Esquire, Sept 2015
Adam Driver is the former US Marine whose startling turn in Girls elevated him to movie stardom and a role as the villain in the new Star Wars film. He’s also one of the most unpredictable, least conventional leading men to emerge in years. And he’s funny, too.
[Photos by Simon Emmett]
[Also at Esquire UK]
It was Driver’s idea to meet at the Frick. He’s never been, and nor have I, and a gallery seems a stimulating place to do an interview. So we show up at 11am, just as the doors are opening on a sweaty Friday morning in Manhattan. And straight away, it’s clear – this wasn’t such a great idea after all.
The Guggenheim and MOMA are young, bustling spaces, alive with modern art and school groups, but the Frick is a hushed, stately building, heavy with stone, a place of Rembrandts and whispering. As soon as we enter, our conversation stops in its tracks. Along with a handful of elderly Dutch tourists, we buy our tickets and oh, the audio commentary’s free? OK, then. And that’s how the interview begins – the two of us standing in silence in front of a Vermeer, listening to some florid English critic in our earpiece get all trembly about “light as a metaphor”.
“What do you think?” Driver says, as the commentary ends. I don’t want to be rude, so I tell him I love it. And we duly sidle over to painting number two, to stand in silence once more, this time before Hans Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More, which has our critic “weak at the knees”.
This wasn’t the plan. I was going to ask him about playing the villain on Star Wars, and about his five seasons on Girls as Lena Dunham’s deviant boyfriend. About playing a hipster on Noah Baumbach’s brilliant While We’re Young, and let’s not forget the Martin Scorsese film he’s just finished, Silence. Adam Driver is on a tear. He’s about to become part of the lexicon. Plus, he’s an ex-marine who joined Juilliard – I want to ask him about that too. There are so many things.
“Oh my God! I love Girls! I’m so nervous!” One of the gallery’s staff, a young Asian girl, appears beside us, hyperventilating. She hands me her iPhone and fans herself. “Can I get a picture? I’m so star struck right now!”
It’s just what we need. The spell of the Frick is broken. I take the picture, and Driver makes a suggestion: “Um… shall we sit down? Or is that weird?” So we find an indoor pond with marble benches along the sides, where we sit gingerly, our voices still at that breathy, library level.
It’s an unusual way to start an interview like this. But then, Driver is an unusual guy.
You’ve seen him before. If not in Girls – and there are men who watch – then in Lincoln or Inside Llewyn Davis. He’s the tall one, at 6’3”, and broad with it – big dude with thick arms, and a chest that has appeared on Girls so often at this point that it has its own twitter account. Today, he’s dressed in black and filmed with sweat, his skin freckled with moles and marks. He has a distinctive face – long, with a prodigious nose, wide ears and dark eyes. A touch of Roger Waters, maybe, or Keanu Reeves warped in the heat. And already, he’s been billed as a new kind of leading man, a reprieve from the pretty boys, your Chris Hemsworths and James Marsdens. Maybe even a return to “real men” whatever they are. Noah Baumbach calls him “a real person.” Shawn Levy, his director in last year’s comedy, This Is Where I Leave You, has described him as “authentic” and “a fucking man.” And maybe it’s true. As masculinity lurches from new men to new lads to whatever we’re on now, celebrities will inevitably reflect the change.
But Driver’s not the best example. He’s too much of an original, a wild card. On the face of it, he’s just a 31 year old actor who lives in Brooklyn Heights, with his actress wife of two years, Joanne Tucker, and their puppy Moose. But look closer – how many actors have a military background? There were a few in the old days – Gene Hackman and Steve McQueen were marines, and Humphrey Bogart was in the navy, Paul Newman too. Today, however, it’s just Driver. And a 31 year old without a Facebook page or Twitter account? When I mention Instagram, he asks, “what’s that?” The same goes for Yelp. He might be on a generation-defining show like Girls, but he’s not particularly attuned to his generation at all.
“That probably sounds fucking pretentious: ‘oh I don’t identify with anyone in my generation! I’m bigger than my time!’” he says. “But it actually freaks me out a bit.”
In While We’re Young, he plays a young hipster who befriends an older documentary filmmaker (Ben Stiller) in a beautifully observed generational comedy. Driver’s character is ambitious and manipulative, with an eye for the short cut and an instinct for marketing. Stiller, however, plays the earnest artist, so wrapped up in outdated notions of artistic integrity that he’s stuck in a rut.
