A ‘Star’ turn for Mishawaka graduate Adam Driver
Take the kid out of Mishawaka.
Put him in a hit cable TV series on HBO. An Oscar-winning movie. In Rolling Stone, Interview, Variety and a host of other magazines. And on household tongues across the country as probably the next “Star Wars” arch-villain. Transplant him to Brooklyn, New York City, marry him to an actress, and watch him stroll the red carpet in Hollywood for the Golden Globe Awards.
But take the Mishawaka out of Adam Driver?
“He doesn’t want us watching ‘Girls’,” says
Driver’s stepfather, the Rev. Rodney G. Wright, minister of Immanuel Baptist Church in Mishawaka who raised Driver with his mother, Nancy Needham Wright.
The HBO series in which Driver nails the character of a Bohemian-type weirdo who plods his way through a series of sexual blunders with his equally clumsy girlfriend is too uncomfortable for the folks back home in Indiana. After all, mom raised Driver with certain Midwestern Bible school values in a church where he sang in the choir.
“I don’t agree with everything that he does,”
Rev. Wright says, “but I agree with his work ethic. He’s out there, and he works, and he works. He goes after things, (and) he does anything his agent tells him to do — if he can without (jobs) overlapping. So he’s doing real well.”
So well, the 30-year-old Driver’s bit part in the movie “Lincoln” had both parents beaming, while hot Hollywood buzz over reports that their son is on tap to be the next Darth Vader-like villain in “Star Wars VII” has the Wrights giddy with anticipation.
“It is unbelievable sometimes,” Rev. Wright says, “when we go to the screen, the big screen, and he’s on it.”
It’s a far cry from Mishawaka High School back in the day at the turn of the millenium when Driver was just another Mishawaka school kid trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
Driver, who was unavailable for a phone interview, described himself as a high school “misfit” in a recent interview with Rolling Stone.
Born in San Diego to Nancy Needham and Joe Driver, Adam moved with his mother back to Mishawaka when she split from his biological father.
Growing up in Mishawaka, a town of “cheerleaders and football teams and homecomings and things like that,” Driver told Rolling Stone he got lousy grades, was grounded a lot, and used to spend his time “lurking around railroad tracks and lighting things on fire.”
When the Brad Pitt movie “Fight Club” came out, Driver admitted to being so taken by the film, he started his own fight club.
“They had a big grassy field behind (bleepin’) Celebrations Unlimited,” he told Rolling Stone, “an event space that people rent out to get married or whatever and we would go out there in the middle of the night and beat the (bleep) out of our neighbors.”
Driver’s former teachers recall “a nice kid” who generally blended in with the walls when he wasn’t acting, singing or first introducing his A-list talent to the world on the Mishawaka High School stage.
“He was just one of those kids,” retired Mishawaka biology teacher John L. Manuszak says. “It’s amazing that now he’s into all the Hollywood stuff. You would never have thought he would be into something like that, because he was a kid who would fall behind the cracks. He was not really showy.”
Driver wasted little time joining the thespians and drama groups as a freshman. He spent all four years acting in Mishawaka High School productions of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Into The Woods,” and “Guys and Dolls,” among others.
“They’re not super popular kids,” Manuszak says of the school’s drama students in general, “but it gives them a time to shine, and they can be stars. And that’s what happened to Adam.”
Every Mishawaka High School yearbook from 1998 to 2001 prominently depicts Driver in photos from at least two stage productions each year.
“He fit in,” says Ed Chamberlin, a mass media and speech teacher at Mishawaka who directed Driver in the school’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” “He was in music, choir, things like that. He was a popular guy among his peers.”
Although Driver was among the school’s most talented kids, his talent was not lost on a lot of Mishawaka students at the time, Chamberlin notes.
“Adam was very good at doing things in an entertaining way,” Chamberlin recalls. “He could go beyond the line itself.”
“Comedy is his thing,” Chamberlin says, chuckling over a recent online video of Driver, Justin Timberlake and Oscar Isaac rehearsing the song “Please Mr. Kennedy” for the Coen brothers 2013 film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” in which Driver was cast in a bit part.
“They’re singing the song in a recording studio,” Chamberlin says, “and Adam’s back in the corner interjecting these hilarious funny vocals. To me, that’s the guy I remember.”
