Bring your tissues. Bleecker Street’s Breathe is the inspiring true story of Robin Cavendish, a dashing British entrepreneur in 1950s Africa who was just 28 years old when he contracted polio in Nairobi. Paralyzed from the neck down, doctors gave him only three months to live. Confined to a hospital bed, Cavendish was kept alive by a mechanical ventilator. His wife Diana (Claire Foy) stuck with him as he went through deepest despair, however, Robin Cavendish was determined to beat the odds. His attitude changed and he decided to live life the best way he could. He went on to create inventive ways to get out and enjoy life again. With his Oxford friend teddy hall, he designed a wheelchair with a ventilator so he could get out and see the outdoors and improve his quality of life — not just for him but for thousands of other people living on ventilators.
Andy Serkis makes his directorial debut bringing this story to the screen. I caught up with the star of Breathe, Andrew Garfield, to talk about playing Robin Cavendish.
Robin Cavendish defies expectations and lives long beyond the 3 months doctors gave him. You’ve recently starred in Hacksaw Ridge, Silence and now this — a lot of characters who beat perilous odds. What draws you to a role?
With this one, I read the script and was so deeply moved by it. I recognized in it something of how I wanted to live and how I want to feel in the way that Robin and Diana Cavendish created community. They created beauty out of suffering, they created hope out of loss and they created life out of death, and love out of suffering. They managed to do it with grace and elegance. They managed to do it with love in their hearts. One of the most inspiring things for me about Robin is that after the paralysis hits, he does want to die and he wants to kill himself. He doesn’t see the value of his life anymore and it’s such a remarkable thing for someone who is so full of life previously to go through. What I find so deeply inspiring is, with the help of people around him which is key and vital, he manages to realize that his body is only part of himself and he has value. He has an inner escapable value and by understanding that he wakes up to the fact that every human being has that inner essential value whether they are paralyzed or afflicted or not. He realizes that every single human being deserves to be here, belongs in the world, belongs in life, and deserves to get through life and deserves a standard of living that is full of the miracle and the awareness of being alive. I think that’s the awareness he eventually fought for.
Diana and Jonathan Cavendish, the son and wife of Robin, are very good friends with Andy Serkis. How did access to those people that Robin loved help you understand who he was?
It was everything. Getting to know Diana and being with her was remarkable. Everything you see on screen is exactly who she is. Both Diana and Jonathan felt that Robin and Diana were being honored in a way that was true to who they were. Jonathan didn’t believe himself to be an authority on his parents and he allowed me to create what I wanted to create. My intention was to be as true to who Robin was as possible. I got to know him through Diana, Jonathan, extended family and video footage, other patients who all had stories about how Robin changed their lives. I would lean on these people to embody his amazing spirit.
How do you prepare for a role like this, where you’re immobilized for most of the film?
I considered it as a life challenge, as Robin would have had to. How do I be in the world with this limited access? How do I make my life full and rich while being paralyzed? He wasn’t satisfied with the technology, he had ideas to create new forms which created a higher standard of living and that’s how I attempted to be in the moment. With all his brilliance and imagination came from that simple desire to live, to be connected to other humans, to share with other people, and live that meaningful life.
Your director Andy Serkis is an actor himself. How was that for you?
It was wonderful because he allows you to find your way. If he needed to step in he would. He knows that actors love to feel ownership over what they’re doing. Saying that, he was incredibly motivating. He was the eternal optimist. We only had seven weeks to shoot the film and didn’t have time to do much exploring and he kept that set moving. He is such a kind and good man so everyone was excited to come to work each day.
He’s so brilliant with those images. He and Bob Richardson created such a beautiful language for the film.
Your background is theater, how has that helped you when it comes to film?
That’s my background. It was my first love. My first love as an audience member was film, but as a performer, it was theater. I think it’s a great discipline. You get to practice over and over, and keep things alive while remaining true to the circumstances. I think in the theater you get to go deeper and deeper in creating this imaginary world. I think the imagination helps.
You have amazing chemistry with Claire Foy.
Thanks. I loved working with her. It happens when certain actors get to play together and I felt it with her that something symbiotic was happening in our relating to each other. It was so smart of Andy and Jonathan to cast us together.
What did you take away from playing Robin?
His struggle is all of our struggles. We’re given this certain fate that we have to make sense of and overcome or dance with it and incorporate it in order to create a life of meaning. The ultimate thing for me was we all have something to offer and we all belong here. There’s something very inspiring about Robin and everything he did. That simple thing of wanting to be here and to know life and to be present for this strange experience of living.
Picking up on that first moment when a film lighted a path for your life — what was it?
I didn’t feel it when I saw a movie. It was when I saw my first play that I thought it was something I wanted to do. It was Mnemonic by Teatro Complicite. It’s an avant-garde piece, Simon McBurney’s theater company. The live aspect made the think they were real and there was something so profound about this play and so stirring in my soul, I wanted to give people that experience to be provoked and to be reminded of something eternal.
Breathe is on general release.