Who is Kylo Ren? The dark side of Adam Driver
From appearing in the cult comedy Girls to starring as the villain in the new Star Wars film may sound like a leap, but this former US Marine has deep resources to draw on
Adam Driver walks into a cosy, discreet cafe near his home in Brooklyn Heights, wrapped up against the unseasonably cold October morning in a thick pea jacket with a black knitted hat pulled down over his ears.
It’s 8.30am, and the handful of other New Yorkers in the cafe are either playing it cool, or too engrossed in their breakfast to recognise the breakout star from Lena Dunham’s hugely popular Brooklyn-based television series Girls.
A big man, broad-shouldered and 6ft 3in tall, he also has a surprising gentleness about him – he is quietly spoken with a slightly anxious look in his dark-brown eyes. He’s a worrier, he will tell me later, with a tendency to overthink.
He orders a tea, and we start talking about the strange situation we find ourselves in, where it’s my job to ask about his starring role in JJ Abrams’ much-anticipated Star Wars reboot, and his job not to answer. ‘It’s been three years so far, of not being able to talk about it,’ he says.
‘But I think it’s fun to [see a film] and discover it with everyone else, as opposed to knowing everything beforehand. So I don’t mind dodging questions, because I feel it will be more exciting, that the pay-off will be better.’
Still, he says it will be a relief when the film is finally released. ‘I’m excited for people to see it – and nervous. Everyone wants it to be good, and we’re still very much working on it, fine-tuning and tweaking things.’
For those who have been blissfully unaware of the hype, the action in Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins some 30 years after the original trilogy, with Driver playing the new villain of the piece, Kylo Ren.
The teaser trailers that have been released since the summer have been endlessly analysed by fans for plot clues, and more recently Abrams has clarified a little: Ren is not a Sith Lord like Darth Vader. ‘He works under the Supreme Leader Snoke [played by Andy Serkis], who is a powerful figure on the Dark Side of the Force.’
One of the things that excited most comment online was Ren’s controversial lightsaber, which has a crossguard more like a conventional sword. Driver says it was a lot of fun to wield, and satisfyingly heavy too. ‘When George Lucas did the first film, he wanted them to be really heavy, but they couldn’t quite figure it out. This is the first time that we’re actually fighting with the whole lightsaber too. Before it was just the hilt with [something] like an antenna or a green stick, but this was state of the art – it actually sends off light.’
Driver was born in 1983, six years after the release of the first Star Wars film. He played with the figures as a child, he says, and always liked the bad guys best. ‘They were more exciting to me because their costumes were cooler – all black – and the characters were so great.’
Even so, you do not get the sense that he was dancing round the room in celebration when, on the last day of shooting the second series of Girls, he got a call from his agent asking if he would be interested in joining the franchise, which Lucas had by then sold to Disney.
He flew out to Los Angeles to meet director/writer Abrams, who said all of the things a serious actor – and Driver is intensely serious about what he does – would want to hear. ‘He said, “Just because people can remake something doesn’t mean they necessarily should.” And I kind of felt the same way, that sometimes movies like that sacrifice story for the sake of spectacle. JJ is so smart, really funny and very calm, and you just got the sense that he was going to do something exciting with it. But I still wanted to think about it.’
It took another meeting with Abrams in New York and a long talk with producer Kathy Kennedy – who Driver met briefly on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, in which he had a small role as a telegraph operator – for him to say yes. And even then, there were months of negotiations to see if it could be fitted around his existing obligations to Girls. (He ended up shooting both at the same time, working alternate weeks on Girls in New York, then flying to London to do a week on Star Wars at Pinewood Studios.)
It was, he says drily, a bit of a culture shock. He had been used to working on low-budget indie productions where he would be asked to use his own clothes because there was no budget for costumes. ‘I went from that to a situation where we have 50 of everything. They call “cut”, and hundreds of people descend and one person is brushing leaves and the other person’s vacuuming something. It was… interesting.’
