No Combat Duty but Plenty of Curtain Calls
The moment that persuaded Adam Driver to pursue an acting career didn’t come when he was cast as the Leading Player in a college production of “Pippin,” or even when he was accepted to Juilliard. It happened one thankfully windy afternoon as a cloud of deadly white phosphorus — a high-powered chemical that can burn through cars — inched its way toward him and a group of fellow Marines during a mishap in a California training exercise.
“They fired on us as opposed to the target,” said Mr. Driver, who joined the military at 18, a few months after 9/11. “That was the first time in training anything life or death had ever happened. We all ran. If it wasn’t windy that day we would have been dead.”
He laughed before continuing: “I made up my mind then that I wanted to smoke cigarettes and pursue acting. When you get out of the Marine Corps you think you can do anything.” He stuck to his plan (minus the cigarettes).
Lately Mr. Driver’s brushes with death have come from literary sources. He’s been reading Paul Monette’s “Becoming a Man,” David B. Feinberg’s “Queer and Loathing” and other works that comforted and became a source of political action for a generation of gay men who came of age at the height of the AIDS crisis. Death and the ’80s have been on Mr. Driver’s mind in preparation for what he calls the “freight train” role of Louis Ironson, the guilt-stricken gay nebbish, in the Signature Theater’s revival of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning “Angels in America.” He joined the cast on Feb. 1, replacing Zachary Quinto.
Though he is straight and was 9 years old when the original production of “Angels in America” opened on Broadway, “the first thing I connected with in the play was the guilt,” Mr. Driver said.
In his case it was survivor’s guilt. When an injury forced him to leave the Marine Corps in 2004, after about two years of enlistment, he went to the University of Indianapolis for a year, then applied and was accepted to the Juilliard School’s drama division. At the same time, many of his friends in the military were deployed to the Middle East. Mr. Driver regrets never having gone overseas.
“I felt like all the people that I had really grown to love over the past few years were now in harm’s way, and I’m in this cushy art school talking about feelings,” he said. “That’s fine, but you can’t help but feel guilty.”
Since he graduated from Juilliard in 2009 Mr. Driver has quickly become a mainstay on the New York stage, appearing Off Broadway at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (“Slipping”), Playwrights Horizons (“The Retributionists”) and Classic Stage Company (“The Forest”). Last year he made his Broadway debut opposite Cherry Jones in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”
Beyond the stage he’s been cast in Clint Eastwood’s coming J. Edgar Hoover biopic and in the new HBO series “Girls,” created by and starring the director Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”). When Mr. Driver auditioned for the role of a sexually manipulative cad on “Girls,” his mix of actorly sensitivity and brawn — he stands 6-foot-3 — immediately appealed to Ms. Dunham.
“He has something of an old-school strong dude’s body,” said Ms. Dunham, whose show begins filming in New York in the spring. “He doesn’t look like a wimp, which in this day and age is who most 27-year-old guys are palling around with: men wearing very small pants.”
Traits that can make a Marine, like dedication, strength and the willingness to take direction, are also of worth to actors. For marathon performances of the two-part, decades-spanning “Angels in America,” which runs through March 27, Mr. Driver and his fellow cast members spend about 10 hours at the theater in a given day.
“The physical and verbal demands of the role a lot of people would liken to an extraordinary training regime,” Michael Greif, the play’s director, explained.
“You have to be so disciplined,” Mr. Driver said of his time in the military. “That was such great training for me, to make a goal and meet it. Not everyone has to go to the Marine Corps to do that, but it’s what it took for me.”
Mr. Driver still keeps one foot in his old world through Arts in the Armed Forces, a nonprofit organization that performs monologues and music for military personnel and their families. He and his girlfriend, the actress Joanne Tucker, run the group out of an office in their Morningside Heights home, where several gently-worn vintage belongings — including a Royal typewriter, a Kings Point turntable and a large empty picture frame — make the space look like a suite at the retro-chic Ace Hotel.
“I want to show that theater isn’t just talking about feelings or people wearing tights,” Mr. Driver said. “There are characters who are articulating problems that I saw were actually really big problems in our own platoon. People were having feelings they couldn’t articulate. If there’s one organization in the United States that could work on its communication skills, it’s the military.”
The New York Times | Erik Piepenburg | February 21, 2011