Adam Driver: the ‘Good Bro’ sparing no one’s feelings in Girls
His character is narcissistic, unreliable and an unlikely new archetype for masculinity. ‘I don’t think it would be helpful to worry about being likable,’ he says
Adam Driver acted in two standout scenes last year: one hilarious and uplifting, the other shocking and dismaying. The uplift appeared in the Coen brothers’ new comedy Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s the scene in which Davis, a self-sabotaging stalwart of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 60s, is reduced to playing on the recording of Please Mr Kennedy (Don’t Shoot Me Into Outer Space), a novelty song penned by a fellow folkie played by Justin Timberlake. The deadly serious Davis’s embarrassment is compounded by the presence of a stetson-sporting Driver, whose contribution to the song is to loudly boom “Ow-oooh!” and “Uh-oh!” at infrequent intervals. “I wish I could claim more responsibility for any of it,” says Driver of the goofy yet catchy song, which was co-written by the film’s musical supervisor T-Bone Burnett. “It was T-Bone and Justin Timberlake and Oscar [Isaac, who plays Davis] and the Coen brothers really shaping that song. We did it in, I think it was four or five takes. I feel like I went into a coma and it was over.”
Driver’s other, even more indelible, 2013 career highlight came in an episode late in the second series of Girls, the show that made his name. Following a spell in rehab, his character, the boorish, moody artist Adam Sackler – described by Driver as “part poet, part rhinoceros and part Neanderthal” – emerges changed enough to embark on a normal date with a normal girl. After a series and a half of closed-off destructiveness, it was a relief to see that he could be charming and self-effacing. That was, until the agonising moment he brought his date back to his chaotic apartment and deliberately pre-empted any chance of her having any emotional effect on him by going full-tilt Neanderthal, humiliating her and then squirting energetically over her little black dress. “There’s such an emphasis on having a character be likable,” Driver says of TV Adam. “I don’t think it would be helpful if I worried about that. I mean, not everyone’s likable.”
Yet for all his character’s flaws, TV Adam ended the previous series of Girls rushing bare-chested through the streets of Manhattan to his on-off paramour Hannah’s rescue after she found herself trapped in an OCD downward spiral. The third series kicks off with Adam and Hannah cosily cohabiting. This is less a sign that his antisocial edges have been sanded off and more that the character and the actor are evolving a new archetype of masculinity: a man who is neither oversensitive nor threatened. Some American writers have taken to labelling this hitherto uncatalogued species as “the Good Bro”. The Good Bro takes no guff, weeps no tears, wears no hair gel and spares no one’s feelings. At the same time, the Good Bro harbours no misogynist undertones and acts as a rock, rather than a millstone, for the women in his life. The Good Bro is also largely a product of the imaginations of female writers: the characters Mindy Kaling created for Chris Messina and Adam Pally on The Mindy Project; the guy Elizabeth Meriwether wrote for Jake Johnson to play on New Girl; and, spearheading the entire movement, the strange dude Lena Dunham wrote for Adam Driver on Girls.
A gangly six-foot-three, with the slightly hunched posture of the tall guy who wants to blend in rather than tower over, Driver is prone, as befits a graduate of prestigious arts conservatory Juilliard, to unchecked rambling about the actor’s process. But that’s nowhere near his whole story. After an abortive attempt in early 2001 to move to LA in search of stardom – “I had no fall-back or support so I ran back to Indiana” – Driver enlisted in the US Marine Corps. “It was just after September 11 and I felt, like a lot of people, a call to action. My grandpa was in the navy but it wasn’t something that was expected or planned for me to do. It was a sense of patriotism. That and the fact that I wasn’t doing anything; I was working a bunch of odd jobs and nothing was happening.”
In preparation to be shipped out to Iraq, Driver, now 30, trained as a rifleman. Did he ever look around his training camp and wonder if he was in the wrong place? “I always think that,” he laughs. “Even now as an actor. There were definitely dark nights when you’re like, maybe joining the military wasn’t such a good idea. But, in a way, it was the best training to be an actor. The things I took from them, the training, the camaraderie, the people I served with. That’s some of the best acting training you could possibly be exposed to. You’re working as a team and it’s not about you. You’re knowing your role and you’re taking direction. You’re immediately intimate with people in a weird way. You establish trust with people who are your own age who are experiencing these larger-than-life circumstances.”
A few months before deploying to Iraq, Driver injured his breastbone in a biking mishap. His military career ended soon after that. “It was very clear to me I wanted to be an actor when I got out into civilian life,” he says, although he retains a link with his old life: he and his wife currently run a theatre group, Arts In The Armed Forces, which regularly stages theatrical productions for servicemen and women.
Although New York natives could have seen him in numerous off-Broadway roles – he also had bit parts in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Clint Eastwood’s J Edgar, not to mention popping up twice as different characters in Law & Order – Driver didn’t begin to attract recognition until he started mistreating Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath on the instantly buzzed-about Girls. “I stand out anyway because I’m very tall and look kind of strange,” he reasons. “I did the first season of Girls, Lincoln and Inside Llewyn Davis all around the same time but when Girls came out it happened immediately. Suddenly people notice you, especially in New York. I’m still trying to adjust to it.”
It must be tricky when you’re playing such a contentious character and the public sometimes has trouble differentiating fantasy from that other stuff that’s not fantasy. “People do just assume you’re that person but I feel like I put them at ease as soon as they meet me. I don’t know what they expect me to do to them, but once they realise I’m more scared of them talking to me than they are of me, the power dynamic shifts really quickly.”
The who-are-we-mad-at-now pop culture news cycle moves so rapidly it’s entirely possible to forget that Girls was an extremely divisive show when it premiered back in 2012. Lena Dunham’s creations were often pilloried as vapid, entitled, delusional plankton. But Driver, like Dunham, is a hard-working self-starter. Has playing in Girls altered his opinion of his generation? “I’ve got weird conflicting feelings about my generation. Not to get on a high horse about it but I do see the value in boredom and not knowing all the answers immediately. There’s a kind of immediacy that comes with being constantly connected that I don’t really relate to in my generation. Just having the internet is a weird and dangerous thing because people become accustomed to knowing things when they want to know them and not having to work for it. I definitely see the value in not knowing everything and having mystery in life and mystery in people.”
On the morning we meet, Driver is sporting a plaster over his right eyebrow. “I was talking to someone and I turned around and walked right into a cement pole. It couldn’t be less graceful.” Such moments of gawkiness notwithstanding, Driver is starting to become sought-after as a fashion model. Last September he appeared in a Vogue spread shot in Ireland by Annie Leibovitz, who required him to sling the carcass of a ram across his shoulders. He went on to don casual gear for a new Gap campaign. So, Mr Intense Actor, how did all that happen? “I’m from Indiana. Something like that wouldn’t even occur to me that it would be in the realm of possibilities. Who doesn’t want to go to Ireland with Vogue and work with Annie Leibovitz and Daria Werbowy? It seems like an interesting world to live in for a couple of days. The same thing with Gap. I have such sentimental feelings for Gap. I do! There was a Gap across the street from where I went to school in New York and I would go there all the time. I didn’t have any money but when they had the clearance rack I bought a suit jacket. I wore it for five years till it completely lost all its shape and my wife finally made me throw it away. So when that came up, it just seemed obvious. Who doesn’t want to support Gap?”
Spoken like a true Good Bro.
The Guardian | Jonathan Bernstein | January 18, 2014