Adam Driver, an Unlikely Face on TV or in Fashion
“I’m like a sight gag,” said Adam Driver, who plays the ugly-handsome, so-awful-to-Hannah-he’s-catnip bad boyfriend from HBO’s “Girls.”
“I have this really big face,” added Mr. Driver, whose powerful head suggests a public monument and whose striking features one writer called “worthy of the Mongolian plains.”
“Costume people are always saying they don’t have clothes big enough for me,” added Mr. Driver, who at 6-foot-3 is a veritable giant in an industry where 5-foot-10 is the median height for heartthrobs.
Whether despite or because of his unusual looks, Mr. Driver finds himself on the eve of the hit cable show’s highly anticipated third season (it returns in January) both a breakout star and, more curious still, an unexpected new favorite of fashion.
Besides finishing up “Girls” in the past year, the actor (who turns 30 next week) shot “This Is Where I Leave You,” an indie film about a family sitting shiva; played a comic in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis”; portrayed a photographer on a 1,700-mile camel journey through the Outback in “Tracks”; filmed “While We’re Young,” a new Noah Baumbach movie, in which he stars with Ben Stiller and Amanda Seyfried; and stars in “The Coward,” cast as an 18th-century dandy opposite Chris O’Dowd.
Somehow, he also found time to model for a September Vogue pictorial shot in Ireland by Annie Leibovitz and for Gap’s new “Back to Blue” ad campaign, which had its debut in mid-September and marked the brand’s return to TV advertising for the first time since 2009.
“I don’t totally get it,” the actor said one recent morning over coffee at a communal table in a cafe near his home in Brooklyn Heights. “I mean, when I read for ‘Girls,’ I was, like, the script says ‘Handsome Carpenter,’ so someone else is going to get the part. They’ll have someone handsome, not me. I mean, I’m not in any danger of getting leading-man parts.”
Yet it’s precisely Mr. Driver’s unconventional looks — hooded eyes, strong brow, long nose and wide mouth — and his brooding quality, used as a temporal placeholder that permits him to wait a beat longer in scenes than seems plausible, that first attracted Lena Dunham’s attention.
“What is his quality?” Ms. Dunham said recently by phone. “He has this amazing presence, this thoughtfulness. The articles about him don’t say what an amazing actor he is, but I can tell you that just watching him work is freaky.”
It was Mr. Driver’s quality of “stillness” that most powerfully struck Inez van Lamsweerde the Dutch photographer who with her partner Vinoodh Matadin shot the new Gap campaign. “Obviously, it’s not a cookie-cutter beauty,” Ms. van Lamsweerde said. “He has this very big face and eyes that are rather slanted.”
Unlike video or movie cameras, she added, the still camera freezes a subject and thus sees things in a different way. “Everything becomes much more pronounced,” she said. “The discovery for us with Adam when we saw the pictures was this elegance that was sort of hypnotizing.”
There was also, Ms. van Lamsweerde said, this: “The body is brilliant.” Hers is a sentiment shared not merely by the fans who made Mr. Driver the goofy hipster sex symbol in “Girls,” but also apparently by seasoned fashion types like Ms. Leibovitz and Grace Coddington of Vogue.
“I think it was Adam’s unusual combination of physicality and soulfulness” in “Girls” that inspired his casting in the Vogue shoot in Ireland, in which he appears bare-chested and with a ram slung across his shoulders, said Valerie Steiker, the magazine’s culture editor. “He was like a cross between ‘Raging Bull’-era De Niro and Nicolas Cage in ‘Moonstruck.’ ”
Mr. Driver characterizes his “Girls” character, Adam Sackler, in more prosaic terms: “He’s part poet, part rhinoceros and part Neanderthal.”
If all the recent hype, the adulation, the Emmy nomination and the breathless encomiums from the fashion flock have gone to the actor’s head, he does a credible job of concealing it. “The deadly thing in my job is to attach too much meaning to everything,” said Mr. Driver, who in person is thoughtful and unnervingly sincere, and smart enough to take a gimlet-eyed view of the overnight stardom that took him a decade to achieve. “You have to have a sense of humor about yourself.”
He was so nonchalant about losing the Emmy award for best supporting actor in a series to Tony Hale of “Veep” that Ms. Dunham said she was inspired to tell him he had been robbed.
