M: The Emergence of Adam Driver
The breakout star of HBO’s “Girls” was once an aimless Indiana kid who got in fights and set things on fire. Now, his colleagues are comparing him to De Niro.
Adam Driver isn’t made for twenty-first-century America. He thinks television is somewhat evil. He calls computers “so scary.” He has no idea what the iCloud is, and he wants to keep it that way. He doesn’t pay attention to social media, let alone Adam Sackler’s Chest, the Twitter account devoted to the often-shirtless character he plays on HBO’s Girls. Driver has only seen the show once and, until recently, didn’t even have cable. He makes phone calls to his friends instead of sending e-mails or texts.
Soon after the first episode of Girls aired, in 2012, critics called the man he plays an appalling and repulsive weirdo. Other characters on the show called him “Neanderthal” and “sociopath” and accused him of having the face of an “old-timey criminal.” People on the streets of Brooklyn, where Driver lives, started going up to him and calling him “fucking asshole” and “dick.” Then his character began to evolve. By season two, he was the mysterious, complex, sweet, sober boyfriend to Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath.
Now he has meaty roles in three upcoming films: Martin Scorsese’s Silence, J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII, and Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” which also stars Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, and Ben Stiller.
Stiller worked with Driver for the first time while shooting the upcoming Baumbach film. “I was actually thinking I was acting with Marlon Brando or something,” he says. On the subject of the unhinged reactions some viewers had concerning Driver’s performance on Girls, Stiller says, “That’s probably like when Brando first came up. When he was doing what he was doing, people were like, ‘Who is this guy? What is he doing?’ And it was just a guy being who he was and totally, incredibly relaxed on camera. I think he’s incredible. I really, really love him. He’s the type of person not easy to get to know, and I don’t think I know him at all in the short time I spent with him. But, you know, he calls—in this day and age of e-mail and text, he’ll call to say hi! He’ll call and leave a message, saying, ‘How’s it going, man?’ Or he will call to actually talk to you, which I find kind of amazing.”
Driver was born in San Diego in 1983. His father was a preacher. When his parents split up, in 1990, he moved with his mother to her hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana, and lived for a time at the home of his maternal grandparents. When his mother remarried, to a Baptist minister, they moved to a place a block from the projects. “It’s pretty archetypal,” Driver says over lunch in Brooklyn Heights. “Not small-town, really, but cheerleaders and homecoming and a brick high school. A caveman was our mascot, but the people were really great. There’s not really anything to do. People like to cruise in front of Taco Bell. Tradewinds is the restaurant I used to go to all the time. They would have the ‘panquake,’ which is all-you-can-eat pancakes.
“We would climb radio towers, set things on fire. We tried to set a tire on fire. That was really hard. There’s a place behind Kroger where we would Dumpster-dive for potato chips. One Dumpster, there was a chip factory behind it, and they used to throw out all their old potato chips.”
He was a fan of the Terminator movies, Predator, and Total Recall. Fight Club, too. He and his friends would shoot their own videos, action stuff, with fake guns. “Every once in a while, the cops would come,” Driver says, “and that was pretty exciting, because they thought they were real guns.”
At Mishawaka High, he was a skinny misfit who got along with people, had girlfriends. He cofounded a fight club that met in a field behind a Celebrations Unlimited, where weddings and receptions took place. “I think we probably came up with some rules. No hitting in the balls, a good rule. There was a guy that rode by on a bike one time. He said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ So I fought him.”
Driver’s first acting role was in the chorus of Oklahoma! He had one line (“Check his heart!”). “I liked being backstage with the seniors,” he says. “They were cool.” In Arsenic and Old Lace, he was Mortimer Brewster, the same part Cary Grant played in the 1944 Frank Capra movie. “I didn’t think of acting as a realistic career. I just liked doing it.” He pauses. “That’s not entirely true.” When he was a senior, he got the idea to go to the Juilliard School—“I didn’t want to go to college, but that didn’t sound really like college”—but he was turned down for it after auditioning in Chicago.
