Adam Driver

[Photography by Shawn Dogimont]

Hobo #19 – New York, November 2016. Moose is a two year-old rescue from the North Shore Animal League. He loves tennis balls and shows great patience and determination in their presence. Moose is very focussed, tenacious and undettered. So is his master, Adam Driver. After deciding to become an actor as a senior in high-school, Adam auditioned for Julliard, was rejected, reapplied a few years later and got in. Meanwhile, a couple of months after September 11th, with no real job on the horizon nor direction (and not having applied anywhere else…), he joined the Marines Corps. An accident prevented him from being deployed, which he deeply regretted, but it led him to New York and said acting school.

Subsequently, everything happened very fast: adapting to civilian life wasn’t easy but he eventually landed supporting roles in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, in Ethan and Joel Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, and around the same time, played the part of Adam Sackler opposite Lena Dunham in her highly acclaimed TV series Girls. That part greatly added to his growing popularity and in the span of three years, Adam was cast in another Noah Baumbach film, While We’re Young, in Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special and in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. This year Adam finished playing in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky and Martin Scorcese’s Silence and also of course the part of Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What a ride; amid which Adam has kept in contact with the Armed Forces by introducing the military to the contemporay theatre community and vice versa. Adam is a real and authentic actor. He’s also a real person, and as Shawn Levy describes him, a fucking man.

 

Shawn Dogimont — A few years back, our late friend Brian Hendricks interviewed Willem Dafoe for Hobo. When asked about acting, specifically about revealing his soul to the audience, Willem candidly admitted that the last thing he was thinking about was the audience, or what was going to be conveyed, or what was the thing going to be. He said that he was kind of selfishly thinking about his own personal journey or adventure approaching a project. What is your own view on that, what’s your approach to a new project?
Adam Driver — I agree. I don’t feel it’s my job to be in control of the overall picture. I leave that to the director. I just focus on the role I have within it. Same with the audience’s perception of the character. It’s subjective. I have no control over how they will respond to it. I feel I can only control the moments that are outlined in the writing and rely on the director to let me know if my character suddenly starts getting far afield.

— In response to a question quoting Antonin Artaud saying that an actor was an athlete of the heart, Willem also mentioned that in fact he often didn’t think of himself as an actor, but more as a dancer or an athlete. It reminded me of what Christopher Walken, who was a dancer, declared to us, that there was an aspect to making movies that had to do with waiting, that he thought must be similar to what athletes have to deal with. In terms of their training and the discipline, their concentration had to do with performing their absolute best within a very limited amount of time. Do you feel like an athlete as well?
— I agree with that too. That element of structuring your day around performing in sports and how that relates to acting makes complete sense to me. The acting cliché thing to say, which I will say now, is that your body is your instrument obviously, it’s not something separate from you, and often you have to change your shape to tell a different story, so that pushes you into regimes, training, diets, and timing, for the best result to tell whatever story. You also have to give thought to maintaining energy throughout a long shooting schedule etc. Or if you’re doing a play, making sure your voice and body are in the best shape, based on whatever character you’re playing, so you can survive eight shows a week, and understanding that there is a team of people around you who depend on you to stay healthy.

— Christopher Walken also told us that going to work was his favourite thing, that most of the time it was the best thing he did. Do you feel as passionate?
— I love working. It goes in and out as far as being my favourite thing, but I love working.

— The last four films you’ve been involved in all sound very different. You have been a bus driver and a poet in Paterson, a seventeen century Jesuit priest in Silence, a thief attempting to pull-off a heist in Logan Lucky, and of course more recently, you played the part of Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m assuming that as an actor that was quite fulfilling?
— It’s definitely lucky. Getting that kind of diversity in projects, I’ve been very lucky. Not only with the characters but working within different budgets is kind of a great lesson. I’d never worked on anything before that was the size of Star Wars and I remembered how different the pace was in making a movie of that size. They would call cut, and seemingly hundreds of people would descend on set to adjust something. Then you wait for those people to clear, or wait for whatever thing that broke to be fixed, and then start again. This goes back to your athlete question of learning when to preserve energy to be ready for when you start shooting again. Smaller movies, on the whole, move faster so you can get a nice momentum going in the scenes. But I just learned to adjust with the flow on set. Not come in with a way of working and try and impose it on some big machine. I was lucky to get that lesson. Surrendering to the flow of a particular set forces you out of your habits.

