The actor opens up about faith and fundamentalism in his new true-crime miniseries — and reveals why board games kept him sane during the six-month shoot.
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TV shows love a grizzled detective — a haunted, cynical investigator who has to navigate ruthless crimes and his own frequently messy personal life. But Andrew Garfield's character in Under the Banner of Heaven is anything but world-weary. Instead, he's an upstanding and devout Mormon with an unflappable moral compass. He goes to church. He loves his wife and daughters. He's deeply committed to his job as a Utah detective. But when he's tasked with investigating one of the most horrifying crimes of the 1980s, he finds himself questioning his loyalty to both his career and his faith.

The 38-year-old Garfield stars in the new FX/Hulu miniseries as Detective Jeb Pyre, who's attempting to solve the brutal double-murder of Mormon housewife Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter. Pyre is a fictional character invented for the show, but he's based on the real detectives who handled the Lafferty case, which Jon Krakauer famously chronicled in his 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven. The show is adapted from Krakauer's book, which explores not only Lafferty's murder and its ties to fundamentalism, but the very origin of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It's one of Garfield's first leading television roles, but he's long had a fascination with the story. So when creator Dustin Lance Black approached him about the show, Garfield threw himself into research, determined to explore the intersection of faith, gender, and fundamentalism.

"I read the book over 10 years ago, and I just loved it," Garfield tells EW. "I felt riveted and compelled, and I just find the themes and subject matter so fascinating: how fundamentalism and extremism can lead to enabling men to do horrific acts of violent evil in the name of God and love, and they avoid blaming their own egocentric desire. The delusion was just so fascinating to me."

With the first two episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven premiering on Hulu April 28, EW sat down with Garfield to talk about the "interesting and painful tension" at the heart of the show.

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN
Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre
| Credit: Michelle Faye/FX

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Jeb Pyre is a fictional person in the middle of this true story. Did you see that as a strength or a challenge, playing a new character in this established story?

ANDREW GARFIELD: It was very important to me to make it feel like it wasn't fictionalized, obviously. Actually, I think the key to that was I got to meet a couple of people who had been through the same experience that my character had gone through as Mormon detectives, who were on cases where the motivation for the horrific act was inspired by the founders of their faith, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. These detectives that I spoke to spoke to me under anonymity. They had huge crises of faith, and they realized that it wasn't so simple. They were going through the exact same tension.

So, that really focused and galvanized me to know that there were at least a few people out there who had the exact same experience I was trying to portray. It really allowed me to put flesh on the bone in that way.

Did you learn anything about Mormonism that surprised you?

I mean, I did a research trip to Utah and Salt Lake City, and I spent a lot of time with incredible people: ex-Mormons, current Mormons, bishops in the Mormon faith, and these detectives. It was absolutely fascinating because — especially with the ex-Mormons and the journeys that they'd gone on — [they had] this expansion of their consciousness and openness to life, this free-falling into realizing that they contain multitudes. [They were] realizing they had been in a very narrow point of view, in terms of their lives and how overwhelming that was. How scary it was, how beautiful, and how psychologically disorienting. That was a really interesting thing to explore.

Gil Birmingham plays Pyre's partner, Detective Bill Taba, and there's an interesting bond between the two of them. They're very different men, but they have a shared desire for justice. How did you and Gil work to develop that relationship?

I love Gil, and he's easy to love immediately. We bonded on a spiritual level, me and Gil, and we talked about his Native American ancestry, my Jewish ancestry and where those things overlapped. We really got deep pretty quickly, me and him. Also, as far as astrology goes, he's a Cancer. He's a sensitive kid. [Laughs] I love a Cancer. A Leo and a Cancer, I think they're the mother and the father of the zodiac. So me and him, we had a nice little marriage happening on and off screen.

It was nice to have that level of comfort and trust, because we had to spend a lot of time together. We had a lot of downtime together between takes, and we had a lot of fun. It was a really sweet relationship, and he teaches Pyre a lot. His character opens his consciousness up. And it's beautiful to see someone like Gil being given the stature as an elder on set and in those scenes. It's cool.

