Film festivals have introduced moviegoers to a lot of great films over the years, but one such movie that’s quite a pleasant surprise is Boy A, the new movie from Intermission director John Crowley, adapted by Intermission screenwriter Mark O’Dowd from the novel by Jonathan Trigell.
It follows the story of “Jack,” a 24-year-old man who is secretly the universally-hated “Boy A,” a child involved in the murder of a young girl who has spent the last 14 years in prison but has finally been released and is trying to start a new life in Manchester with a new identity. Jack, the former Boy A, is played by Andrew Garfield, who might be remembered by the twenty people who saw Robert Redford’s political drama Lions for Lambs last year, and it’s quite an amazing performance as we see this quiet and sullen young man trying to acclimate himself to being out in society and discovering love for the first time.
Appearing in Redford’s films was one of Garfield’s first movie roles and that meaty part more than prepared him to be the lead in Crowley’s new movie, in which many of his scenes are with the always-excellent Peter Mullan as Jack’s caseworker Terry.
ComingSoon.net talked with Garfield and director John Crowley (you can read that interview here) about this fascinating and original drama, and Garfield also talked to us about working with Terry Gilliam and the late Heath Ledger on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.
ComingSoon.net: I remember “Boy A” was first at Toronto and that’s where it started getting attention. Did you shoot it before “Lions for Lambs” or right after? Andrew Garfield: No, this was just after.
CS: How did John find you to do this? Garfield: Well, I was doing a play that a friend of his wrote called Enda Walch, a play called “Chat Room.” I was doing it in London just before “Lions for Lambs” and that’s one of the reasons I was cast for that, because Stephen Daldry saw me in this play and got me into screen test for one of his projects (more on that project below) and the casting director on that was the woman who was casting the Redford movie so then she got me into that. And then also John saw the play and must have just remembered me from that, and heard I was doing a movie in America. Gave me a call, asked me to put myself on tape and I did and send it off, and he was stupid enough to cast me just off that tape. That was just a really lovely, lucky coincidence but I was just really happy to do it.
CS: So after John saw you in this play, did you go back and read the novel? Jack’s a very distinctive character, so was all of that in the script or did you have to use the novel as research? Garfield: The script is pretty sparse. There’s not much dialogue. We kind of know that he’s been in prison and that he’s had a pretty miserable time, but we don’t know specifics. I kind of felt like I had to get down and really grasp and try to figure out what actually went down while he was away in detention and all the emotions that go along with that. The book was really helpful for that and also speaking to youth care workers was really helpful for that. Peter Mullen is one of them. He actually works with youth offenders trying to rehabilitate kids like that, so he was a wonderful resource and a generous man and actor. So yeah, man, I had to fill in quite a few gaps, but I had a lot of material to do that with.
CS: Did you want to try and talk with any ex-cons or younger guys who’d spent time in prison? Did you have a chance to do that at all? Garfield: I didn’t have a chance to. I really wanted to and I was really trying, but there was no opportunity. I think it was very difficult. We went and visited the detention center which is now defunct. It’s not existent anymore, it’s like an empty building, so you got a sense of the place and of the four walls and being locked in a cell every night and not being allowed out of this kind of cage. That was really useful, but you’re not allowed to actually visit youth detention centers with kids in them unless you’re a family member or a friend. You can’t come for any other reason, so we were given a “no” for that. We kind of had to do the rest with our imagination I guess.
CS: It’s great that Peter had some experience with this, because he’s a great actor and director, so it’s interesting that he’s playing a character that’s close to something he’s really done before. Garfield: I know, yeah, and you could do tell. He was so good and it’s innate in him to care that much.