But things went nowhere fast after Driver graduated in 2001. In interviews with Rolling Stone and Interview, he told of selling vacuums door-to-door, mowing lawns, working as a telemarketer for a basement water-proofing company, and paying his parents $200 a month to live in a back room of their Mishawaka house.
Driver also found time to audition for Juilliard — but he was rejected. He drove to California, but was so broke by the time he got there, he stayed two days then turned around and headed back to Mishawaka.
Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center changed the country — and Driver’s outlook.
“Yes, he was affected, especially after he didn’t make Juilliard,” Rev. Wright says. “He came to me and wanted to know what to do.”
Wright suggested the United States Marines, prompting Driver to speak to a local recuiter.
He enlisted, and reported to training at Camp Pendleton in California. There, Driver told Rolling Stone, he was surprised to find how well he fit in with the military.
“Suddenly,” Driver said during the interview, “being in the military with these guys who were under these heightened circumstances, isolated from their families, living this very kind of Greek lifestyle, it changed my life in a really big way.”
Driver spent two years and eight months in the Marines, and was deployed to Iraq, before injuring his sternum in a biking accident and receiving an honorable medical discharge. Except this time, Driver headed back to Mishawaka knowing exactly what he wanted to pursue.
“When he got back from the Marines,” Wright says, “He says, ‘I really want to go act.’ And I said, ‘Go audition again at Juilliard.'”
The second time was a charm at Juilliard. Driver moved in with his uncle in Hoboken, N.J., waited tables for money and studied at Juilliard.
“I heard he was trying to make a career of it,” says Chamberlin. “Acting? It’s a tough way to go. It’s a career I wouldn’t recommend for anybody. But he got it.”
Bit parts and commercials began trickling in by 2009. There were movie roles in “J. Edgar,” “Gayby,” “Lincoln” and “Inside Llewyn Davis;” TV parts in “Law & Order;” and Broadway gigs on stage in “Angels in America” and “Man and Boy.”
And keeping with the once a Marine, always a Marine code of Marine loyalty, Driver started his own non-profit organization. Arts in the Armed Forces is a group that continues to stage performances for military personnel.
Driver also found time to marry his girlfriend, actress Joanne Tucker, and settle into a home in the Brooklyn Heights section of New York.
But it wasn’t until he landed the role of Adam Sackler in “Girls” in 2012 that Driver was able to completely remove himself from himself in the eyes of the masses. Driver worked his character so brilliantly, it got to a point where he couldn’t go to a real-life coffee shop in his neighborhood without getting hassled by some fan bitter over his character’s treatment of Hannah, his “Girls” girlfriend played just as brilliantly by Lena Dunham.
Some, including Rolling Stone and Interview magazines, call the hometown kid from Mishawaka one of TV’s most unsuspecting sex symbols since “Seinfeld’s” Kramer.
“Obviously, luck always plays a part in success of this magnitude,” Chamberlin says. “That, and he’s got an amazing agent.”
Then there’s that look — a dark, pensive, dangerous handsomeness that appears bemused by stupidity around him yet disturbed by his own inner confusion. It’s a look they don’t teach at Juilliard.
“What’s different about Adam is that he’s got a natural knack for performing,” Chamberlin says. “He’s very intelligent. The fact is that he’s not your normal, talented, good-looking drama student. He’s different. A lot are stereotypical looking, and they’re a dime a dozen. He’s got a look about him that’s different.”
It’s a dark look that bodes well for Driver’s prospects of landing the role of a lifetime in Disney and Lucasfilm’s next “Star Wars” offering. Meanwhile, Driver is currently filming Warner Bros.’ “Midnight Special,” and he’s gearing up for lead role in Martin Scorcese’s “Silence.”
And, of course, there’s “Girls,” currently airing its third season, and he plays a troubled playboy in Shawn Levy’s film “This Is Where I Leave You,” set to premiere in the fall.
“We’re still waiting for the word,” Wright says of Driver’s pending “Star Wars VII” deal.
The reverend smiles a smile that still can’t believe the kid he and Nancy Wright raised in Mishawaka is diving head-on into his new real-life role as the next big thing. — the It guy.
“I’m honored, joyful,” Rev. Wright says. “Of course nobody agrees on everything, but I applaud him for his work ethic.
“And this,” the reverend says, “is always what he wanted to do.”
South Bend Tribune | Jeff Harrell | March 16, 2014