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Interview: Star Wars’ Adam Driver on his next move

The most arresting actor of his generation is taking a break from the blockbusting franchise in a blue-collar film romp. How does he keep it so real?

When Adam Driver wears a hat to hide his face, people say: “Oh, there’s Adam wearing a hat.” It’s a useless disguise, less effective even than the penguin posing as a chicken in Wallace & Gromit with a rubber glove on its head. But it’s a move the actor has deemed necessary since becoming his generation’s Darth Vader in the recent reboot of Star Wars. The problem is that Driver is a broad-shouldered 6ft 2in — his feet curl in as he walks, as if overwhelmed by the body they need to support. “I can’t hide, and I’ve tried,” he admits. When he takes his hat off, he looks exactly the same.

“I didn’t really understand how many people would watch that movie,” he says of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams’s 2015 reboot, in which Driver played Han and Leia’s errant son, Kylo Ren. He laughs at his naivety, given that the blockbuster — and its upcoming sequel, The Last Jedi — has turned him into a talk-show fixture, this year’s must-have Halloween costume, bounding up rungs of fame to a level he can’t come back from. Has the part changed how he leads hislife? “Completely,” he says quickly. “It changes how I move around, I guess.”

That said, he turns up alone to meet me in Brooklyn — which is rare for any actor in an industry that runs on pampering. For the chief villain in the third-biggest film of all time to do so is refreshingly baffling. What’s more, he isn’t exactly a wallflower. “I know I look different,” he says with a shrug, but his looks, and abrasive rhythmic speech, have turned the 33-year-old into a performer who has viewers quivering when he appears on screen. Julianne Moore has that ability; Marlon Brando, too. Instant brand recognition. Driver’s uniqueness? From his breakthrough in the cult TV show Girls onwards, he has brought a sort of dirty purity to the screen. He is, frankly, the most gripping actor under 40.

His next film is Logan Lucky, by Steven Soderbergh, despite the maverick director very publicly retiring from the role in 2013. That was four years ago — the time it takes to get a movie funded. But it’s great to have Soderbergh’s guile back, and this new blue-collar caper is a blast: Ocean’s Eleven meets Magic Mike, to pilfer from the director’s varied back catalogue.

Driver is Clyde Logan, who, with his brother Jimmy (Channing Tatum), robs a Nascar track. Daniel Craig plays a peroxided bomber, and there is a terrific prison scene in which the inmates lament the slow delivery of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books.

“It wasn’t a hard sell,” Driver says about the role. Because of Soderbergh? “Totally. I had heard the way he works is very economical. It feels like a protest against the way things are done, and I’m, like, ‘What the f*** are we doing on other movies that I work on that seem to waste so much time?’” What are the benefits of this approach? “He finishes so early, you actually have time to be a human outside the movie. I tend to go to film sets and see nothing of the area. I hung with the cast on Logan Lucky. We had dinner. There was just more time.”

On the Star Wars set, Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker, noted that his new colleague was “moody”, and suggested they went to lunch to bond. Sociability, then, on Logan Lucky seems like a new thing. “It’s not that I don’t have friends!” protests Driver, which seems fair — he is excellent company. However, this wild enthusiasm for Soderbergh’s skimpy style, and a career-long fondness for intensity, do rather make the vast stretch of time he has dedicated to a glossy space saga such as Star Wars seem, well, odd.

What was the appeal? “I mean, I was against — and still am to a large extent — Hollywood movies,” he says, tucking into a simple omelette and black coffee. “They are generic, a lot of money. But JJ described it as a family drama, and it was an opportunity to work in something that was big but felt personal to him and myself.”

What was the personal baggage he brought to that film? “I’m not going to tell you that! These are the things I keep for myself.” Yet his input into Star Wars was practical, too. “It is a given that people [in the film] have lightsabers,” he explains, very seriously. “But that’s not helpful for my imagination. You ask, ‘Is there a lightsaber store?’ I have to know. When I watch things, I don’t care if I understand everything, but I like to know actors understand what they’re doing.” Eventually, it was decided Kylo built the lightsaber himself, in homage to his hero grandfather Darth Vader.

It is the sort of detail to be expected from an actor who spent nearly three years in a weapons company in the US Marine Corps — still the most surprising fact about this very surprising man. Driver signed up, shocked by 9/11. It’s a rare shift to then go from military to method, but one he took after a bad injury led to his being discharged. He never made it to Iraq and, as one does, opted to study drama at the prestigious Juilliard School instead. There, students take part in exercises in which they pretend to give birth to themselves.

“I thought, ‘What the f*** am I doing?’” Driver says, gasping. “Not that there aren’t huge elements of acting in the professional world that are ridiculous, but in acting school there’s a vibe that felt more absurd.”

