June 14, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Andrew Garfield pushes the limits in Gia Coppola’s ‘Mainstream’

The new film “Mainstream,” directed and co-written by Gia Coppola, attempts to capture this current moment of social media influencers and online personalities with both a sense of emotional empathy and satiric bite. Actress Maya Hawke described the film as, “a Grimm’s fairy tale of the social media era.”

In the movie, Hawke plays a young woman named Frankie who is working as a bartender at a Hollywood dive and yearning to be an artist, taking pictures and posting videos online. When her video of a street performer named Link (Andrew Garfield) suddenly goes viral, they seize the moment. Link transforms himself into an online personality known as “No One Special,” hosting a show that includes the game “Your Phone or Your Dignity” and they both lose themselves to a construct not entirely of their own control.

Sometime after making her debut feature, the gentle 2013 teenage drama “Palo Alto,” as Coppola was trying to figure out what to make next, she came across Elia Kazan’s 1957 movie “A Face in the Crowd” starring Andy Griffith playing on Turner Classic Movies. After her initial shock — “What is this movie?” she remembers asking herself — Coppola was struck by how relevant the film still felt today for its depiction of the commercialization of identity and how people can get swept away by notoriety.

“I live above Hollywood Boulevard, so I have this kind of weird fascination with celebrity and why we are fascinated by that and the toxicity of fame,” Coppola said. “And now we’re in this sort of time period where instant gratification is part of our everyday lives and how does this affect us emotionally? So I wanted to play with those kind of emotional themes, but be different and creative with that in this new space we’re in.”

Actor Maya Hawke, left, and director Gia Coppola on the set of “Mainstream.”

(IFC Films)

Coppola co-wrote the script with Tom Stuart and with Garfield on board as star and producer, along with Hawke, Jason Schwartzman, Nat Wolff and Alexa Demie in the cast, the movie was shot in summer 2019. Having premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020, the film is now in theaters and available on digital platforms and VOD.

The film has a bold, garish look that at times glitches like a broken cellphone and at other times features lo-fi animation and graphics. At one point, Hawke’s character seems to vomit emojis.

“I guess I just wanted to make it feel like what I would imagine being inside the internet probably feels like,” said Coppola of the film’s at-times abrasive aesthetics. “I always just feel like the film kind of tells you what it wants to be, and you make these certain choices that are kind of subconsciously dictated by the tone. I knew I really needed to cleanse myself of this idea and I needed to go kind of full-on into it in order to kind of get out.”

I just wanted to make it feel like what I would imagine being inside the internet probably feels like.

Gia Coppola on her film ‘Mainstream’

For Garfield, who won a Tony award for “Angels In America” and received an Oscar nomination for “Hacksaw Ridge,” as well as appearing in “Silence,” “99 Homes” and “Under the Silver Lake,” the opportunity to play No One Special felt particularly freeing for the wild behavior he exhibited onscreen, from appearing to run down Hollywood Boulevard naked to seemingly defecating on live television.

“The added bonus was that I did get to work in a way that felt like it didn’t have any consequence somehow,” said Garfield. “I could do things that I’ve never done on a film set before, I can do things I’ve never done in my household before, I can do things I’ve never done in private before. So there was something very liberating and attractive about accessing those parts of what it is to be human that we often get encouraged away from very, very early on when we are just wild primordial animal children. So there’s those parts that are long buried that I got to dig up and kind of prance around in.

“I think everyone has this feeling to a degree, no matter how they were brought up or what job they have now. We all have been socialized, we’ve all been civilized, quote unquote, and I feel like for me, it was a personal exercise in freedom, a personal exercise in getting rid of the need to be liked, getting rid of the need to be attractive, getting rid of the need to be heroic or this need to be good. This kind of prison. And I think specifically for actors in a lot of ways, we all get typecast in some ways and we have to work hard to break out of that.”

From left, Andrew Garfield, Maya Hawke and Nat Wolff in Gia Coppola's "Mainstream."

From left, Andrew Garfield, Maya Hawke and Nat Wolff in Gia Coppola’s “Mainstream.”

(Beth Dubber / IFC Films)

One specific challenge in making the film is how fast the internet era moves. An influential platform one day can be completely defunct the next, replaced by something else. So Coppola tried not to focus on the specifics of the technology.

“I just felt like it’s less about the platforms and more just about the sort of emotional journey and the internet as a whole,” said Coppola. “It’s like a glimpse at a moment in time. And how do you find a way to take this stuff that’s rapidly changing and evolving and make it cinematic and different so that you could look back on it.”

Both Coppola and Garfield are now in their 30s, while Hawke is still in her early 20s, which meant the actress was the one perhaps closest in age to the generational phenomenon the movie was trying to represent, the intersection of technology and identity that comes so instinctually to those who have grown up in a very online world.

“But they picked a youth who is probably spiritually like 150 years old,” said Hawke with a laugh. “If they wanted a valuable youth-vote participant, they really looked towards the wrong actor.”

Coppola uses Instagram, as her background in photography makes her comfortable with the platform. Garfield has no official social media accounts. And while Hawke — who appeared in Season 3 of the popular series “Stranger Things” and is shooting its upcoming fourth season — has more than 3 million followers on Instagram, she has no illusions about why they are there.

