Andrew Garfield navigates the 'complicated' conversation around who should play LGBTQ roles

Garfield plays Rent's late (and straight) composer Jonathan Larson in the buzzed-about musical tick, tick... BOOM!


Words: Thomas Stichbury; Photography: Brian Bowen Smith

Andrew Garfield weighs in on the “complicated” conversation around who should and shouldn’t take on LGBTQ roles as the Hollywood star appears in the Attitude December issue, out now to download and to order globally.

Hitting all the right notes in upcoming, much buzzed-about musical tick, tick… BOOM! - the feature directorial debut of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda - Garfield plays Jonathan Larson, the late (and straight) composer and playwright behind Rent; a show which, despite being penned by a heterosexual man, has lived as an LGBTQ stage classic ever since its debut in 1994.

Andrew Garfield for the Attitude December issue (Photography: Brian Bowen Smith)

Netflix’s absolute lung-buster of a movie – also starring Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon), MJ Rodriguez (Pose) and Robin de Jesús (The Boys in the Band) – tells the story of Larson who, on the cusp of his 30th birthday, is racing against the clock to prepare for a workshop of his latest work, all the while wrestling with crippling debt, an increasingly strained relationship with his girlfriend (Shipp) and, most pressingly, the creeping devastation of the Aids crisis on his circle of friends.

“[Larson] was so community-minded, and he felt such alignment to the periphery of the culture, the groups and the people that were not included, supported, loved in the way that is everyone’s birthright", Garfield muses.

"You know, seeing Ronald Reagan not mentioning, not saying Aids for however long, however many years and the damage that does… Jon felt it all as the sensitive artist that he was and it was all that pain and anguish and suffering that created one of the great musical works of the last century, which is Rent."

Photography: Brian Bowen Smith

“I remember hearing this story that, when he had written Rent, he was really nervous because he was concerned that it wasn’t his story to tell because he’s white, male and attracted to women, but then he asked two of his friends who were gay and in musical theatre, and he said, ‘Look, I want to play you something privately and I want to know what you think and if I should back off from this or not.’

“He did the whole one-man show version of Rent for, like, three hours to them. Of course, they’re both sobbing, and they say, 'No, you have to be the mouthpiece for us, you are the person, it doesn’t matter who you fuck, you are part of our community, and you happen to be a great artist and songwriter and storyteller, so please'.”

In a tragic twist of fate, Larson passed away, aged 35, from an aortic aneurysm on the morning of Rent’s first off-Broadway preview show. He was later honoured with a post-humous Pulitzer Prize.

Andrew Garfield as Rent composer Jonathan Larson in tick, tick... BOOM! (Image: Macall Polay/Netflix)

tick, tick… BOOM! - which is in selected theatres from 12 November and on Netflix from 19 November - sees Garfield portray a straight man, but the Oscar nominee previously won plaudits (and a Tony Award) for his turn as Prior Walter in the 2018 iteration of Tony Kushner’s landmark Aids play Angels in America.

“Things are different now, obviously, from how they were three years ago. But yeah, Tony Kushner… asked me to do it and that was really the only reassurance I needed, that was the blessing, it was from him", Garfield explains.

"That trumps anything else for me, in terms of the writer and the writer of his calibre that wrote this thing and has had that lived experience, thinking that I was the best person at that moment to communicate the ideas of his play to an audience.

“We did an interview together and his response to that question was, ‘Well, first of all, it’s illegal for me to ask Andrew who he sleeps with while hiring him. So, it’s none of my business who Andrew is having sex with, and I just see an actor that I think could play the part best, and if we restrict ourselves, if we restrict artists to only make art about – that’s in line with their own identity, then it’s the death of empathic imagination.’

"I really agree with that."

Andrew, 38, believes the "deeper conversation is about opportunity" afforded to LGBTQ performers, who have historically been sidelined by major studios, particularly when it comes to straight parts.

Photography: Brian Bowen Smith

“There might be a great, undiscovered person, who identifies as a homosexual, who’s an actor who’s the right age, the right physical type and had even more to offer that part than me, but there would be no way of knowing that that actor existed", Andrew stresses.

"That is where the conversation is really important, which is opportunity, representation and breaking this, kind of, bigoted, homophobic limitation that still persists, that only allows a certain amount of artists in that community to get the opportunities that they get.

"I understand how a straight actor taking a role that is gay, that is a gay character, I understand how that can be perceived as being part of the problem… It is complicated. It’s all these things.

"For me, it’s, how do we as a culture create a space, create a culture where opportunity is equal and not so imbalanced? That is the work that so many people are doing now, and I find deeply inspiring."

Read the full interview in the Attitude December issue, out now.

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