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Exploring the Failure of the System

Andrew Garfield opens up about his new film, 99 Homes

99 HOMES

Andrew Garfield stars as Dennis Nash in Broad Green Pictures release, '99 Homes.' Photo by Hooman Bahrani/Broad Green Pictures.

In 99 Homes, Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a single dad and an out of work contractor living in Florida that is desperate to hang onto his family home that’s in the process of being foreclosed on. When Nash and his family, young son Connor (Noah Lomax) and mother Lynn (Laura Dern), are evicted by merciless real estate broker Rick Carver (played meticulously by Michael Shannon), he finds himself in the position of needing to support his family, taking on whatever work he can get, even if it means crossing the line between doing what’s right and wrong to make ends meet. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes has been heralded at several film festivals since its debut at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. In September, the film was the recipient of the renowned Grand Prize Award at this year’s Deauville American Film Festival.

Garfield, best known for his recent turn as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man series as well as his portrayal of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, was in San Francisco this past August to promote 99 Homes. I had the opportunity to speak with the 32-year-old actor, who had much to say about his new film, including what he learned about the housing crisis from those who experienced it first hand, what it was like to play a father and why being a part of this film was a welcome risk.

For Garfield, it was the film’s compelling and heartbreaking eviction scene that captured his attention when he initially read the script. “I read it and I got to, I think, page 30. On page 30 was the eviction, the Nash family eviction, and I just kind of knew what that was somehow. Just on a kind of visceral level, even though I’ve never been evicted, you know, literally from my house. But that act of being exiled and treated like garbage and as worthless, I knew that feeling,” the BAFTA-winning actor said. 

“I think everyone knows that feeling somewhere in them. I also knew that this is happening to so many people in so many different places, as we speak. … So I think all of that stuff hit me and I just think where we are right now in our culture ... we’re in a very inhumane place in how we’re treating each other, on a mass scale. So how do we shift back towards community? How do we shift back towards compassion?

“I mean, it’s like ‘All You Need Is Love’ stuff. But it’s not that simple, of course. It’s not airy-fairy and new age-y, it’s like how do we really get into the business of remembering that we’re all in this together? But how do we really do that? And it’s not going to be easy. And I think making this film felt like a little tiny baby step in helping a few people who see it have the conversation about how this is them. And I like it, because neither my character nor Michael’s character are happy. The one that’s in power is miserable. And the one that’s powerless, of course, is miserable as well.”

99 HOMES

(Left to right) Andrew Garfield stars as Dennis Nash and Michael Shannon as Rick Carver in Broad Green Pictures release, '99 Homes.' Photo by Hooman Bahrani/Broad Green Pictures.

While working on the film, Garfield was in Florida for two weeks and had the opportunity to spend some time with families that are still experiencing the effects of the housing crisis. “As soon as I asked one thing, it was just like [they opened up]. They feel so wronged, and rightly so,” he shared. “What is it—‘madness is the nobility of soul opposed with impossible circumstances’—and that’s what they were all experiencing.”

Garfield continued: “It’s like every soul is noble. Every human being that is born has this nobility and a sense of their own worth. Placed in the current economic, social, cultural situation we’re in, it’s very hard to know that nobility; because we’re constantly being told that we’re not enough. We’re constantly being told that unless we have these shoes, we’re not enough. Unless we have this job, we’re not enough. Unless we have this paycheck, we’re not enough.

“And even worse than that, those that are in power are finagling the system to wipe a certain population out. Stronger borders, keep the ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers’ out. What is happening? And it’s the same thing with mistreatment of human beings. It’s this insidious exiling, so that’s what I experienced down there and just the beauty of these people and the grief and the beauty of them in their grief. It’s like, ‘Oh, no, you’ve been f---ing wronged. You’ve been mistreated by a system that doesn’t care about you. And it’s expressed itself that it doesn’t care about you.’ And some of them are raging at God, you know? Some of them are raging at the system and some of them are defeated by the system.”

Garfield’s emotional turn as Nash, features the actor embracing his paternal instincts on film for the first time, a new experience that he found to be “interesting.” Even though the actor isn’t a father himself, he felt that part of him knew what it meant to take on that role. 

“As I was doing it, I was like, ‘I really don’t know what this is and what do I do?’ I think that’s how most fathers feel, whether they admit it or not,” he said. “All the best fathers I know say: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m [messing] him up in ways I’m not even aware of.’

99 HOMES

(Left to right) Noah Lomax stars as Connor Nash and Andrew Garfield as Dennis Nash in Broad Green Pictures release, '99 Homes.' Photo credit: Broad Green Pictures.

“... What I discovered was Dennis doesn’t know what he’s doing. And sometimes I felt like Connor’s brother, older brother, that just didn’t want him around, which felt OK as well. And sometimes he felt like my father, which felt OK as well. He needed to take care of me. It just felt real. It didn’t feel like, ‘Now, I’m a dad and this is what you do, son. I know… facial hair and you don’t.’ As I said, I think the best fathering I’ve seen is vulnerable fathering. It’s really just like, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this, but I love you. And I can’t take away your pain, I can’t, but I can love you. That’s kind of all I have. That’s always going to be there.’ That’s what I see as perfect fathering is totally imperfect.”

Although 99 Homes is not based on one particular person’s story, it is sure to hit close to those who have been in similar situations and displaced from their homes. For Garfield, it’s the “joy and pain” of acting in an emotion-inducing, socially relevant film like this that gives him a chance to take a welcome risk and be part of a project that has something meaningful to say.

“I can go do a romantic comedy and be light on my feet and not risk, and you know, put on the charmed face, whatever that looks like, and do the tap dance. Have my hair in like the perfect position and be like this idealized thing. This hasn’t appealed to me ever, because I like getting in s--- and I like meaning,” he said. “And I think meaning happens, again, it’s risk. It’s risk and it’s going, ‘I’m not enough for this; actually, I’m not good enough for this. But I’m still going to try to do it and give my all to it.’

“And I think, if I gave in to that voice of not enoughness, gave into that voice of ‘you’re not going to match up to this and you can’t fill this with enough to make it make a difference,’ so if I gave into that, if everyone in culture gave into that, there’d be no Black Lives Matter movement. There would be no uprising, there would be no Occupy movement, there would be no voice opposing the inhumanity that is happening.

“So I have to do my bit even though I don’t really want to, like I’m scared. There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘You? What are you going to do?’ Then there’s this other part of me that goes, ‘Well, I’ve got to.’ I’m just as valuable as anyone else. I gotta give whatever that is. … I’d rather take the risk as opposed to, you know, a tap dance. But tap dancing’s great too; we need a nice tap dance sometimes just to kind of shake off the dust of the s--- we’re doing.”

99 Homes opens in San Francisco on Friday, October 2.