NEW YORK -- In the last months before he becomes a household name, Andrew Garfield has decided to hide in plain sight.
The British-raised actor, who will star in the reboot of the "Spider-Man" films this summer, is far from Hollywood but still under the lights: He's starring opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in a revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway.
Having spoken to his predecessor, Tobey Maguire, about what it's like to be at the center of a white-hot franchise, the 28-year-old actor is enjoying a little me-time in anticipation of the media mayhem to come.
"There wll be a certain stepping out, yes. I think right now all I'm trying to do is step in," he says. "Not in a shy way. Not in a defensive way. Not in a keep-away-from-me way. It's just that I need to know myself so well if I'm going to be able to handle this."
A thoughtful, even brooding, man with an angular face, penetrating eyes, taut muscularity from his years as a gymnast and a thick mob of hair, Garfield has been steadily rising in the entertainment business, but he seems determined not to let the swiftness change him.
"There's something about letting go of your ego within the work you do which I think will be my everlasting job to attempt. I don't think I'll ever achieve it," he says. "When it feels best is when it's not about you and it's about the thing."
The "thing" right now is just as much an American masterpiece as Spider-Man. Garfield on Broadway is playing the son of the world's most tragic traveling salesman, Willy Loman.
"Death of a Salesman" is a wrenching, powerful play, one that Garfield, making his Broadway debut, says is as elusive as Shakespeare. Moments of clarity lead to confusion and new things to handle. "It's like one of those Whac-A-Mole games," he says, sadly.
"You don't ever want to feel like you're done because you never are. And if you think you are done, you're deluded and you're not working as hard as you should," he adds.
Born in the United States and raised in Britain, Garfield has been working steadily since leaving the Central School of Speech & Drama in London in 2004. Theater work in Manchester – "Kes" and "Romeo & Juliet" – led to work in London, including "Beautiful Thing" and a trilogy of plays at the Royal National Theatre – "Burn," "Citizenship" and "Chatroom." He won an Evening Standard award for outstanding newcomer in 2006.
"It was just sheer volume which got me that recognition," he says with a chuckle. "I just worked a lot. Everyone was like, `You worked a lot. Give him something. He must not have slept, poor kid.'"
Even so, Garfield, whose natural accent is American, got the attention of producer Scott Rudin, who went to "Chatroom" to see if the young actor might be right for the part of Clay in a film version of "Kavalier and Clay." Rudin was impressed with what he saw. "He was the great actor he is now, with a growing skill-set but the same incredible extraordinary availability," Rudin says.
Plans for "Kavalier and Clay" didn't immediately pan out, but Garfield kept going. In 2007 he was voted one of Variety's "top 10 to watch" and appeared in the films "Boy A" and in Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs." Other credits include Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," the British TV series "Red Riding" and the sci-fi thriller "Never Let Me Go" alongside Keira Knightley.
But his breakout performance became Eduardo Saverin in 2010's "The Social Network," a part that Rudin, who produced the film, believed was perfect for Garfield from the moment he read the script. Garfield earned a Golden Globe nomination for the part.
He captured the role of Peter Parker in "The Amazing Spider-Man" after a long audition process, beating several candidates, including the former "Billy Elliot" star Jamie Bell. Garfield had been a fan of the web-crawler since he was a child, and while he hasn't managed to catch the musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," he has watched all the Sam Raimi films.
"All the way through filming the Spider-Man movie, I felt like I was serving something greater than me. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't. That character has been an important character to me since I was a kid. And all my concern was to make sure that Peter Parker and the symbol of Spider-Man were treated with the reverence that I have for them."
Initially, Garfield was hesitant about putting on the mask. He would be replacing Maguire in a franchise he loved. "I thought, `Why would I do this to myself?' But of course you can't consider what people are thinking. You have to just follow your heart and do what you can," he says.
Garfield asked Rudin's advice when he was in the Spider-Man sweepstakes. "I said, `Why would you do it?'" Rudin recalls. "He said, `Because I've wanted to play Spider-Man since I was 15.' And I said, `That's a great reason to do it. It's probably the only reason to do it.' It's really smart. If you have something to say about it, then of course do it."
Since then, Garfield has spoken to Maguire, Raimi and Kirsten Dunst and says they've been supportive. "They were all equally funny and supportive and good people. It's just one of those things where I will do the same thing when the next kid comes along," Garfield says. "I will be like, `Take it. Take it, please.'"
It was while he was filming "The Amazing Spider-Man" that Rudin called with the offer to be on Broadway in "Death of a Salesman," the first time Garfield would be onstage in six years. It was a no-brainer – an iconic play directed by Mike Nichols and opposite Hoffman, "my favorite living actor."
"It was kind of, `I want to see that show,' so why not be as close to it as possible?" Garfield says, though he admits feeling nervous: "A part of me wished it was a really small, out-of-town theater in a way. With the same cast and the same director, just in someone's living room."
His next step will be no more intimate: relaunching a comic-book movie franchise. He insists that any pressure is self-inflicted and that for all the tedious hoopla he'll have to endure, there's also all that inspiration he can give as Spider-Man. When asked if he'll get lost in the machine, he answers in a clear voice: "Not if I can help it."
Rudin isn't worried, either. "He's very smart and very clear on who he wants to be and what he wants to be. Spider-Man's a great thing for him but I think it's a job. I don't think it will be a life-changing thing for him."