From Marine Corps to ‘Star Wars’: ‘Force Awakens’ actor Adam Driver savors success
For a while, Adam Driver felt like he was doomed to a life of missed opportunities.
Of course, for an Emmy-nominated actor named one of GQ’s “Men of the Year,” that’s not true anymore — but ask him about his role in the new “Star Wars” film and it quickly becomes apparent that he does not want to screw this one up.
A misfit growing up in small town Mishawaka, Indiana, Driver was drawn to performing from an early age, landing regular roles in high school plays and singing in the choir at the church where his stepfather was pastor.
But mediocre grades kept him from getting accepted into acting school after graduating in 2001. With big talk to match his big dreams, he set off for Los Angeles to try to break into acting the old-fashioned way. Instead, his car broke down halfway there and, out of money, he was forced to retreat back home.
“It’s hard to come back after telling everyone ‘I’m outta here,’ ” he says.
A new hope
After stints selling vacuums door-to-door and other odd jobs, Driver was among the first to go see a Marine Corps recruiter after the Sept. 11 attacks, signing up for the infantry.
His new hope was to test himself in the toughest environment he could think of.
After boot camp and joining his unit at Camp Pendleton, California, Driver became an 81mm mortar man assigned to the weapons platoon with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. As his unit trained for war, Driver says he got exactly what he was looking for.
“Not too often in the civilian world do you get put into these high-stakes situations with a bunch of friends. You’re seeing people at their strongest and most vulnerable,” he says.
Still, there were missed opportunities. One of Driver’s greatest regrets: missing a chance to meet R. Lee Ermey, the actor who portrayed the iconic drill instructor in the film “Full Metal Jacket,” who — an actual veteran himself — has gone on to a slew of other roles.
While the Marine Corps had tamped down Driver’s acting ambitions, it had not killed them. He was eager to meet another Marine who had made it in the business.
“He came out to where we were training but stayed in the rear. When we got back everyone was very excited, and we were very pissed,” Driver says.
And then came the mountain-biking accident. One bad turn and his sternum was shattered. He fought to stay in, but after less than three years in uniform, Lance Cpl. Driver was forced out with a medical discharge, just as his unit was preparing to deploy downrange.
“I felt like I hadn’t completed my four years. That always kind of bothers me,” he says.
More than anything, he felt like he’d let himself and his buddies down.
The actor strikes back
Driver decided to channel that energy into a renewed bid at acting — forging his own opportunities.
After a year of hard work at the University of Indianapolis, he’d assembled enough of an academic résumé to get accepted into The Juilliard School, the elite special ops of performing arts schools in New York City.
“After I got out, I suddenly realized that I could handle civilian problems. They all seemed pretty small by comparison.”
If worse comes to worst, he remembers telling himself, I’ll live in Central Park and survive eating bread out of Panera’s Dumpster. I’ll survive. What could possibly be more challenging than what I’ve already done? Which now I realize was an illusion because obviously there’s lots of things to readjust to, and civilian life is tricky. But at the time I felt very confident and at the very least, anyway, knew I wasn’t going to die pursuing acting.”
In a lot of ways, demands of Juilliard came easy for him, classmate Joanne Tucker says.
“Juilliard is basically boot camp for actors. You’re there pretty much 24 hours a day. I think his military training prepared him better for his career as an actor than anything else could have,” she says. “He will never show up unprepared. He will never show up late.”
But, she says, it was apparent Driver was struggling in other ways.
A phantom menace
“He was staying in touch with his buddies who were going overseas,” Tucker says. “It was an emotional struggle for him to not have gone with them. There were a lot of complicated feelings around that that he was still working through.”
The acting training, Driver says, became a form of therapy.
“I was getting exposed to characters and playwrights and plays who had nothing to do with the military that were articulating my military experience better than I was able to at the time,” he says.
He was surprised to find himself armed with words.
“For the first time I was able to use my words, as opposed to so many times in the military when I had feelings I couldn’t express. Language was never emphasized … There just wasn’t much emphasis on explaining a collective experience,” he says.
Tucker says it wasn’t long before Driver was pushing to take that gift of words well spoken back to the military.
After three years of wrangling and organizing while still at Juilliard, Driver put together a performance troupe and a proposal for the USO. “It was almost immediately rejected,” he wrote in the Juilliard Journal at the time. “The actors didn’t fit their celebrity model, the language used in the monologues was too explicit, and theater didn’t fit the military demographic. ‘Marines don’t want to see skits,’ I was told; ‘they want to see the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.’ ”
Return of the Marine
Undeterred, Driver put together a Spartan squad of about a dozen actors for a bare-bones, stripped-down mash-up of edgy monologues and jazz for a 2008 performance back on his old turf at Camp Pendleton.
“It was so strange being back there as a civilian, but the response was amazing,” Driver says.
That’s when Arts in the Armed Forces was born. Now a nonprofit, six years later it’s still going strong, with regular performances around the country.
“We still try to make it as approachable as possible to show that theater is something that can happen anywhere, anytime. That it doesn’t have to be this high-brow intellectual thing that’s only for the elite,” says Tucker, who is now the foundation’s creative director and, as it happens, married Driver about a year ago.
The performances are still stripped down, with no costumes, sets or fancy lighting, just powerful words performed by an ever-transforming cast drawn from TV, movies and Broadway.
In December, a group performed for troops in Europe stuck on duty over the holidays. More recently, they performed for injured troops, their families and staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The hope, Tucker says, is “to provide something nourishing, uplifting and thought-provoking. Any arts experience should move you in some way.”
