Over the next few months, Andrew Garfield stars as a World War II conscientious objector in Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” (out in theaters now) and a Jesuit missionary in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” (Dec. 23) — two roles that wore the actor down, tested his faith, and could potentially net him an Oscar nomination.
When box office returns swung downward, Sony re-rebooted its most lucrative superhero…without Garfield. But the 33-year-old actor found that working with Gibson and Scorsese was the salve he needed. “After Spider-Man, there was a longing for balance,” Garfield says. “I wanted to do something that was very soul-searching. These two characters [in Hacksaw Ridge and Silence] have a golden light around them in some way that’s challenged massively.”
In Hacksaw, Garfield plays real-life hero Desmond Doss, a WWII medic and Seventh-day Adventist who believed it was his duty to join the Army, but his faith dictated that engaging in war is a sin. So he refused to carry a weapon, even when the military tried to force him to. He was awarded the Medal of Honor after he carried 75 men to safety while under heavy attack from a barrage of artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire from Japanese soldiers. “It’s a remarkable thing to see a person remain true to themselves,” Garfield says. “I think of Hillary Clinton right now, how she is just standing there accepting the slings and arrows and ducking underneath, getting stung, but standing like a tree in the middle of a tsunami. There’s something beautiful about that. Something inspiring about weathering that kind of storm.”
Gibson cast Garfield after seeing his performance in The Social Network. “He didn’t say a lot [in the film],” Gibson says. “But he has this minimalism that enables him to express volumes without language. You can see his heart and soul operating through his eyes. He’s very soulful. He’s a seeker.” Garfield’s quest to connect to his character took him to Doss’ late-life home of Chattanooga, Tenn. Doss died in 2006, but the actor spent time on his property, in his workshop, and at his grave site.
Garfield’s Hacksaw regime was child’s play compared with the yearlong prep he did for Silence, for which he trained with a Jesuit priest in New York, participating in the intense spiritual exercises required to become a member of the order. Garfield then spent close to six months in Taiwan, eating and speaking very little. The film, a 30-year passion project for Scorsese, traces the plight of a 17th-century Jesuit missionary who returns to Japan to minister despite Christianity being outlawed. The role required Garfield to be alone on camera most of the time (and away from cast members Liam Neeson and Adam Driver). “The movie feels like a prayer,” Garfield says. “I really dove into what a life of faith is and what a life of faith can be. It’s always been something I’ve longed for in my life. I’m drawn to anything that fills me up.”
A version of this article appears in Entertainment Weekly issue #1439, on newsstands now.