Adam Driver lets Star Wars secrets slip
From the Marines to the Emmys to the most powerful cultural force in the galaxy, for Adam Driver, finding his path has been a long, hard battle. Now, for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, in a role he never imagined could be so complex, the face of millennial angst faces his toughest fight yet. Spoiler alert!
His face shrouded beneath a hood, Adam Driver strides toward me. Shoulders hunched, fists jammed into jean pockets, he lets out a low whisper, “Hi. I’m Adam.”
The mixed messages – simultaneously worrying he’ll be recognised and that he won’t – hang in the air awkwardly as Driver surveys our spot, a near-empty New York City café. Neither fear is well-founded; there is no flock of fans to notice him and yet there is no mistaking the actor, his grey hoodie notwithstanding.
“I try to disguise things, but it just doesn’t really work for me,” Driver says, shedding the sweatshirt. “I honestly just look the way I look and it’s difficult to blend in because I’m tall and I look strange. I shouldn’t put a judgment on it.”
Others have judged his appearance more favourably. Driver has been dubbed a “cure for the cookie-cutter leading man” and “a millennial sex symbol”. Which may or may not be a compliment. Although few phrases are as loaded as “unconventionally attractive”, it’s as if those two words were combined expressly to describe Driver. Exaggerated ears; hooded, slanted eyes; long nose with a boxer’s bridge; broad mouth and lips – his disparate features coalesce into a surprisingly appealing whole.
“I guess I never think about it like ‘I am a leading man’ or ‘I am a sex symbol.’ It’s strange to hear that stuff. I don’t think I could have imagined it,” says Driver. Yet, there was his visage on Gap billboard ads; in American Vogue with a black-horned ram slung across his shoulders; in a close-up at the Emmy Awards, where he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor three years in a row for his part in HBO’s Girls; and cast eternally in plastic as a Kylo Ren action figure for Star Wars: The Force Awakens – masked and unmasked versions available. (“Not bad,” he says of the likeness, “but my head and face are a lot bigger.”) Passers-by who once stopped him to ask, “How could you do that to Hannah?” in reference to the bad-boy behaviour of Driver’s character in Lena Dunham’s runaway-success television series, now ask, “How could you do that to Han Solo?”
“It’s a lot,” Driver says, “every part of my life. If we rewound to ten years ago, I would not have said that this is what my life would be.
“And now this music,”he waves his hands at the piano composition streaming through the café like pretentious Musack,”is making that sound so emotional. It isn’t helping, you know?”
Far from angry, the brooding face of millennial angst is smirking. At 33, Adam Driver’s signature intensity hasn’t wavered, but interest in being a tortured artist has. He’s aware of his tendencies – toward anxiety, analysis and absolutism – and is taking steps to temper them. Still, it’s a struggle, seeing good fortune as anything but a cause for self-flagellation.
If we did rewind ten years, we’d see why. Driver was a Gordian knot of clenched intensity. Enrolled at New York’s Juilliard performing arts school, he was so aggressive that his comments made fellow students cry. Every morning he would have six eggs for breakfast, then run five miles to the school from his home in Queens. He would eat a whole chicken for lunch and, during his day at the prestigious drama school, perform random feats, such as 1,000 push-ups.
“That must’ve been an obnoxious thing to be around,” he says, shaking his head. “I was trying to make it as extreme for myself as possible. Now it just makes me so tired and annoyed.”
I’ve met Driver in a peaceful, leafy corner of the Brooklyn Heights neighbourhood that he and his wife, Joanne Tucker, call home. It’s a square precinct full of baby strollers that belies the borough’s hipster cred. “I like sleepy, quiet places,” Driver explains, “because my job is very loud.” Right now he’s savouring a respite from work, the first in a five-year sprint to stardom and even letting himself idle a little. Driver, who has made a career of ill-at-ease eccentricity, is starting to feel comfortable in his own skin.
He genuinely enjoyed himself on the set of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which will be released in cinemas this December. “The first one was all ‘You can’t fuck it up,’ you know? There was a lot more hanging out this time,” Driver says. “Then there are just practical things, like I have a lightsaber. That’s fun.”
Whatever the outcome of the larger battle between good and evil, the Resistance and the First Order, never underestimate the power of Driver’s light side. “I had heard about Adam’s intensity before I worked with him, but he’s also really fun and funny,” says Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi’s director.
There was one emotionally charged scene that they shot over and over. “Every time the guy holding the clapper marked each take, Adam just starts trying to steal his shoe,” Johnson recalls. “It was hilarious. And then Adam goes straight into it with all the intensity of Kylo Ren. He just added a sense of play that made the process really click.”