Nonetheless, says Driver, Abrams was able to keep things spontaneous and creative. ‘Because it’s so huge, I thought there would be no sense of improvisation in how he was going to shoot it and how decisions were made. But he was willing to let go of all that, and it was really about whoever had the best idea in the moment.’
At root, Driver adds, Star Wars is about relationships, the kind of stories we all identify with: dysfunctional families, and a small-town boy – Luke Skywalker – who just wanted to get out and see the universe. Driver himself was born in San Diego, California, the son of a Baptist minister. When he was seven he moved with his mother to Mishawaka, Indiana, where she married his stepfather, also a Baptist minister. It was a small town where nothing much happened, and Driver turned to film as an escape.
‘Mishawaka is many good things, but cultural hub of the world it is not. We didn’t travel, no one could afford to go to Europe, so for me and my friends, our access to the outside world came through films. Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and going to the movies were pretty much our only avenue to get out of this really depressed, industrial town.’
He didn’t do well at school, and when he auditioned to study drama at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, it was mainly because they didn’t look at grades. He was turned down, so instead he set off to LA to become an actor there.
His car broke down en route, he spent most of the money he had on repairing it, and arrived in California broke with nowhere to stay. After just two days, he was left with no choice but to go back home, where he moved into a small apartment behind his parents’ house, working odd jobs in order to pay them rent.
When I ask if that was painful, he just laughs. ‘I probably should have been more embarrassed, but there was no other option. I didn’t really know what else I was going to do.’
Then September 11 happened, and the wave of patriotism that followed swept Driver out of Mishawaka for good, and into the US Marine Corps. It felt like a way out, he says, but also a way of serving his country in its hour of need. ‘There was that feeling, especially with my generation – a call to do something.’
He talks warmly about the discipline, the comradeship and the sense of purpose the Marines gave him. ‘I think you become very aware, probably more than average people your age, that we’re all going to die. You’re aware of your own mortality, and also of how much you can accomplish in a day. Time is precious, and you don’t want to waste it.’ Just before he was due to be deployed to Iraq, he had an accident on a mountain bike and cracked his sternum. ‘It was pretty bad. It was not a good time.’
He was honourably discharged on medical grounds in March 2004 . ‘It still bothers me that I didn’t finish what I started,’ he says. ‘I recently got in contact with all of my platoon, and we can joke up to a certain point, and then they start to joke about things that happened overseas. I missed that whole experience with those guys.’
It left him, he says, with a determination not to fail again. He auditioned again for Juilliard and this time he got in, applying himself to studying drama with military discipline. Adjusting to civilian life wasn’t easy, he says, and he had a lot of anger to deal with.
‘You miss the rigour, the discipline, the camaraderie. You look around you and you don’t see how the skills that you were told were so valuable in the military apply in the civilian community. And then you start to hate civilians a bit because they seem to be kind of doing whatever they want to do, eating whenever they want to eat. And moving so slowly!’
He ran five miles to Juilliard every day, then the same distance back each night. He worked as a janitor and a waiter to help fund his studies, and read avidly, devouring plays and catching up on all the culture he felt he had missed.
He also met Joanne Tucker, a fellow drama student, whom he married in 2013. ‘There’s no way I would be able to process everything that’s happening if she wasn’t around,’ he says. At Juilliard, she helped him set up the non-profit organisation they still run together, Arts in the Armed Forces.
They hold a fundraising event in New York each November and put on performances about three times a year to troops both at home and overseas, with an advisory committee that now includes Susan Sarandon, Debra Winger, Eric Bogosian and Dianne Wiest. ‘We went to Kuwait in August, which was really fun. It was the first time we had been to the Middle East.’ One of the best things about his success, he says, is that when he calls asking for help with his charity, ‘People respond immediately, which is great.’
He insists that he never wanted to be famous, and counted himself lucky, after graduation, that he began doing plays back to back and getting small roles in films such as Clint Eastwood’s 2011 Hoover biopic J Edgar, and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013 (in which Driver appears only briefly, stealing a scene from Justin Timberlake as a singer in a trio recording a novelty hit).
