He already has a sense of how the wrong place would feel: Thanks to a misunderstanding, Garfield was convinced that after endless hours of screen-testing for Marc Webb, the (500) Days of Summer director who has signed on to make the new Spider-Man, he'd once again managed to bungle an audition. Garfield and a few Social Network castmates, including Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg, had flown down to Cancún to promote a slate of Sony movies. The air hummed with anticipation; Sony was supposed to make a Spider-Man announcement soon. Garfield was already racked with uncertainty. "I was genuinely expecting 'You're just a shit actor' instead of 'We want you to do it.' "
Amy Pascal, cochair of Sony Pictures, invited the Social Network posse to a private dinner on the beach. "I was reading her like she had the answers to the universe," Garfield says. Someone at the table asked, "So, Amy, what's going on with the new Spider-Man?" Garfield tensed up, fighting the urge to flee. He and Timberlake shot each other glances across the table. Pascal slowly spun toward the questioner—turning her back to Garfield—and proceeded to deflect the query. "No news at all."
The impromptu inquisition went on and on as Mr. Oblivious kept needling away with questions like "Wasn't there anybody you guys liked?" It got painful. "Andrew assumed my silence meant that he didn't get it," Pascal says. "I practically broke into tears. This poor kid—who is Spider-Man—was going to be in for a terrible 24 hours." Garfield pinched her leg under the table—"not in, like, a weird way," he says. "I was just trying to make her giggle and let her know that it's absolutely fine." Even if it wasn't.
Garfield went back to his hotel room. Hell, there's always Birdman, right? "So I go to bed and I'm like, 'Oh well. I'm still happy to be in Cancún. I'm part of a film that I'm proud to be a part of. This is amazing. Whatever. It's fine.' "
"No," he says. "Of course not. I felt disappointed. I felt exposed. It was one of the most awkward fucking things ever."
Garfield was summoned to Pascal's suite the next afternoon. Pascal's assistant ushered him to the door. Marc Webb opened it, and as Garfield entered the foyer he saw a Flip video camera pointed at him. When he stepped into the room, he saw Pascal and the producers of Spider-Man and a camera crew and . . . flutes of champagne. He was Spider-Man. He felt honored. He felt overwhelmed. He felt . . . like puking. "I realized immediately how much hard work it was going to be, and how much of a minefield it was going to be in terms of all the shit that comes with it," Garfield says. "Stuff that I would like to not have any part of. I mean visibility and being recognized walking down the street. I'm holding out a naïve and ignorant hope that it won't happen."
Whatever. "I couldn't gag the 5-year-old self inside of me," Garfield says. "I said, 'What should we do?' And he was like"—at this point Garfield slips into an accent that might belong to a preschool Al Pacino—" 'DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! Are you fuckin' kiddin' me? It's Spider-Man!' My inner 5-year-old is a New Yorker with a smoker's cough and a horrible mouth."
There is a scene in The Social Network in which Garfield's character, Eduardo Saverin, finally and triumphantly loses his cool. It's the climax of the film, when Saverin comes to the sour realization that he's not only being elbowed out of the company, but he has also been tricked into signing a legal document that dilutes his shares in Facebook into next to nothing.
Saverin bolts out of a conference room, grabs Mark Zuckerberg's laptop, smashes it against a desk, and cuts loose with all the vitriol that's been welling up inside him. When you see it you think: That must've been fun.
"Are you kidding me?" Garfield says. "That day and night of shooting was one of my favorite experiences. I was actually proud of myself because I didn't care what I was doing. I was literally not judging myself. And it was so fucking beautiful for a second.
"I've gone through my whole life caring deeply what people think of me," he continues. "That was probably one of the first times where I didn't care for a second. And it was liberating. I felt more like a man than I've ever felt."
To the extent that the Spider-Man saga is about the contortions that accompany a guy's neurotic transformation into manhood, Sony seems to have picked the right guy. Pascal says Garfield possesses "both vulnerability and masculinity all at once, which is very rare."
If there's a sneering nemesis with whom Garfield is perpetually doing battle, it's self-consciousness: When left to his own devices, the guy who's on the verge of having it all seems to fret over everything. Tellingly, Garfield's most striking onscreen moments have been those in which his character flees the trap of his skull and succumbs to something feral—going ballistic in The Social Network, swallowing Ecstasy and spazzing out on the dance floor in Boy A, erupting in a howling primal scream in Never Let Me Go. "It had a profound effect on the crew," says Mark Romanek, Never Let Me Go's director. "After we shot that scene, we packed up in dead silence. For Andrew it was a complete and utter catharsis—there was no restraint or thought. He translates all that cerebral stuff into something visceral."
"That's what always excited me about other people's performances," Garfield says. "Abandon."
However, Garfield avoids watching his own work. Ask him about a particular scene with Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go and he nods, offers up a sincere "Thank you," then confesses that he's never seen it. "If I watch myself," Garfield says, "then I suddenly have a bunch of things that I'm scared to do. It just upsets me. I've stopped reading reviews, as well. If one is negative, you hold on to that. It was killing me. It was holding me back from being creative and being free." Blogs and message boards? Even worse. He looked once. That was enough. "The first thing that was written was, 'What's up with this kid's eyebrows? He looks like a friggin' Neanderthal.' "
Maybe this is why the guy is hunting for anything that will free him from that cranial interrogation chamber, whether it's surfing at Zuma or swaying with the crowd at Coachella or riding his Vespa around L.A. "I don't like that," Amy Pascal says. "Tell him to stop. I just don't want him getting hurt." Not to worry. The Spider-Man team has already brought the hammer down. "They've actually banned me from using my Vespa," Garfield says, as he directs us off the boardwalk and toward a café on Hampton Drive. Indeed, a friend is waiting there in a car to pick him up.
If Robert Redford's correct that the best time in an actor's career is the struggle, it's excellent news for Andrew Garfield. Freedom versus duty? Anonymity versus fame? Mind versus body? He's right in the thick of it. "I hope this period doesn't end," Garfield says. "I hope I never blow up. I hope that I have to audition for every single job I want. I hope that I'm always struggling, really. You develop when you're struggling. When you're struggling, you get stronger."