'The Social Network's' Andrew Garfield has a way with emotion

Andrew Garfield doesn't do Facebook. But if he did, the 27-year-old British actor would no doubt be fending off lots of requests right now from people wanting to be his cyber friend. With two Oscar-potential films about to be sharing theater screens and an outing as Spider-Man up next, Garfield in his short film career has suddenly become a hot property.

In "The Social Network," David Fincher's look at the contentious founding of Facebook, opening Friday, Garfield plays Brazilian-born Eduardo Saverin, who, along with fellow Harvard undergrad and punk genius — as the marketing campaign would have it — Mark Zuckerberg ( Jesse Eisenberg), creates Facebook. But when the social networking site, initially known as thefacebook, swiftly becomes a global sensation — and a huge money-earner — Saverin and Zuckerberg have a falling out.

"He's Mark's only true friend and big brother," Garfield says of Saverin in a phone interview. "There's definitely a Cain and Abel relationship."

In preparation for the film, based on the Ben Mezrich book "The Accidental Billionaires," Garfield wasn't able to meet his real-life counterpart. "It didn't feel imperative because Aaron Sorkin wrote this incredibly detailed and idiosyncratic script in which he managed to flesh out a bunch of real people in all of their facets, so it was all there on the page. But in terms of doing some kind of mimicry performance, it didn't feel necessary or important," says the actor, who was born in L.A. but moved with his family to England when he was 3.

"Jesse might have had a slightly different deal because people are more aware of Mark Zuckerberg's physicality, his mannerisms," Garfield adds. "No one knows who Eduardo Saverin is, and I don't either. Of course, the fact he's a real-life human being, breathing on this Earth somewhere, creates a whole new dimension to my approach because you feel a greater sense of responsibility. But not that much greater because [for] any character you feel a sense of responsibility as if they were a real person."

Initially, Fincher had met with Garfield under the auspices of him playing Zuckerberg, having been turned on to the actor by Fincher's good friend Mark Romanek, who recently directed Garfield in the current film "Never Let Me Go." "I met with him and thought, 'He's great, he's obviously a very skilled actor and kind of an amazing presence,'" recalls Fincher, speaking on the phone from Sweden at the end of his first day of filming "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

But the director didn't like him for the part. "He has such incredible emotional access to his kind of core humanity that I was like, 'Why would we waste an actor like this on the part of the guy [who seems like he has] Asperger's? I'm trying to cast somebody who doesn't have this access.' And that's Andrew's greatest strength, that's his real musculature," Fincher says.

Though "The Social Network" deals specifically with the birth of Facebook, Garfield says that story acts as a catalyst for broader drama. "The themes are universal: friendship, betrayal, power, greed, filial obligation, differing value systems, success, money. It's all very Shakespearean. It's Greek," says the actor, whose previous works include last year's well received "Red Riding Trilogy" and the 2007 British film " Boy A," in which he played a recently released child murderer. A Times reviewer wrote of that film, "Garfield deserves special mention for his deep, extraordinarily expressive performance."

"The wonderful thing about the ["Social Network"] script is everyone's right and everyone's wrong," Garfield says. "It's all gray. Even my character can be excused of certain things. The question is: How do you live your life? What do you value? Do you value your own power? Your own success? Or do you value the people who helped you get there? It's really interesting."

The Fincher movie will join "Never Let Me Go," which opened just over a week ago in theaters. The actor's emotional supporting turn opposite Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley in that haunting film has drawn numerous plaudits, with some buzz of award nominations for the picture and its young stars.

The quietly dark love story is set amid a larger examination of what it means to be human. For Romanek, Garfield brought a depth of understanding as well as "that X factor thing that you can't define, which is, in some ways, the most important thing. He's a deeply sensitive guy who has managed to harness that sensitivity in technique and a kind of professionalism, so that it results in these extraordinary bits of film acting. I saw him in 'Boy A' and was absolutely blown away. He created a character on a level that was like when you first saw Pacino or something, it was that impressive."

And come December, Garfield will make a 180-degree career turn away from adult dramas when he dons Spider-Man's red and blue spandex suit and replaces Tobey Maguire in Marc Webb's 3-D reboot of the Marvel Comics web-slinger.

Despite his spate of serious roles, Garfield says he couldn't be more excited about playing the legendary comic book superhero. "Ever since I was 4 years old, I wanted someone to call me up and say, 'We want to employ you to pretend to be Spider-Man,'" he says enthusiastically.

"It's an extension of a childhood fantasy and that's how I'm treating it. But I feel greatly responsible as well. I feel genuinely honored to be taking on this myth. It's a really sacred thing and I'm fully aware of that." Given that his passion for Spidey dates back more than two decades, does Garfield's mother perhaps have photos of him as a youngster acting the part? "Of course she does," he says with a chuckle. "There's one particular photo of me as Spider-Man and my brother as Superman, and I hope that never surfaces — but it might."

Considered and thoughtful, onscreen and off, Garfield appears to be the type of actor for whom the work is all important, not the fame associated with it. And he is only too aware of the potentially life-changing effect playing Spider-Man might have not only on his career but on his psyche as well.

"I love working," he says. "So I'm taking one day at a time and making sure I keep going back to London to see my school friends and my family, so they can make sure I don't turn into an arse. They can make sure I can stay grounded," he says, laughing. "I'm going to focus on what I want to focus on, which is doing the work and getting lost in this world."

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