m of the earth. I don’t want to be in the gilded tower up there. It’s not a fun place. I don’t think that anyone who’s in that circumstance feels that way. I think there’s a feeling of separation that everyone feels. And it’s a madness, too, celebrity culture -- it’s a madness.

On all ends.

And I’m a culprit of hero-worshiping people, so I can identify with it. But to me, it’s like actors should be the most human of all of us, because we are the ones supposedly reflecting humanity and being the vessels for what it is to be a person, with all of the ugliness and beauty and confusion and messiness that it is to be a human being -- the absurdity and the tragedy. So we, as actors, should be the most relatable human beings in the world, whereas it’s become this weird thing where they’re unreachable. That’s not acting to me. That’s celebrity or self-worship or self-aggrandizement.

It removes some of the artistry at the core.

It goes back to branding. It's, "I’m much more concerned with being popular, being liked, getting an award, being perceived in this way, than just getting in the fucking muck of what it is to be a person and actually offering something that has soul back to the world." And I know that in myself -- I know my own temptation toward being driven by temptations and desires, by the thing of like, “I want to be more than I am, I want to win," whatever the fuck that is. 

With the idea of "winning" in mind, what is harder: stomaching everyone's intense reactions to a massive franchise like "The Amazing Spider-Man," or working on an indie passion project like "99 Homes" and knowing it may never find much of an audience?

It goes back to what can I do and what can’t I do -- what can I control and what can’t I control? All I can control in both of those instances is how hard I work and what I give to it in terms of the process. And then the results are really none of my business, to be honest, even though of course I want everything to be seen and affect people. But I work just as hard on everything. I have this problem with not-enough-ness. I never feel like I’m doing enough. I never feel like I am enough. It’s this weird kind of catalyst that makes me a really hard worker. I think I just care. I care a lot about the stories I’m involved in, and I do want to just make a difference as much as possible in the short time that I’m here, in whatever way I’m supposed to. I have no idea what that is either. They both have their frustrations, but ultimately all I can do is keep banging my head against the door until it opens, in both cases. 

And you can rest assured that the quality speaks for itself.

Right, but then again, the actor has so little control over what films people see. 

Especially not when actors don’t open movies the same way they did 20 years ago.

Yeah, I don’t really understand that whole concept. But what’s good now, I think, is that the culture we’re in is very good at talking to each other and telling people what they like.

We live in a good word-of-mouth culture.

Word of mouth is a big thing now, so I think quality is the king. It’s not about the marketing so much -- that’s taking on a new life because I think people are really hungry for something that’s real. It’s what we’re taking about -- something sincere and authentic, and when they see it, they say, “Oh, yeah yeah yeah, we have to tell everyone about that.” And there’s also this treasure-hunt thing that happens where everyone wants to find this rare piece of gold and then they want to spread it out, like, “Oh, well, I found this first, so here, have a look.” That’s awesome, so I pray that people enjoy this one.

"99 Homes" opens Sept. 25. This interview has been edited and condensed.


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