­— Jim Jarmush is one of my favourite movie directors and his films have resonated with me deeply. How was it working and being on set with him on Paterson? I imagine a collaborative, DIY environment but don’t know if that’s an image of an older New York I’ve mythologized a bit.
— That’s it actually. That DIY image is a great way of describing it. You see in the way he collaborates that he loves the people he surrounds himself with and it’s comfortable to him to solve problems or brain storm ideas with a group of people. He has his opinions of course but he loves being surprised by a great idea by someone else. He’s also had a lot of obstacles to overcome with work. I think the film he used to shoot Permanent Vacation with was leftover film stock he got from another friend’s movie, I know he’s definitely shot scenes for things without the money to shoot the rest… that kind of working with constraints and problem solving within constraints, has made him the collaborator he is today. And also just working with him on a personal level… he’s so gracious and considerate and curious. He doesn’t meet things with judgment but with curiosity first. He’s just one of those people that you think: thank god someone like that is in the world.

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— What do you think Jarmusch set out to do in Paterson?
— I’m not sure it was any one thing, but I think he partly set out to make a movie that was an antidote to the action heavy, violent, fast paced movies—actually to show a marriage that works, to show two people who give each other mutual space and respect, to show a character who’s main action is to listen—that we’re kind of flooded with today. He’s very good at making moves that subvert his audience’s expectations and he trusts they’ll follow along. I also just think he loves poetry and wanted to make a movie about it.

— You were raised in Mishawaka, Indiana and your stepfather was a Baptist minister. Religion must have been part of your upbringing. When asked in an interview that I read somewhere if you had faith, you gave this wonderful and somehow unexpected response: “I try not to have the right answer about anything.” As Voltaire said: “Doubt is not a pleasant situation, but certainty is absurd.” Do you believe uncertainty to be beautiful?
— It can be yes. Sometimes the idea of it more than living in it. But as far as creating something, uncertainty is a key ingredient. Knowing a right answer about anything I think closes you off to the potential something else being more interesting. I often find if I had an idea of how a scene is supposed to go, and I try to force it that way, it gets stale very quickly. It closes off my imagination. Whenever someone or a group of people say or think they are absolutely right, I always get suspicious.

— I’ve been enjoying reading Ron Padgett and William Carlos Williams for the first time. Is there a particular poem or line from either that has stayed with you?
— Hard to pick one. There’s a really funny YouTube video of Ron reading a poem of his called “Nothing in that Drawer”, where he repeats the sentence nothing in that drawer fourteen times. That’s a good one I think that relates to this movie. How something is repeated but it’s meaning changes; and because it’s meaning changes it pushes the story forward. He’s also nodding to the structure of sonnets with that poem as it’s fourteen lines long. Paterson takes place over seven days, and Paterson’s physical life is heavily structured which allows him to drift in his art. He repeats the same thing every week. So he walks the same way to work, his bus route is the same, he wears a subtly different version of the same thing everyday… but within this very structured life, little details change. Laura will say something that sparks his imagination and suddenly a new detail will emerge on his way to work. I’m also just drawn to repetition. I saw this Caryl Churchill play recently where one of the characters repeats the phrase terrible rage over and over. She starts at a whisper and after about a good minute of repeating it she’s screaming terrible rage. I was very moved by it. Something about repetition always moves me.

