ANDREW GARFIELD enters the bar of an upscale Beverly Hills hotel as if by accident. With a few days’ worth of boyish scruff, a backpack, long shorts and a flannel shirt, he doesn’t look like an award-winning, up-and-coming star-to-be. He looks a little like a hitchhiker who might get the boot.
Yet soon after settling into a table on a sunny veranda he makes clear just why he’s there. It’s no accident. Slightly wary but inquisitive, sometimes stumbling over his words before locking onto a fit of articulateness, he is bright, engaged and committed.
Garfield stars in “Boy A,” which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, giving a dazzling performance shot through with a bracing sincerity, emotional opacity and teeming with an internal life that unfolds like a delicate origami. In England, “Boy A” was screened on television, and Garfield picked up a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best actor (as did John Crowley for best director).
“Boy A,” adapted by Mark O’Rowe from the novel by Jonathan Trigell, is the kind of film that works better the less you know about it. Buoyed by a poetic simplicity, it is rigorously structured with a careful, methodical way of revealing information. It isn’t spoiling much to say that “Boy A” is about a young man who committed a crime as a child and is newly released from custody. Aided by his caseworker (the reliable Peter Mullan), even as he struggles to fit into adult life -- a new job, maybe a girlfriend -- his past continues to haunt him.
Crossing the Atlantic
Garfield, who turns 25 next month, was born in America and moved with his family to England while just a small boy. After drama school he began gaining notice for his appearances in a series of British theater productions. An audition tape he had made for a casting director for a film that never happened ultimately put Garfield on his way toward a role in “Lions for Lambs.” Nearly all of his scenes as an arrogant American college student are back-and-forth conversations with Robert Redford, who also directed.
Not a bad way to make your film debut, and yet Garfield still finds a way to make it a point of worry as to whether he is ready for the spotlight.
“I know where I want to get to within what I think I can do,” he said, “and I don’t feel anywhere near that yet.
“I feel I have a responsibility to myself to only do things that I really want to do. But it means I have to wait for those things. And doing the jobs I’ve done, going from Robert Redford to ‘Boy A’ to Terry Gilliam’s film [‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’], I know I’m not going to be able to just settle on something. That’s difficult because I just want to keep flexing those muscles, keep learning and keep being enriched. The waiting is tough.”
Just when it might seem he is a humorless, self-serious actor’s actor, Garfield handily deflates a routine question regarding any research he might have done for his role in “Boy A.”
“I killed a kid,” he deadpans.
The quiet stillness that runs through much of “Boy A” is in part a byproduct of Garfield’s performance, as he seems to grow like a flower responds to sunlight and water.
“When we were editing,” noted director Crowley, “I’d often find him giving with glances or with looks what the text was also doing. We began cropping dialogue out because everything was already being communicated. The amount of emotional heat behind each take was always absolute.”
Crowley adds that due to the beguiling nature of Garfield’s performance a scene in which his character receives the small gift of a pair of shoes from his caseworker, originally intended to occur about three-quarters of the way through, neatly shifted to the very beginning of the film. Garfield immediately hooked the audience.
“The notion of watching somebody being so moved by a crummy pair of trainers. You think, ‘What kind of kid is this?’ You were up and running,” Crowley said. “There’s no question that was a moment Andrew played that was not necessarily in the script. You knew any audience member would plug straight into him.”
Befriended by Ledger
After “Boy A,” Garfield will be seen in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” the film directed by Gilliam that actor Heath Ledger was in production on when he died. The experience seems to have left Garfield a bit shellshocked -- “It’s difficult to sum up in a sound bite,” he said -- but also inspired and eager to carry on Ledger’s acting legacy.
“I was his friend, briefly, and the impact he had on me in that short time is something I’m going to keep with me forever,” he said of Ledger. “And when that force was gone, it left everyone desolate, obviously.”
And yet the show must go on.
“After the grief came ‘He would have wanted us to figure this out.’ It was like a puzzle, and he was master of us all. This void of energy was left, and we all had to fill it. For him. And it became a dedication to him. So all the fear that I had about being stupid in front of the camera, because that’s what Terry wanted, all that fear I had went out the window. ‘What would Heath do?’ ”
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Where you’ve seen him
While devotees of the English theater scene may know Andrew Garfield from his stage performances, for American moviegoers he is still very much a new face. In his film debut in “Lions for Lambs,” nearly all Garfield’s screen time was spent alone in an office talking to Robert Redford, who both played a professor and directed the film. There was also a small role in “The Other Boleyn Girl,” with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson.
This makes his riveting turn in “Boy A” feel that much more like both an introduction and a breakout. After “Boy A,” Garfield will be seen in director Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.”