Andrew Garfield on ‘Tick, Tick … Boom,’ Jonathan Larson and the Spidey connection

Written By: Dave Itzkoff ©️ 2021 The New York Times The New York Times
New York Updated: Feb 09, 2022, 08:56 PM(IST)

Andrew Garfield in a still from 'Tick, Tick...Boom!' Photograph:( Others )

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Andrew Garfield received an Academy Award nomination for his lead performance in the 'Tick, Tick...Boom!'

In real life, Jonathan Larson never got to fully celebrate his greatest success. He died suddenly in 1996 at the age of 35, just before his rock opera “Rent” won four Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, on its way to becoming a highly influential entry in the pantheon of musical theater.

But on Tuesday, Andrew Garfield was able to honor Larson, the gifted composer and lyricist he plays in “Tick, Tick ... Boom!”: Garfield received an Academy Award nomination for his lead performance in the film, which is adapted from Larson’s own anxious, autobiographical musical of the same title. In the film, the character is on the cusp of 30, struggling to finish the work that he hopes will provide his big break and wondering if he’ll ever create anything meaningful.

Speaking from Los Angeles on Tuesday, Garfield, 38, said any attention he received for the movie should in some way be shared with Larson.

“I can take the recognition in a way that feels personal — I’m not shying away from that,” Garfield said. “But I think the lion’s share really goes to Jon — the spirit that he was and the work that he left behind.”

“Tick, Tick ... Boom!,” which looks back on Broadway and bohemian Manhattan in the 1990s, comes with its own musical-theater bona fides: It was directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) from a screenplay by Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”).

The Oscar nomination is the second for Garfield (following his role as Army medic Desmond T. Doss in the 2016 World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge”). It comes at a time when the actor has also been gaining attention for the superhero blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” in which he revisits the wisecracking wall-crawler he played in the “Amazing Spider-Man” movies.

Garfield spoke further about making “Tick, Tick ... Boom!,” swooning over its big-name Broadway cameos and seeing similarities between his Jonathan Larson and his Peter Parker. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: What did Jonathan Larson mean to you, and what does it mean to be honored like this for playing him?

A: There’s a bittersweetness to it. Obviously the sweetness is evident, and maybe the bitterness can be remedied by keeping his memory alive and keeping his songs being sung, for the ripples of his work to keep spreading and for us to try to give him the harvest of his planting now. It’s a lineage. There would be no Lin-Manuel without Jonathan. There would be no Jonathan without Stephen Sondheim. And I wouldn’t be talking to you without any of them. It’s a real ancestral honoring that we get to do here.

Q: Did you ever think of yourself as a song-and-dance man before making this movie?

A: Only in my imagination. The longing was there — deep, deep down, secretly. I wasn’t brave enough to really own it until Lin started to plant the idea in my head. Or until our massage therapist and our very good friend, Greg Miele, became the intermediary between me and Lin. He’s the massage therapist for both of us, and he lied to Lin, saying that, “Yes, Andrew can sing.” So without Greg’s plying friendship, I wouldn’t be nominated for an Academy Award right now.

Q: Would you ever want to sing again in another role?

A: I would absolutely love to. It’s going to be hard to match this experience, because I’ve been spoiled straight out of the gate. Jonathan Larson as a character inspires so much passion and energy. When he sang, it was life and death. He wasn’t just singing to sing — it was, “No, no, no, I’ve got to reach the White House and the halls of Congress, to change legislation so that my friends don’t die. I need to wake up a whole generation of people to the beauty and meaning of life, and the shortness and sacredness of life.”

Q: Where do you find the energy for a musical number like “Why which is just you sitting at a piano on the stage of the Delacorte Theater, singing about a friend whom he believes will die?

A: That scene is kind of the emotional apex of the piece. I say apex, but what’s the opposite of an apex?

Q:  The nadir?

A: The nadir! Thank you. I will not forget that word. It’s the emotional nadir of Jonathan’s journey, and it had to be sung live because of that. And because it was an improvised song — he was just making it up on the spot, to try to meet this impossible moment, of the potential loss of his best friend. You become a deep-sea soul traveler for the sake of an audience.

Q:  There are also joyous numbers like “Sunday,”which pays homage to “Sunday in the Park With George” and is just stacked with cameos from theater royalty. Were you star-struck by any of those performers when you shot it?

A: It was at the peak of pre-vaccine, mid-COVID terror. None of them could interact with each other, because they all had to be protected. Everyone came in individually and did their piece, and it was all plated together seamlessly. But I got to interact with every single one of them from Joel Grey to André De Shields, and every moment was special. But then I got to have that moment with Bernadette Peters, which felt like something extra. I got to break the fourth wall with and recognize who I was with. I attempted to give her a fraction of the love and gratitude we all feel for her. And I got to do it in Jonathan Larson drag.

Q: Do you see any overlap between your portrayals of Jonathan Larson and Peter Parker?

A: [Laughs] That’s funny. I shot “Spider-Man” pretty soon after “Tick, Tick ... Boom!,” and I think there might have been a little bit of the spirit of Jon that crept into my Peter Parker. Which didn’t feel inappropriate. There is a kinship there. They’re both New York boys. They’re both working-class heroes that long to do good in the world. They’re both creative artists. They’re both kind of nerds. I don’t know if Jonathan was a comic-book fan, but I would imagine he’d have felt some identification with the struggle of Peter Parker, for sure.

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