To portray a paralyzed polio patient in ‘Breathe,’ Andrew Garfield relied on his voice and expressions

Andrew Garfield portrays early polio pioneer Robin Cavendish in the film “Breathe.” “I’d spent a lot of time looking at pictures and videos, and I just fell in love with Robin,” Garfield says.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Andrew Garfield is the kind of guy who’s as likely to ask about his interviewer’s life as he is to chat about himself and his portrayal of pioneering polio survivor Robin Cavendish in “Breathe,” which the London-based actor was in Los Angeles to talk about. Chalk up this trait to humility, a quality the warm, thoughtful Garfield, 34, says “turns him on a lot.”

“Humility in others is something that I want very much in myself,” said a jet-lagged yet neatly dressed Garfield over lunch at a West Hollywood hotel. “I struggle with it especially, I think, being an actor and being in an environment where you’re constantly told not to be humble.”

The concept of humility drew Garfield to playing Cavendish, a British tea broker who in the late 1950s, at age 28, contracted polio. Although given just a few months to live, Cavendish, through force of will, the strength of devoted wife Diana (Claire Foy) and the innovative work of inventor friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), survived 36 more years as a “responaut,” someone permanently dependent on a ventilator


Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, “Breathe,” stars Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy.


“Robin was so humble, he was just himself,” Garfield said. “He wasn’t in it to be glorified. He was just in it to enjoy his life, to create a higher standard of living for himself. He liked to fight for others once he’d fought for himself.” (Cavendish became one of the U.K.’s first disability advocates.)

Before his involvement with “Breathe,” which was directed by actor Andy Serkis, Garfield had never heard of Cavendish. This also appealed to him. “I’m less interested in tooting the horn for people who already have their horns tooted,” he said.

Reading the life-affirming script by two-time Oscar nominee William Nicholson (“Shadowlands,” “Gladiator”) sealed the deal for the actor: “I just bawled my eyes out, I found it just so moving; it really spoke to me in terms of where I was in my life.”

Garfield is no stranger to playing real-life characters. He appeared as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin in 2010’s “The Social Network” and as World War II conscientious objector Desmond Doss in last year’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” for which he earned his first Oscar nomination.

But portraying a person with a disability comes with its own responsibility. “You need to get it all bang on the money,” said Garfield, who spent significant time with the disabled to prepare for the part. “The physical circumstances that Robin had to live through, they have to be lived through. [It’s] a privilege to attempt to honor that.”

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Because Cavendish was paralyzed from the neck down, Garfield’s performance remains largely stationary, relying mainly on facial expression and vocal technique.

“I never saw the physical aspect as an acting challenge, I only saw it as a living challenge,” Garfield said. “[It was] in the sense of: How did Robin access the world? How did he communicate? How did he connect with other people? How did Robin do it and therefore how am I going to do it?”

Duplicating Cavendish’s voice was “the trickier part” for Garfield, who had to learn how to breathe in rhythm with the sound of his character’s respirator. (He used an earpiece during filming to help stay in tune with the machine.)

“The vocal quality was very specific and I only had a recording of Robin when he was much older, when his voice had become very degraded,” Garfield said. “So I thought, OK, I’ll work backwards from that and give him a little bit more.”

Garfield and Foy spent time with Diana Cavendish, now 83, to help learn to mimic the voices of the era’s more privileged social strata, to which Diana and Robin belonged. “She’s very much a person of that period,” Garfield said. “We got a sense of the [vocal] rhythm, the cadence, the tone and the musicality through her.”

Garfield chose to wear dentures to evoke Cavendish’s prominent teeth. “I’d spent a lot of time looking at pictures and videos, and I just fell in love with Robin,” the actor said. “Looking in the mirror during makeup tests I thought, ‘I look like me — I want to look like the man I’m in love with!’” So on went a “horribly uncomfortable” set of false teeth.

“Breathe” producer Jonathan Cavendish, the son of Robin and Diana, is amazed by Garfield’s performance. “Andrew has managed brilliantly to re-create my father’s voice,” Cavendish said in an email. “Even more miraculous are Andrew’s facial expressions, which are precisely identical to my father’s. I know my father would have been astonished that Andrew has captured his spirit and physicality so perfectly.”

Andrew Garfield
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times )