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The Unconventional Adam Driver

On the cover of the January 2016 issue of L’Uomo Vogue, shot by Terry Richardson, here is Adam Driver: among the most interesting actors of his generation

He has a vaguely Cubist face, all sharp angles, his features somewhere between Keanu Reeves and Charles Bronson, prominent nose and ears, a penetrating gaze. And above all a magnetism, a strong presence to which his athletic, discus-thrower physique contributes significantly. Adam Driver has just returned from Japan – he’d been in Asia to promote Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans; he’s polite, open and shy. But with his 6’3” frame he does not go unnoticed. I had originally planned to interview him at a table in the garden of the Beverly Hills hotel where we were to meet, but that didn’t work – we had to move indoors to avoid the curious stares of the other guests. Curious is also a good word to describe Driver, an undoubtedly unusual artist in the context of American film and television. Until three years ago, hardly anyone knew him. Sure, he’d been noticed in a few indie films – from Tracks with Mia Wasikowska and Hungry Hearts by Saverio Costanzo to the existential comedies of Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha and the more recent While We’re Young – and had made an impression with his slightly bizarre, quirky but never caricatured performances. In those films, Driver seemed to throw himself into little traveled psychological spaces, from which he conveyed to the viewer a sense of embarassment and unease. His Adam in Girls, the cult TV series created by Lena Dunham (where he plays the boyfriend of the Hannah, the lead character), is unforgettable: shameless, gentle, selfish, narcissistic, talented, aimless, and compellingly natural in the messy and never choreographed sex scenes.

Bewitched by that role, directors like Steven Spielberg and the Coen brothers weren’t about to let him get away: the former hired him for Lincoln, the latter for Inside Llewyn Davis. And then Scorsese chose him to star, along with Andrew Garfield, in his latest film, Silence (which we’ll see in 2016, ed.), and visionary director Jim Jarmusch cast him as the bus driver/poet in Paterson. A role that is emblematic of Driver’s own profound dualism: an ex Marine who imagined a military career and instead became an actor; a guy who craves recognition and approval but who fears the fame and consequences that come with it; a committed and scrupulous actor who is also happy to pose for Vogue or a Gap jeans ad campaign, shirtless with the by now famous sheep on his shoulders. And who today, at 32 years old, is often considered one of the most interesting actors of his generation. “It’s true, as an actor I often experience deep contradictions: the urgency of preparing every last detail collides with the need to surrender and let go when I enter the character. The same thing happens in my personal life, which must be structured, ordered. Without the stability of a routine and certain habits, I know I’d descend into total chaos”.

Back in the day there existed the figure of the Hollywood star who had also been a war hero: James Stewart was a brigadier general, Gene Hackman and Humphrey Bogart were Marines, Morgan Freeman was a fighter pilot. But show me a young actor today who has been through official military training… The rigor and discipline of that experience was crucial for Driver in becoming the actor he is today: obedient, perfectionist, always attentive. The same can’t be said for his life, which has never followed a smooth, predictable or rational path, and his choices in fact reflect a dichotomy of desires and directions that are often incongruous.

Born in San Diego, California, after his parents’ divorce Adam followed his mother to Indiana, specifically the industrial city of Mishawaka, where he grew up in the lower middle-class periphery. “It wasn’t a Norman Rockwell painting, if you know what I mean. I lived in a one-story house right next to the projects. Very depressing”. He was troubled, dissatisfied, a rebel with a great desire to be somewhere else. So one morning, he left. “I was 17 and I wanted to be an actor, I took a bag and a few things, the little bit of cash I’d saved doing odd jobs, and started driving to Los Angeles. The car died and I spent everything I had to fix it, I got to Santa Monica without a penny and within 48 hours I was already on my way back home”. After the events of 11 September 2001 – and to make a clean break from his life in Indiana – he enlisted in the Marines. He liked the structured military life and the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers; he would have gladly gone to fight in Afghanistan, but a cycling accident fractured his sternum and ended his military career. So he went to New York, enrolled at the Juilliard School and dove headfirst into acting. He furiously devoured playwrights, studied classic films (his favorites are Ordinary People and The Last Tango in Paris) and learned, learned, learned, in the meantime inventing a new life, a new world. And most of all discovering the importance of words, of their intrinsic and real meaning, learning to use them to express himself, to make himself understood. “In my family there was no emphasis on the importance of language. It was the theater that got me started reading, it was there that I began my transformation: I noticed that I was less aggressive now that I could finally put a name to the things that frustrated me. I started becoming more reasonable, noticing how this was reflected in the people around me”.

While he speaks, Driver looks you square in the eye, alternating moments of shyness with spurts of disarming sincerity. He is involved in the conversation, striving to give you responses that make sense: he thinks, suddenly adds a comment, edits and corrects himself, then picks up the original thread, often concluding with “but I don’t want to come off as presumptuous”. If fame and popularity embarrass him, doubt torments him: “I ask myself questions that have no answer, like, how can I perfect my craft as an actor – because for me an actor is a spy, someone who must observe others without being seen – when I’m no longer free to leave my house? So I end up closing myself off more and more, building barriers that isolate me from the real world”. He pauses. “But then again, this is all new to me, I’m still young and I’m learning”. His experience on the set of Silence with Martin Scorsese (in which Driver plays Padre Francisco Garupe, a Jesuit from the 17th century, persecuted during a missionary trip to Japan) was illuminating in this regard. “Scorsese is an extraordinary director, and I had already resolved to follow his direction to the letter, without ever protesting. But he kept prodding me, “what do you think of this scene, what about this expression?”. He wanted me to rebel against him, to surprise him with something unexpected that he hadn’t thought about. That’s an incredible quality in a filmmaker of his caliber. Scorsese is still continually searching for a new language, new nuances. His struggle was an inspiration”.

Driver’s wife, the actress Joanne Tucker, whom he met at Juilliard and married two years ago, is another fundamental presence in his life. Together they founded Arts in the Armed Forces, a non-profit organization that brings theater to military bases. “It’s difficult for me to stay in touch with my old Marine friends spread out all over the world. It was even more difficult explaining to them what I was up to at Juilliard, like the acting exercises in pajamas, pretending to hold a cup of coffee to find my “inner color”. But I’m convinced that theater can help those who are fighting far from home. It’s important to face certain feelings, and somehow find the words to express what’s inside. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that we need to think about what’s happening, describe it, talk about it”. A few months earlier he went to Kuwait, something that other actors occasionally do, like Susan Sarandon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Laura Linney. But there’s another big challenge just around the corner: the new episode of Star Wars. In the most anticipated film of the past decade, already an unprecedented global phenomenon, Driver is Kylo Ren, an adept of the dark side of the Force, a tall dark figure complete with mask and light saber. When he removes his helmet in the final scenes and his pale, suffering face appears on the screen, there is no longer any doubt: he is the most extraordinary character in the saga. “It was a surreal experience”. That’s all he says, lowering his eyes.

L’Uomo Vogue | Alessandra Venezia | January 13, 2016

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