Neither Johnson nor Driver can say what the scene was about or who else was in it. They are acutely aware of the cone of silence that surrounds the Star Wars films, suitably enough, like a force field. “There’s probably something in my contract, I don’t know – but it’s kind of unbelievable that no one has told me, ‘Don’t say anything,'” Driver explains. “It’s just implicitly understood.”
With plot points guarded like state secrets, even the tiniest perceived leak sets off an online feeding frenzy. Internet scribes grab at every quote, often misreading them. “You have to clarify truthful things you’ve said that people read these false things into,” Driver says. “It can be frustrating.”
After several years of sidestepping spoilers, Driver is practised at the art of obfuscation. His evasive manoeuvres are near perfect.
On whether he enjoyed acting opposite Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey: “That’s hard to answer. I mean, people assume that we’d spend time with each other. Maybe our characters see each other in the movie?”
On whether he had scenes with Carrie Fisher: “It’s hard to answer without being vague.”
On whether the lightsaber scar on his face, which came courtesy of Rey in The Force Awakens, was moved for the new film: “I noticed a lot of things.”
On whether Kylo Ren’s story has a happy ending: “Not saying yes or no. But continue.”
On whether Han Solo might have known Kylo Ren would kill him: “That’s interesting.”
On whether he appears with his mask off: “Yes, I can answer that. You’ll see it off in the new trailer, so I’m not giving anything away!”
Other times, Driver playfully embraces the absurdity of it all. “I can’t say anything, but what if I signal you,” he jokes. “If I just start sneezing uncontrollably…” He fakes a loud achoo and exclaims, “Bingo! Harrison Ford’s ghost returns!”
When I ask him about Kylo Ren’s mysterious order of Dark Side disciples, the Knights Of Ren, he waxes whimsical. “We can talk about them. Peter, Paul, John… No, I was thinking of The Beatles. Except wait – there’s Peter. He was too ambitious on the tambourine. Now you know: the last Knight Of Ren is Ringo Starr!”
On this particular mid-September day, the internet is abuzz with new speculation that Ridley’s character, Rey, is the daughter of Princess Leia (also Kylo Ren’s mother). This theory would take any romantic tension between her and Driver’s Kylo Ren into the realm of incest – territory that the first Star Wars trilogy explored with a kiss between Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker and Carrie Fisher’s Leia.
“Yeah, my uncle and my mum made out,” Driver says, with a laugh. “Which Mark still talks about. He’s like, ‘Luke kissed his sister. How could he do that?’ I guess he hasn’t seen Game Of Thrones, you know?”
The Last Jedi marks the final film in Fisher’s storied career. Like the rest of the cast, Driver was shaken by the actress’ death last December at age 60. “It’s hard to talk about it without saying generic things,” he says. “Like, ‘It’s shocking,’ but it was. Or ‘It’s incredibly sad,’ which it is. I mean, it is all of those things.”
Driver brightens as he recalls Fisher’s wit on display at Comic-Con before the release of The Force Awakens. “The whole cast was downstairs in a conference room, talking through what’s supposed to happen at this big event. She was like, ‘Just pretend you’re down to earth. People love that shit.'” Driver pauses for a moment then laughs. “So now I pretend I’m down to earth and you know what? People really do love that shit. They eat it up.”
The image of Driver that people have consumed is not so much down to earth as intense and uncompromising, the all-or-nothing avatar of millennial manhood named Adam Sackler, Driver’s character in Girls. Ever since Driver landed the part, originally a cameo called simply “Handsome Carpenter”, the notion he really was that id-driven artist has, like the life of another charismatic carpenter, been taken as gospel.
In the public consciousness, Driver’s backstory is as extreme as his alter ego’s: a Midwestern misfit enlists in the Marines after 9/11, then studies acting at Juilliard – and finds he’s an outlier in both worlds. The truth is both less and more dramatic.
Born in San Diego, California, Driver is the son of a preacher. When his parents divorced, Driver moved with his mother back to her native Mishawaka, Indiana, where she was soon remarried to a Baptist minister. As a teenager, Driver was a poor student who dabbled in pyromania, trainspotting and climbing radio towers. A fan of the film Fight Club, Driver started one with some friends. “Just seeing the angst, I thought it would be a good idea to emulate it.”
Acting offered Driver a way out of the tiny town he called a shithole. “I applied to Juilliard when I was graduating high school and didn’t get in, so I was like ‘Well, fuck it. I won’t go to college, then.'”