— How did working on Paterson compare to working with Steven Soderbergh on Logan Lucky and Martin Scorsese on Silence? That’s not a great question… Do all directors know where they’re going exactly? Is the end result often different than what has been imagined? The line between a script and no script or storyboard, the surprises that can come from trusting your own ideas, is that interesting territory? Or daunting? Out of the directors you’ve worked with, who embraces and walks that line the longest?
— I think the common thread with the directors I’ve been lucky enough to work with is that they’re all very collaborative. They know their story and are prepared and have done their homework but are willing on the day to throw it all away in sacrifice of something better. How they interpret stories are different… they work within different boundaries… but they all seem to enjoy solving problems in a group and trusting the people they hire. Scorsese for example has been planning on making that movie for twenty-eight years. It could have been that you show up on set and it’s a dictatorship; that he’s thought about it for a long time and he knows how it’s supposed to go. But back to the idea of being uncertain, he doesn’t do that… he wants you to take ownership over your role and hear your opinions. He, and these others directors, are great at making space for that on set.

— By the way do you know what’s happening with Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote? Personally speaking, after Lost in La Mancha, I was really rooting for it to come together in another incarnation.
— Sadly it’s been delayed. Everyone still plans on making it work, but there’s been a slight snag. But I’m optimistic. So is Terry. Terry is Don Quixote.

— You started a non-profit organization called Arts in the Armed Forces, bringing theatre to the troops. What was the root of this initiative? Has it evolved since its inception and what would you say it manages to do best?
— When I discovered theater at Juilliard I noticed a change in myself as I was able to put words to feelings for the first time. I wanted to share that with a military audience so I reached out to pre-existing ‘troop entertainment’ organizations who told me theater didn’t fit a military demographic. That people in the military would rather see cheerleaders than hear a play. I know that’s bullshit, so we created a project where we bring contemporary American theater to a military audience and what it does best is expose the military to a new form of self-expression. We pick material that specifically doesn’t have military themes, but rather characters that highlight the human struggles we all share that aren’t specifically military or civilian. I started it when I was a second year student at Juilliard and now it’s grown into this kind of theater troupe that travels to military bases around the world that we bill as “thought provoking troop entertainment”. And they’re a blast.

— Do you like to be on stage? What is it for you compared to doing films?
— I do. I don’t prefer one or the other. I think there are good and bad things about both. The audience for me has a lot to do with it. Theater in NY is great but the audience is typically the same group of people. Whereas in film or television, even if they don’t find their audience right away, eventually they find it. That being said theater is more dangerous. I’ve been been affected by things more in theater than anything else. But I like both, both are a different challenge. Paul Giamatti told me one time, and I’m paraphrasing: “You do a bad movie, it opens, people see it or they don’t and it goes away. Do a bad play, it opens, and you’re still stuck in it for the next three months.”

— You work in a collaborative art form. You’re surrounded by technicians, painters, carpenters, you collaborate but also somehow surrender to the director’s will and vision. Is there a connection or are there parallels between acting and soldiering? Before hearing of AITAF it never dawned on me that there could be an affinity.
— Absolutely, acting and the military are both service industries. They both are groups of people trying to accomplish a mission greater than themselves. You have a role and you have to know your role within that team. When you have someone in charge, a director or squad leader, who knows what they’re doing, your job feels important and necessary and valuable. When the person in charge doesn’t know what they’re doing it feels useless, wasteful and demoralizing. They are both opposite in that in one you’re pretending the stakes are life and death, and in the other they actually are. But they both kind of rise and fall by how well you work as a team.

— I read in the IMDB personal quotes section that you wouldn’t call yourself a musician but that you were musical, that you own instruments in your house that you play with people, but you haven’t mastered any of them. Not sure about that considering the great musical contribution you made to Inside Llewyn Davis! How important is music in your life?
— Ha! Very. I always try to have music around. I’ll repeat about repetition… I tend to get songs in my head and play them over and over again until I exhaust them. I do the same things with watching movies. I always find when you revisit a great song or movie there’s always something else to mine out of it.

—You said somewhere—hopefully referring to the Star Wars movie—that you lived in the dark side, constantly reminding ourselves that we’re all going to die soon. Are you a fun guy to be with?
— Obviously not. I was joking about dying. I mean we ARE gonna die. But in that moment I was kidding. But we are gonna die. All of us.

— We’ve been talking about your past endeavours, but what are your projects with regards to the immediate future?
— I’m doing something with Leos Carax if we can get it together. Same with Don Quixote. Apart from that I’m gonna learn what the word fun means.