Andrew Garfield Dissects Religious Extremism in 'Under the Banner of Heaven': 'The Truth Trumps Everything'

'The truth is the vital thing to pursue — no matter the fallout. And I think that's what my character represents,' the actor says.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

Andrew Garfield in 'Under the Banner of Heaven'


Andrew Garfield is no stranger to embodying men who go hard for what they believe in.

The British actor's last few major roles all saw him playing characters with an extraordinary amount of zeal. In Lin-Manuel Miranda's theatrical adaptation of Jonathan Larson's play tick, tick...Boom!, Garfield portrayed the playwright, a man who was holding onto a dream of opening a show on Broadway at all costs. In Michael Showalter's The Eyes of Tammy Faye, he played real-life televangelist Jim Bakker who hid behind religious fanaticism when committing criminal acts, including fraud. Even his role as superhero Spider-Man fits the bill.

However, his Dustin Lance Black's limited series adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven, sees him stepping into the world of extremism in a much deeper, darker way.

Based on Jon Krakauer's 2003 nonfiction book, Under the Banner of Heaven explores the 1984 murder of a young woman, Brenda Wright Lafferty (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter, which was committed by two fundamentalist Mormons who claimed they were doing God's will. The book looks at the crime itself, and the investigation into it, but it also digs deeper into the history of the religion to better explain the splinter groups that have cropped up and the differences in ideologies.

Garfield plays the fictional Detective Jeb Pyre in the limited series, which comes from FX Productions and creator and showrunner Black, who was raised in the religion. Jeb is a devout Mormon and family man who gets the call about the double homicide and wrestles with whether he believes another Mormon could have committed such heinous acts, as well as what he should do if it turns out they did. 

"The truth trumps everything," Garfield tells Metacritic. "No matter who the truth hurts, the truth is the vital thing to pursue — no matter the fallout. And I think that's what my character represents, and that is what I think actors try to do and be representatives of as well."

Here, Garfield talks to Metacritic about the responsibility he felt to get this story right, how Jeb grows and considers other perspectives throughout the series, and what he and his co-stars needed to do to break the intensity between takes.

How important did you feel research beyond reading the script was in order to step into a role like this? Either researching the real case or just police work and the religion in general?

Very important. I traveled to Utah; I sat with lots of Mormons, ex Mormons, bishops in the Mormon faith, detective Mormons; and I actually managed to be introduced to someone who went through the exact same struggle that my character goes through — a devout Mormon, who, in working on a horrific case, discovered that it was motivated by ideas from his faith. And it gave him a crisis of faith, just from the sheer nature of having to do his job — having to look at motivation and why and the psychological profile of the person that he was trying to understand and study that his psyche started to crack.

What Jeb has to face is how do I do my job, pursue the truth, honor the memory of Brenda Wright Lafferty and Erica Wright Lafferty — these two people who are victims of this horrendous murder? How do I honor them while not losing all of the things that I personally hold dear — my church, my religion, my community, my wife, my kids, and my mind? The mind is made up of a structure I was born into, which is the structure of this religion.

Jeb's psyche expands through the course of the series. There's something very beautiful and important and healing about it. He has to face potentially losing everything that he loves in order to do right by his duty, to do right by his work, and to do right by the truth. It's a fascinating struggle to be in.

All of that is very much internalized conflict within Jeb as he is investigating the murders, but given the community in which the murders took place, there will be people who don't want him to fully do his job if it means uncovering some negative things about people within the community. So, how much does he struggle with those external pressures and having to confront what kind of cop he's going to be?

Yeah, what kind of man I'm gonna be, what kind of person I'm going to be. That is the vital struggle. Just the very nature of his job means that he has to face things about himself and wake up from a kind of delusion about the world, about life, and about his church. And it's speaking truth to power, kind of inspired by Brenda herself.

Brenda was someone who was in a very, very dangerous circumstance, and she ultimately discovered that in her ultimate fate, which is, which could have been avoided. And I think that is the heartbreak of this story. But in order to understand how it could have been avoided, you have to go back to the founding of Mormonism; you have to go back to the founding of patriarchal culture; you have to go back to the psychological makeup of men who feel entitled to follow their own selfish desires and call it God. This is a really deep thing to look at for us as human beings, especially right now as we carry on living through a time where people are feeling more and more afraid, more and more uncertain, and therefore more and more tempted towards extremism and fundamentalism. So, it's a really important thing to unpack.

What were the conversations like with Lance around how you hope people view or discuss the faith after watching the show?

I was less concerned about that because it's not my faith. I had the freedom, I suppose, of being more concerned with just playing my character and making sure I was doing right by his circumstances and his situation. I had the freedom of not feeling a responsibility to the religion, but more a responsibility to individuals who have had this experience.

These are such heavy things to discuss, let alone have to perform for months on end while you are filming. Did you feel you needed to stay in that intensity between scenes, or were there opportunities to crack a joke or sing a song and just lighten the mood to keep yourself and your cast mates sane?

Usually I'm the person that stays in it, but it was impossible to do on this. And it wouldn't have been healthy, I don't think, for any of us, especially because it was a long shoot; we were in Calgary for six months. In fact, in order for us to do our jobs to the best of our ability between action and cut, we had to have as good a time as possible when the cameras weren't rolling. In order to come feeling equipped and ready to give our best work, I think we had to have a lot of game nights, a lot of good meals. We had to go hike up a mountain on the weekend and scream/wolf-cry from the top of that mountain, climb trees, dip in lakes. We had to play volleyball and badminton and basketball — we had to do a lot of silly stuff. And yeah, there was a lot of trenches gallows humor that we had to adopt. It's interesting that psychological balance so that we could really fully engage with the heaviness and the depth while we were shooting,

But you weren't singing Jonathan Larson between takes?

[Laughs] Maybe on occasion.

Obviously tick, tick...BOOM!, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and Under the Banner of Heaven are very different projects with very different characters for you to portray, but what is there something you find extra rewarding about stories rooted in reality that keep you coming back to them right now?

No, I don't think it's a conscious thing on my part. I just think I'm drawn to the themes that I'm drawn to. I don't think there's any pattern there. It's more just that these stories call to me. I'm trying to think of the last thing I did that wasn't true.

Well, Spider-Man: No Way Home.

What are you talking about? Spider Man is real! [Laughs] OK yeah sure, Spider-Man is pretty extreme, so that's a good example.

Under the Banner of Heaven is


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