LWLies talks to the actor whose star is currently in swift and unstoppable ascent.
“I’m gonna send you home to your parents covered in cum,” says Adam Driver to Lena Dunham in the first season of Girls with endearing intensity, like he absolutely needs to get those exact words off his chest. Driver’s characters are not glib or sarcastic. Comedy comes at their expense not with their complicity. Remember how he startled Oscar Isaac with the vocal range channeled over the words ‘outer’ and ‘space’ in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. In Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, Driver’s serious edge gives grounding to Jamie, a hipster filmmaker who might otherwise seem flyaway and amoral. It beggars belief that this idiosyncratic, charming, indie performer will feature in Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens but this is what 2015 contains, as well as – less surprisingly – a role in Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special. We spoke to the exceptionally polite Driver while he was in Taiwan about to start production on another massively significant collaboration, working with Martin Scorsese on Silence.
Your character, Jamie, has quite a manipulative approach to creativity. How much honesty do you think is necessary when it comes to filmmaking?
100 percent. When I first read the script the character that I identified the most with was Ben Stiller’s character, Josh. I see the benefit of discipline and in living with something for a long time even though the process is annoying, so it was tough for me to find a way in. I judge my own generation for appropriating items they have not lived with. There’s a benefit in boredom and not being so inter-connected and being alone with your thoughts and all those things. But Jamie, in the story, does create something from nothing and works fast. Josh has been labouring over the same thing for years and has, at a certain point, made what he’s working on way too precious and self-important and that’s also limiting whereas Jamie in a matter of days has created something. It’s up to everyone else to judge what that is but that ambition is an attractive quality in a person and getting off on the inter-connectedness of everything is not my first impulse but I see how that’s charming.
What is the trick to sitting with ideas for long enough that they mature but not so long that they fester?
That’s a tricky thing about acting that I don’t think I’ll ever figure out. There’s a danger in both. If there’s anything I rediscover any time I get to work on something, it’s not knowing an answer to anything. I try to practice that also in life as much as possible. Not knowing always leads to something more gratifying than feeling that you have the right answer. Obviously, you can’t skip steps and you should do the work. I don’t really have a set process or a certain way I have to do things. I also think it’s a mistake for me to have a way of working that I want to impose on everyone else, that I want them to adapt to. I always think that there’s so much information in not knowing a right answer.
Do you have any advice on developing self-discipline?
I don’t, no, not really. I was very fortunate in that I just was put in situations where I felt the benefit, whether it be running or anything, really. I actually hate having to go through the process. I want to jump to the answer right away and it seems like everything in life tells you that you have to slow down but I have no advice because I feel like it’s something that I will practice and rehearse until I die.
Is acting a job-for-life then?
I hope I get to do it for a life. There’s nothing else that I would rather do.
Do you think that it helps to ground you that you lived a different life before acting and celebrity?
I’ve just had different experiences, which have definitely helped shape who I get to be as an actor. What better acting training than being stuck in the military with a bunch of 18 or 19 year-olds who are just being crazy because they’re away from home and missing family or handling machine guns. We didn’t have any money, really, growing up and that’s a really great experience to have. It shapes you and you get to live life and have mistakes. Being raised in a small town in Indiana I’m so grateful for that experience even though at the time I couldn’t wait to get out.
Do you ever imagine what your younger self would have made of what you’re doing now?
I wouldn’t have been able to believe it. I was just thinking about this recently, not about acting, but it’s coming up on ten years that I’ve lived in New York. When I first moved to New York I had two big sea bags and they were just filled with clothes. I was living in Hoboken, New Jersey, in my uncle’s closet. He was living on the top floor of a house that didn’t have a kitchen. I stayed in his closet because that was the largest space on the ground to sleep. I stayed there for a couple of weeks until I found a room to rent from someone on Craigslist. I was walking to all the restaurants in that area, thinking, ‘I’ll just get a job and be a waiter and start school.’ I now have a really great group of friends and I get to make a living doing what I love to do and I get to travel, which is like a huge thing. I can’t imagine myself getting to go to Taiwan being from Mishawaka, Indiana.
Read more in LWLies 58: the While We’re Young issueBuy the mag
What are the main differences between working on a small, indie film like While We’re Young and working on a massive, massive, massive movie?
The amenities around you are a little better on a big budget movie than they are on a smaller movie but it doesn’t really make a difference. It’s not like suddenly the catering is better on Star Wars than on While We’re Young and it’s going to make you a better actor. I was lucky that it was JJ Abrams directing Star Wars. He is someone, like Noah, or like the Coen Brothers or Scorsese, if it doesn’t make sense to the story or the characters then everything else is secondary. In that sense they are all the same. Something like Star Wars is maybe a little bit different because so many people have a frame of reference for that but as far as big budget or small budget, you just have to make sense and be real and be truthful.
Do you think being a hipster is an actual thing or is it a nonsense construction?
It’s probably a bit of both. There is kind of like a mindset of appropriating history but at the same time I don’t think anyone can really judge anybody or, certainly, label them as something. I don’t know what makes hipsters so I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you.
It seems like you’re wary of pop cultural trends.
Whenever a large group of people suddenly feel like, ‘We’re all going to do this thing’ there’s something in my DNA that never seemS to want to go that route. It just seems to close you off to so many other possibilities. I’m not saying that as a prophet or someone who’s good at practicing that. I am more skeptical of things that are mass-produced.
Are you concerned about navigating Hollywood?