Meanwhile, of course, Driver’s career has taken off faster, some might say, than the Millennium Falcon making the jump into hyperspace.
Driver was nominated for an Emmy for his role HBO’s “Sex in the City”-meets-“Friends” series “Girls,” in which he plays the quirky on-again, off again boyfriend to Lena Dunham’s character.
After the show’s first season, he was named one of GQ’s Men of the Year in 2012.
A growing list of credits includes the role of telegraph operator in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a scene-stealing role in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” and a leading part in the Australian epic “Tracks.”
Driver’s very first big screen role was in 2009, just after he graduated from Juilliard, starring in an action short dubbed “Archangel” in which he fights it out, almost Matrix-style, with a leather-clad, ass-kicking hottie with powers from another dimension.
If you’re wondering what Driver will bring to a big-action space opera such as “Star Wars,” this is a good place to start.
“He was great to work with,” says the film’s director, James Lawler, who discovered Driver after checking in with a few friends at casting agencies who had seen Driver perform at Juilliard.
“He’s a very physical guy. He moved really well. He’s very convincing,” Lawler says. “He was really throwing himself around in that fight scene. He got bruised up pretty badly. He was probably bleeding half the time we were shooting but was a good sport about it all.”
Lawler says he’s not at all surprised to see Driver land a big role in “Star Wars.”
“He can tackle anything, really, because he’s such an intelligent performer. He’s a very smart guy. And that’s where, in my humble opinion, good acting comes from — people who can really wrap their head around a character and tell a convincing story and get inside a role emotionally and physically. He does that really, really well.”
But it’s Driver’s mysterious role in the upcoming “Star Wars” installment that has everyone buzzing.
The Droids you’re looking for
Directed by J.J. Abrams, “Star Wars: Episode VII” will be set 30 years after the Rebel Alliance restored balance to a galaxy far, far away in “Return of the Jedi.” “Jedi” was released in 1983 — as it turns out, the same year Driver was born.
In a photo recently released by Abrams, the cast is circled up for their first read-through in London, where much of the movie will be filmed. Driver is wearing a dark hoodie over a dark crew neck, with dark pants and dark sneakers.
He’s seen sandwiched between British actor John Boyega and scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who also penned the screenplay for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” R2-D2 peeks out from a freshly-opened crate.
“We are so excited to finally share the cast of ‘Star Wars: Episode VII,’ ” says Abrams in a statement accompanying the photo. “It is both thrilling and surreal to watch the beloved original cast and these brilliant new performers come together to bring this world to life, once again. We start shooting in a couple of weeks, and everyone is doing their best to make the fans proud.”
The movie is slated for worldwide release on Dec. 18, 2015.
The characteristically tight-lipped Abrams has said the next chapter will star a trio of new young leads — he hasn’t specified which new young actors those are — who will join much of the original cast that helped engrave the saga into the national psyche. Along with Driver and Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson and Max von Sydow will join original stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Kenny Baker.
And that’s about all Abrams has to say.
It’s been widely reported Driver will play the franchise’s next uber-villain. For a series that made Darth Vader a household name, those are some big black boots to fill.
Other reports, however, pin Driver as the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia.
“Star Wars” creator George Lucas sketched out the next trilogy years ago. Given his penchant for redemption twists, Driver’s role very well could be mixture of both. The son of Han and Leia — a Sith Lord?
Quoting “one of our many Rebel spies,” fan site Jedi News says Driver is “playing the son of Han and Leia, and it seems he will be seduced to the Dark Side, and a main plot point for the movie will be their attempt to rescue him.”
Coffee, villains, using the Force
Ask Driver who his favorite villain is, and he suddenly gets cagey.
“The guy at the coffee shop who screws up my order,” he says after a long pause. “It’s an actual guy.”
Ask him to describe any villain that he’s played to date and he takes even longer.
“That’s hard because I don’t think anyone is really a villain,” he says. “I don’t think of any character as a villain because then you judge them and distance yourself from them.”
While his favorite movie as a kid was “Predator,” Driver says he was huge fan of the “Star Wars” saga.
“Oh yeah, big time.”
But he knows better than to say anything about his upcoming role. This will not become a missed opportunity based on anything he says to the media.
“I just can’t. I’m pretty sure people would rappel from the ceiling, grab me and take me away,” he says with a laugh.
Besides, this Marine appreciates the value of opsec when it comes to good storytelling.
“It’s a very secretive set. And I’m totally all about that. I’m one of those people who closes my eyes during movie trailers because I don’t want to know anything,” Driver says.
In a recent interview with Driver’s “Full Metal Jacket” idol Ermey, OFFduty asked the actor if he had any advice for a fellow Marine poised to play the villain in the new “Star Wars.” He did.
Was Driver interested in hearing Ermey’s advice?
“Sure,” says Driver, with a measured pause. And, as if to clarify that he wasn’t confirming or denying anything, adds, “but who says I’m playing a villain? You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
Still, he was eager to hear anything Ermey had to pass along.
“Be memorable,” was Ermey’s message to Driver. “More than any other character, you want to play the villain so that he’s the first thing people are talking about as they’re leaving the theater.”
“Huh,” says Driver, with another thoughtful pause, “that’s very nice.”
Driver says he’s just glad to be a part of it all.
“It surreal,” he says. “Being there for that table read and the idea of working with these people who I’ve grown up watching, and suddenly, ‘Oh yeah, there’s something I have to say here’ — it was almost too much to process. So it’s not even worth trying to process it. I’m just trying to focus on this little thing and to take it in moments.
“For whoever that character might be,” he says with a staccato laugh — “good or bad.”
Military Times | Jon R. Anderson | June 3, 2014