“I identify with Ben’s character more,” says Driver. “Like in acting, I think older actors are more disciplined. There’s something about them still doing it, like they’ve survived that long.”
I tell him that, to me, it’s the other way around – his generation seems more focused, more serious, with their curated lives, their particular tastes. Us fortysomethings grew up a bit more slapdash and reckless.
“Really?” Driver looks puzzled. “You can take things too seriously, I suppose. I think about that. Because acting isn’t really about me, it’s collaborative, so is it egotistical to belabor everything? Plus do you want to look back and wish you enjoyed your life more, which would probably make you a better actor, than if you locked yourself in your room and committed to your craft?” He looks at the pond, his brow furrowed. “I got lost on a tangent. What the fuck am I talking about?”
You’re being serious about your art.
He sighs. “Maybe you’re right. But I blame the Internet. For the older generation everything wasn’t out there on the Internet, so they could fuck off and make mistakes. I love hearing those great old actors talk about their lives – you can see that they’re not as precious. But for us, everything’s online. How does an actor suspend disbelief that you’re this other person when everyone knows so much about you? They’ve already labeled you in their minds. And that’s the other thing – everyone’s a critic now. Which is good in one sense, but also, everything’s just so fucking mediocre, it’s so PC and aimed to please… knuckleheads!” He laughs. “That’s the kind of word my grandfather would use. That’s how out of date I am. I’ve lost my train of thought again.”
You’re turning into a ranting old man.
“I am! Usually I’m alone and totally naked in my room wearing a hat I made out of paper. So this is good – I’m actually out in public, wearing clothes.”
Driver is known for his seriousness and discipline, his all-or-nothing approach. It’s one of the reasons he’s so well suited to his character on Girls, who in Lena Dunham’s words, is “utterly committed to whatever task he’s attacking, be it acting, sex or wood working.” He was the first person to audition for the role and Dunham was struck by his “originality and complexity”. But equally, she says, “I would be lying if I said that at first his single mindedness and focus didn’t intimidate me.”
His training as a marine plays a part, no doubt, in his tendency to go all out. But it was there before the military. In fact, it was what led him to enlist in the first place.
As long as he can remember, Driver longed to escape. He was born in San Diego, the son of a preacher, but his parents divorced when he was seven, and his mom took him and his sister to the small town of Mishawaka, Indiana. She married again, another preacher, this time a Baptist minister. And all Adam wanted from day one, was to leave.
“It was a classic American high school, prom king and queen and shit like that,” he says. “And I did what everyone did, which was smoke and drink and climb radio towers. We did donuts in the parking lots in our shitty cars. And everyone seemed to be pregnant.” Typically Adam went one step further – he started his own Fight Club, inspired by the movie, behind a marquee that locals would rent for their weddings. The company was called Celebrations Unlimited.
He knew even then that he wanted to act. His grandfather had a VHS collection of over 500 tapes, every one numbered and labeled: “They were important things, I could tell.” So after high school, he applied to Juilliard, the most prestigious arts college in America. “Go big or go home” could be his motto. He was rejected, but not deterred. Rather, he announced to his family and his girlfriend that he was off to Hollywood to become a star.
It’s little wonder he wanted out. He was selling vacuum cleaners at the time, and doing telemarketing for a basement water proofing firm. “I asked this lady if her husband was there, and she said, ‘no, he died.’ And burst into tears,” he says, grinning. Home, too, had its problems. His relationship with his parents was fractious. He had to pay them $200 rent and come in the back door – if he used the front door, he would have to knock. “I even had to buy my own little refrigerator and microwave. I think it was to teach me independence, but it was really like – what the fuck?” (When Driver later booked Girls, he didn’t tell his parents. As he once said, “what would I tell them? That I just masturbated on some girl’s chest?”)
So he lugged his fridge and microwave into his Lincoln town car, and made a big production of leaving. “I told my girlfriend – it’s going to be hard, but we’ll figure out a way!” Things went wrong within hours. He broke down outside of Amarillo, Texas, and just fixing the car nearly cleaned him out. When he made it to a youth hostel in Santa Monica, he fell prey to a scam agency. “That one where you give them $500 and they find you an apartment?” he says. “Yeah, that didn’t work out.” The few random shops he tried weren’t hiring. So after a couple of hapless days he gave up and spent the rest of his money on gas for the return journey, pulling into his drive at home, barely a week after he’d left.