I’m still at the beginning… I don’t know if it’s even fair to say that I’m at the beginning because I could be at the end of a career. For me to say that I’ll never do a certain thing because there’s no value in it, it isn’t really up to whatever the form is. There is some value in doing something that you maybe don’t understand but you tried that experience and you know what you like and don’t like about it. I have opinions about all the Hollywood movies that I see that just suck. There are so many of them and, god, you can rail against them and they’re not really about creating anything, they’re about selling something and that’s terrible. I feel no pressure to do any of that but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t smart directors that are still trying to find a smart way to work within a studio system. It doesn’t really matter the size of the film or if it’s a cartoon movie about foxes or whatever. If there’s an interesting character and I feel like the people around it are really after something and I’m lucky enough to get the job then that’s pretty great and the structure around it doesn’t matter.
Are you good at reading from the outset whether the people and material involved chime with what you’re after?
I feel like I just have an impulse about something, and I usually do no-brainers. If you get asked, ‘Do you want to do a movie with the Coen brothers?’ That’s a no-brainer. ‘Do you want to work with Martin Scorsese?’ Sure. I’ve been fortunate to be put in a lot of situations where the people involved just seem to do the work for me. Or not the work for me, but it just made the choices obvious ones. I’m a bit thick, so if I feel myself being wishy-washy about something then it’s hard to commit.
“I’m still trying to figure out what it is that I’m doing and what acting means. Who knows if it means anything?”
You’re not thick. Why do you say that?
You can take things too seriously and suddenly you take yourself too seriously and it’s good to be light even though the world is dark and we all die alone. It’s a tricky thing to spend your life balancing.
Is your growing star profile playing havoc with this balancing act?
I try to stay detached from all that and try to not let anything get in the way of being a person. It’s not really my job to make it about myself. There are other people involved. My wife keeps me very grounded. I’m also a straight, white male so I’ve had more opportunities than other people, completely unjustly, so you put it in perspective. I’m, like, surrounded by really inspiring people so I try to focus on that as much as possible. I say that, but that’s a really hard thing to practice, especially when you lose your anonymity and suddenly you start thinking that you have something important to say or everything gets way too serious. It’s not really about any of that. I don’t know what it is about. I’m still trying to figure out what it is that I’m doing and what acting means. Who knows if it means anything?
It sounds like you’re talking about the sweet spot at the core, which is your actual reason for doing things, which you’re still trying to figure out.
Martin Scorsese has been doing it for so long but you still see that drive to figure it out, do it better, do things more economically, go a little deeper, take it less seriously or take it more seriously. A great thing about being an actor and why actors hopefully get to do what they do for a long time is because you never get to figure it out. There’s a constant investigation that is both – when I see it in older actors – exciting and really terrifying because one, you never figure anything out and that’s great and two, you never figure anything out and that’s petrifying.
On the one hand you have eloquent theories of what it all means but on the other hand you’re like ‘maybe it means nothing’.
It fuckin’ sucks! I got to talk to a woman in the church in the Dominican sect of Catholicism and she was saying that it’s all a big risk. She’s devoted her life to something that could very much not be true. Maybe it’s all about enjoying the experience which… I don’t enjoy either. I feel like the best part of the job – and maybe you relate to this as a writer – is getting the job. Then, it’s all second-guessing yourself and doubt and the anguish at doing at.
It’s also enjoyable when work is accepted by others. Is that the same for you?
It’s better than people saying that they don’t like it and they’re not going to give you a job, but at the same time, not to sound completely joyless, sometimes people offer interpretations that are completely different to the way you were working. It’s good, but you always have to take it with a grain of salt. You didn’t get there alone. Well, maybe you did, probably, more so than other people because you’re a writer, but for me I’m supported by writing, directing, lighting, editing, you know – thank god! It’s all so people can’t see the mistakes and you can pass around the responsibility. But yeah, I’m sounding like a total fucking pessimist. When people respond to your work, who am I kidding, that feels really great and that’s good and gratifying, but it’s not really anything you can hang your hat on. You can’t look for other people’s praise to push you forward because that’s also a trap.
Sorry for that really high-pitched laugh. It was because of the dramatic way you said ‘total fucking pessimist’.
No, that’s okay. I’m so in my head with what I’m saying I didn’t even hear.
Great. I’ll just release occasional laughs in the security that…
No. I’m lying, I did hear it and I’m judging you.
You say you’re really pessimistic but that can’t be the whole truth. When you’re in a good relationship, surely that brings some lightness?
If you’re lucky, because I feel like a lot of people don’t have that in their life – even in that I’ve scored a jackpot, even with my friends who challenge me. A weird thing that I’m learning about acting is that the more you get to do, the more public you become. Anonymity and being a spy is what your job is, so suddenly to feel like you can’t participate in things is tricky. It’s important to make mistakes, to be a failure and to live recklessly. That’s why it was kind of difficult at first to relate to Jamie. That mindset of interconnectedness, sharing everything and being so out there and open, for me – and I can only speak for myself because some people are better developed – it’s not my impulse, because who gives a shit. And also, that’s your stuff. Feeling the pressure to make things perfect or apologise or watch what you say or just how scary the internet it and how wildly inaccurate it almost all is, it can make you really want to not be a person. It’s a tricky thing. In the past couple of years, and now, I’m still finding a way to navigate. I’m not on the internet really, like social media. The internet’s a crazy place and just the way our culture is – phones and shit like that. It’s a tricky thing to still be a person and do my job.
Are you more like Jamie than Josh in the sense that you try to make your life about physical things rather than digital ones?
Yeah, it’s also because I just don’t understand computers. My thumbs are really just too big. If I had skinnier thumbs I think I would be more technologically savvy. It just gets me really frustrated trying to type so many things. It takes me just double the time to do it. If I had skinnier fingers I would have a completely different philosophy so that’s why I think I like tactile things.
How big exactly are your thumbs?
They’re big. I wish I could show you.
Can you give me a household object of comparable size?
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