Adam Driver interview: from US Marine to Star Wars villain to Jesuit priest
The ‘Silence’ actor talks about fame, working with Scorsese and wrestling with doubt.
In case you haven’t heard, we live in uncertain times. Yesterday’s givens are today’s grey areas. The world is full of passionate conviction on all sides, but God knows where it will take us.
Such is the predicament, too, of the characters in Silence, the new film by Martin Scorsese. An epic exploration of deep faith and profound doubt, it follows two Jesuit missionaries, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, as they seek out a reportedly apostate comrade in 17th-century Japan. It is a labour of love for Scorsese, who worked for 28 years to bring Shusaku Endo’s 1966 source novel to screen. It struck personal chords too for Driver, who had a religious upbringing but now, he tells me, is “trying to practise a life philosophy of not knowing any answer to anything”.
When we meet in the cosy confines of a venerable Mayfair hotel, I am relieved to find him looking well-fed and rested. In Silence he has a hollowed out and haunted look; the role called for considerable weight-loss and long periods spent exposed to the elements on set in Taiwan, which doubles for Japan. “It was challenging,” he says. “But then you’re making a movie about 17th-century persecuted Jesuit priests, so having a trailer and being fat and happy doesn’t seem like it would be helpful to your job.”
Driver, 33, is no stranger to physical rigours. Before studying acting at Juilliard, in the wake of 9/11 he signed up to the US Marine Corps, compelled by “an overwhelming sense of duty”, and only missed deployment to Iraq after breaking his sternum in a biking accident. He says he loved the training and the demands it made on him. “That’s what I liked about it,” he says. “When things get tough on a film set it’s hard to remember training in the Marine Corps but by comparison it’s not so difficult . . . In the grand scheme of things, we’re pretending that the stakes are life and death, as opposed to the stakes are actually life and death.”
Life and death are very much part of Scorsese’s gruelling film, in which the padres come up against not just the brutal persecution of Christians by the ruling shogunate but also the profound spiritual doubts it awakens in them. Of the two, Father Garupe, played by Driver, is the more volatile and questioning, while Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, is more steadfast and mild — or so it seems at first.
“What I liked about the character, or what I related to about him, is his crisis of faith,” Driver says. “The whole movie is about a crisis of faith, but his relationship to it is, I found, very real. I based him on St Peter, who I get in the biblical world. He is full of doubt and likes to express it to everybody.”
Religion once played a significant part in Driver’s childhood, although he says “it’s not a part of my life now”. Born in California but raised in Indiana, young Adam attended church every Sunday and sang in the choir; his stepfather was a Baptist preacher. Has he wrestled with his own beliefs?
“With everything, even marriage,” says the actor, who married actress Joanne Tucker in 2013. “You always have doubts, but there’s always something else that brings you back.”
Scorsese, who was raised and remains a Catholic, has repeatedly incorporated spiritual searching into his films, from Mean Streets to The Last Temptation of Christ to Kundun. In his introduction to a new edition of Endo’s novel, he writes: “On the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe they go hand in hand. One nourishes the other.”
On set, Scorsese practises what he preaches. “It’s very inspiring to see someone at that point in his life and career still go into a scene and not know the answer,” says Driver. “Not wilful ignorance, but openness to not knowing. There are shots that he’s thought about for 28 years . . . but at the same time, when scenes aren’t working, he is open to anything on how to make the best answer.”
As part of their preparation for the film, the actors spent time at a retreat in Wales, where an encounter with a Dominican sister made a particular impression on Driver. “She said to me: ‘I’m very aware that I could get to the end of my life and realise . . . that this entire thing was wrong, that I was wrong about all of it.’ And she’s someone who’s committed her life to this. That kind of mentality, I wish, was applied to more things. I try to apply that to acting, for sure, where saying that you 100 per cent know something is right can be very toxic.”
This constantly questioning nature may be part of what makes Driver such a compelling screen presence. Regardless of the role, there always seems to be a great deal going on beneath the surface. In Lena Dunham’s comedy of millennial manners Girls — the sixth and final season will air in February — Driver’s character is brooding and mercurial often to the point of weirdness; in Noah Baumbach’s generation-clash comedy While We’re Young, in which he starred alongside Ben Stiller, it was never clear whether his ingratiating hipster was being sincere or scheming; even in the new Star Wars trilogy, where he is cast as Darth Vader’s petulant heir and spiritual successor, he found room for ambivalence, lifting one mask only to reveal another.
But nowhere is this truer than in the new Jim Jarmusch film Paterson, currently in UK cinemas, in which Driver stars as the eponymous bus driver, who composes poetry when not driving under the influence of William Carlos Williams. For much of the film Driver does very little: he observes, absorbs, takes notes and writes verses. It’s a mesmerising performance, his impassive face drawing you in, inviting you to read his thoughts.
“What’s good about working with Jim and his writing is that he trusts the audiences would be interested in that,” Driver says. “That that’s cinematic enough: watching someone listen and thinking . . . [Paterson] has a routine that’s very well-worn, a groove in his physical life which allows him to kind of drift away and write poetry.”
One gets the impression that that kind of freedom is something Driver cherishes and that it has become harder to achieve with the kind of fame that comes with being part of a billion-dollar movie franchise.
“Yes, it’s strange, just people being very aware of who you are . . . It’s part of my job as an actor to be a spy and have experiences and fail at doing things and be in the world. When, suddenly, people are looking at you, you’re self-conscious and you want to zone things out, and that’s not helpful, either. In that way it’s strange. As far as a job, it’s great.”
Having helped Scorsese realise his long-held dream, Driver is now on board another famously long-gestating project, alongside Michael Palin: Terry Gilliam’s The Man who Killed Don Quixote. The director’s seemingly cursed efforts to realise this twist on Cervantes were the subject of the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, since when the project has stalled.
Is Driver the lucky charm who helps directors realise their dreams? “I don’t know,” he smiles. “That movie’s been delayed.” Have I just jinxed it again? “Yeah, why did you mention that?” Driver mock admonishes me. “Jesus!” But he remains optimistic. “Hopefully, it’ll come together. I still have faith, and so does Terry, which is amazing.”
It is not the only matter that may require a considerable investment of optimism. When we meet it is just four days before the elections and America is “holding a collective breath”, as Driver puts it. He words his opinion on the presidential race carefully: “I don’t think anything that I’m going to say is really going to move the needle one way or another. I have faith that people will rise to the occasion and do what’s right, if there is such a thing as right.”
Four days later the US and the rest of the world is stunned, if not silent. Those who relish uncertainty have just hit the jackpot.
The Financial Times | Raphael Abraham | December 16, 2016