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“A fat guy sat on my back while I was doing splits, and I was looking for my mother in the group of mothers on the sidelines…I remember sitting there, watching all of these kids do cartwheels—it just looked terrible to me. I envisioned myself getting sick, and worried about what the other kids would think, and what it would be like to not have friends for the rest of my childhood. All of those thoughts were running through my head as I searched for my mother and couldn’t find her.”

The story of Garfield’s start in gymnastics sounded more like a recurring nightmare than what it was: just another day in the life of a nervous, emotional kid, who later turned those emotions into a brilliant and original acting career. For someone who’s described himself as overly sensitive and weary of fame, acting seems an odd, if not masochistic choice of profession. Or exactly the right one. Garfield’s early troubles containing his feelings became a trademark openness and vulnerability that had him landing the kind of roles that few actors are offered so early in their careers.

Garfield made his American film debut just three years after graduating University of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Not in the horror flick or teen romance that typically make up the first rung of a young actor’s career ladder, but in Lions for Lambs, with Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. Well, you have to start somewhere. Garfield didn’t expect to be noticed in such company, but critics spotted a young actor they knew they’d need to keep their eyes on. And they did, even when he returned to England to make the haunting Boy A, playing a notorious killer trying to find new life after prison. It aired on BBC’s Channel 4 but was widely and glowingly reviewed across the pond. The Houston Chronicle wrote, “Whether we care depends on the actor in question, who’s forced to generate viewer sympathy while the screenplay parcels out flashbacks to his ugly criminal backstory…In Boy A, we do, and we have one man to thank for it: Andrew Garfield…His story might close with a string of ambiguities but there’s no doubt about the intelligence and sensitivity of his portrayal. It makes us feel sympathy for the devil.”

Back in the U.S., director David Fincher was starting work on The Social Network and asked him in to discuss the role of Mark Zuckerberg. The story goes he didn’t like Garfield for the part. He found Garfield’s “incredible emotional access to his kind of core humanity” better suited to Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. If Fincher was looking for a guy who could portray the quieter half of the team whose drama was largely internal—without being wiped off the screen by Jesse Eisenberg’s peripatetic Zuckerberg—he’d found his man. Among the incoming barrage of praise and award nominations was Rolling Stone’s review: “Garfield delivered a vulnerability that raises the emotional stakes in a movie. “Keep your eyes on Garfield—he’s shatteringly good, the soul of a film that might otherwise be without one.”

With a start like that, it isn’t easy to raise the stakes. Fortunately, along came a Spider. The significance of taking on 2012’s The Amazing Spiderman went beyond the weight of helming a $750 million juggernaut. Garfield’s mom once dressed him as Spidey for a Halloween party, explaining to the four-year-old that Peter Parker was kind of a scrawny kid who stood up to bullies anyway. Garfield, who’s always felt for the oppressed and those with limited rights, saw a kindred spirit in the web-slinger. His combination of innocence, anger and droll humor breathed new life into the franchise, and audiences related. Few actors can make us see ourselves in a rubber-suited superhero. The same year, he earned raves for his Broadway debut in Death of a Salesman opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman.

With adjectives like sensitive, vulnerable and intelligent continuing to flutter around him like a sweet but persistent swarm of butterflies, you have to wonder if Garfield ever longs for a part where he can just blow stuff up. If so, it’s not looking good. As the lead in Mel Gibson’s WWII drama Hacksaw Ridge, he plays Pfc. Desmond Doss, an army medic who refuses to handle any weapon out of religious principle. In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, he plays a Portuguese Jesuit priest, ministering to Christians in 17th-century Japan. And next year, he returns to the stage as Prior Walter in Angels in America at London’s National Theatre.

For all that, Garfield has said, “I don’t deem myself successful. I put most of my happiness down to luck, and I’m enjoying it as much as I can, and being as generous as I can with it as well.” After a run like his, we’d argue there’s more than luck at play. But maybe it’s just a karmic extension of who he is. Speaking out once on marriage equality, he demanded to know, “How can anyone argue against compassion and understanding?” How, indeed.