Meeting the tall, waivy-haired Adam Driver in person immediately brings to mind his most sublimely acerbic onscreen personas: Adam Sackler, the brooding boyfriend with the power to wrap Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath around his finger in Girls; or Kylo Ren, arguably the Star Wars saga’s most multi-dimensional villain.
As the title character, Driver is an out-of-his-time blue-collar guy with a penchant for poetry, who drives a city bus in Paterson, NJ. Of his character, Driver says: “I like that he’s a creature of habit, and that he does his art in private—that I understood. However, that the main objective in the movie required him to always listen—that was very exciting to me.”
The Juilliard graduate will also star in Martin Scorsese’s Silence this year, as a Jesuit priest on a perilous mission to find his lost mentor in 17th century Japan.
How did you prepare for Paterson?
I think the biggest thing was learning how to drive a bus; I had an elementary knowledge of poetry. I knew of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and E.E. Cummings. I didn’t know about Ron Padgett’s poems that appear in Paterson, and the New York School. Jim also turned me on to Frank O’Hara. Because we were trying to tell a story about someone who had structured their physical life and could go on autopilot, I had to put in the rhythms of someone who does this every day. In regards to getting a bus license, that was the longest thing to prepare for. There was a three-month period. You need to be aware of what’s going on in the bus. There are active drivers who are teaching you, and I would grill them about how their days were on duty.
What was the takeaway for you, working with Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese?
They’re similar in some ways and they’re very different in others. There’s an anxiety that goes along with anything; not knowing if you’re right, doubting regardless of where you are in your career. These guys have a good way of dealing with that. They’re not shy in not knowing what the answer is. To watch that in practice is very inspiring; to see someone at their level not know the answer–they embrace the process of making anything. Your impulse on a Martin Scorsese set is that you want him to tell you what to do. But he wants you to take ownership of your character and space, and the challenge that comes with your ideas. They’re very much interested in the process, and the process of filmmaking. They both have a rebellious spirit of making something with their friends, and value that collaborative part of it.
What can you tell us about Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence?
I guess it’s similar to The Mission. The time period is 17th century. Two priests are looking for a fellow priest who has been ostracized. There’s a bit of Homer’s Odyssey in that these two young priests are traveling the world on a massive quest. The guy I’m playing, Father Francisco Garrpe, he’s a lot like St. Peter. That’s the person I kind of modeled him after. He’s a realist and has a similar doubt that St. Peter had.
In the old days of Hollywood, it wasn’t unusual to hear about a star who served in the armed forces. Attitudes have changed. As a former Marine, do you ever come up against misconceptions about your profession in a left-leaning industry?
Not really. I don’t feel the need to defend myself whenever it comes up. There’s less than 1% serving in the military and whenever I get questions it isn’t so strange. When I decided to be an actor, it struck some as strange, but people forget that the military is comprised of people. They’ve had lives before and they have lives outside the military. They’re not just engrossed in military culture and vernacular, but they’re poets and artists and they’re people, and they have a complicated and very stressful job of being in the military. What Jim does so well in Paterson, when I initially read the script, the main character wasn’t in the military. He added that, but in no prevalent way. I was apprehensive initially, but it highlighted a point: just because someone was in the military, you can’t put them in a box. He happens to drive a bus and he happens to write poetry.
I have a non-profit that I run with my wife, Arts in the Armed Forces, which we started during my second year at Juilliard. Entertainment for troops, which is always well-intended, plays to the lowest common denominator, and here I am at Juilliard reading these plays from David Rabe and Sam Shepard. We’ll read plays that have nothing to do with the military, but that relate to being a human, that bridge the gaps between civilian and military. We pick contemporary American plays to perform on military bases and for veterans, with no costumes. We just get great actors to volunteer their time, we set up music stands on stage and read plays. We’ve traveled to Kuwait, to military medical centers. We just came back from Fort Hood in Texas.
Following the success of Star Wars, has there been any pressure to make you more of an action star? For you to exchange art for the sake of commerce?
I haven’t felt any pressure whatsoever to do big studio movies. In the outside world, there might be certain steps that actors are supposed to do. I don’t subscribe to these steps. Regardless of what the project is, whether it’s a disaster or a new experience, I want to continue to work with great directors regardless of the medium.