Andrew Garfield on Immersing Himself in Mormon Culture for FX’s ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’: ‘I Like a Challenge’
It’s only been about three weeks since the end of awards season, but, on Wednesday night, Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield was back on a red carpet in Hollywood for the premiere of his new series, “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
The FX project marks Garfield’s first miniseries, with the actor playing Detective Jeb Pyre, a Mormon man whose faith is shaken by an unthinkable crime. Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer, the show’s seven episodes follow the events that led to the 1984 murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her baby daughter in a Salt Lake Valley, Utah suburb. Over the course of the series, Pyre uncovers buried truths about the origins of his religion and the violent consequences of unyielding faith amid the real-life events which transpired within the Lafferty family.
“I loved the book when it first came out 10 years ago, I kind of gobbled it up. The themes are so interesting to me,” Garfield told Variety, recounting how he boarded the project. “Then you combine that with Dustin Lance Black [the series’ creator], who has a very, very personal connection to the story — and I love him as a writer and he’s a really great director too — it felt like a very easy yes.”
The actor also noted that Pyre is unlike any other character he’s played.
“He’s very understated, a solid center of the story that was the audience’s eyes in that way,” Garfield explained. “Not flashy, a very solid dude, and internal. I wanted to play with that — be as internal as possible — and less expressive than I’ve been in recent projects. Not a musical theater writer [like Jonathan Larson in “Tick, Tick … Boom!”], but a Mormon detective; couldn’t get any further away from each other. I like a challenge.”
Similar to how he prepared to play another spiritual man in televangelist Jim Bakker for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Garfield immersed himself in Mormonism for the role, learning as much as possible about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or LDS). But he drew the line on giving up coffee, cola or caffeine, which the religion has been known to frown upon.
“Hell no! I needed coffee,” Garfield bellowed, when asked just how deep his research went.
“I love that part of the process,” he said about digging into the LDS culture. “I traveled to Utah for a little research trip with some friends of Dustin Lance’s and met countless ex-Mormons, current Mormons, future ex-Mormons, cop Mormons, I just asked lots and lots of questions and tried to immerse myself in that culture as much as possible and made sure that there wasn’t a hair out of place in that way.”
Joining Garfield and Edgar-Jones for the premiere were a handful of the series’ stellar ensemble including Sam Worthington, Wyatt Russell, Gil Birmingham, Rory Culkin, Seth Numrich, Chloe Pirrie, Tyner Rushing and Adelaide Clemens. Worthington shared that he signed on to the project because he was itching to work with Garfield again following 2016’s “Hacksaw Ridge.”
“As soon as I knew that he was involved, I begged him for the job,” he said, explaining that “Andrew makes quality choices, so you know you’re stepping into something that he’s gonna raise the bar on, and you just want to get in that wake.”
Black went one step further with his praise of Garfield, describing him as “one of the greatest actors of his generation.”
The show’s creator and executive producer, who was raised Mormon, explained why Garfield was a perfect fit for the role, which he’d been adapting with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment for the last decade.
“He is exactly the right age — meaning he would, in the Mormon faith, be a man who’s married and has children and he would be asking the questions about what comes next and what came before,” Black said. “And he’s shown in his work, and then getting to know him, a real curiosity about faith, belief and religion. I thought it was very important to bring someone in who understood what they were stepping into, the responsibilities, the potential dangers. His eyes were wide open.”
The project marks Howard and Grazer’s second consecutive collaboration with Garfield after his best actor-nominated turn in “Tick, Tick … Boom!”
“He’s very thoughtful, so anything that he says ‘Yes’ to, he’s going to excel,” Howard commented, noting that Detective Pyre required a different approach than it took to embody Larson. “He’s done what was needed in both projects, which were a very different set of skills, aptitudes and even sort of personal engagement, whether it’s taking the high-wire of risking singing for the first time. I was there in that workshop when he first sang. He blew everybody’s mind, and there was a huge sigh of relief.”
For this production, it was about nailing the nuance of Pyre’s journey, which is “both professional and personal, emotional and familial.”
“It was also shot under very difficult conditions: a fast schedule, difficult weather conditions, COVID, all of it,” Howard added. “So that called for another kind of leadership that an actor can actually bring to the project, and he gave us that as well.”
“Under the Banner of Heaven” premieres on FX April 28 and streams next day on Hulu.