Adam Driver, From U.S. Marines to 'Star Wars'

He was the male protagonist in Girls, played the bus driver-poet in Paterson and Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi. What can we expect now from Adam Driver?

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Adam Driver in New York, Dec. 13, 2016.
Adam Driver in New York, Dec. 13, 2016. Credit: Geordie Wood / The New York Time
Uri Klein
Uri Klein
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Occasionally an actor or actress arrives on the cinematic landscape who, in addition to talent, possesses a distinctive visual presence, enhancing the surroundings with a flair of their own. It usually takes some time before their name is etched in our consciousness, and this is so in the case of Adam Driver, who is emerging as one of the most interesting stars of his generation (hes 34). Even if his face has been widely known since his appearance, beginning in 2012, as Adam Sackler, the unstable friend of Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) in the hyper-resonant television series Girls, Im not sure that many recognized his name. That took the tens of millions of fans of the Star Wars series, who know every detail of every one of the films. In the first two parts of the current trilogy (The Force Awakens, 2015, and The Last Jedi, now in worldwide release), Driver plays Kylo Ren, the son of Princess Leia and Han Solo (from whom we parted in the previous movie), serving the evil side in the war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness.

Driver doesnt belong to the group of young stars of his age who populate American cinema today, all of them with similar pretty faces that make it hard for me to tell them apart (and the fact that a few of them are named Chris doesnt help). Driver doesnt connect with this group. His sharp features, narrow eyes, prominent nose, his mouth – which often expresses displeasure or even rage – and his lean figure (until the Star Wars films, ahead of which he underwent a physical fitness regimen) create his becoming-unbecoming exterior, the kind that the cinema often loves to love for its photogenic qualities.

The last time I encountered an actor with these visual traits who became a star was when I first saw Adrian Brody, who is exactly 10 years older than Driver, on the screen. His seemingly imperfect appearance also made him perfect for prestigious ads. I dont know whether Driver has also done advertising, or wants to, but I can definitely picture him in an ad for a high-end fashion label or a well-known perfume.

Because of his looks, and because of the popularity hes now enjoying thanks to his roles in the Star Wars episodes, theres extensive interest in his origins, propelled by his somewhat exotic facial features. Driver, though, is as American as apple pie. His fathers origins lie in Arkansas, his mothers family is from Indiana, and Driver himself was born in San Diego in 1983. His stepfather is a Baptist minister. When Driver was seven, his mother and older sister returned to Indiana, where he grew up and, he says, just caused trouble. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks he joined the Marines, served for almost three years and was discharged following an accident. He attended the University of Indianapolis for a year before switching to Juilliard to study theater. Before embarking on a television and film career, he appeared in a number of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.

In cases in which an actor seems to stand out suddenly on the movie screen, I try to remember when I first noticed him – in this case, even before I saw him in Girls. I dont remember him from his small role in Clint Eastwoods J. Edgar (2011), his first film. I do recall him in Frances Ha, Noah Baumbachs 2012 movie, but in Lincoln, Steven Spielbergs film, also released in 2012 – the year Driver burst onto the television screen – hes swallowed up in my memory among the many other fine actors.

In 2013, he had a minor role in Inside Llewen Davis, the fine film by Joel and Ethan Coen. In the years in which he appeared in Girls he also played supporting roles in a few independent movies. The best-known of them is While Were Young, also by Baumbach, a comedy in which Driver plays a young husband who, together with his wife (Amanda Seyfried), rattle the married life of an older couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts).

But despite the skill of his performance in Baumbachs film and the quality of his work in Girls, he didnt yet pique my curiosity as an actor. He seemed to me more of a type than an interesting actor, and I definitely did not anticipate his next movie appearance. Possibly it even seemed to me that television was more his metier than films.

Enigmatic quality

All of that changed in 2016, when the director Jim Jarmusch, whose work is suffused with the enigmatic, spotted the enigmatic quality ingrained in Drivers persona and chose him to play the bus driver-poet named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey, in his film Paterson. (Could the actors surname also have inclined the director, whos fond of chance occurrences, to choose Driver?) Jarmuschs film has a feeling of Asian stoicism, expressed in part by the plot structure, which repeats itself with minor variations, and is personified in the quiet restraint of Drivers appearance and presence. Indeed, even when Driver plays unstable characters, or those who are buffeted by fate, restraint governs his performance, which makes him the kind of actor I always prefer.

Paterson ends with a wonderful scene in which Paterson meets a poetry lover who has come to the city from Japan because it was the home of the poet William Carlos Williams, whom both he and Paterson admire. (The guest from Japan is played by the splendid Masatoshi Nagase, whom we saw in Naomi Kawases film Sweet Bean.) Driver himself was in Japan that year for his next film, the most prestigious to date: Martin Scorseses Silence. He plays one of two Portuguese Catholic priests who are sent to 17th-century Japan as missionaries. The film is rife with dramatic events, yet a sense of sluggishness hangs over it – its length doesnt work in its favor, either – and it was a box office failure. In addition, the movies focus was on the character played by Andrew Garfield, and Drivers role got a bit lost. Still, even this secondary part attested to his ability to convey existential loneliness and the torments of a divided soul.

Those qualities are also on display in the first two films of the current Star Wars trilogy, and make his appearance in them so effective, particularly in the new film. As shaped by Driver, Kylo Ren seems to be locked inside himself, subject to the control of the Supreme Commander, but also insulated from him by the severity that characterizes the evil he is supposed to represent; this splits his character between strength and weakness, which clash with each other like good and bad.

If theres a certain narrative simplicity in the Star Wars movies, which must stick to the formulae and laws of the series, Drivers appearance in the two chapters of the trilogy injects a degree of complexity, which seems to be entirely concentrated in the character of Kylo Ren, who, even when hes involved in the plot, seems to be operating within existential territory of his own.

That quality intensifies the darkness that envelops his character with a certain neuroticism, which is only heightened by the restraint he projects. Consequently, he is the character whose development will be the most interesting to follow in the trilogys concluding part and in the movies that follow, if his character is present in them.

What can we expect from Adam Driver? The list of his future films, in addition to the chapter that will conclude the present Star Wars trilogy, is intriguing and promising. He stars in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a project that the director Terry Gilliam has been trying unsuccessfully to implement for a few decades (theres even a documentary, Lost in La Mancha, that chronicles the failure). He is now filming Spike Lees new movie, Black Klansman.

There is talk that Driver will star in Annette, the next film of the singular French director Leos Carax. Gilliam, Lee and Carax – an impressive list. Even if the rumor that Driver will star in a movie to be directed by Sylvester Stallone – in which hell play a soldier who lost his four limbs in Afghanistan – is true, it means that Hollywood has discovered Driver, and that hes here to stay.



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