Andrew Garfield is radiant. This may be particularly noticeable because we’re having breakfast at the upscale vegan restaurant Café Gratitude in Venice, Calif., which is the epicenter of wellness culture in Los Angeles, crowded with surfers and yogis smiling beatifically on a sunlit patio. But it’s not just the environment—out of Garfield pours the easy charm of someone who’s done powerful soul-searching and found enlightenment. It’s an infectious energy.
It’s also probably not a surprise, given that the actor, 33, stars in two back-to-back films this winter, in each of which he plays men spurred by faith to do the unimaginable. First, there’s Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (out Nov. 4), in which Garfield gives an awards-worthy performance as conscientious objector Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist who served as a medic during World War II in the gruesome Battle of Okinawa, though he refused to carry a weapon. The film makes Doss’ heroism feel intimate and deeply personal; the film’s violence is harrowing, but it’s anchored by Garfield’s sensitive, humane performance. Then, on Dec. 23, he stars in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which he plays a 17th-century Jesuit priest who travels to Japan to minister to outlawed Christians.
These projects have led Garfield on a journey of spiritual discovery and self-interrogation; reflecting on his recent work, he is philosophical but not at all self-serious. We talked about God, Mel Gibson and the presidential election.
TIME: What drew you to the character of Desmond Doss?
Andrew Garfield: First, it was beautifully written. The character was so compelling—it was one of those stories that rang a bell inside me. I’m pretty good at saying no to things, at discerning between what I’m supposed to do and what I’m not supposed to do. With this one I felt compelled enough that I knew my drive to do it would supersede any doubt I had about myself being able to do it. If the longing to do it goes beyond my self-doubt, then I’m in.
The film puts spirituality front and center—it’s so explicitly about faith. Were you surprised to see how that theme crystallized in the finished film?
It was definitely in the script. I sat with Mel and talked at length about it, and my only concern was: I don’t want to do this film if the message is, “Christianity is the only way.” And he agreed. It was vital to me that we communicated that Desmond’s faith was deeper than any dogma, deeper than any set of man-made rules, but that he was in touch with a deep knowing in his bones, as opposed to any ideology. He was in line with that, and I felt totally reassured that we could make the same movie together. One of the main reasons I was drawn to doing it and to playing him was his awareness of his own ego and humanity, but his faith was the strongest part of him. He was empty enough to be in touch with spirit, to be in touch with his own deep inner-self, to be in touch with God—insert whatever word you, personally, feel closest to here. For me, every day it’s a different word. God, true self, deep self, spirit, soul, cosmos, community, whatever.
What was it like during production, working with Mel?
He’s incredibly instinctive and emotional—all blood and guts, nerve endings, viscera and muscle. Simultaneously, he’s got a tremendous intellect. He’s very integrated. Even if we had a plan for the day, it would become null and void, because he was so awake and open to what the moment needed. There was one morning where Vince Vaughn, Mel and myself went into my trailer and wrote an entire scene. That kind of confidence in his own vision—it’s all feeling. But he’s an incredible leader on set in the sense that he makes everyone know their worth. I never felt judged. I never felt like we were on opposing teams. I never felt like I was disappointing him, even if I wasn’t finding the scene. I always felt like he loved me. It was this weird, good fathering energy.
Was it a transformative experience to disappear into this role—to wear the skin of a character like this?
It’s more attempting to wear the organs—the stomach, the gut, the heart, the history and the psychological makeup—the skin is the easier part, in a way. The beauty of an artist—as you know, being a writer—is that we’re all the same. We’re all one thing and we’re all just enacting different aspects of ourselves all the time. I am Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and you and Desmond and myself. We are all made up of the same shit and the same gold. It was tricky playing Desmond because he was so in touch with his gold and his shit. I would long to be back into his skin every day because he was so much clearer about what he was being called to do than I was. I was learning so much about myself through attempting to inhabit the him in myself. I love the idea that every part you play is a part of you. I think that’s beautiful.
Is there something that feels particularly timely about this story, about someone who crosses boundaries at a moment when the world was very divided, as it is now?
I don’t know whether I was consciously aware then, when I felt immediately drawn to the project, but I think when that happens—when you get pulled toward something—it means there’s something urgent happening. As you say, we’re in an incredibly divided time for political reasons, for economic reasons, for power-mongering reasons. It’s much easier to gain control over a mass population when you pit them against each other. There’s a tremendous healing that needs to happen in our culture. We’re an incredibly egocentric culture—I’m fallible within it, and comfortable within it as well. But I was so soothed spending time with Desmond because he managed to transcend or get underneath the pervading cultural attitudes through his faith and become a symbol of, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; of, “I will sacrifice myself for my brother.” The fact that he was able to say, in the face of men with guns, with the innocence of a child: “I can’t do that.” There’s a part of me that wants to do that just to shut you up, to be accepted and loved by you, and to make you like me. But to suffer you not liking me, you not understanding me—to listen to this deeper thing, I’m pretty sure that’s God speaking to me, whatever I understand God to be. Sorry, I keep repeating that. It’s an important distinction because I think God is a dirty word to some people. I want to be clear for me, personally, it’s a word I’m using only to express some higher power.
Your next film, Silence, is also about faith—you play a priest. What sort of work did you do to research the role?
I was prepping for a year. I underwent this spiritually transformative process that St. Ignatius created—a retreat where you meditate and imaginatively walk with Jesus through his life, from birth to resurrection. My experience was very personal. Hopefully we’re dying on the cross every day and being resurrected in a truer way every day. That’s the idea, for me—the old self being shed in order for the truer self to emerge. I did a silent meditation retreat with Adam [Driver] in Wales. We were there for a week and we didn’t know each other. We’d had a beer in the West Village. Then next when we met each other I was sipping tepid soup in the middle of Wales in a retreat house in total silence.
How do you feel about the film?
I really want you to experience it. It’s still reverberating. I’ve seen it twice now, and every time I see it I’m transported. It’s very mysterious what the film does, I think.
The election is right around the corner. As someone who didn’t grow up entrenched in the American party system, what do you make of what’s happening in the states now?
Both England and America are going through a similar thing—there’s a tremendous chasm between all of us. As we were saying earlier, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, whether you’re a Trump supporter or a Clinton supporter, whether you’re black or white, old or young, what’s clear is that there is great healing that needs to happen. It’s not going to be done by pointing fingers and ostracizing and judging the opposing viewpoint. It’s only going to happen through compassion and empathy. I’m looking for leaders who walk that walk, as opposed to calling the opposition crazy or imprisonable. I love that idea that if you know someone’s story, it’s impossible not to love them. This is potentially hokey but incredibly true, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see a lot of healthy, mature discussion happening on the debate stage right now. But my longing is for Hillary to win. That’s for sure.