In last year’s Paterson, a delicate Jim Jarmusch film in which Driver plays a bus driver, his character was a former marine. In the planned Tough As They Come, he will be a wounded veteran. Clyde, in Logan Lucky, toured Iraq. Is he sweating out demons on screen?

“Complete coincidence,” he says. “What I like about Logan Lucky and Paterson is it’s something that happened to those people but doesn’t define them. They never talk about it, and that’s how I find veterans. They are people outside the military. Clyde isn’t somebody who walks around doing drills all day.”

What do his old marine pals think of his career? “They get excited if it interests them,” he says. “I didn’t hear from people about Paterson, but they have kids, so if they wear a Kylo Ren mask, they text me a picture. It’s all good.”

When he burst onto the small screen in 2012, as Lena Dunham’s lanky, disturbed love interest in Girls, viewers didn’t get Adam Driver. Many assumed a more traditional hunk would end up in her bed, not one with a lopsidedness that made it seem like he’d just fallen out of a cubist painting. Driver the man seemed out of step too, saying he felt disjointed from his generation. Logically, I suggest, this must mean he has an idea of what said generation is?

“I don’t know,” he replies uneasily. “And it’s obnoxious, because nobody is bigger than their generation.” He clarifies that he meant, specifically, the interest in social media people his age have. “Letting everyone know what I’m doing all the time just never interested me.” He lives a quiet life with his wife, Joanne, and when asked what the most expensive thing he has ever bought is, fumbles for an answer, then gives none.

Back in Indiana, where Driver grew up, he started a fight club by the railway tracks, inspired by David Fincher’s satirical turn-of-the-century classic. “I don’t think anyone went to hospital,” he says, grinning, but the violence was never the most interesting aspect of the film. Rather, it was the philosophy, as Tyler (Brad Pitt) lamented a generation whose “Great War is a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives”.

Fight Club is a defining movie about masculinity. “Yeah, yeah,” Driver nods. Its message, about being real in a plastic world, fits him well. He laughs. He won’t go as far as saying it’s “my mantra”, but admits to rewatching it recently and finding much of interest.

“I don’t think [the world is] different from when that movie came out,” he says. “Especially in that everyone is celebrity-obsessed. I’m not saying anything new, but, God, it’s so tiring.”

We slide back to Star Wars. How can we not? “It’s hard to talk about this movie,” he protests. “[Every] piece turns into being about Star Wars. You become distrustful.” So, anything on The Last Jedi? “I’m in it.” The trailer makes it look miserable. “Does it?” Will Kylo Ren make it to a third film? He laughs, saying nothing of note.

One problem is that Driver doesn’t watch anything he is in. He has never seen an episode of Girls. In Logan Lucky, there is a great scene at a talent show set to a John Denver song. “Oh, good,” he says, when he hears it is beautiful. I could have told him anything. So, with Star Wars, there’s no point asking him questions about, say, Carrie Fisher. He probably doesn’t know she was even in The Force Awakens. Besides, when he says that “80% of your job is not doing it, it’s talking about it — I get frustrated”, it’s time for the bill.

“It’s not that I take [acting] more seriously than everybody else,” he says. But he does. Once, he slept on a roof to prepare to play someone who was isolated. He gushes about seeing Paul Giamatti read Philoctetes. “He was conveying that his leg had been eaten alive. I believed everything!” Driver says.

Then, on Silence, last year’s Martin Scorsese film about persecution, Driver found himself, emaciated, in freezing water, stuck in the director’s passion for reshoots. “You’re cold as you have no body fat,” he says. “But it’s hard to show that people are starving if you’re chunky.” He shakes his head. Scorsese, unlike Soderbergh, would change schedules because some natural event intruded. “He’d be, like, ‘Oh, this bird. I love the sound of this bird. That wasn’t around when I imagined it.’”

As he talks, I realise what it is with him and the effort he puts in. He needs to excel at this job, since injury meant he couldn’t at the other one. He’d scoff at that, but such is the passion with which he talks about films, how Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore found him as a teenager and showed him a different world, that he clearly wants to grab his chance and communicate with people everywhere.

Driver is a thespian then, but not in an airy way. He remains fully aware of the daffiness of his job and uses frequent deadpanning — and disguise — to cope with it. He stands to leave and forgets his hat, before I hold it out to him. “Oh, thanks,” he says, relieved, popping it on. He looks like Adam in a hat.

Cinema’s military men

Morgan Freeman
Freeman’s ability to convey authority effortlessly was no doubt helped by his time in the air force, 1955-59

Harvey Keitel
Served as a Marine in Lebanon in 1958; he almost replayed his military career as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, but was dropped

Chuck Norris
During his posting to South Korea, Norris laid foundations for his martial arts career by studying tang soo do; the rest is violent history

Richard Pryor
The acerbic comedian served in the US army, but spent most of the two years in jail

The Sunday Times | Jonathan Dean | August 13, 2017

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