Playing Prior Walter, the tormented gay man battling AIDS at the center of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, a seven-and-a-half-hour odyssey about life, sexuality and community, may be daunting to some. But for Andrew Garfield, the role is a dream.
Largely known for playing Spider-man in one of the rebooted installments of the superhero film franchise, Garfield seems right at home on stage as Prior in the National Theatre revival of the play, which was brought over from London after a critically acclaimed run last summer and has since earned 11 Tony nominations, including one for the 34-year-old actor.
“I feel I get given a huge gift as an actor,” he says of playing the character day after day at the Neil Simon Theatre. “Every character in this play is so nuanced and so rich and has so many conflicting qualities that you get to experience a whole range of what it is to be a fully living, breathing human being.”
When it comes to playing Prior in particular, that means having your world come crashing down around you while battling a plague that has rocked the gay community in 1980s New York, having been abandoned by your boyfriend for a closeted, married Mormon and now seeing visions of angels. It means being enlisted as a prophet while clawing your way back to life (and a bit of sanity). It means ultimately choosing life over death, and knowing what it is to be alive.
“He’s fabulous, first of all,” Garfield says of Prior. “One of his most defining features is how completely in love he is with life and with being a human being, and with the agony and the ecstasy and the absurdity of being alive.” So much so, the actor says, that when he goes on this journey, it’s that much more of a profound experience for both the cast and the audience. “That’s why he’s such a beautiful and important character.”
And that journey is nothing without Garfield, who despite donning superhero tights has proven himself as a formidable actor. He’s been nominated for BAFTA and Golden Globe awards for his roles in The Social Network and Hacksaw Ridge, the latter of which also earned him an Oscar nomination. Here, he fully embodies Prior, so it comes as no surprise he’s picked up a Tony nomination this year -- his second, following his performance in the 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman.
Yet, Garfield still prays to the “theater gods” to carry him through each performance and to help him go as deeply as he can each time he does the play. If he’s done it right, he ends that second performance on a high, energized by the experience -- and about 95 percent of the time, he says he does. “Some days it’s different than others. You can’t do it fully every time because you’re human,” he acknowledges. “Then, if I don’t, I get to come try again the next day and improve upon it. It’s really this amazing ritual of attempting to get toward some sense of mastery of what I’m doing. I get to practice my craft in a very public way, and I get to practice letting go of the outcome every day.”
But nothing takes away from the importance of this play and the opportunity Garfield feels he’s been given. “This play feels like a proper service to a community,” he says, pointing to Prior’s final monologue, which is more or less a rallying cry for everyone to live out loud -- and a truly cathartic moment for the audience. “I get to deliver that beautiful speech. I get to offer hope, I get to offer possibility… It’s a gift to be able to give that to an audience every night, and every night I can feel a mass of souls out there who are receiving the gift and giving love back. It becomes a very mutual thing.”
Now that the show’s run has been extended two weeks into mid-July, Garfield has a bit of time before he can start thinking about what’s next. But the thought of it is a curious one for him. “I won’t know until I start shedding Prior and letting him go, or letting him be part of my inner self and teach me who I am and where to go next,” he muses. Unsure what that will be like, the actor is certain that this experience will have a lasting impact on him.
“I definitely do feel changed by doing this play. It’s a play about how do we become our truest versions of ourselves?” Garfield says. And when it comes to finally saying goodbye to Prior in some way? “Yeah, I’m excited to find out. I definitely think it’s going to be nothing but a positive change.”
The 2018 Tony Awards hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles will be handed out live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.