“I was, like, you were ripped off, but Adam was like Adam,” she said, averring that he didn’t care whether or not he took home a gold statuette of a winged angel supporting the globe — or, anyway, unprintable words to that effect.
This was on a cold mid-autumn morning. Mr. Driver was hunched over a bowl of black coffee. Hours earlier at home with his wife, Joanne Tucker, whom he wed this year, he had eaten his customary paleo-diet morning repast of six eggs with four of the yolks tossed out. He no longer consumes a whole chicken for lunch every day, as he once did. Even a culinary cave man has his limits.
With a day of work left on Mr. Baumbach’s movie, he was taking a rare break from a schedule that will see him moving from one film set to another consecutively for the foreseeable future.
“I’m definitely trying to figure this all out as I go along, how to craft a career,” he said. “As things get bigger, I have days of depression, sitting in the house and wondering ‘What are you doing? Is it even relevant?’ ”
Mr. Driver combed his hands back through a crop of thick, dark hair. “I’m not against Hollywood at all,” said the man cast by Steven Spielberg to play opposite the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis in a small, crucial role in “Lincoln.” “I just want to be involved with good writing and work that has some kind of meaning. I learned from the military that I’m not immortal, you know. Time is of the essence. Don’t delay.”
Of the many items on a résumé not crammed with success predictors (preacher’s son born in San Diego; raised, after his parents’ divorce, in Mishawaka, Ind. — home to Uniroyal and the Mishawaka Cavemen — by a homemaker mother and a preacher stepfather; less than average student at Mishawaka high school; sometime door-to-door salesman of vacuum cleaners and basement waterproofing), the signifying entry is Mr. Driver’s stint as a United States Marine.
“I auditioned in Chicago for Juilliard and didn’t get in,” said Mr. Driver, who would eventually reapply and graduate from the prestigious performing arts conservatory. “I was basically living in a back room of my parents’ house, paying rent and not doing anything with my life,” he said. “I’d like to say it was patriotic to join the Marines, but it was also that I was doing nothing honorable with my life, and spending too much time at McDonald’s.”
Early in the winter after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Driver enlisted; by February 2002 he was in basic training. While he eventually rose to lance corporal, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment, Weapons Company, 81st Platoon, Mr. Driver never was deployed or saw combat, having been medically discharged after breaking his sternum in a mountain biking accident. Yet his stint in the Marines, he said, continues to define him.
“In the military, you learn the essence of people,” Mr. Driver said. “You see so many examples of self-sacrifice and moral courage. In the rest of life you don’t get that many opportunities to be sure of your friends.”
It was long before achieving mainstream success that Mr. Driver founded Arts in the Armed Forces (AITAF), a nonprofit whose mission is to bring performing arts to members of the military. On Veterans Day on Monday, the Kickstarter-funded group will appear at the American Airlines Theater on Broadway with a group of actors including David Schwimmer, Francois Battiste and Mr. Driver.
The group’s original mission was, as much as anything else, to prove to reluctant military officials that serious theater (viewed by some, as he once told The New York Times, as “sissies running around stage in tights”) was as good a survival tool as weapons training. Along the way, it became something more revelatory and instructive for Mr. Driver himself.
“In the military, I was a very different person,” Mr. Driver said. “I wasn’t used to using my words to express myself.”
If the Marine Corps was where he learned to be a man, he said, acting was where he became a citizen.
“I was at an Emmy party,” he said. “And I probably shouldn’t say this, but a big-name actor came up to me and said, ‘I need to get a nonprofit.’ I mean, it’s not about ‘needing to get a nonprofit.’ A lot of me doing AITAF came from being told by veterans’ organizations that theater was not going to resonate with military. What I found is the opposite: you either use the anger that’s in us all or you stew in it.”
When a waiter appeared with the modest check for breakfast, Mr. Driver offered to pay for his half.
“At the Emmy awards, everybody runs up to you and says, ‘Aren’t you having the time of your life?’ ” he said. “I mean, I was never after trying to get an Emmy. The whole spectacle seems cheesy and dated. The thing that motivates me most is being petrified of not having a place to put my voice.”
The New York Times | Guy Trebaynov | November 8, 2013