Soon after his graduation day, in 2001, the 17-year-old Driver found himself in the back room of his parents’ house, for $200 a month. “They made me buy my own refrigerator and microwave, and gave me a key so I could come through the back. I could come through the front door, but I had to knock.” There were moments of family tension. Driver worked three jobs (mowing lawns, selling vacuums, telemarketing) and was a regular at McDonald’s. “It was pretty aimless,” he says. “I didn’t have anything. I had my girlfriend. And then I’m like, ‘Fuck it.’ I heard all the stories of actors going to L.A. with no money and just doing it.”
He made a big production of leaving town: “I said good-bye to my girlfriend—you know, like, ‘We’ll figure out how to make it work.’ And my friends, like, ‘See you guys, it’s been real, but I gotta hit the big world.’ ” He loaded the refrigerator and microwave into his Lincoln Town Car and rolled out of Mishawaka, across flat Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and then the car broke down outside Amarillo, Texas. He spent almost all his cash getting it fixed.
In Santa Monica, California, he stayed at a youth hostel. Calling his parents for a loan wasn’t an option. Two days later, he was heading back to Mishawaka.
Not long after 9/11, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. “I felt this sense of patriotism and wanted retribution and wanted to be involved,” he says, “but also, I wasn’t doing anything. There was nothing holding me to stay there. Joining the military was beneficial because I think I had the will but didn’t have the drive or didn’t know where to put it. And I learned in the military where to put it.” He spent two years, eight months at Camp Pendleton, in San Diego County: “Like any organization, it’s full of bullshit and things go wrong, but I loved it.”
A couple things went very wrong. First, during a training exercise on a windy day, some toxic white phosphorus began blowing closer to Driver and some fellow jarheads, who all bolted in what they hoped was the opposite direction. It was. His next near-death experience came right before his scheduled deployment to the Middle East, when he broke his sternum in a mountain-biking accident. He kept training, but the injury prevented him from being sent to Iraq, something he regrets to this day. “I joined for specific reasons, but they all went away as soon as I was with the guys that I was serving with. It turned into just being with them. Not going overseas with them was hard.”
After being medically discharged, he returned to Mishawaka. “In the Marine Corps, everything had a purpose,” he says. “You had your rank on your sleeve that was exactly a half inch from this corner. You wear what’s called a cover—it’s not a hat—and you put it on when you go outside. You don’t smoke outside. You can only smoke in certain specific places. And then you’re thrown into civilian life and suddenly that structure isn’t there. And people are doing crazy shit, like wearing clothes untucked, and you’re just like, ‘Look at these people who have no meaning to anything!’ And that’s a hard transition.”
There was an upside, though: Driver had developed faith in himself. “When you get out of the Marine Corps, you feel like you can do anything,” he says. “That was part of why I went to re-audition for Juilliard. I thought, Worse comes to worst, I know how to live. I’ll live in Central Park or something. I’ll survive. You feel like all civilian problems are meaningless and small, which is a complete illusion, but you have this confidence. You’ve been torn down so much—physically, emotionally, verbally—you feel like you’re indestructible. But then you don’t know where to put all of your energy, because all of that—code, honor, dying for another person. Suddenly, there’s no one in your life that means as much as that relationship did, and it feels like you guys [civilians] have just been doing whatever you want to do, and I’ve been doing stuff that doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter here.” Suddenly, Adam Driver the intense actor was two feet away from me. It was exciting, scary, like anything could happen. “Could I get another coffee, please, or a fresher cup?” Driver asks the waitress, calm.
For his second Juilliard audition, in 2005, he did Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy. He was working as a security guard at a Target distribution warehouse in Indianapolis when he got a phone call from an administrator in the drama department, who said, as Driver recalls it, “We’d like to ask you to come to New York and be a part of next year’s class.” How did that feel? “I think that’s one of the best moments in my life.” Any jumping? “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says. “Jumping and yelling! I was with the other security guard, and I told him and he was really excited and we were both yelling.”
Where would he be now if he hadn’t been accepted?
“Probably be a fireman. Yeah, I think so.”
He lived in Hoboken, Harlem, Astoria, Woodside, Morningside Heights, and he waited tables for a while at a French restaurant on the Upper West Side. The playwright Tony Kushner came in for a meal, and Driver served him asparagus.
