Andrew Garfield & Lin-Manuel Miranda on “tick…tick…BOOM!”
In tick, tick… Boom!, Andrew Garfield tackles his first major musical role by stepping into the shoes of the acclaimed American composer and playwright Jonathan Larson. The Netflix movie is based on the autobiographical musical by Larson, who also wrote the award-winning musical Rent, and it serves as the feature directorial debut of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
When it comes to portraying a Broadway icon, Garfield is quick to admit that it was no easy task. “I was freaking out,” explains the two-time Golden Globe-nominated actor. “Lin asked me to do something and it was a quick yes, but then I had to figure out how to do it. Thankfully, I had the time and the space, and then I had the support of the thoroughbred musical theater racehorses in the company. What they can do is superhuman and Olympic.”
Garfield’s enthusiasm is infectious as he describes how he found his voice for the project: “I got to do something I’ve wanted to do all my life, and I got to learn how to do it through Jonathan Larson’s songs. I am the luckiest boy alive. It’s official.”
The themes of Larson’s projects often delve into social issues such as addiction, homophobia and multiculturalism. Although the composer and playwright sadly passed away of Marfan syndrome on the day of Rent’s first off-Broadway preview performance, the celebrated rock musical went on to play on Broadway for more than 12 years and won Larson three posthumous Tony Awards, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2005, the story was adapted for the big screen with Christopher Columbus as director. In 2021, the feature adaptation of Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical tick, tick… Boom! launches on Netflix with Lin-Manuel Miranda at the helm.
Miranda is no stranger to the musical genre. “I am painfully aware that I’m sitting here, and I have the privilege of talking to you because I saw Rent on my 17th birthday,” the Golden Globe nominee admits with a smile. “I sat in the last row of the Nederlander Theatre [in New York City] and I had never seen so much diversity on a stage. I had never heard contemporary music in a musical, and it felt so homemade and so full of love. It didn’t feel like some mega-musical handed down from up high. It felt like someone put their life, their art, and their friends into their work. That’s when I went from loving musicals to thinking I could maybe write one. I think Jonathan Larson did that for a generation of artists.”
Recalling the first time he saw tick, tick… Boom! live on stage, Miranda remembers: “I was a senior in college when I saw the off-Broadway version of tick, tick… Boom! with the amazing Raul Esparza as Jonathan. It blew my mind. I have no idea what anyone else felt, but it felt like a message in a bottle just for me. It was like, ‘Oh, you want to write musicals, huh? It’s going to be a lot harder than you think. Those people you came with are going to get real jobs and you’re going to be the only one banging your head against the wall while everyone else grows up. But if you want to do it, it’s a great way to spend the day.’ That always stayed with me. It was an incredibly clarifying experience for me. It was like a homing beacon.”
Miranda is speaking about the movie at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, where filmmaker Rian Johnson is leading a discussion with members of the cast and crew. It’s the Hollywood premiere of tick, tick… Boom!, which served as the opening night movie for this year’s AFI Fest, and Miranda is sitting on a director’s chair at the front of the theater alongside actors Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, and Robin de Jesús, as well as the movie’s screenwriter, Steven Levenson.
The topic of conversation ranges from sources of inspiration through the research process, but when it comes to preparation for a musical project like this, Robin de Jesús has a straightforward approach. “I always feel like the first thing I need to do is get off book,” the Puerto Rican actor explains. “I want to memorize the lines and then I want to know where my character’s traumas and sadness come from. I want to go back and find out what messed them up, and then I think about, ‘How did they grow from that?’”
In tick, tick… Boom!, Jesús plays Michael, a gay close friend of the play’s (heterosexual) Jonathan. Describing the relationship between the two men, the Tony-nominated actor reveals: “I wanted to make sure that you saw a loving friendship between an out gay man and a straight dude. You don’t get to see friendships like that that are so intimate, lovey-dovey, and touchy-feely, so it’s really cool that we get to model that.”
When the discussion turns to the shooting of the coming-of-age musical, the cast and crew remark about how they often felt a divine presence on set. “There would be these really cool moments where Andrew and I would get into a space and then ‘otherness’ would come in,” admits Robin de Jesús. “That divine energy would enter the room. I remember we did a rehearsal [one day] and Lin looked at me and said, ‘Hurry up, we’ve got to go. Let’s shoot this.’ Because we just knew there was a presence in the air, so it was all about removing our egos and getting our junk out of the way so that that beautiful otherness could come in.”
The Boys in the Band actor briefly pauses before he continues: “What helped me invite that was also thinking about the fact that as a queer Latino man, I don’t have elders. They’re gone. They didn’t get to make it. The systems didn’t have their back. And so to share a story of a gay Latino man who is HIV positive in the ‘90s and got to live… Whoa. This is for the ancestors. Genuinely.”
During the making of the musical movie, Andrew Garfield could also feel a sense of energy from the past. “We got to be devoted to Jon, and we got to be devoted to all struggling artists; all the people who were taken away far too soon, everyone that was lost during the AIDS epidemic,” explains the Hacksaw Ridge actor. “When we were doing the [scenes in the] New York Theatre Workshop, there were spirits in the room. It was the place where Jon previewed Rent, and we got to shoot there, by some cosmic non-coincidence, because we weren’t going to shoot there.”
“That’s right,” chimes in Miranda. “We had a bottling plant that we were building to look like the New York Theatre Workshop, but then the pandemic happened, and it became incredibly important to support off-Broadway theaters that were shuttered. And so, we had this glorious week filming in Jonathan’s artistic home at the New York Theatre Workshop and our holding [area] was in La MaMa Theatre across the street, as well as another theater up the road.”
Continuing the theme of cosmic coincidences, Miranda adds: “It just kept happening. There’s this incredible song called ‘Swimming’ that was cut from the off-Broadway version. Our location scout found this amazing swimming pool downtown [for the scene]. And as we walked in, we were like, ‘Wait a minute. There’s a red striped tile down the middle and there are these number markings that only make sense in the lyrics of the song.’ We found out it’s where Jonathan swam. Literally, he’s making references to things that only exist in that one pool in New York, and that was the place we had chosen.”
Listening to the conversations between the cast and crew, it’s clear that tick, tick… Boom! is a passion project for many of the artists on stage at the AFI event – although the global pandemic nearly put a stop to the musical movie. The cast and crew were 10 days into the shoot when COVID struck and filming was paused – and even when it was considered safe to return to work, the team still faced a number of challenges
“It’s hard to direct with two masks on,” admits Miranda. “I have a very expressive face, but I was not allowed to use it while directing this movie. I had to find new ways to show my excitement, so there was a lot of charades and a lot of jumping up and down. But also, we have incredible producers who made miracles happen. We made a movie happen before there was even a vaccine. Plus, everyone was so committed to keeping each other safe. That really was a hallmark of our work, and it was really joyous work.”