When he auditioned for Girls in 2011, he says he wasn’t too enthusiastic about doing television, but didn’t feel he would get the part anyway. The script called for ‘a handsome carpenter’, and he did not consider himself leading-man material. But he and Lena Dunham, the show’s then 24-year-old creator, clicked from the first reading together.
Driver became her on-screen boyfriend Adam Sackler, an intense, unstable young actor with a penchant for sexual role play. ‘It just felt like a weird project that we were doing at a friend’s house,’ he says of that first season. ‘It was very, very social. Lena would come over to my house all the time. I’d go to her house all the time. And it seemed like we had no budget at all. Which is what I was used to. This is my comfort zone!’
He watched the first episode with Dunham and found it so devastating – all he could see, he says, was his own mistakes – that he has never seen anything he has been in since. ‘I’m full of self-doubt and self-hatred and things I want to change and can’t change. It’s better for me to do it and then not think about it.’
His striking but unconventional looks and his character’s contrary, loud expression of emotion led to critics talking about a new kind of masculinity. He says the attention was all down to the quality of Dunham’s writing – and to his gender. ‘I’m a straight, white male,’ he says sheepishly. ‘There are more opportunities for me. It’s unbalanced, and I’ve known so many amazing actors who, because they’re female, have to audition for parts that are painfully terrible.’
Since the first series aired in 2012, he has juggled Girls with film roles, productions often having to fit around his schedule rather than the other way round. He played a photographer in unfeasibly tiny shorts in the 2013 Australian film Tracks; is hilarious as a hipster exploiting Ben Stiller’s midlife crisis in the thoughtful 2014 comedy While We’re Young; and his performance as an anxious new father in the unnerving 2014 psychological drama Hungry Hearts won him the Volpi Cup for best actor at the Venice Film Festival.
He also plays a lead role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Silence, about Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan. It was filmed in Taiwan last summer, in intense, humid heat, and he and his co-star, Andrew Garfield, both lost well over 30lb for their roles. ‘It made sense: we were playing Jesuit priests in the 17th century who were starved and beaten. But it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, just because of the physical toll it takes on you.’
‘Sometimes you would show up to do scenes and all you had energy for was just to listen and respond. But then sometimes a scene wasn’t working and you’re like, “I have no idea how to figure this out!” Plus you’re waking up three times a night to go to the bathroom because you’re taking all these water pills to drop weight.’
Afterwards, he had only three weeks to recover before starting work on Girls again. ‘The first time I had a scoop of peanut butter, I could literally feel my brain turn on. Suddenly you’re like, “Oh my God, I can think again!’’ He says Dunham’s current plan is that the sixth season of Girls, which they’ll make next year, will be the last.
The series’ success has given him financial stability, he says gratefully, and the luxury of saying no if a part feels wrong. He has a nice house in Brooklyn, and a big dog: a Rottweiler/pit bull cross with an expensive habit of swallowing whole tennis balls. ‘And we can afford to get them out now,’ he adds drily.
He’s uncomfortable when I ask how it will feel to be on lunchboxes, to be a Star Wars action figure. ‘It’s so weird,’ he squirms. ‘It’s exciting, and it’s also terrifying. I’m covered for Christmas presents forever. I’ve been finding cousins I didn’t know I had [since Star Wars]. But I’ve got them all covered!’
Just after 10am, a car arrives to take him to work. He is three weeks into filming the new Jim Jarmusch movie, an apparently comic tale of the relationship between a bus driver and a poet set in a small town in New Jersey. ‘I’m very happy,’ he grins. ‘I mean, Jim Jarmusch is a guy I never dreamed I’d work with.’
As he’s putting his coat on to leave, I ask if he ever had any reservations about going over to the dark side, and he laughs uproariously. ‘That’s where I live!’ he says. ‘I live in the dark side. Constantly reminding ourselves that we’re all going to die soon.’
The Telegraph | Sheryl Garratt | December 17, 2015