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Andrew Garfield's Road to Jonathan Larson — and the Oscars

Garfield is nominated for Best Actor for playing the fledgling Rent composer in Tick, Tick...Boom!

Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick...Boom!
(© Netflix)

"Jon? Steve Sondheim here. Rosa gave me this number. I hope it's okay to call you. I didn't get a chance to speak with you after the reading, but I just wanted to say it was really good. Congratulations! I'd love to get together and talk to you about it, if you have any interest. No pressure. The main thing, though, is that it's first-rate work and has a future, and so do you. I'll call you later with some thoughts if that's okay. Meanwhile, be proud!"

The voicemail above — delivered by the authentic Stephen Sondheim and not the actor Bradley Whitford, who impersonates him (quite well) in Tick, Tick…Boom! — arrives in the closing 20 minutes of the movie. It is a heart-swelling compliment, just the ticket for a struggling young theater composer. The recipient here is Jonathan Larson, who, at this time of life, was five years and one musical away from Rent, which, after his death, would run for 12 years on Broadway.

Andrew Garfield, heretofore a dramatic actor, makes his musical debut as Larson in the same picture where theater composer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his debut as a movie director.

Garfield confirmed that it is the Master's Voice leaving the message — Sondheim's last, and maybe his only, words in a feature film. "When Lin finished his cut, he sent it to Stephen for his approval," Garfield said during a recent talk at the 92Y. "Stephen wrote back, 'You've treated me with dignity and royally, and, for that, I'm thankful — but I have one or two notes. The voice message at the end — I don't think I'd say the thing you've got the actor saying. Would you mind if I rewrote my voice message? I could send you a voice message of me doing it in case you can't get the actor to do the looping ...'

"Lin, who probably was weeping silently inside, said, 'Yeah, sure, that'll be fine.' So, Sondheim sends a voice message of what he would say on this answering machine to Jonathan, and that's what you hear in the film. It's such a beautiful message to receive from a mentor, right? From THE mentor. Like, 'keep going,' 'you have a bright future,' all these things. There is a magic in the air anyway — then you add Sondheim's actual voice in the final cut and suddenly it's transcendent because it's one of the last things that Sondheim leaves behind in media. It feels like he left it behind for all young artists. It's not just for Jon and me — it's for everyone. Sondheim has left his mentorship for us and encouraged us to keep holding that thread — that very unique thread."

Garfield's moving portrayal of a man in songwriting hell, undiscovered and despairing as he turns the big three-oh, is one of the Best Actor performances up for Oscar honors on Sunday night. Another of his recent co-stars, Jessica Chastain, is a front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, in which she gives a lavender shellacking to the role of her husband, evangelist-embezzler Jim Bakker, who served prison time for defrauding his religious television following.

"There are some characters that you don't want to let go of," Garfield admitted during the talk, "and there are other characters you really do want to let go of, Jim Bakker being one. He was just an empty, sad, sorrowful human being who just didn't know who he was. If he'd just spent a little more time in prison, he would have figured it out. He was getting down there, but he didn't get all the way down. He almost had a 'Come to Jesus' moment, but now he's back selling apocalypse kits — gruel and pancake mix in case the apocalypse comes. Sort of a terrifying man.

"Then, there's someone like Jon. We finished the film, and I said to Lin, 'Well, when are we doing Season Two?' because you don't want it to end. You feel so enriched by the characters, like living in a great novel for three months."

"With Jon, it was like, 'Aw, man, I want to be an artist like this,' and you take parts of it with you. You mourn them, and then you have to cut them off and get back into your own life."

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