Instead, he set off for Hollywood and what he thought would be overnight stardom. “I’d always heard the stories of people striking out and finding success,” he says. “Why not me?” The dream lasted as long as his hand-me-down 1990 Lincoln Town Car did. After it broke down outside Amarillo, Texas, the repairs cost Driver nearly all the money he’d saved. When he finally limped into Los Angeles, Driver spent two nights in youth hostels. The only agent he signed with was a real estate agency, which took him for the rest of his savings. Having landed neither an apartment nor an acting gig, Driver arrived back in Indiana a week after leaving.
Following the 11 September attacks, Driver did not, as some retellings suggest, march down to the recruiting station. Instead, he enlisted in the Marines several months later. “My stepfather pushed me into it a little bit, which was good – I was grateful for it,” Driver says. “It followed an argument where he was like, ‘You’re not doing anything!’ I’d gotten this brochure in the mail. He was like, ‘Why don’t you just join?’ I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to join the Marines.’ Then I thought about it more. I had this sense of patriotism and wanted to get involved. I also had no prospects. I was living in the back of my parents’ house, working as a telemarketer.”
From the start, Driver’s time in uniform had a profound effect on him and his worldview. “The patriotism, the idea of country, doesn’t go away necessarily, it just turns into something else,” he says, reverently. “Not a big, sweeping idea, but this group of people you’re serving with, and that becomes your world, and it becomes sacred.”
Going into the Marines, Driver had a seemingly straightforward goal: “I’m going to be a man.” But rather than reinforce clichéd concepts of masculinity, military service put the lie to them. “You have to put implicit trust in the people to your left and right, and when they demonstrate that they’re looking out for you, that their own safety is secondary to yours, then all that kind of guy shit goes away and there is no ego,” Driver says. “There is no posturing, no need to say how much of a man you are, whatever that even means. You prove it with your actions.”
When Driver was not allowed to deploy to the Middle East with his unit, after suffering a broken sternum in a mountain biking accident, he was despondent. Although he fought to stay on active duty, Driver ultimately received a medical discharge.
He decided to apply to Juilliard again and this time got in. The transition from the Marine Corps to a New York City drama programme was jarring. During Driver’s second year, in an effort to bridge his past and present vocations, he launched a nonprofit called Arts In The Armed Forces with his then-girlfriend, now wife, Tucker. Driver was able to carry a discipline and teamwork into his studies, but it didn’t stop him from feeling he’d gone soft. “I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m wearing pyjamas doing acting exercises where I’m giving birth to myself or being a plant or moving around in jelly,'” he says. “Then again, even now, I’m like, ‘What am I doing?'”
After a brief fallow period after graduating from Juilliard, Driver says he learned to hate everyone in the audition room. He didn’t like TV and almost skipped his audition for Girls entirely. Instead, he dazzled the show’s creator, Lena Dunham, and the one-episode part Driver had read for was expanded into a central one.
In audition after audition, Driver made a similar impression on a series of noted directors. Even before Girls aired, Steven Spielberg cast him in Lincoln, in which he played a telegraph operator opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. “He was very nice to me,” Driver says of the legendary method actor. “He would still talk in character, but very nice.”
In particular, Driver’s unusual, instinctive style made him a favourite of indie filmmakers. He landed meaty roles in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and a series of films by writer-director Noah Baumbach: Frances Ha, While We’re Young and The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected). He played the lead in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson and shared top billing in Steven Soderbergh’s heist comedy Logan Lucky. When Martin Scorsese was finally able to make his passion project, Silence, after two decades, he sought out Driver. Similarly, Driver recently wrapped shooting on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which Terry Gilliam had been trying to make for 17 years.
And yet nothing Driver had done remotely prepared him for Star Wars. He had grown up a fan of the original trilogy, but had little faith in outsized film franchises. “I’m leery of big movies – a lot of them sacrifice character for spectacle,” he says. “When they’re bad, it pisses me off – you can just tell it’s made by a bunch of executives somewhere.”
Despite his initial trepidation, the complicated nature of Kylo Ren put Driver’s concerns to rest. “It was all about story and character and playing someone who doesn’t have it all together. Making him as human as possible seemed dangerous and exciting to me.”
Driver was drawn to an idea that JJ Abrams, who wrote and directed The Force Awakens, had. The man behind the mask was not a man at all, but rather a young person struggling to come of age. “I remember the initial conversations about having things ‘skinned’,” Driver recalls, “peeling away layers to evolve into other people, and the person Kylo’s pretending to be on the outside is not who he is. He’s a vulnerable kid who doesn’t know where to put his energy, but when he puts his mask on, suddenly, he’s playing a role. JJ had that idea initially and I think Rian took it to the next level.”
