Adam Driver Takes the Wheel
Typically during filming, Adam Driver explained, cast and crew members receive a sheet of short descriptions of the day’s scenes — snippets like “man argues with woman,” “man runs into road” and the perhaps inevitable “man gets hit by car.”
But on the set of “Paterson,” Jim Jarmusch’s meditation on poetry both on the page and in life, the one-liners were variations on a deceptively simple theme.
“Paterson listens to Laura.”
“Paterson listens to Doc at the bar.”
“Paterson listens to Marvin breathing.”
“It seems like an ironically bold thing to put in a movie,” Mr. Driver said, “to make someone’s main action to be present and listening.”
It might also seem a bold career move for the screen’s reigning hipster philosopher to veer into a role in which he keeps his thoughts mostly to himself.
In “Paterson,” which received a raft of positive reviews on the festival circuit on the way to its commercial release Wednesday, Dec. 28, Mr. Driver is Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, N.J., who composes poetry in his head — and later scrawls it in a notebook — while guiding his coach through the mill town’s congested streets.
It’s a quietly gorgeous tale with two central characters, Paterson and his marvel of a wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Three, if you count Marvin, their English bulldog.
Divided into the days a week, the film undulates to Paterson’s circadian rhythms as he rises at dawn and begins his routine anew. A body stretches. A bus is driven. A dog is walked. A pen scratches the surface of a page.
“I wanted his physical life on autopilot,” said Mr. Driver, 33, who became a licensed bus driver for the role, “which allows him to drift in his art.”
But mostly, as promised, Paterson listens — to the riders on his bus; to the patrons at the bar where each evening he nurses a single beer; and to Laura, the only person who has read his poetry and who pleads with him to reveal his notebook’s contents to the world.
“You have to trust yourself that it’s interesting enough, cinematic enough — trust the power of thought and that you can sustain it,” he said of portraying the nuances of repetition bordering on inertia.
On a dimming December afternoon, Mr. Driver settled his sinewy 6-foot-3-inch frame into a sofa at the Crosby Street Hotel in Manhattan, where moments earlier he had barreled into the room toward a bathroom, unaware of an interviewer in his midst. It was an unintentional oversight for which he would spend the next hour apologizing while trading anecdotes, posing questions of his own and sounding sincerely interested.
Like Paterson, Mr. Driver is a listener.
“I already in my mind would have said yes to anything that he was doing,” he recalled of learning that Mr. Jarmusch was considering him for a role.
Mr. Jarmusch had seen Mr. Driver in a few things — as an absurdist folk singer in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a Brooklyn Lothario in Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” and the sexual weirdo Adam Sackler in HBO’s “Girls,” the show that made him — and was smitten.
“I just loved his face, his voice, his approach to acting, and thought he would be ideal,” Mr. Jarmusch said. “He likes to figure out how the character moves and then just go with that without thinking too much.”
Then there was the not insignificant fact that Mr. Driver was a former Marine from small-town Indiana who attended Juilliard, and Mr. Jarmusch’s film was about a working-class guy who’s an artist.
“And I thought, well that’s an interesting combination,” Mr. Jarmusch said.
Mr. Driver also drew the admiration of Martin Scorsese, who beckoned him to discuss the role of Father Garupe, a 17th-century Jesuit priest on a mission from Portugal to Japan in “Silence,” his passion project, now in theaters.
“I love the way he moves, his sense of himself on camera,” Mr. Scorsese wrote in an email. “For the role of Garupe, we needed someone who could look like they lived in the period — something that just isn’t true of all that many actors. Adam could have stepped out of a Dutch or Flemish or Italian painting. And he also has that remarkable baritone voice. He’s talented, of course, and very, very brave.”
That bravery included starving off 51 of his 206 pounds while enduring arduous shoots in the steamy, rain-pummeled hills of Taiwan, or submitting to repeated submersions in the frigid sea.
“Of course, we all understood that it was very important that they had to actually be thin and hungry,” Mr. Scorsese wrote. “There was no faking it. They worked with a nutritionist, but it was very hard on them.”
Did Mr. Driver, a wayward Baptist whose stepfather is a pastor, find God in any of his suffering?
“No,” he said, laughing. “No — I still didn’t find him.”
With his wife, Joanne Tucker, the Juilliard classmate he married in 2013, Mr. Driver runs Arts in the Armed Forces, a nonprofit organization that brings theater to the military.
The more soul-sucking aspects — fund-raising ranks high — have been made easier by his turn as the masked villain Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” though he cringes (nay, curses) at hauling out the character in exchange for cash.
With “Star Wars: Episode VIII” on the horizon, Mr. Driver has made peace with the franchise that initially caused him agita, not least for his “very strong opinions about Hollywood movies and how they can be a waste of resources and seem totally gratuitous and dumbed down for an audience and sacrifice story for spectacle,” he said.
But those fears were allayed by “The Force Awakens” director J. J. Abrams’s preliminary discussion of story and character, and a piece-by-piece problem-solving approach more common to independent filmmaking.
At once brutal, sweet and sexy, Mr. Driver’s unpredictability was ultimately what bagged the role. “I thought that if you had this guy playing the part, you wouldn’t know moment to moment what was going to happen,” Mr. Abrams said. “And that danger was a prerequisite.”
To find himself at the center of a merchandising behemoth with a “Star Wars” figure in his likeness is surreal, Mr. Driver said, adding a curse for emphasis. “I have no game plan, obviously,” he said. “My goal when I graduated was just to make a living as an actor in, like, downtown theater. To actually be able to afford to buy a house or wear clothes that fit or buy furniture is crazy” — and accompanied by guilt “that you’re living a life that’s disconnected from the rest of the world.”
No one is a harsher critic of Mr. Driver’s abilities than he is, say those who know him.
“He is incredibly modest and profoundly hard on himself,” Mr. Abrams said. “He’s not an actor who loves to watch himself after a take on a monitor. He’s not someone who might ever choose to watch a performance he’s given — which is really too bad, because if he were able to, he’d probably really like what he saw.”
Mr. Driver has been just as reluctant to watch himself in “Girls,” in which he transformed a fleeting love interest for Lena Dunham’s Hannah into one of the show’s most pivotal and complex characters — and in the process redefined the parameters of male allure.
“You can think you just saw a perfect take, and to Adam it’s totally unsatisfactory,” said Ms. Dunham, the creator of the series. “Part of the reason that people love working with him so much is because he will never settle for just good enough.”
Six seasons later (the final installment debuts on Feb. 12), she couldn’t be prouder of his ascent.
“When all of those things come together and somebody becomes a big movie star, that’s a beautiful thing,” she said.
To onlookers, Mr. Driver may be having a moment, but he isn’t buying into his own hype. “I’m basking in nothing,” he said, leveling his famously penetrating gaze. Adding in another curse, he continued: “What a rare job that it inspires people. But all this other stuff is noise.”
The New York Times | Kathryn Shattuck | December 28, 2016