“I moved my refrigerator right back to where it was. I called my girlfriend, and said – are we still on?” He laughs. “The thing is, I could have borrowed money from my parents out there, but I was like – no! I’d rather fail on my own terms! In complete shame!”
It’s just gone 12, so I suggest that we find somewhere with coffee maybe, somewhere we can talk above a whisper. He shrugs – sure. So we leave the gallery, and find a restaurant down the street. Air conditioning, iced water, and a waitress. And instantly, he looks delighted. “Oh this is so much better than the freaking Frick! What was I thinking?”
Right, where were we? Oh yes, back in Mishawaka. OK.
Then 9/11 happened, which spurred him onto joining the military. Any way to get out of Mishawaka really, but war seemed especially “badass”. He opted for the marines for the same reason he applied to Juilliard: “it was the toughest option.” And it had a profound effect on him. Driver can talk all day about the discipline, the camaraderie, the bond that’s forged “that doesn’t match anything else in the world.” Even now, he suspects that civilian life is frivolous. “You learn a lot about people by the way they respond to stressful circumstances,” he says. “You hang out with friends here, but are they really your friends? Shoot some live ammunition at them, and see how quickly they save… themselves.”
Remarkably, Driver never served. After two years of training at Camp Pendleton, he fell off a mountain bike, broke his sternum, and was deemed unfit for service. It crushed him. “I tried to prove that I was OK,” he says. “I would put my gas mask and pack on and go for runs. I would take all these painkillers and lift weights. But it didn’t work. So yeah – there’s a lot of guilt. It was hard. Suddenly, I’m a cushy civilian again, at acting school, going to Starbucks and everyone’s getting fucking facials. And you’re like, ‘where do I fit in here?’ That feeling just continued!”
He reapplied to Juilliard, and got in this time. And he approached acting with a marine’s work ethic. Every morning, he’d wake up before dawn in Astoria, Queens, cook and eat six eggs, and then run five miles to college, where he was both student and part time janitor. After a full of day of classes, evening rehearsals, and more janitor work, he’d run home again, to binge watch Fellini and Cassavettes. He wanted to catch up on the culture he’d missed while training with the marines. It’s as though Rocky went to film school. A tad extreme maybe?
“Yeah, it’s exhausting for everyone around me!” he laughs. “And it was all self-induced too. I figured I would make it as tough as possible, because then you grow, right? Or maybe it was to offset the cushiness of acting, the guilt? I’m not sure.”
It was a culture shock, on the one hand, to go from military bootcamp to “I am a tree” exercises at Juilliard. But there were also similarities – a small group that’s forced to become intimate very quickly, a collaborative effort with a leader. It’s a structure that suits Driver well. And in short order, small parts led to bigger ones – a role in Lincoln, opposite Daniel Day Lewis, then the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, and ultimately Girls, which swung the doors wide open.
He still wonders whether acting matters at all. While he still sees his friends from the marines from time to time, he has lost touch with most everyone from Juilliard. Everyone except his wife, Joanne, with whom he founded Arts in the Armed Services back in 2006, a non-profit that puts on theater for a military audience. It’s still a big part of his life. Stars like Susan Sarandon and Jake Gyllenhaal take part. They’re off to do a show in Kuwait in August. There’s a performance on Broadway every November.
“It’s like continuing your service,” he says. “It justifies some of the bullshit that surrounds acting. I mean, I get sent free pants. What’s that about? Is this my career? Fighting cancer, there’s an honorable occupation. Being a teacher. But this fucking free pants bullshit. I’m such a pampered asshole! And I always fuck them up and wash them. You’re meant to shower with them and put them in the freezer or some shit. But who cares, they’ll always send more! You should come to my house, all my furniture is covered in jeans. I use it as upholstery!”
Like a lot of actors, Driver tries to avoid seeing anything he’s in – and that goes for reviews and magazine interviews too. Google is a rabbit hole of insecurity. And watching himself is just painful. “I saw the pilot of Girls with Lena on her laptop,” he says, “and I was like, ‘this is fucking terrible.’ Not the show, but the experience.”