CS: Was the novel and this movie actually based on any real story that happened in England? Garfield: No, the novelist, Jonathan Trigell, he was obviously interested in this phenomenon because it happened all over the world, not just in the UK, of children killing children, children harming children really badly. I think he was just interested because the media tends to obviously and justifiably focus on the victims’ family and how they carry on and how they can keep living, if they can keep living after such a tragic occurrence hits them. I think he was just interested in looking at the other side of it and imagining what it would be like for one of the perpetrators and maybe having a look to see that they could potentially be seen as a victim as well, in terms of looking at the cause of such criminal behavior. Trying to root out the cause as opposed to just distancing yourself and saying, “Well, I don’t understand that. They are evil.” We all know that humans are not good and evil. They are full of both and they are black and white and they are grey and they have everything inside of them. I think that was what his impetus was. It was just an exercise of his imagination to think about what life would be like for someone who was very repentant and very sorry for a horrible, extreme, life-changing thing they did when they were just barely conscious.
CS: Very well said. I recently saw a prison movie called “Felon” which also showed a person who was basically good but who was in the wrong place and wrong time putting them into a situation they can’t get out. Do you feel people who end up in those situations can eventually get past that and move on? Garfield: You know what, man? I don’t know. I mean, just going from the little experience I had doing this film and doing all the research involved with it, just the journey I had to go through with Jack, I can just speak for him. It’s not so much about being forgiven externally. I think it’s about forgiving one’s self, and if you can go on living with yourself then that’s the battle. It wasn’t so much to do with other people knowing about him, knowing who he was. It was more to do with him not being to live with himself and not be able to live with the knowledge of the hurt that he’s done. It’s kind of like he revenges that family for them, for their own sake. He knows that for what he’s done, he can’t forgive himself.
CS: As you mentioned, there’s not a lot of dialogue in the movie. As an actor, you have to remember lines but playing a character without any words is another. What are you thinking about in the moments when you’re just sitting there with the camera on you? Garfield: It’s really scary, because it was my second film and I’ve never carried a film before. I knew that so much of the story would have to be told with silence and with my eyes and with my body language. The body language thing I feel more comfortable with, I’ve always been quite physical as a person and I guess it translates into me as an actor, but with the whole “if you think a thought then you just trust that the audience will see it,” you haven’t got to show anything. Trying to hold back from doing too much and trying to do as minimal as possible with showing the most amount of emotion as possible, itt’s terrifying. I’ve never had to tackle that before. I’ve done theater… so yeah, it was scary. It’s still a learning process, which I’m still very much at the beginning of.
CS: One thing different about film over theater is that the camera comes right up close to you while in theater, you can have moments of silence, but most people in the audience won’t see the nuances of your facial expressions. Garfield: No, exactly.
CS: You and John both have a theater background, so were you able to approach the film the same way by rehearsing scenes? Garfield: Yeah, I don’t really know. I don’t really separate the two. I was trying to separate and I felt like I had a lot more to learn on the other side of it, but I kind of treat both mediums in a similar way in terms of trying to be as simple and truthful as possible. With his theater background, he’s spent time with actors and he knows how actors work. He’s seen how actors develop and how they grow, and how different actors work differently, so I think immediately there’s a sense on set that everyone is very sensitive and understanding towards each other. I really appreciated that in him because I think it’s rare that film directors actively seek to understand what it is to be an actor. That was wonderful, and I’m pretty sure his theater background helped in terms of images and the movement and the rhythm of the scene, getting that right, the pacing of things and seeing truth as well, and coaxing different things out of different people as well.
CS: There’s also a younger actor playing you in the flashbacks leading up to the incident that got your character thrown into jail. Had John already filmed that actor doing those scenes and were you able to watch them to understand what your character experienced? Garfield: I watched a bit, but we were filming totally out of sync. We were on such a tight, difficult budget and schedule that we had to take what we were given, so we were filming randomly all the time. There was no real order to it. I wasn’t really able to study his stuff. I hung out with him and we talked and played table tennis together and spent some time with each other, studying each other or whatever, so that helped. At the same time, I wanted to get as far away from him as possible because that’s what Jack wants. Jack’s not Eric anymore and Eric isn’t Jack; Jack is terrified of Eric and he wants to extract that aspect of him from himself.
