adam driver, the unlikely heartthrob of HBO
Adam Driver made his name as the goofy looking star of Girls, leapt from TV to the silver screen in Noah Baumbach’s indie flick, Frances Ha and now is back playing HBO’s unlikely hearthrob in the third series of Girls. Weird just got a whole lot hotter.
Adam Driver’s character in Girls muscled his way into the limelight as one of the worst on-screen boyfriends since JD in Heathers. Despite this, the 29-year-old Californian born, Indiana raised actor became an overnight sensation (and an unlikely heartthrob), captivating a global audience to an extent he still can’t fathom. Hollywood was watching too, and hot on the heels of Girls, Driver has been inundated with roles to play other complex, sexy weirdos for the likes of Steven Spielberg (he starred alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln), the Coen Brothers (he’s set to appear alongside Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis) and June’s highly anticipated indie flick, Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach. Despite his stratospheric rise to success, Adam’s transition into acting hasn’t been a smooth one. Angered by the events of 9/11, Driver joined the United States Marine Corps in his late teens, serving for two and a half years before a serious mountain bike accident prevented him from being deployed to the Middle East. On leaving the marines, he attended the University of Indianapolis, transferring to Juilliard to study drama. Cutting his teeth on Broadway – working as a bus boy and waiter to pay the rent – Adam initially turned down the role of Girls. A decision he can’t quite believe today! Luckily for us, Lena Dunham’s talent and persuasive powers changed his mind. i-D caught up with Adam while at work at Arts in the Armed Forces – the non-profit organisation he runs in New York staging performances for military personnel – to chat filming the third season of Girls, Lena, moles being shaved off, failed road trips and the power of good writing.
Word is that you haven’t watched Girls once since you started filming…
Yeah [Laughs]… I watched the pilot six months before it aired, and I learned my lesson from that. I just don’t think I can watch it. Maybe some day in the future I’ll have, like, a marathon session where I watch it all back-to-back but not until it’s long over and done with. It’s not healthy to start analysing things.
You turned the character of Adam down at first, didn’t you?
Yep. I was doing a play at the time when my agent came to me with the role, but TV wasn’t where I wanted to be. Looking back, I think, ‘Who are you to say that?!’ but I was in the middle of the theatre and thought TV was evil [Laughs]. I hadn’t even read a word of the script, but because it was HBO and my agent loved the writing so much I eventually went in and met Lena. Then I started to get really excited. I’ve kind of trained myself to hate everyone at an audition because that way, if it doesn’t work out, I can always be like, ‘Well, I didn’t like those assholes anyway.’ But it was pretty hard to hate Lena, and pretty hard not to get excited.
Lena’s reach and appeal is enormous now. In that first meeting, did you get a sense of the power that she and the show would wield?
Well, yes, because she had such a specific voice and such a specific story to tell, but also her articulacy with which to do that, is very powerful. Her relentless pursuit to be as unique as possible – something that, actually, is very rare – was pretty evident in my first audition. But as we started working on the show, even though she’d been working on the material for three years, she wasn’t precious about it at all. She’s also just… well; she’s a really nice, funny, clever person. That’s always helpful.
Even if you haven’t watched Girls yourself, your awareness of how much it’s percolated into people’s lives and experiences must be pretty strong by now?
It’s interesting. I’m not really aware of how much of an imprint it’s had on popular culture, but a friend was telling me that people are using the show as examples to articulate certain experiences. Being part of something – anything – that stirs up a conversation has to be exciting. It’s all anyone wants, right? The attitude I have, though, is not to think about the bigger ramifications of what we’re doing. We’re telling a specific story and the bigger picture that grows from it is a happy by-product. It’s all so new to me, you know? Certainly coming from a theatre background, it can be frustrating feeling like you are doing something for the same audience each time.
And a much older audience at that.
Exactly. A theatre audience is very specific; they’re typically older, can afford to pay $120 to see a play and it can feel a lot like recycled air. With Girls it’s been crazy to think about how many people are watching it, and what kinds of people. I went to Qatar with my friend’s project, Outside The Wire, where he’s trying to generate conversations about PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], and we found ourselves talking to young female Qatari students in burkas about Girls and what it meant to them. It was surreal.
You were in the Marine Corps for a while and had to leave because of a nasty accident. Can you tell us about that?
