Adam Driver: ‘Lots of things have been said about my face’
As Lena Dunham’s love interest in Girls, actor Adam Driver represents a new kind of male. Now starring with Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s new film, here the ex-marine discusses sex scenes, the internet and his theatre group for troops.
Adam Driver, 31, is the Emmy-nominated star from the HBO series Girls, in which he plays Hannah Horvath’s (Lena Dunham) on-off love interest Adam Sackler. As Sackler, Driver combines memorable looks (6ft 3in frame, raven hair, a face like human origami), with an intensity that seems part apocalyptic internalised rage, part brittle vulnerability, part no-nonsense brio, leading many to cite him as a new kind of modern screen male.
Driver was raised in Mishawaka, Indiana, by a paralegal mother and Baptist minister stepfather. After 9/11, he joined the US marines, but before being deployed to Iraq he broke his sternum during an exercise and was medically discharged. Driver has since founded the non-profit organisation Arts in the Armed Forces, which performs theatre for military personnel.
Driver won a place to study drama at New York’s Juilliard School, where he met classmate Joanne Tucker, whom he married in 2013. He’s been cast in films such as Inside Llewyn Davis and JJ Abrams’s forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When I speak with Driver on the telephone, he’s in Taiwan, filming Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which he plays a Jesuit priest. His latest film is Noah Baumbach’s black comedy While We’re Young.
What’s it like being directed by Martin Scorsese?
Surreal. I grew up watching his movies. In my culture, in Indiana, it was all about going to Blockbuster Video and renting Martin Scorsese movies. So to get to work with him is pretty surreal. It’s suddenly gone from watching as an audience member to feeling like a participant in a way that’s pretty exciting.
With projects such as Silence and Star Wars, do you feel a gravitational career pull from indie to the mainstream?
I’ve been fortunate to do things in both worlds so that’s been interesting. There’s no set plan, or feeling pulled to do anything other than getting to work with really good people.
While We’re Young has definitely got an indie feel to it.
I worked with Noah before on Frances Ha. I think he’s fucking brilliant! I could work with him on anything. All these great directors, like the Coen brothers, Scorsese and Noah, obviously they have different ways of working, but they’re all specific – they know what the story is. At the same time, they surrender to not knowing when it comes to actually doing it. So they surprise themselves.
They’re not rigid?
Yeah, they don’t come in with the right answer.
In While We’re Young, an older blocked documentary maker (Ben Stiller) and his wife (Naomi Watts) get involved with a younger hipster documentary maker (Driver) and his wife (Amanda Seyfried). At first, the older couple feel that they can learn from the younger bohemian couple, but then it turns sour. There seems to be a battle going on between old-school authenticity and phoney culture?
Yes, that’s a big theme of the movie. When I first read it, the character I related to most was Josh. I love watching Ben Stiller playing him, but also I believe in so much of what he preaches. I believe in creating history with something – not just being connected to the internet, and appropriating things and adopting history. But my character, Jamie, can take that interconnectiveness and make something pretty great, pretty fast. He’s unprecious and by operating on impulses he’s creating something, getting it out there. That’s why it’s such a good script. It argues both sides pretty well.
You’ve spoken before about how you worry about the culture of instant gratification among your generation, specifically regarding the Internet.
Yes, you have information at your fingertips, but there’s something about going through all the steps, as painful as the process is. And I’m not by any means immune – I’m completely susceptible. I think we’re almost too interconnected, with no emphasis on putting in the time, because there’s an expectation in the culture that things will happen immediately.
Your breakthrough character, Adam in Girls, was widely judged to be a new kind of young male. Did you see him as a boy or a man initially?
I’ve never thought of him as a boy or a man. I think of him in moments. I don’t think that he thinks of himself as a boy or a man either – he probably thinks of himself as “in process”.
There was a mad energy about Adam at first. Recently, he’s seemed slightly tamed – not so much domesticated as less feral?
Hopefully he’s changed. I think it’s about him growing up, and putting his energy in different places.
Adam had some graphic sex scenes (telling Hannah that she was 11 years old; urinating on her in a shower). For me, such scenes represented a jadedness among some modern young males – the saturation of readily available internet porn made them desensitised so they had to raise the erotic stakes to feel anything?
This is not something that we talked about or made a conscious decision about. But I see what you’re saying.
Did the sex scenes ever make you feel uncomfortable?
