Andrew Garfield takes his fleece and drapes it over his legs in the manner of an elderly visitor to the seaside. This is not a move he often uses in The Amazing Spider-Man – the blockbuster in which he plays the arachnid crime-fighter Peter Parker. Or rather, the latest Peter Parker because, of course, countless webs have been slung before him, not least in three recent movies starring Tobey Maguire.
“I loved those films,” Garfield says. “They mean the world to me. I remember when the first one came out – well, before it came out – I bought a pirate copy from Portobello Market, and that was awesome. It was like I had gold in my hands.”
As film industry anti-piracy campaigners weep, he tugs his impromptu blanket over his knees. His career has already been high-profile enough for interviews to be no big deal; a Bafta-winning turn in TV’s Boy A and a big-screen debut in Robert Redford’s political drama Lions for Lambs, quickly followed by the icy English dystopia of Never Let Me Go and international acclaim in director David Fincher’s The Social Network (both showing on Saturday Sky Showcase).
Often cast as self-conscious young men perplexed by the cruelties of the world, he’s been swift to rise to the top. But Spider-Man represents new ground for the 28-year-old from Surrey – the starring role in a Hollywood spectacular, with the hopes of executives and fanboys alike on his shoulders.
Questions about the pressure provoke a tug of his shock of hair and answers that sound only a little pre-packed. For instance, the five short years between Maguire’s last performance and this new “reboot” just reflect that “the character is bigger than any movie. He’s not mine, he’s not Tobey’s.” But he soon wanders away from the script – admitting making the film was disillusioning.
“I’ve lost a bit of innocence,” he says. “To achieve what you set out to achieve and realise it’s not what you want, it’s disappointing.” He gives a nervous little laugh. “This role had been something I’d always, always wanted to do. Then you realise it’s like any other acting job. Some days it’s great, others you feel lost. And I’d always felt that if I got certain roles then I’d be set for life, emotionally, professionally. It would be Utopia. But you never get to Utopia.”
He smiles apologetically. The dream has become reality. So what do you dream of afterwards? “Simpler times.” Meaning? “Struggling.” Really? “Oh yeah. Auditioning and getting turned down. Wondering if I’m ever going to get another job.”
He feels uneasy, he says, “having things handed to me” by producers who see him as a short cut “to getting their movies made. It seems flattering, but it isn’t. It’s like: ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t actually play a 50-year-old black male prostitute.’” He pauses. “I wasn’t offered that, by the way. But it’s scary, being treated so nicely. Maybe it’s seductive if you believe in it. I don’t. I see it for what it is.”
At first glance, then, this is a young man come of age. He says he even keeps his cool when the paparazzi badger him with new girlfriend Emma Stone (his co-star in The Amazing Spider-Man). After we meet, he will smilingly reveal to a hooting crowd on American TV that beneath his skintight Spidey suit there was “just me”.
Given such self-assurance, you wonder if his biggest challenge wasn’t playing Spider-Man, but Parker – a 17-year-old high-school geek.
“It’s a horrible time of your life. But I still feel like I’m in that chapter. I’m unsure, insecure, awkward in my body. So it wasn’t actually much of a stretch,” he assures me.
It’s true there’s a gangle to his physique, his frame not quite filled-out. More telling still is his manner – sweetly earnest, given to long, pensive stares into the middle distance.
“I definitely haven’t shed that skin,” he says. “I still feel like I am my past.” What was he like as a teenager? “Erratic. Certain days would be great, I’d have everything figured out. Other days, I wouldn’t.” In the past he’s discussed having depression when younger; now he pauses for so long I ask if he’s OK: “No, it’s good to talk about it. That time can define you. And it’s so vivid you can’t help remembering it, even when you wish you couldn’t.”
At primary school, he was bullied: “Another kid took out his own unhappiness on me. Of course, I know that now. At the time I thought it was my fault.” Yet in other ways his childhood was cartoonishly comfortable. Raised in Epsom, he had the benefit of private schools and acting classes. But a note of the exotic spiced up the Englishness: while his mother comes from Essex, his father is American, a one-time seller of designer lampshades; their son was born in Los Angeles before the family moved to Britain when he was three.
When he speaks now, “tomato” rhymes with “Nato” – but he puts out the “rubbish” not the “trash”. “Americans wear their optimism on their sleeve,” he says. “There’s a huge compulsion to accent the positive, be well liked, keep the ball in the air. Here, it’s more cynical.”
And the city of his birth? “I’m very open to the collective unconscious, and in LA all you see are billboards for movies, everyone you meet is talking about movies, at the coffee shop someone’s writing a movie, in the car on the radio they’re talking about movies… it’s weird. Too much.”
So he bases himself in New York, enjoying the company of other expat young actors like Robert Pattinson and Jamie Bell who he pipped to the role of Spider-Man. “My friends aren’t so stupid that a job would come between us,” he insists. “You admit your jealousy to each other, giggle about it, then get pissed together.”
His career has been so buoyant, you imagine he does most of the buying. For all the modesty, there must be a core of steel. “My ambition is changing. I used to be very competitive. Now I’m not sure there’s any such thing as winning. There’s personal pride, but that has nothing to do with treading on people, being top dog, a child of Thatcher, a capitalist kid, 2.4 children, middle class…” He grows ever-more animated, but when I ask if he’s describing his own background, he flusters, says “No”. A gentle prod as to what someone who repeatedly mentions capitalism and Mrs Thatcher thinks of the current government has him sidestepping. “Oh… well… I haven’t been here the last couple of years.”
He’s more at home with vaguer sentiments. “I don’t want to be a cog in the wheel of something that’s going to make a lot of money but won’t say anything to anyone,” he says, fiercely – a superhero with a blanket over his knees, a Hollywood leading man desperate to struggle.