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Andrew Garfield is 'RENT' writer Jonathan Larson in new movie 'Tick, Tick... BOOM!'

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TICK, TICK...BOOM!")

ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Jon) The date is January 26, 1990. The setting...

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jonathan Larson wouldn't live to see himself become famous and hear his musical sung and beloved - died in 1996 of a heart disorder at the age of 35 on the day of the first off-Broadway preview of his musical "Rent," for which he won Tony Awards and a posthumous Pulitzer. The film of his musical "Tick, Tick...Boom!" tells his own story, the road he took there on a week in which he's about to turn 30.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TICK, TICK...BOOM!")

GARFIELD: (As Jon) Older than Stephen Sondheim when he had his first Broadway show, older than Paul McCartney when he wrote his last song with John Lennon. By the time my parents were 30, they already had two kids. They had careers with steady paychecks, a mortgage. And in eight days, my youth will be over forever.

SIMON: Andrew Garfield plays Jonathan Larson in a company of great Broadway talents that include Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry, Judith Light and Vanessa Hudgens. It is directed by no less than Lin-Manuel Miranda. Andrew Garfield joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

GARFIELD: No, thank you and what a lovely introduction. It's very, very moving even how you just described the bare essentials of...

SIMON: Oh.

GARFIELD: ...That story and who Jonathan was. So I appreciated hearing that.

SIMON: Well, he's an important figure. And I have to ask. By the age of 30, you were Spider-Man. But...

GARFIELD: (Laughter).

SIMON: Does even a fabulously successful actor begin with the thought, this could've been me?

GARFIELD: (Laughter) Yeah, of course. I mean, but for the grace of God, go I. And I think it's a universal experience for anyone reaching those thresholds, I think especially for a young artist who - like Jon, who was so driven and so ambitious and not through pure ego, but through a sense of calling and a feeling that he had so many songs to sing, so much soul to give to the world. I think that's the thing that really frustrated him, was that he had this kind of shipload of cargo to deliver to the world, and it seemed like the world didn't want it until it was, you know, that fateful evening of the first preview of "Rent," where it was as if the theater gods said, OK, well, your work is done; you can rest.

SIMON: I have to point out his girlfriend, played by Alexandra Shipp, is a dancer who's facing a lifetime decision. And Jonathan isn't very helpful or even very sympathetic, is he?

GARFIELD: (Laughter) Well, I would say I would disagree on the second point. I would agree on the first point. I think he wasn't - you know, in the story we tell, he's running. He's running from the thing that actually is the key. He's running from his heart. He's running from loss. His running from love because he feels like he needs to in order to get his work done. But actually, his work lives in his heart. His work lives in his love. Only when he actually is dragged into his heart, dragged into his pain, into his acceptance that life is about loss, that's when he can write "Rent." That's when he can write the song "Why." That's when he can write "Louder Than Words." That's when he can write "Tick, Tick... Boom!" Until then, there's a running away, which, yes, I would agree is not helpful.

But I do feel that he has an incredible amount of sympathy for his girlfriend. But I think being a young man who is maybe moving from mature boy to man in front of our very eyes, he's - his sympathy is shrouded in his own terror.

SIMON: Well, I have to ask you, too - at one point, his best friend, who's gone into advertising and is doing well...

GARFIELD: Yeah. By modern standards, by the standards of the culture, he's doing very, very well, yeah.

SIMON: Yes, yes, yes. He lives at, you know, a doorman building and sumptuously appointed and comfortable financially. He says to Jonathan Larson, whom he loves, you're writing musicals in your living room, not saving the rainforest.

GARFIELD: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: I mean, oof.

GARFIELD: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: It's wonderful to romanticize the life when it's over and it's a movie, but does he have a point that any artist might want to ask themselves from time to time?

GARFIELD: I think any artist does ask themselves that. Any artist worth their salt definitely deals with serious phases of terrible self-doubt and self-loathing and thinking, well, what am I actually offering the world? You know, my brother is literally a lifesaver. He literally saves lives every day. He's a pulmonary doctor, a lung doctor. And especially over these last two years, he's been one of the people on the front lines dealing with this terrible pandemic that we've all been living through. And I admire him so much. And, yeah, so for me, he's the North Star. So I'm always thinking about that. I'm always thinking about him.

SIMON: Sight unseen, I'm just going to bet he tells everyone that you're his brother, though.

GARFIELD: (Laughter) I think he's very proud of me, as I am proud of him.

SIMON: Yeah.

GARFIELD: But this English thing is a - there's a tricky matter of repression there, so I think we're both quite - we're very proud of each other. And, yeah, I think there's a mutual respect there.

SIMON: Yeah. Ultimately, does Jonathan Larson's story make any artist - well, I'm - I think of the scene where Jonathan and his girlfriend are embracing. And she says, oh, my God, you're thinking of a song, aren't you?

GARFIELD: (Laughter) Oh, gosh.

SIMON: Is that just life with an artist?

GARFIELD: (Laughter) Oh, boy, I think so. I think it has to be. But I love that moment. I'm really glad you bring it up because it's - it is quintessential. And I know that lots of creators at that moment who have seen the film...

SIMON: Yeah.

GARFIELD: ...They get a pain in the pit of their stomach because it is just all too real. And there's something that we've all experienced in some - I remember when I was doing "Angels In America," and there was a night where I was so excited to go back to my East Side apartment. There was a great NBA basketball game on TV. I just ordered this fat, juicy steak from some great New York grill. And I sat down in front of my television after a week of work with my NBA and my cow. And I was hunched over my coffee table, and I started to choke.

I went to the bathroom, and there were three levels of consciousness happening all at once. One of them was, oh, my God, that steak. I'm missing out on this steak. This is ruining this steak dinner. This is - and this - I need to watch this basketball. It's a really important basketball game. And, oh, I think, actually, this is the kind of choking that kills someone. I think I might be dying.

But then underneath that, there was a whole other level of consciousness going, watch your behavior because when you're choking in your next project, if you're - there's a project where it - that requires you to choke, make sure you're, like, being very aware of what your eyes are doing, what you're, you know, you're physically doing. So, yeah, we're insane. Even in the throes of possible, you know, death by steak, I'm thinking of what I feel - you know, acting. It's insane.

SIMON: Bon appetit.

Andrew Garfield is Jonathan Larson in "Tick, Tick...Boom!" now in theaters and soon on Netflix. Thanks so much for being with us.

GARFIELD: No, thank you so much. It's lovely to talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUDER THAN WORDS")

GARFIELD: (As Jon, singing) ...Through the flame? Why do we leave our hand on the stove although we know we're in for some pain? Oh, why do we refuse to hang a light... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.