Yeah, a few months before I was supposed to deploy to the Middle East, I had a mountain bike accident. I went into a ditch and the handlebars went into my chest and broke my sternum. I kept training through it though, trying to prove it was healed, so I could deploy. But I ended up injuring it worse and had to be medically separated. I got out and was very angry that I couldn’t do what I had trained to do with that specific group of guys, people I was prepared to die for.
Is that what made the collective, work-together-to-accomplish-a-specific-task nature of acting something that appealed to you?
At the time I couldn’t have put it in such a way, but yeah. I guess I was seeking something that felt like I would be accomplishing a certain mission. It was difficult, though. I left with a false sense of confidence after dealing with weapons and all these intense things, and to go back to civilian, cushy life gave me a lot of guilt. Things like taxes and bills? None of those things seemed big to me. I attacked every problem really aggressively. Although that kind of worked for me when I applied for Julliard [the prestigious New York drama school]. It was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to audition for the hardest place to get into and I’m going to get in.’ Luckily, I did.
Did acting ever feel like a viable career for you growing up?
No! [Laughs] I was raised in a small city called Mishawaka in Indiana. There weren’t a lot of options for actors. I was interested in acting at school, definitely, but it didn’t seem like a great career option, more a lofty idea. To say it didn’t enter my mind is a lie, though. When I was 17 I graduated high school early and thought, ‘I’m going to move to California and become an actor,’ like all those success stories in the movies. So I loaded up my 1990 Lincoln Town Car with, like, $200 – again, like in the movies – and started to drive across the country. My car broke down on the way and I had to walk five miles into Amarillo, Texas, to get parts to fix the car. I spent nearly all the money. I wound up spending 48 hours in Santa Monica, not even real LA, and thought, ‘This isn’t working out’ so I drove all the way back to Indiana. It was an amazing road trip, but a total failure.
But then you get there and have all your identity stripped away.
Right, and it becomes very clear what you’re gonna do once you have your freedom back. You’re sat on the side of a mountain, having not slept or showered for days, fantasising about all the college students who are sitting in their nice beds, getting laid, waking up when they want…
I saw a clip of you on Jimmy Kimmel where you said one of your first experiences of marine life was watching a guy have a mole shaved off his head…
God, yeah… That was the first day I got there! My introduction to the Marine Corps was literally watching a guy having his mole shaved off with clippers right in front of me. Blood everywhere. Then I had my head shaved and realised just how humungous my ears were! There’s really nowhere to hide with a baldhead. Luckily, I could tuck my ears under my helmet.
Going back to Girls and how people have responded to Adam specifically, have people stopped talking to you about sex yet?
[Explodes laughing]. After the first season a lot of people wanted to talk about sex, sure. Sex and piss. I had a lot of conversations about piss. But that’s not the first thing people refer to anymore.
The sex in Girls is so personal, so part of the tapestry of the characters and not at all arbitrary. Are there lots of conversations that happen on-set about those scenes, because I can’t imagine it’s a case of ‘go at it and see what happens’ with Lena.
Yeah, there was always a big conversation about the story being told in those scenes, which are just as important as the scenes when we’re talking to one another. When sex is arbitrary in things it really drives me crazy, and hopefully people have responded to how personal those scenes feel. Hopefully we’ve done our jobs in telling the story. God, I feel like I’m trying to be, like, the Yoda of acting here.
OK, Yoda. Going back to what you said about once believing that TV was evil, has being part of Girls changed your mind?
My opinion on TV has changed, yes. It’s similar to theatre in that you get to live in a character’s skin for so long, but now I have to keep using things from everyday life, stealing little things, to keep trying to make Adam interesting and specific. But there is some fantastic writing in television, and if I could define myself in any way now it would be that I want to follow good writing. Girls has opened so many doors for me, it’s been overwhelming. To go from audience member to participant is amazing and I don’t want to screw it up.
You’re clearly someone that enjoys words, and how powerful they can be. Have you always been a bookish person?
Not at all. I’m discovering the power of language later on in life and it makes me that much more passionate because I wish it had always been part of my life. I’m envious of people who read a lot when they were younger. I never read. It wasn’t until I got out of the Marine Corps and read Hunter S Thompson that I found my gateway. I couldn’t find the right writers to get me excited about words. Then I started reading Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter and Tony Kushner and got it. Language connected with me and I could finally put words to my feelings. [Laughs again] I must sound so pretentious, sorry.
Not at all. What are you doing with the rest of your day?
Uh, well, the dishwasher needs fixing so I’ll probably take that apart at some point.
i-D Magazine | Eleanor Morgan | January 17, 2014