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“I felt like I was kind of good at it and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just stick with things that I’m good at,’ because I wasn’t really good at anything else,” Adam Driver says of his foray into acting during high school as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter‘s offices to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. Clearly, Driver’s instinct was sound, because today he is one of the most respected and in-demand actors of his generation.
Mid-day on Sunday, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association chose the 33-year-old as 2016’s best actor for his portrayal of a bus driver/poet in Jim Jarmusch‘s indie Paterson. Later in the afternoon, Paramount unveiled Martin Scorsese‘s latest, Silence, for which Driver dropped 51 pounds to portray a 17th century Jesuit priest. Oh, you’ll also see him over the next year, reprising his two most famous roles: Adam Sackler on HBO’s Girls, the sixth and final season of which begins airing in February, and Kylo Ren, Darth Vader’s grandson, in the eighth Star Wars film, which opens across America next December.
In other words, now and for the foreseeable future, it’s Adam Driver’s world and we’re all just living in it.
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, RuPaul and Natalie Portman.)
Driver was born in California but raised in Indiana. After graduating from high school, he auditioned for Juilliard, but was rejected and pursued work as a groundskeeper and telemarketer. Around the time of Sept. 11, 2001, Driver returned home from a failed attempt to live in Los Angeles — aborted after just days when he ran out of cash — and, at his stepfather’s urging, joined the U.S. Marines. “I grew up a lot” over the next two years he says, during which a near-death experience clarified for him his desire to return to acting once he re-entered the civilian world, something that happened sooner than he expected after he broke his sternum during a mountain biking accident. He reapplied to Juilliard, this time with “more life experience,” and was accepted into the BFA program. “I did not have a good time for most of it,” he says candidly. “It’s only in retrospect that I’m like, ‘Oh, that was really valuable.'”
In the professional world, armed with an agent he signed with after standing out in a Juilliard production, Driver quickly began to work — off-Broadway (in 2010’s Angels in America, “the best play I’ve ever worked on”), on Broadway (in 2010’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession and 2011’s Man and Boy, the latter opposite Frank Langella from whom he “learned a lot”), in films (starting with Clint Eastwood‘s J. Edgar) and then, very reluctantly, on television. He describes his view of TV, at the time he auditioned for Girls, as: “F— television. I don’t want to get into that cesspool of vipers.”
Driver quickly changed his thoughts about the small screen after meeting Lena Dunham and learning of the character that she had created for him to play, of whom he says: “He was very much a rhinoceros who can only really see what’s going on in front of him, and runs full force towards that until he gets exhausted, and then finds something else, and has these weird off-center philosophies on life that he really knows nothing about but is fully committed to them. That was always kind of funny to me.” (Not everyone found the character as endearing, he realized, when the show first went on the air in 2012 and he experienced “weeks of going outside and people going, ‘Hey, f— you,’ for no reason.”)
Driver also has been sought after by top-notch film auteurs, and has worked with many, since Eastwood, during breaks from Girls: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and While We’re Young), Abrams and now Scorsese. The Star Wars opportunity was one about which he says he “had a lot of apprehension.” He explains, “I’m very wary of Hollywood movies because I feel like a lot of them sacrifice story for spectacle and it’s very much about effects and results as opposed to characters that you can actually connect with. But the first words out of J.J.’s mouth were about story and character that would propel the plot forward, not an effect, and that was really exciting to me.”
But it is for Paterson, a movie made on a budget akin to the craft services budget of a Star Wars movie — namely, $5 million — that Driver has received the best reviews of his career. For him, the main attraction of the project was Jarmusch: “Solely because he was involved in it, I wanted to be in it,” he says. But he also was drawn to the fact that he would get to play a listener and a thinker, rather than a talker — “I don’t think you get that opportunity a lot,” he adds. Just because the character, who goes about his life for a week in the movie, is a man of few words doesn’t mean Driver’s preparation to play him was simple: He still studied poetry and even got himself a bus driver’s license.
Generally, though, Driver doesn’t have too many specific goals. “I have no plan other than to continue to hopefully work with really great directors,” he says, adding, “if I’m lucky.”
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