To play a 17th-century Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese's Silence, Andrew Garfield spent an entire year meditating on the idea of religion, materialism and spirituality. "The majority of the process was praying," he explained, "I had a year to get ready to go and shoot, and I prayed for a year." Here, the 33-year-old actor talks about what he discovered about himself in the process, what it's like to audition for Martin Scorsese, and more in a revealing interview.
How did Mr. Scorsese approach you about the movie Silence?
I auditioned. I hadn’t had an audition in a bunch of years and I was very relieved when Marty was asking people to audition.
He’s been wanting to make this film for 28 years, and he wanted to make sure he found the right people to tell this story that’s been rumbling around in his head and heart for that long. It heartened me, because I felt whoever he chooses is the right person because he’s doing very detailed research and making sure the story reaches its potential with the people that play these parts. I don’t think it was many of us who auditioned, I think it was five or six of us.
Were you nervous?
Very, of course. And driven. Because I was like, “I’m not gonna leave any stone unturned here, I’m gonna act as if we’re shooting the movie and I’m gonna show up. And I was really, really prepared. Probably more prepared than I’d ever been for an audition, because it’s one of those surreal things. It’s a surreal moment when Mr. Scorsese and it’s a passion project and it’s something so deep in his heart, it’s like, okay, I have to come in all guns blazing.
Did you dress in a particular way?
Yeah, I wore all black. It was a really awesome – it was like a two hour talk and reading, and he was very light and jokey in between these very intense scenes that we were reading. It was really confusing. And I thought, well, if it’s me, it’s me. If it’s not, it’s not. But I had a feeling that I was the right person for it, and I don’t get that feeling very often. More often than not I’m saying, oh this person is gonna be better or this person is gonna be better. It’s very rare where I go, ‘No, this one could be right for me.”
How did you get into character?
It was a really interesting thing because the majority of the process was praying. I had a year to get ready to go and shoot, and I prayed for a year. I never prayed before, really, and I developed a relationship with a power greater than myself – call it God, call it love, call it what you will. Insert your belief system here. It became very, very natural and I realize that we’re praying all the time, it’s just we’re not conscious of what we’re praying to. We’re worshipping all the time, there’s that human impulse to worship and to exalt and to long for connection to the divine. We are unfortunately, in our culture, being driven and guided more often than not to worship things that are false and empty, like celebrity culture, like consumer goods, a new pair of shoes, popularity, being a success by what modern standards mean: a nice car, a beautiful spouse, two children and a picket fence. These are all lies that we’ve been sold.
Given very easy access to worship, I found myself understanding that on a deeper way and it really scared the shit out of me and devastated me to be more awake to the mass brainwashing that our culture has been dragged into. We have to really seek out how to cut ties to it, we have to really do our own work to do that and help each other through that. And I think with last Tuesday, and the election of Mr. – can’t say his name right now – the bully won. The false idol won. I’m full of grief about it. I’ve been there before with a school bully on the playground that has power even over teachers and I was too small to do anything about it when I was seven, and now I feel that I’m being called to action in a new way, I think a lot of people are – I think the majority of Americans are, which is heartening.
Anyway, I had a year of exploring, I suppose, this idea of worship, this idea of what it is that we are truly longing for and how do we actually go to the places that can feed us with that longing. It’s certainly not McDonald’s, it’s certainly not the consumer culture we’re in, it’s something invisible and mysterious. And we get glimpses of eternity every day, whether we’re looking up from our iPhones to notice.
Was the year imposed by you, or was that the year before you started filming?
Bit of both. I had opportunity to go to work on other things, but they didn’t stir my soul. And they would have been the things you should be doing, fuck playing a priest. But I said no kind of easily. Because, I don’t know, life is short and I can only show up for things – we all have a job here. Everybody has a job here.
Well, there’s jobs and then there’s belief systems.
I think what I mean by job is calling – I believe we all have a calling here to do something very specific and it’s very hard to shave away the things that aren’t part of that calling. It was self-imposed and I really am grateful for it, because it was a year of self-exploration, it was a year of god-exploration. One of the blessings of it was I spent time each week, sometimes daily, with a Jesuit priest called Father James Martin who is a wonderful Jesuit, and he is in New York City. He was a consultant on the film, but he became my spiritual director, basically.
And it was a long shoot, right?
It was about four or five months. But it felt timeless. It was this very strange mysterious thing, a little bit like that film Arrival, which I just saw recently and just adored. There was something about an awareness that all that linear time is manmade and a construct and we need it in order to feel safe in the chaos of living, but in fact we know everything at all times. And I love how Amy [Adams] did that, and kind of communicated different planes of consciousness and their kind of anxiety and chaos and the dismantling of the psyche, that’s an incredible feat to create.
So that’s kind of how it felt from getting the job to even now talking about it. It still feels like living in a poem or something.
What was that like watching the film? It was transcendent. I hate watching myself, I think most actors do. Some don’t, and I admire that so much. There are some people that just love watching themselves and I’m like, damn, that looks really fun. I wish I could be laughing at how funny I am and moved by how, but I can’t, I’m just awful. I felt that watching the film, I forgot I was in it, I was just transported to another place and time, I was transported to another state of being, state of consciousness. [Scorcese’s] made a masterpiece, as far as I can tell. I feel that he’s really transcended himself with this film. He’s made something quite profound.
Did you have a favorite Martin Scorsese movie before this?
Taxi Driver is hard to get out of my consciousness, I don’t know why. It’s so full of love. That character is so full of love. On the surface it reads very aggressive and dangerous and scary. But underneath it all you can feel what De Niro is bringing is a guy that just wants to connect, a guy that just wants to belong. And be loved and love in return, like we all are.
Was there a particular movie that made you want to become an actor?
Teen Wolf, Michael J. Fox. Tom Hanks in Big was a really important moment, I think.
How old were you?
I was born in ’83 – I believe it was late '80s it came out, so I was the age of Tom Hanks’s character, really. So Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf and in Back to the Future. It was those guys. It was those moments. And then it became De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman and Pacino and John Cazalle – like fucking John Cazale. And Brando of course, oh my god – what the hell was he? How did he do all that. And then Daniel Day Lewis. And then with theater it was Simon McBurney -- it was really Simon McBurney’s work that made me want to be an actor. And then Mark Rylance has become the guy that I look to for constant inspiration – what he does on stage and on screen too. Seeing him on stage is like watching a magician, like watching David Blaine, or Houdini.
What movie makes you cry?
Oh, all movies make me cry. I’m a crier. It’s a Wonderful Life is the one. That’s the movie. It’s the whole theme of the thing – it’s the meaning of life. We all have a calling here, and we just gotta pay attention. I have you know, the struggle of a human being, who so longs to matter, you know? It’s a man who longs to matter and be someone in the world. I can’t – and can’t see that he does, you know? A man that can’t see that he does matter by being who he is – simply being who he is. And that’s enough. It’s a killer – just to be enough as you are, and staying home is enough, just being yourself is enough, you don’t have to travel the world – just be. I think – that’s why it gets everybody. Being allowed to be who you are and that being enough.