He wrestles with the idea, as he does with most things – maybe he should watch himself, “to learn from my mistakes”, but then again, “the things I respond to in art are unperfect and unpolished.” Either way, avoiding himself is about to become a lot harder what with Star Wars coming out. “Oh yeah,” he says. “I’m already going fucking nuts, looking at people out my window and throwing peanuts at them.”
He got the call from his agent on the set of Girls a couple of years ago – JJ Abrams would like to meet. So he flew to LA for a “get to know you” meeting, and that was it. Ever since, he has been flying back and forth from New York to Pinewood Studios, to knock around with Han Solo and the gang. “Everyone turns into four year olds around Chewie. They all want a hug,” he says. “It’s like, ‘we really got to work. Can someone pull our DP off Chewie?’”
He can’t say much about Star Wars. “If I tell you any of the story I’ll be shot,” he says. So instead he offers clichés, like, “everyone on set is so good at their job,” and “it was an organic process.” And he knows how corny it sounds. He apologizes along the way. Here’s another: “You get these moments where you realize – wow, you’re part of Star Wars, you can’t fuck up!” He laughs. “Actually that says more about my ego than anything else. Like it’s all on me! Yeah, I walked into JJ’s office – I kicked in the fucking door – and I said, ‘I got this. Don’t worry. Go ahead and take a vacation!’”
What he can reveal is that Star Wars didn’t feel like a blockbuster as they were making it. The experience was not unlike an indie movie, just with bigger budgets. “With JJ, it’s all about character and story, not special effects,” he says. “And we still talk about character now. Whenever I’ve worked with great directors, it’s always that way. You’re constantly finding it. Things evolve and change even as you’re filming.”
Martin Scorsese, for instance, had planned to make Silence for 20 years – a story about two 17th century Jesuit priests who are sent to Japan to save a fellow priest who is said to have apostasized. A kind of Saving Jesuit Ryan based 400 years ago. (Driver and Andrew Garfield play the two priests.)
“I thought after all that time, he would just know what it was going to be – like, this is it, you stand over there, you go here. But no, Marty wants to see what you bring. He knows what the story is, but how you get there is up for debate.”
Scorsese invited Driver to his home in New York, to offer him the part in person. “It was the happiest I’ve ever been to get a job,” he says. “For me, he’s the tip of the spear. His movies are so smart, so personal, so aggressive. I could go on. And when you meet him, he’s so humble and filled with doubt. And it’s a comforting and terrible thing to watch, because he’s been doing it for so long but he still hasn’t got it all figured out. He’ll walk on set and adapt in the moment.”
They shot in Taiwan earlier this year. And it was grueling – both Driver and Garfield had to lose a lot of weight. “I didn’t do it to get attention,” Driver says quickly. “It was for the story!” Before flying out, he lost 30 lbs, and then during the course of the shoot, he lost another twenty, dropping eventually from 208 lbs to 157 lbs.
“It’s coffee all day, that’s a given,” he says. “A shake in the morning, then a protein and vegetables at night. If you need energy, you chew these fiber gummies. There was this one time we were on a boat attached by a rope to shore, and they were switching cameras at lunchtime. So we had a panoramic view of everyone on set eating dumplings. And we were standing on deck, two guys dressed as priests, yelling at them: ‘you fucking assholes!’ Marty was on the shore laughing – ‘sucks to be you!’”
It doesn’t, of course. Virtually nothing sucks about being Driver right now. He’s happily married, his career’s peaking, he’s working with his heroes and living in his “favorite city on earth” – all by the age of 31. He might have arrived here by a novel route, but he has arrived all right. He’s on his way.
We pay up and head back to the Frick, where a black Mercedes awaits – Driver’s driver has been waiting there the whole time.
“You realize we did this whole thing backwards?” he says. “Now that we’ve talked, it would actually be quite nice to see the Frick. Oh well – next time!” He opens the door and extends his hand. It’s all very fluid and assured, uncharacteristically slick for Driver. But he won’t let go of my hand. He looks troubled.
“Actually, I might never see you again. And I probably won’t see this interview either. So um…”
And for a moment we just stand there, wondering what to say next.