Lin-Manuel Miranda warned Andrew Garfield he might not get it at first as he slid music and lyrics across the table. What Garfield did get, eventually, was a “long-lost brother” in the late Jonathan Larson, writer of the musical phenomenon “Rent.” And, one supposes, by a kind of associative property, in Miranda as well.
Miranda (the charming but mad scientist — involved in four films released last year) and Garfield (dapper, dedicated, sincere) sat down with The Envelope to chat about the making of Miranda’s studio feature directorial debut, “Tick, Tick ... Boom!,” based on the musical monologue of the same name Larson wrote about his own creative struggles. In a 2014 stage production, Miranda played the role of Larson, who died suddenly at 35 in 1996, on the eve of “Rent” being unveiled to the public.
We can talk about “Rent,” how revolutionary the rock musical was, populated by ethnicities and sexual orientations not generally at home on the “Beauty and the Beast” and “Miss Saigon” Broadway of its time, while also confronting the AIDS crisis — but let’s get it from today’s preeminent maker of musical theater: How did Larson’s one song of glory affect Miranda?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I saw “Rent” for my 17th birthday and what I knew about him was he passed away before the first preview. As a morbid teenager — I had posters of Brandon Lee on my wall — I was struck by unfulfilled promise. What amazed me in the back row of the mezzanine of the Nederlander Theater was how much it was about the preciousness of life. The last words of the musical are “No day but today,” and it just knocked me flat.
It also felt so contemporary. It was the most diverse cast I’d ever seen on the Broadway stage. This was about artists who lived in the same neighborhood as me, living and dying and wondering what selling out means and how they’re going to make it. I left “Rent” wanting to write a musical of my own and feeling in 50 different ways I had permission, thanks to Jonathan Larson.
Andrew Garfield: Lin asked to see me and whatever Lin wanted to talk about, I was immediately going to say yes. I didn’t know how emphatically a yes it would be until he slid the lyrics and music for “Tick, Tick … Boom!” across the table with a little note saying, “This won’t make sense to you now, but it will, I promise.” And it really did. I felt I was being introduced to a long-lost brother in Jonathan Larson.
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What did you learn that was indispensable for the portrayal?
Miranda: When we were developing the screenplay, we sat down with his friends, his girlfriend Janet [the basis for the character Susan in the film] and Matt O’Grady [the basis for Michael]. I also wanted to talk to his collaborators, because my secret side mission was to learn a little bit about Jon’s artistic process. I sat down with [his friend] Roger Bart. One of the key insights he gave me was that Jon could be a total pain in the ass when his work wasn’t connecting ... but when he was rehearsing, actually teaching his music or working on pieces with actors, he was a fish in water.
One of our producers was Julie Larson [his sister], who never wanted us to make the movie of St. Jonathan. She was like, “Get all of the warts. Get all of that good stuff.”
Garfield: On the night of the premiere in L.A., I said, “God, I wish he was here.” And she was like, “You’d get over it pretty quick if you actually got to know him!” That’s the spirit with which we wanted to make it, not hagiography. I have three boards of the internal-external qualities of Jon. ... Off the top of my head: Everything is at 11 all the time. And that links into what the ticking is: a sense of time running out. The urgency, it’s bursting out of his every cell.
Miranda: That’s something we got from his friends. He made the most boring things into a thing, into a show. “We’re not having dinner; we’re having a peasants’ feast!” Once for Christmas, he printed out a list of what everyone had accomplished that year. He didn’t have the money to throw these parties but he found other ways to make people feel loved and valued.
Where do Andrew and Jon intersect?
Garfield: There’s a kinship. It’s maybe the closest I’ve felt personally connected to a character. These foolish dreams we have as creative people ... I don’t want to get to the end of my life and have any of it left to give. I want all of my song to be sung and that’s not going to happen. Mike Nichols died in the middle of his favorite pasta dinner while he was prepping his next movie. I find that so beautiful.
Miranda: I was going to say the ears, but your answer is better. I think what Andrew and Jon share is a complete commitment to their craft. We think of actors as good at pretending but the opposite’s true. Andrew’s maybe the worst liar I’ve ever met. [Garfield looks skyward.] It’s actually about finding the truth, not pretending.
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Where do Lin and Jon intersect?
Garfield: There was a line in “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” originally that said, “I sometimes feel like my heart is going to explode” and he died of an aortic aneurysm, where his heart pretty much exploded. That line had to be cut from the original, I believe, because it’s so —
Miranda: It was too sad.
Garfield: That felt key to me, that there was this unconscious knowing that time actually was running out. And a big theme in Lin’s work is ‘Why do you write like you’re running out of time?’ And, and, and … I wanna f— cry. [He chokes up.] But whoa — [turning to Miranda] I just don’t want you to die. [They smile.]
Miranda: It’s a very chicken-egg thing, right? Hamilton writes “like he’s running out of time,” but I fell in love with Jonathan’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!” first. So how much of my conception of Jonathan Larson is in “Hamilton”? I’ve had a lot of [out of the side of his mouth] projects this year and people quote the lyric at me. What I never want to tell them, because it’s too morbid and kind of ends the party is, “Because I am and we all are, and the clock is ticking whether you hear it or not, my friend, and it’s a question of how much you let it inform your choices.”
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