Angels and Demons: On Andrew Garfield

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Header2.-Andrew-Garfield-Prior-Walter-in-AngelsInAmerica-Perestroika-photo-by-Helen-Maybanks“What sort of resources did you have in terms of resource for research, or did it all just come during rehearsals?” an audience member asked an actor during a NT Platform panel regarding a six hour long play, reports GayTimes UK.

The actor responded, per GayTimes’ reportage:

“The preparation had begun before (rehearsals began) with a lot of my friends. (The play is) As much devoted to my friends in the gay community as it is those that passed during the epidemic.”

[He] later revealed that a certain drag superstar’s show has helped him find his character: “I mean every single series of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I mean every series.

“My only time off during rehearsals – every Sunday I would have eight friends over and we would just watch Ru. This is my life outside of this play. I am a gay man right now just without the physical act – that’s all.”

The play was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The actor was Andrew Garfield. His role as Prior Walter leaves him with the difficult work of playing a gay man living with AIDS and a prophet, whose message to humanity is overwhelming.

This isn’t really a story, more of a quick anecdote about his acting process. But a story was picked up nonetheless, with places like Attitude and Out Magazine decrying the actor’s comments as insensitive, specifically regarding the “I am a gay man right now, just without the physical act” bit.

I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak for his tone of voice. Perhaps it’s poorly phrased, but it’s even more poorly reported upon. These quick little news articles written up lickety split are done so with no context, an example of really bad writing and reporting, news aggregating. Alex Jung at Vulture pithily noted it was like a “gay nesting egg”: a quick piece that linked (if that much) to another quick piece that linked to another that finally linked back to the original post, but, like a very angry game of telephone, never bothered to contextualize the comments. There’s a bit of vitriol in there too.

On the one hand, I think people’s abilities to extrapolate from other people’s public comments, or even bother looking for context, really sucks. I’ve been disinclined to diagnose it as any kind of “cultural” behavior, because I think that might be a little unfair, but I can’t help but notice a lot of people’s rhetorical strategies and patience to find context of nuance really bad. It seems more like laziness than actual stupidity.

And what bothers me about this is that it seems like people are willingly misreading his comments, and grafting and projecting their own meaning onto it. Garfield was literally asked about his process for preparing for the role. And he gave an example of that, and alluding to the idea that it extended beyond just watching Drag Race. He’s (so far) straight identified, and, as an actor, how else do you want a straight actor preparing to play a gay man? Do you not want him to immerse himself in gay culture? What else is there to be done? And why is everyone acting like this is the only way he prepared?

“I am a gay man right now,” Garfield said, though I added the italics because I think they’re important. For this role, for this period of his career, he is playing and on stage and culturally and socially gay. He delving himself into a gay world. And I think it’s disingenuous to suggest he doesn’t know that, that he isn’t aware of the work that he’s doing, or that he thinks Drag Race is the end all, be all of gayness. (But, also, come on, I’m pretty sure anyone who has read the play or seen Mike Nichols’ film adaptation would agree that Prior Walter would be, maybe ambivalently [wink, wink], all over Drag Race.)

I saw several people conflate him with James Franco, who is somewhat notorious for stomping into gay culture and queer spaces without being gay or queer identified himself. He’s made a parade of it. He’s made it about himself. Complaints and detractions about and from Franco make sense because he mines from queerness in a showy way that reveals the strings of the thing. Teo Bugbee astutely described him and his tendencies as such: “Franco has bellyached in the past about how there is too much emphasis on his own sexuality when it comes to interpretations of his movies, as if it’s the press’s fixation on queerness, rather than his own, that fuels the reception of his work.” And poet Jameson Fitzpatrick insightfully challenged Franco when reviewing the actor’s poetry book Straight James/Gay James, writing: ‘[Franco] he wants other people to take this “queer” part of himself as seriously as he does. And yet it demonstrates an obliviousness to why anyone for whom queerness is a central and/or compulsory identification might be bothered, and it’s this lack of self-awareness that ultimately precludes Franco from the identity he so desperately wants to get inside.’ But how has Andrew Garfield done any of what Franco has done? How are they similar at all? Where is Garfield’s history of appropriating queer art or, worse, straightsplaining it in a half-assed documentary?

What I think is happening is that people are pissed a straight guy was cast a Prior Walter. That’s a somewhat valid complaint, and I only editorialize that because Garfield was seemingly approached by Kushner, the playwright. But if you’re going to be mad about a straight actor being cast in a gay role, say that. Don’t dilly dally and beat around the bush, acting so per formatively woke by willfully twisting someone’s words to make yourself look cute. If anything, it severely undermines and discredits your argument. There’s absolutely an importance of people who live and experience every day being queer or a person of color or a woman or any of these intersections having the opportunity and resources to tell those stories, play those roles, and bring them to life. But it’s like picking on this slip up that, to me, matters little in the grand scheme of things, and using that as a paltry doorway to the real issue of the opportunity for people of marginalized backgrounds getting to have the agency in these narratives. It also sort of ignores the fact that Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, literally asked him to play the role. Tony Kushner is a gay man and Jewish.

There’s work to be done. But not only regarding how theater and art and entertainment give or do not give queer people opportunities, but also in the way that we talk about it. The vilifying that resonates with me as improbably ignorant, but also unable to contextualize or consider even the hint of complexity. We can start now. To steal a few words from an angel, Prepare the Way.

Update: you can find the audio of his answer here

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