CS: I saw that you worked with one of my favorite directors, Terry Gilliam, a very daring filmmaker. What was that like for an actor who hasn’t done a lot of movies? Garfield: It was terrifying, absolutely terrifying, because his standard is so high and the actors that he’s worked with in the past are some of my favorite actors like Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams and Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro and Heath and Matt Damon. He knows what’s good and what’s not so that pressure was definitely there and I was definitely feeling it. I wanted to impress him and I wanted him to think I was good. Getting the role was one thing but then giving the goods on the day was another thing and it’s scary because he gives you so much freedom that it’s kind of debilitating if you don’t know what to do. As soon as you realize there isn’t no wrong choice in his eyes, you can crap on camera and he’ll like some part of it. He’ll be like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” He’ll find some kind of justification for it because his mind is that brilliant. He’ll find it funny in some kind of odd and bizarre way. There’s no wrong choices, so as soon as you get that into your head, it’s just like being in a playground.
CS: Did you get a chance to do any scenes with Heath in that movie? He also started fairly young. Garfield: Yeah, I had a lot of scenes with Heath, yeah.
CS: Did you get to spend any time talking with him about career or the craft of acting or anything like that? Garfield: A little bit, yeah. We slowly became friends, so yeah, he was very generous with advice in terms of the industry, in terms of acting, so generous. I think he wanted to be directing the film and I think he was in a lot of ways. He was definitely the driving force. He had all the energy that was infectious to everyone else, and he was definitely guiding the ship. Even though Terry was the director, he freely admits that he was as in awe as Heath as everyone else was, me included. He knew that Heath was the real energy behind everything and behind everyone and was inspiring everyone with what he was doing. So yeah, I got to spend some really, really lovely time with him, obviously not enough, never enough, but yeah, he left me with some serious…
CS: Is Terry going to be able to finish the movie? Have you been in touch with him since you finished shooting? Garfield: Yeah, yeah, we’ve finished shooting and he’s editing and it’s all looking like it’s coming together.
CS: Any idea what you want to do next? I read somewhere that you’re hoping to do more comedy and get away from the heavy drama. Garfield: I do, yeah. Those things. The good comedies seem to be monopolized by one group of people who I admire greatly, the Apatow bunch. They’re f*cking hilarious. I’d love to be involved with those guys, but I’m just preparing for something now, which I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about in detail but it’s a drama, kind of a serious thriller, and it’s terrifying.
CS: That’s a Hollywood movie or a British film? Garfield: It’s a British film but it feels really classy and a really interesting director and it’s the role that I really want to try and sink my teeth into, it’s a part that I’ve never played before.
CS: Are you the lead in that movie as well? Garfield: Yeah, that’s right.
CS: Are you guys feeling the effects of a possible SAG strike over there or does that not affect you at all? Garfield: Not really. It means that it’s better for me to be here than in America. I’ve got dual nationalities, so I can work both places, so no. Here’s all going still; everything’s okay.
CS: I noticed that you were born in the United States and then moved to England very young, but I think if people have seen your two movies, they would be really confused if you were American or British. Garfield: Yeah, I hope so. I don’t really want people to know too much about me as a person. I’d rather follow or try to follow in the footsteps of those that I admire like the Daniel Day-Lewises and the Dustin Hoffmans. Those are the people that I aspire to match, those are the people that inspire me and I really don’t think I’m ever going to get there, but I’d like to try.
CS: Do you have any aspirations to move to Hollywood and spend more time there are you happy living in England and just flying over there as need be? Garfield: I kind of split time, because my girlfriend’s out there, and I can work out there as well. It really gets down to wherever the work is and wherever my love is.
CS: That Stephen Daldry project you mentioned earlier wasn’t “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” was it? Garfield: It was. (I tell him about how I spent a couple hours at the amazing R&D display set up by Daldry to try and get the project greenlit.) Oh, wow. I didn’t know that at all. I know they were doing a screening and inviting people to check it out and hang out. It was me, Ryan Gosling, Ben Whishaw and Jason Schwartzman.
CS: I’m still hoping that movie will happen eventually. Garfield: I know, man. That’s like one of the most… if a book should ever be turned into a film, I think that’s one of them. I think it’s such a wonderful human story. Yeah, I love that book.
Boy A opens in New York at the Film Forum on Wednesday, July 23 and in L.A. on Friday, July 25. Also check out our interview with John Crowley.