No, if it was just sexual things for the sake of being sexual, then that would make me uncomfortable, but it was part of the storytelling that Lena was going for.
Did you feel empathy for how Lena Dunham was treated when Girls came out – the personal criticisms directed at her?
Empathetic? Always, when a friend is being attacked. Lena is a grown woman and totally capable of handling it, way better than I would ever be able to. That’s because she’s thought it through and she’s not just making arbitrary choices. That’s the great thing about her writing – again it’s specific and it’s not for everyone. Some people get it, some people don’t. That’s par for the course with everything. She’s more than capable of handling it.
Do you consider yourself feminist in spirit?
No… well, yes. But I don’t go in for “I am this” or “I am that”.
I read that you joined the marines because you were overwhelmed by feelings of patriotism after 9/11.
That’s why I initially joined. Then you forget your original reason for joining – it transforms into something different. It’s about serving with the platoon of people that you’ve grown to love – serving them as much as serving your country. You’re surprised by how strongly you can bond with a group of strangers. That bond is a powerful thing – difficult to find in the civilian world.
At the time you joined, it sounds as though your life wasn’t really going anywhere?
No, it wasn’t going anywhere. I was working a bunch of odd jobs and living in the back of my parents’ house, paying rent.
When you were forced to leave the marines, you said you were devastated. Do you still feel that way?
Well, it’s easier now, but at the time I was pretty disappointed that I couldn’t go overseas with my group of guys. I think I’ll always regret that.
Is there crossover with the marines and acting?
Of course, big time! The small group of people trying to accomplish a mission greater than themselves. It’s not about one person; it’s a collaborative effort. You have to know your role, and sometimes within that group there’s one person who knows what your mission is. That’s a direct crossover. You can’t act alone in a room – no one is going to see it. You can’t create something alone. You need people to support you.
Was the impetus behind starting your non-profit organisation, Arts in the Armed Forces, that forces personnel are more complex and cultural than people might think?
Yes – it’s to bring thought-provoking theatre-based troop entertainment to an audience that wouldn’t normally be associated with theatre. And we get the reactions that we’re going for. “Most troop entertainment is so bad and this is so good.” “I’ve never been to a play before.” “I didn’t know theatre was like that.” The responses are overwhelming. I get a tremendous amount from it.
How are you with the frothy side of celebrity?
I don’t think of myself as a celebrity. There are things about being known for your work that are good and there are things that are bad, so I try to keep perspective. I’m surrounded by people who keep things as real as possible.
You had quite a religious upbringing. Are you drawing on that as a priest in Silence?
I was raised in a Baptist church in the midwest. Religion was part of my upbringing, so yes.
Do you have faith yourself?
No, I try not to have the right answer about anything.
You got married in 2013. Is it important for you to have stability in your private life?
Isn’t that important to everybody?
Some artists may prefer to live as wild, unstructured and bohemian a life as possible. They might think that’s how artists need to live – to mix things up?
Well, you can still mix things up in married life.
What about being a sex symbol?
[Laughs loudly] I have nothing to say about that.
You must have been told before that you have an amazing unusual face? It’s a compliment – not being the standard Hollywood McHunk has worked in your favour.
I have been told before that I have an unusual face. But my face is my face. I had a whole life before acting, over the years. Lots of things have been said about my face.
What about awards and general public reaction – people coming up to you in the street?
As far as awards go, it’s flattering and humbling to be honoured by your peers, but it doesn’t mean anything. Reactions in the street are always good – people don’t tend to come up to you and tell you you’re an asshole. It’s never a long conversation anyway – they usually see that I’m more scared of them than they are of me and the whole power dynamic shifts.
What is the actor’s job?
It’s a good question. I don’t know. Sometimes it’s a service; sometimes it feels like a business; sometimes it feels like just storytelling; sometimes it feels more powerful than that.
There are said to be east coast and west coast acting sensibilities – are you equally comfortable with both?
I very much live in New York and I’m very much simpatico with a New York sensibility. But I just want to work where the writing is good. The scale or the budget shouldn’t be where you put your energy. The size doesn’t matter to me. You could work on something that’s big budget but it’s not creatively challenging.
What are your immediate plans?
After this, I’ll be working on Girls again, and whatever happens after that will happen. As far as plans go, I try not to have one. I hope I’ve learned that having a plan turns out to be a waste of energy.
The Observer | Barbara Ellen | March 29, 2015