What helped you most in trying to figure out Pyre's journey and who he is?

I think that again, it's a journey of expansion. It's an expansion of consciousness. Starting in a place where he's just on autopilot felt really important. [He has] a stoicism, and that was an internal quality I wanted to work on as an actor, to create this character. I've played a lot of expressive people recently, very externally wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Whereas this person was interesting to me because he was a more reserved, stoic, less emotionally expressive character. As the story goes on, his world and his psyche is getting ruptured. How do you hold on to the overflow, the tsunami of emotion that's coming up? The fear, the terror, the grief, the rage?

In Mormonism, anger is not something that is particularly smiled upon. You sublimate it into love. You always try to deal with things gently. And how do you not get angry while you're exploring the murder of an innocent mother and her 15-month-old daughter? How do you put your anger on the shelf, while you're dealing with something so heinous and evil?

It's interesting because you see a lot of shows centered on detectives who are very bitter or grizzled. They're alcoholics, or they have terrible relationships with their wives. And Pyre is basically this genial, stoic Boy Scout of a character.

Yeah, you're right, and I think that is what sets it apart from the usual trope of a hardened, sardonic detective. I think that's what was interesting about it, having a guy like that — especially in interrogating and in dealing with all of his Mormon brothers that he's bringing in to question. The last thing he wants is for any of his Mormon brothers to be guilty of anything, so that dynamic is an interesting thing to play with as well.

When you think back to filming, what was your most memorable day on set?

To be frank, one of my favorite actors alive is Sandra Seacat, who plays my mother in this show and who is objectively the greatest acting teacher alive. She's an incredible teacher and has developed her own method of working, which is so beautiful. I've been privileged to have her as a teacher of mine and her daughter Greta for the last… Gosh, since The Social Network and well before, which is maybe 12, 13 years ago.

So when I read the script, I thought, Gosh, who's going to play my mother? It's intimate stuff that we have to do together, and who better than Sandra. They were open to me suggesting her, and they met her and immediately fell in love with her. So any day where I got to work with Sandra was a masterclass for me in presence and in spontaneity and openness and aliveness in acting. I love her so dearly.

I'd imagine that would be great to have that long-time connection and familiarity with each other, especially when you're playing mother and son.

Yeah, I definitely feel adopted in real life by her as a son, and I'm very, very grateful for it. It was no acting required.

When you think about this show overall, what was the biggest challenge?

It was a long shoot. It was six months in Calgary, which I love. I love Calgary, I love Alberta. But six months of shooting this subject matter, this kind of material, and existing in that world in the underbelly of fundamentalist Mormonism and all of the darkness that entails… It was heavy duty for us as a company, I think. So, we played a lot of board games. We watched a lot of movies, and we ate a lot of good food, and we went on hikes and dove in lakes and took in the natural wonders of Alberta and Canada. The challenge was to make sure that we could show up every day and give ourselves fully. I think we had to have a lot of fun. We tried to enjoy ourselves as much as possible when we weren't shooting.

I spoke to Daisy Edgar-Jones, and she said something similar about having to build that camaraderie as actors, just because this is such a dark, heavy story.

Totally. And Daisy was really good at that. She got the party started. [Laughs] She made sure we were all having a good time, as much as possible.

A lot of your work investigates these deep themes of faith — especially films like Silence or The Eyes of Tammy Faye. What is it about stories about faith that really interests you?

I think it's the most fertile ground for exploring big questions about life and death and how to live. Religion and faith is a place where human beings try to organize themselves in a meaningful way, or create meaning out of life. I find picking at the thread of those things to be, I don't know, just lucrative in the sense that it gives me a lot of grist for my mill, in terms of expanding my consciousness and illuminating what it is to be human. I think that's what the job is of the storyteller, for me anyway: to illuminate and shed light and expand the consciousness of the audience.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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