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Andrew Garfield finds parallels between life today and ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

Andrew Garfield poses for a portrait in front of a gray backdrop.
Andrew Garfield stars as Mormon Det. Jeb Pyre investigating a double homicide in “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Andrew Garfield has played a crime fighter before but never a cop, not until his Emmy-nominated miniseries, “Under the Banner of Heaven.” In it, he stars as Mormon Det. Jeb Pyre investigating a double homicide in the fictional town of East Rockwell, Utah. Based on the book by Jon Krakauer, the series examines the real-life 1984 slaying of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter at the hands of her in-laws, Ron and Dan Lafferty, leaders of a fundamentalist Mormon sect.

As Pyre and his partner delve deep into the crime, they discover a Mormon splinter group motivated by anti-government grievances dating to 19th century persecution. In our own time, similar resentment and whitewashing of history have gained traction among those who place political affiliation over democratic principles the way the Laffertys put the rule of God above the law.

“We have been hijacked by a very small minority. And the minority has figured out how to work the system with a white puritanical arrogance, like a British colonial arrogance that, ‘We know the way, and you’re all going to hell if you don’t follow,’” says Garfield, drawing parallels between the religiously motivated attack on Brenda Lafferty and the recent Supreme Court ruling on abortion.

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“This show is a clear reflection of the kind of fundamentalism that is creeping into public life. The scariest part is that there is this kind of cheering on of ignorance, a kind of flag waving of how great it is that ignorance is winning and a lack of compassion is winning. How do you wake people up to what should be an obvious stance that a woman’s body is hers and no one else’s? It’s a fear-based ideology that keeps us from true connection to present reality, compassion, empathy, remembering our interconnectedness with all living things. And that is really where spirituality and God lives, whatever you define as God.”

Through the course of his investigation, Pyre undergoes a critical questioning of his faith similar to the show’s creator, Dustin Lance Black, who was raised Mormon but has since left the church. Garfield describes himself as “pantheist, agnostic, occasionally atheist” but has never confronted a spiritual crisis like that of his character. The closest he has come was the loss of his mother to pancreatic cancer in 2019.

“I was living under the illusion in some unconscious way that she was going to be here forever, even though I knew intellectually she wouldn’t, which was when she passed,” he ruefully recalls. “There was obviously resistance to that. I didn’t want that to be reality. Who would?”

Garfield’s career sparked just three years after graduating from the University of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. He was in two episodes of BBC’s “Doctor Who” in 2007 and made his first big screen appearance that same year in “Lions for Lambs,” starring Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. In 2017 he received his first Oscar nomination for “Hacksaw Ridge,” with another coming earlier this year for “Tick, Tick … Boom!” in which he played Broadway composer Jonathan Larson.

A big fan of television since childhood, he names “The Wonder Years,” “Boy Meets World” and “Kenan & Kel” among his favorite shows as a kid. “It would be inappropriate for me to be cast as Kenan, but I would dream of being in that show,” he gushes, also naming “The West Wing.” “Every character in that show is so brilliant, but the rogue Bradley Whitford is, he’s such an incredible character.”

Other incredible characters are the superheroes of the upcoming “Avengers: Secret Wars.” He’s not listed in the credits, but he wasn’t supposed to be in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” either, and there he was anyway. So, will he be in the new movie? “Not that I know of, but anything I say from here on out about anything is going to be questioned,” he says with a laugh.

One show he’s keen on doing is the miniseries “Hot Air,” in which he’ll play British entrepreneur Richard Branson in the 1990s, during a legal fight between British Airways and Branson’s Virgin Atlantic. “I’m fascinated by Branson. He seems like a really interesting human being. I want to honor him and do him justice, especially during that period.”

Garfield’s Emmy nomination for “Under the Banner of Heaven” is his first. “My response to being nominated for my acting is always kind of the same — I’m just happy to be alive!” he laughs. “I’m very grateful and very honored that I’ve been named in that category. I feel like a representative of my company because you’re only as strong as the people you’re acting with.

“I’m happy to be able to do what I love, then the rest just feels like icing and an honor, a real honor.”


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