Driver is on a roll now, discussing what excites him: character and narrative and cinematic influences. The original Star Wars was an homage to Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress, he says, and the link lives on in the new trilogy, in which concealed identities drive the narrative. Then he lets it slip.
“You have, also, the hidden identity of this princess who’s hiding who she really is so she can survive and Kylo Ren and her hiding behind these artifices,” Driver says, apparently dropping a massive revelation about Rey’s royal origins.
Perhaps he’s unconcerned and Rey’s parentage is less dramatic than imagined by fans, who posited that her father is Luke then trumpeted that her mother is Leia. Or it could be that, in passionately holding forth, Driver is simply unaware he’s revealed anything, much less a major spoiler. In any case, he doesn’t skip a beat. “The things that made it personal to me,” Driver continues, “I’ll keep to myself, but I think everybody can relate to the idea of almost being betrayed.
“Wow, this music is killing me.”
As the café’s latest piano piece reaches its crescendo, I ask Driver if he tapped into his own experiences with his dad and stepfather and he reverts to evasive manoeuvres.
“I may leave that one. I have strong convictions about not talking about family, for many reasons,” Driver says. “It’s not as if the answers for Kylo are found in my relationships with my parents.”
In The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson saw Driver go light years beyond his own experience. “Adam was always pushing the context of the character,” Johnson says. “He’s put in this unhealthy environment and goes through the worst of youth, the selfishness and volatility, he’s representing that side of adolescence.”
Of course, these days immaturity and insecurity are no strangers to power. “It makes complete sense how juvenile he can be,” Driver says of Ren, who prefers lightsabers over Twitter for his tantrums. “You can see that with our leadership and politics. You have world leaders who you imagine – or hope or pray – are living by kind of a higher code of ethics. But it really all comes down to them feeling wronged or unloved or wanting validation.”
Even more topical and even more touchy was the decision to play Kylo Ren like a radicalised extremist. “We talked about terrorism a lot,” Driver says of his early conversations with Abrams and Johnson about his character. “You have young and deeply committed people with one-sided education who think in absolutes. That is more dangerous than being evil. Kylo thinks what he is doing is entirely right, and that, in my mind, is the scariest part.”
The demagoguery drives him to the most famous film patricide in galactic history, as Kylo Ren kills Han Solo in the shocking denouement of The Force Awakens. “When I watched the premiere, I felt sick to my stomach,” Driver recalls. “The people behind me, when the scroll started, were like ‘Oh my god. Oh my god. It’s happening.’ Immediately, I thought I was going to puke. I was holding my wife’s hand, and she’s like, ‘You’re really cold. Are you OK?’ Because I just knew what was coming – I kill Harrison – and I didn’t know how this audience of 2,000 people was going to respond to it, you know?”
One person in the crowd who appreciated that scene was Han Solo himself. “We were sitting on this catwalk in between takes,” Driver recalls, “and Harrison was like, ‘Look what we get to do. Just look what we get to do.’ Meaning, look at how lucky we are that this is our job, you know? To see someone at that point in his career still get excited like that hit me. It’s like, ‘Oh, right. I need to take this in more.'”
As if on cue, a couple stop and introduce themselves. “I love everything you’ve ever done,” the wife says. “Everything.”
“Thanks a million. Yeah. Hi, I’m Adam.”
As fan encounters go, it is respectful and pleasant, but not even a whimper of what will soon follow come the release of The Last Jedi.
For all the ways in which he’s made peace with his success, Driver, who is almost pathologically private by nature, remains uncomfortable with notoriety. “I’m not in the world the same way I was before,” Driver says. “It’s completely changed my life. My anonymity is gone. But who I am as a person is the exact same. I think. Or, I hope.”
Soon after, we exit the café, as Driver is heading home for some quiet time. He stops in front of a bicycle locked to a fence. “It only looks bourgeois-hipster because of the saddle,” Driver says, adding that he’s only just added the leather Brooks seat. “I bought the bike for $200 back when I was at Juilliard,” Driver says. “Besides the seat, it’s the same crappy bike I’ve had for forever.”
Driver pulls his hoodie up over his head and as he starts pedalling off turns back to me. “Remember,” he says. “Pretend you’re down to earth. People love that shit. Right?”
The Last Jedi is out on 14 December.
British GQ | Alex Bhattacharji | December 12, 2017