“The 3 million followers, I have them because of ‘Stranger Things.’ I don’t have them because of anything that I really did,” Hawke said. “That show is such a slam-dunk and the way in which people interact with it is so intensely fan-oriented and heavy that it’s a different kind of Instagram follower. I have never been a person who was interested in being a personality. I’m interested in being an actor and a musician and a creative and a writer, but I’m not interested in being a famous person. Like I don’t want a talk show.”

In attempting to explain her own relationship to social media — “I’m definitely not the right person to really talk to about it. I’m not particularly a deep thinker on the matter. I’m pretty intimidated by it all myself,” she said — Hawke referenced the painter Alice Neel, who worked largely unrecognized for many years before finally achieving acclaim late in her life.

“Her paintings kept coming from the same source inside of her. They kept coming from your inherent spark, your drive to create,” said Hawke. “And that’s what happened when Frankie and Link met is all of a sudden that source was ignited. But once the videos started becoming popular, you stop looking to the source and asking the source what you should make, and you start asking the people what they want from you. And that leads you into a total death spiral, no matter what industry you’re in, if you’re a social media creator, if you’re an actor, if you’re a musician, if you’re a politician, whatever it might be. So to me, it was always more about that than it was any kind of precise critique of the social media era.”

Despite not having an online presence Garfield recently found himself a trending topic after an interview he did in which he denied rumors he is reprising his role as Peter Parker for the upcoming “Spider-Man: Far From Home” was picked up by many outlets; some fans believed he was purposefully misleading audiences.

So what does it mean to be at the center of intense online scrutiny while promoting a film about the perils of the very online life?

“It means nothing, but it also means a lot of things. And I wouldn’t even know where to start,” said Garfield. “I feel grateful, I suppose, that I get to do what I do and I get to tell stories that I want to tell, and I get to bring some form of myself and my soul to my expressive work and to illuminate things that I want to illuminate.

“So in that regard, I feel really grateful that something I say or something I’m involved in, or not involved in, which is the case in this instance, gets people’s attention,” said Garfield. “Because there’s a part of me that wants people’s attention, because I want to tell stories and I want the stories to be seen. I want to tell stories that have some value in them. That’s always my intention, whether or not I achieve it is another matter. So I’m very grateful that I get the chance to work on a scale where people are actually paying attention to the work. That’s my ultimate goal.”

Andrew Garfield and Maya Hawke share a laugh in a scene from "Mainstream."

Andrew Garfield, left, and Maya Hawke in Gia Coppola’s “Mainstream.”

(Beth Dubber / IFC Films)

Garfield also garnered online attention while “Mainstream” was in production. One of Link’s videos features him running down Hollywood Boulevard wearing only flesh-colored latex underpants and a prosthetic penis. Shooting the scene in daytime on live streets in Hollywood meant that videos appeared online at the time and there was some news coverage of the event as it appears in the scene that Garfield is being arrested.

“That was supposed to be a much tamer stunt,” said Coppola, “but I was like, ‘Can we do it on Hollywood Boulevard?’ He was like, ‘Yeah!’ And then he added the prosthetic [penis] and I think he felt really liberated to just run around Hollywood Boulevard. We didn’t have the finances to close the streets nor should it be that way. So that was totally in-the-moment authentic.”

“It was weirdly controlled liberation,” said Garfield. “It was so fun because I knew I wasn’t going to get arrested. I wasn’t going to jail, but it was still scary because it’s vulnerable and you’ve got your naked butt cheeks out in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. And people could be filming on their phones and they were, and it’s fine. It’s that thing of, all of us are only here for a brief period of time. If I’m given the opportunity to be naked on Hollywood Boulevard and not get arrested, I’ll do it. It’s kind of that simple.”

One scene in the movie features Link as part of a panel discussion alongside actual online influencers, including the controversial YouTube star Jake Paul. Garfield didn’t base his performance on anyone in particular but did meet with a number of influencers prior to filming.

The actor could sympathize with many of the challenges faced by influencers who are often struggling to keep up, to have the next video go viral even bigger than the last.

“I think what it is, it’s a bunch of really creative people in a democratized, monetized, commercialized space, now deeply commercialized and monetized to the point where that creativity maybe isn’t the driving factor anymore. It’s about creating as much material and content — that word, content — as possible.

“Anyone who’s an artist, anyone who’s creative, knows that that can be very detrimental to the psyche,” said Garfield. “Your own natural rhythms of creativity, they get adjusted and kind of all tangled up in this very impossibly fast rhythm of the social media culture that we’re now in. So it’s definitely having an effect on people’s creativities. I find that a bit concerning, but it’s our choice individually whether we participate and how we participate.”

Coppola didn’t want the film to feel like it was wagging a finger at a younger generation or in any way passing judgment on online culture. Rather, she was trying to use “Mainstream” to figure things out for herself.

“It was important that it was fun and not a lecture. There’s these questions that are hovering over me and I need to figure out what those answers are,” she said. “And in doing so you hope that there’s other people that feel the same way and they connect with the story that you’re trying to understand.

“I don’t have an opinion so much on the internet, whether it’s good or bad. I think us as a culture are still kind of navigating that as well,” said Coppola. “It’s just kind of how you use it, which I think everyone needs to check in with themselves on.”