He hasn’t been in a fight since the Marines and doesn’t consider himself a violent person. “Just being in the military, you’re so violent,” he says. “We got into fights about just random things all the time. I don’t think as aggressively as I did when I was in the Marine Corps.”
He sees a connection between his military experience and acting. “You’re working as a team to accomplish something that’s not really about one person,” he says. “It’s knowing your role within that team.”
But the six-foot-three Driver stood out at Juilliard. “I made people in my school cry because it was just the way I was used to talking to people,” he says. “I felt like I wanted to do it! Really hard! Whatever it was! And I needed to calm down a little bit.”
During his second year at Juilliard, Driver and a classmate, Joanne Tucker, who is now his wife, founded a nonprofit organization called Arts in the Armed Forces, “to honor, educate, inspire, and entertain” active-duty soldiers, veterans, and their families. Among those on the advisory council are Laura Linney, Dianne Wiest, Eric Bogosian, and Debra Winger. “This summer, we’re doing another performance at Walter Reed, in Bethesda, Maryland,” Driver says. “We hope to go to Kuwait and Afghanistan at the end of this year.”
Soon after his 2009 graduation from Juilliard, he started getting TV and stage work, as well as a series of small but memorable movie roles: filling-station attendant in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar; excitable Brooklyn bohemian in Baumbach’s Frances Ha; telegraph operator in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln; goofball folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis. When Driver auditioned for Girls, he was very wrapped up in a Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession (just like Adam Sackler in season three of the series). Driver walked into the audition with his motorcycle helmet and a bad attitude. “I trained myself, whenever I walk into auditions, to hate everyone in the room,” he says. “That way, if it doesn’t work out, I can be like, ‘I fucking didn’t like those people anyway!’”
The show’s creator, Dunham, and executive producer Jenni Konner were entranced. “Starstruck,” Konner says. “It was the first day of casting, and he was the first for ‘Adam.’ He walked in, and we couldn’t believe it. He started to do the performance, and it’s really not far off from what he did the first season. From that moment on, there was no other choice.”
The Adam Sackler character was written for only the pilot episode, Konner says, “but once you work with Adam Driver, you never want to stop.” The Girls team got busy expanding the role. “He has a naturalism to him, an instinctual side that is like one-eighteenth of a tiger or something,” Konner says. “He’s like a young De Niro.”
“The first time I worked with him,” says Richard Shepard, who made the crime movie Dom Hemingway and has directed six episodes of Girls, “I said to Jenni and Lena, ‘This guy is incredible.’ I’m so happy for him that suddenly he’s in Star Wars and a Scorsese movie. Sometimes when I’m working with him on Girls, I’m like, This guy can do anything! He’s got that sort of odd look that is ultimately going to help him, because he’s not a straight-ahead leading man, and the way he acts is not straight-ahead. He reminds me of stuff Pacino was doing in the early seventies.”
Pacino, De Niro, and Brando are not names that those who work in the movie industry throw around lightly. There are other ways to flatter a rising young actor that would not require them to go quite that far. By mentioning such names, Driver’s colleagues are signaling that he is unusual in these times, with his throwback intensity. And although the actor was kind enough to share something of himself in my short time with him, he is anomalous in this period of social media and the oversharing that goes with it. So let’s close with a list of questions Driver refused to answer:
(1) Can you say anything about your parents?
(2) How about your religious upbringing?
(3) Are you in favor of premarital sex? What about a mistress—can that work out?
(4) Surely you’ve been hit on once or twice by female admirers.
(5) Are you able to kill someone in ten seconds or less?
(6) Should it be hard to get a gun, or are you OK with the gun laws as they are?
(7) Should a married guy go off with his buddies once a year to camp or hunt?
(8) Are you and your wife moving? Leaving Brooklyn Heights?
(9) Does your wife compliment you?
(10) Do you think some actors take steroids?
(11) Last time you cried?
(12) Phobias? Mantras?
(13) You can’t talk about the Star Wars thing, right?
(14) What do you smell like? Can you describe your scent?
M Magazine | George Gurley | June 2, 2014