Breathe interview: How Andrew Garfield prepared for his 'impossible' role (exclusive)

Tom Butler
UK Movies Editor

Andy Serkis has nothing but admiration for Andrew Garfield, the star of his directorial debut ‘Breathe’.

Garfield play Robin Cavendish, a foppish young aristocrat struck down by polio in the prime of his life, who spends the majority of the film’s runtime confined to bed and later a mobility chair. Despite those limitations, Garfield gives a towering performance in the inspirational true story that could earn him his second Oscar nomination.

“Andrew [Garfield] is a phenomenally brilliant actor,” Serkis tells Yahoo Movies. “He is a really great physical actor, as we know.”

“What Andrew chose to do was to play him with great humour and wit in a very sophisticated way, and I think the choices that he made are extraordinary.”

Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy as Robin and Diana in ‘Breathe’ (STX International)

Garfield is a dedicated professional known for his immersive preparation. For Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’, he spent a year studying to be a Jesuit priest, culminating with a seven-day silence retreat at St. Bueno’s Jesuit house in Wales. For Mel Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, he visited the Chattanooga home of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, to walk in his character’s footsteps and get his hands on his real-life tools.

The ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ star admits the film’s rushed production schedule meant that he didn’t get as much time to prepare as he would have liked.

“I had two months between saying ‘yes’ and starting shooting,” Garfield explains.


“So I just jammed [all my preparation] in. It wasn’t enough time, actually, for me. I would have liked to have had a little bit more time, but it was enough to get somewhere. Because it’s so fascinating, who Robin was, and all the technical aspects.”

After contracting polio in 1958 while working in Africa, Cavendish became permanently paralysed below the neck and could only breathe with the aid of a mechanical respirator. With breath control playing such an important part in vocalisation, Garfield studied how people with respirators spoke, their cadence and intonation, to make his performance as realistic as possible.

Garfield concedes though that he would never be able to full represent Cavendish (whose son Jonathan produced the film) with 100% authenticity.

“How do you ever encapsulate someone?” he posits.

“You can’t. It’s impossible to do, even in an autobiography. If you have 500 pages to explain the insides of someone, it’s impossible, so you just try your best as an actor to embody it to the best of your ability.”


His dedication to the part meant he would stay completely still even between takes, and Claire Foy (‘The Crown’) who plays Robin’s wife Diana, says the true magnitude of his technique only began to sink towards the end of the project.

“I realised in the final week of shooting, when I finally actually sat in the chair, that I don’t how he would have done it otherwise,” Foy adds.

“Because he had to surrender himself entirely. He couldn’t react in any way. I think once he moved his finger, and said ‘I moved my finger in that take!’ And that’s the only time I ever saw him, in any way, break. To understand how hard that is… I think it’s amazing.”

Foy’s performance in the film is equally as impressive. Her turn as the stoic and dedicated Diana keeps the film from become maudlin, and the couple’s relationship always feels honest and realistic even in the face of such incredible adversity.

‘Breathe’ arrives in UK cinemas Friday, 27 October.

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