“We are a sea of Willie Lomans, trying to be known, trying to be known in fucked up ways, in the ways that we’re told to be known through these really fucked up values,” says Andrew Garfield in talking about Dennis Nash, the desperate Everyman he plays in 99 Homes.
Ramin Bahrani’s (Man Push Cart, At Any Price) latest drama is one of the best films of the year, an evocative portrait of the fallout from the 2008 economic meltdown that left so many homeowners with underwater mortgages or facing foreclosure. A construction worker at a time when all construction stops cold, unemployed single-dad Dennis loses the house he grew up in and that he now shares with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his young son. The devil in the form of e-cigarette smoking, amoral realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) offers him a form of “salvation” by giving him a job working on foreclosed homes, assuring him that he’ll earn enough to buy back his. But Dennis is smart and personable and soon Carver recruits him to help him with his main business: repossessing homes and evicting homeowners and their tenants on behalf of the banks. It’s something Dennis believes he has to do in order to take care of his own family, but as he meets more and more people like Frank Green (Tim Guinee)—whose circumstances are similar to Dennis’ own—he begins to question his role in adding to so much pain.
For Garfield, 99 Homes is a return to the kind of intimate dramas he made before the Spider-Man franchise made him a household name. Like the paroled child murderer in Boy A, the reporter trying to expose the crimes of the powerful in the Red Riding trilogy, or the boy born for organ-harvest in Never Let Me Go, Dennis Nash is caught in an impossible circumstance with limited options. On a recent visit to San Francisco, the 32-eyar-old Brit talked about the film and offers some words about working with director Martin Scorsese on his upcoming film Silence.
Q: It struck me that this relates to a lot of work you did earlier in your career, even something like Never Let Me Go, which is an ostensibly dystopian drama—
Andrew Garfield: As is this!
Q: Well, yes, but this is something actually happening. So far, no one’s been born to give their body parts away. But it is kind of the same thing where there are the have-nots that are meant to serve the haves. I was wondering if that theme particularly resonates with you.
AG: Yes, as it obviously does with you. I’m heartbroken, to be honest. Yeah, I’m heartbroken, because there are people that are being born to be sacrificed for someone’s Porsche or yacht or gate around the gate they already have with the barbed wire on top. It’s insidious and it takes real vision to be able to really see it and then what do you with that vision? What the fuck do you do?
I think I feel that split in myself. It’s personal, because it is. I have a friend going through it right now. I have a friend who’s fighting eviction, unlawful, in London right now. She lives in a progressive community in London, which has been there since the ‘50s or ‘60s. And there’s a guy that’s been there for 50 years. That’s his life. That’s his livelihood. That’s his community. That’s his home. This new private housing group is attempting to steal, ostensibly steal their homestead. There’s such inhumanity in it. There’s such distance and separateness and looking down their noses at these people from on high.
I’m not saying anything, apart from I feel it in a very deep way and I don’t know what to do about it. Apart from tell a story, which part of my job here, in this life, is to tell a story and maybe move the conversation forward in a way. In a baby-step way, just as being a part of telling a story.
Q: Can you talk about working with Michael Shannon and Tim Guinee. The three of you are just amazing and I think Tim Guinee is one of the most underrated actors around.
AG: He’s a great actor and such a lovely man, such a good man. I’m glad you said that. Thanks for saying that. Again, with Tim, I had so much fun with Tim. He’s so fun to be with. That nature of the relationship we had to create was really deep. We had to feel like brothers. I had to feel like he was my brother.
With Michael, it was interesting, because obviously I had more time with Michael and there was this deep love and respect that we had for each other. Even as characters, I think, even though it’s never expressed—it got close to being expressed—during the scene on the dock where we’re both a little bit confessional. Working with Michael is always so powerful. He’s got such powerful energy, so I had to make sure that I could match it and kind of crawl out of it somehow or beat my way out of it. That was an awesome challenge, because not only is his stature so big—he’s got big physical stature, but internally as well, he has power. That was a great challenge for me to match and to make sure I was a match for him. Then with Tim, it was just trying to find that deep connection and love and feeling of community.
My favorite times in my life while working is with other artists who are just there and you kind of don’t know where they’re going to go. Thank God, both of them have that ability, so I could follow and then I could lead and then I could follow. We could just dance. That majority was improvised. What I said to Ramin was, ‘I love the script and I love the essence of the journey. If I’m going to do it, I want it to feel found.’ Because as I read it, I knew there were all these vignettes of me doing evictions and me doing cash for keys and all this stuff. And I knew he was going to hire non-actors and I was like, ‘I want to be a non-actor as well. I don’t want to have any baggage. I don’t want to get it right. I want to get it wrong over and over and over again.’ He was really up for that for the most part. I’m lucky. I’m so lucky that I get to—so the short answer is I’m so lucky that I get to work with such great artists.
Q: Do you have a favorite role or is it what you’re working on right now?
AG: Every one is necessary, I think, so far, has been necessary for me to do. I don’t know if I can say a favorite. I can say that some experiences—no, every experience gave me something that I needed to get or that I needed to know. The thing that I just did, this film, Silence, with Martin Scorsese is some kind of rediscovery of how process can be with someone who knows exactly that they don’t know anything. His process is so intuitive and spontaneous and he’s so confident in his roaming and rambling and then he’ll go, ‘OK, no, it’s this. I know exactly what I want. Heheheh.’ Then another scene will come by and he’ll be, ‘I don’t know what this is. How do we do this? OK, what do you think?’ ‘Well, I’ll just do it and you can tell me.’ Then he’s like, ‘That wasn’t really it.’ I’ll go, ‘OK, well, what is it?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I’ll go, ‘OK, how about this?’ ‘That wasn’t it, either. Just keep trying.’ That’s real creativity. It’s not like you hit this, you hit this, and then you hit that. It’s like, ‘Let’s fucking get lost and scared and be in torture and agony until something real happens.’
That’s who he is and that was very fucking special. I think that kind of confidence comes with—not to use the word genius. Genius, I think, in our culture suggests only a few people. Actually, the origins of the word are that everyone has one. We all have the archetype of the genius within us and it’s just a case of finding out what that is individually. Obviously, his genius is filmmaking, storytelling, and that’s where his love and his passion live. So I think it’s possible for him to be in that free-flowing space, because of his genius and because of confidence in his genius to be lost and to roam around and to collaborate and to be open to whatever things are coming.
That’s the kind of creative process that I want to keep practicing as opposed to this rigid, I know I have to get it right, get it right, get it right, fucking nail it. I hate that. ‘You fuckin’ nailed it, bro!’ No! I fuckin’ want to make some wrong hits and then maybe one ‘Ping!’ And then a bunch of wrong hits. Ramin said a very beautiful thing to me when we first started working together. He said, ‘You know, the Persians, the Persian rugs, these really beautiful things, these beautiful, perfect things. They make these things and they turn them over and they get a knife and they slash the back, just so they know that nothing is ever perfect, as a practice, to go perfection is the enemy of the good.’ –Pam Grady