In Ramin Bahrani’s real-estate thriller 99 Homes, Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, an everyman who is evicted from the home that he shares with his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), during the mortgage meltdown. He soon starts working for the devilish real estate broker who delivered the bad news, Rick (Michael Shannon), in order to buy his home back — but things go very badly when he starts forcibly removing other people enduring similar circumstances.
It’s a very different role for Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man): a well-intentioned but morally compromised single father. Here, the actor, who will next appear in Martin Scorsese’s Silence and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, tells Entertainment Weekly about his attraction to the role, his personal connection to the material, and working with the great Michael Shannon in advance of the film’s Sept. 25 release.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you to the film and your character in particular?
ANDREW GARFIELD: I think as soon as I read the eviction scene, I knew that it was a vitally important story. You very rarely read anything, let alone a film script, that hits you in a very deep place, [that] you feel in your body and know you’re involved in something that’s universal and deeply important. So it was that scene — I read it and was like, “I have no choice.” I just got drawn in through that gut punch. It felt like every American, every citizen of the Western world, every citizen of a capitalist society needs to see that scene played out as truthfully as possible because I don’t think it’s possible to experience it without being deeply upset and seeing ourselves in it.
It was that and it’s part of the story of America and this capitalism-gone-insane that we don’t really want to deal with [or] look at because it’s too frightening [and] painful. If we haven’t been directly affected by it it’s very easy to kind of turn a blind eye and to take care of our own. I’m not blaming anyone for that. I’m not blaming myself for that. I’m just saying we have an opportunity to have a closer look at something that is begging for us to look at it. [Dennis] felt like he could have been me. It felt like me, it felt like my dad, it felt like his dad — any man [in the] post-industrial revolution [era, that’s] caught in a system that doesn’t value the soul, that doesn’t honor the nobility of each individual soul walking upon this planet. To see the effects upon an everyman figure was something that was really compelling to me, and it really does feel like everyone’s story in that way.
How do you resonate with this story?
I saw my father worry about money. It’s kind of as simple as that. As a young boy, it registered in some deep way, ‘Oh, there’s pressure. There’s a pressure on a breadwinner in the culture we’re in, the society we’re in. The pressure is really, really scary.’ I think every single Western adult [knows] this fear, this terror that it’s all going to fall apart, because somehow we’ve been sold this idea that we need much more than we actually need in order to attain happiness. It’s Death of a Salesman, which is a play that I did a few years ago. It’s that Willy Loman disease of not-enoughness. The American dream turned into a nightmare if not attained, and it’s rarely attained because it’s so unattainable in so many ways. It takes a lot of inhumanity in some cases to attain what we call the American dream. It takes a lot of men being inhumane to men, women being inhumane to women. There’s a frightening celebration of excess — this is just the world we’re in right now.
My hope for the film is that it could be a small step back in a conversation toward community — I think that’s what the film speaks to. It’s about the value, the importance, the necessity of true community. I think what community to me means right now, as I translate it in my own heart, is knowing that you are the other me and I am the other you and if I hurt you than I’m hurting myself.
Rick doesn’t have that sense of community and he’s sort of deliciously slimy, so it was really interesting to watch Dennis fall into his rabbit hole of greed. How was your experience working with Shannon?
Obviously [he’s] a tremendous actor, a great presence and talent, and incredibly serious about his work, which is something that I love being around. We have two very different processes so that was really interesting to find a compromise and a middle ground and to take care of each other even while we were being antagonists on screen. Inside of him is this incredibly soft and gentle man and I think I needed to know that in order to let myself be however seduced Dennis becomes in the film.
In addition to co-starring, you’re also a producer on the film. What was that like for you?
Really interesting. I had lots of feelings about the whole shape of the piece and Ramin was really excited to collaborate with anyone who is as passionate as he is. I do believe that storytelling can save people’s lives and it saved my life in a lot of ways and a lot of instances. I remember the worst breakup I ever went through, I Heart Huckabees was just coming out. For some reason, going and seeing that movie, it kind of helped me sew up the wounds that had been left by this awful breakup — that’s just one small example.
I’m very hungry to be a part of the whole filmmaking process because it can sometimes be a bit frustrating. It’s so much easier to feel the community as an actor when you’re doing a play, when you’re doing theater. I think the community in film really kind of happens amongst the camera crew, the lighting crew, the costume crew, the makeup crew. So to feel like I had my heart and soul in it from beginning to end was a really lovely feeling, like I was journeying with it in a more present way throughout, as opposed to coming in and doing my work and then leaving.
All in all, I think this is a role people might be surprised by, especially because you’re coming off of the Spider-Man series. Are you more selective now with what projects you choose to take on?
I don’t know whether selective is the right word, [but] I definitely can’t go to work unless my heart tells me I’m allowed. It sucks because it leaves me at the mercy of the right thing to come along, because it costs too much if I don’t care about the thing as deeply as possible. I love acting and I love being at work with things that are important and meaningful. It’s just that feeling of life being a little bit too short to do the thing that you should be doing, that other people are telling you you should be doing, or what the industry tells you you should be doing, or what your peers are telling you you should be doing, what your ego is telling you you should be doing. My heart runs the show and I trust it, but I think what it means is my heart is hard to please.