Adam Driver recalls seeing Ku Klux Klan rallies in the Indiana of his 1990s childhood, and those memories came with him to the making of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman – a true, ’70s-set story of racism that remains unnervingly relevant today. The film follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American police officer to join the Colorado Springs Bureau, and the man who became perhaps the most unlikely individual ever to infiltrate the Klan. Driver is fellow officer Flip Zimmerman–a role that has so far got him Globe, SAG, BAFTA and Independent Spirit noms.
Since breaking out in HBO’s Girls, Driver’s worked with Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh, and this year, he re-teams with Jarmusch on The Dead Don’t Die, finishes up a mega trilogy with Star Wars: Episode IX and hits Sundance with Scott Z. Burns’ The Report. Here he discusses BlacKkKlansman, why he doesn’t want to direct, and the “one piece of information” he’s had all along about where Star Wars is going.
What is it about Lee’s work that made this film, and this role, feel like a must for you?
I just find his movies completely unpredictable. I feel like he’s an amazing collage artist, at times; they’re always unexpected and pretty vibrant. Apart from that, I really liked this idea of playing someone who has this work ideology that he’s set for himself, where he has trained himself to be unemotional about his profession, to self-preserve. He doesn’t want to get involved; work is work, and you put it aside. Which I relate to, kind of, as an actor, where you’re there for three or four months, and you’re set to do this job, and you’re trying to shut everything out, because you need to focus on this thing. Inevitably, life makes its way into what it is you’re doing, and you think that that disrupts you. But often, I find it actually makes you better and more enriched.
How did you approach playing Flip—a somewhat fictionalized version of a real person within a true story?
It’s fun. I’ve played people who were real, where they’re around, and in this case, I played someone who was a version of a real person. They weren’t around, and didn’t want to have anything to do with the movie part of it, but both are good. I think you just learn to cherry-pick details of that person that open up your imagination, to then put things away that are making you feel limited, or like you’re doing an interpretation of someone.
You’ve said that growing up in Indiana you saw the Klan?
I have to be clear about this, actually, because I said this before, and then there was a whole thing around it. I was confused about the kind of dialogue that happened the last time.
Right, after you talked about seeing that, it was denied that could have happened there in the ’90s, but you’ve since been proven right.
Right. I stand by what I said, which is, I knew people that were involved in the KKK. There was a friend I had, growing up in Indiana, where his dad was very much involved, and they lived down the street from us. And it’s something I didn’t really know about until [I saw] this guy more. I don’t see him anymore; they’re not a part of my life. But there was a constant Klan presence, and in that, I’m talking like once a year. I wouldn’t go to these events—I feel like it was [in] Granger or South Bend. Sometimes, it was more official, and sometimes it was less on the grid. There was kind of a constant presence of this group, and because you’re raised with it, it becomes this thing…I never understood it then, and I moved to Indiana from California, so I was already in the middle of a culture shock. Not to paint Indiana with this brush of, “The entire state is racist,” because it’s not.
How did witnessing this affect you?
I haven’t really spent a lot of time being self-reflective of it, but I just remember being so confused by it at the time, and knew that that was…I’m looking for all the adjectives to accurately describe ‘stupid’. Ignorant and hateful, and nothing that I wanted to be a part of.
You’ve worked with so many incredible directors, do you see yourself taking on that job going forward?
No, I have no interest in directing. I’ve been so lucky to work with really great directors, and I see really great directors, and I don’t see the world that they do. I feel like I’m barely figuring out how to do my job, let alone try to get involved with something else. I’ve worked with amazing people, and the same thing with writers. You work with great writers and you’re like, “Oh, I can’t do that.” I’m not going to try to fill the world with something boring, compared to other writers.
What can you share about projects you have coming up? What do you enjoy about the people involved?
Over the summer, I worked with Jim [Jarmusch] again, and Noah Baumbach. We did another thing together, and I lump them together just because they’re friends of mine, and when you go back and do it again, the shorthand just gets faster. Not that there is posturing with those guys in particular. There’s none. But we understand each other quicker, and cut to the jugular faster, if it’s working, or not working, or whatever. The Sundance thing, The Report, is about the CIA’s program post-September 11th on torture, and it’s Scott Z. Burns, who wrote The Informant!. I love that movie, so anybody working on that movie, I would like to work with. Soderbergh brought it to me and was like, “We’re thinking of this thing,” so we met with Scott, and I really liked him. Burn This, we start in a couple weeks, with Keri Russell and Brandon Uranowitz and David Furr. It’s a play I’ve known for a long time. Lanford Wilson is a brilliant writer, and I haven’t done a play apart from the non-profit [Arts in the Armed Forces] that I run with my wife, where we do contemporary plays for a military audience, so I’ve been dying to do a play again.
This year, you’ll complete your Star Wars trilogy with Episode IX. Has it felt like a marathon journey after all these years?
It’s been my second time doing something where it’s lasted six years. I think with Star Wars, it’s six years this year that I’ve known about it or been working on it. I had this experience once with Girls, where it was six or seven years from the moment we shot the pilot to the very last thing. Since I’ve been working, it’s what I’ve been used to, in a way, where you do your other things, and then you go back to see your friends. It’s always good to go back to those groups.
With Girls, there wasn’t really an end in sight, so it was fun to develop it as I went, and to think about where it was all going. With Star Wars, I had one piece of information of where it was all going, and that’s where it has been in my head for a long time, and things were building towards that. It feels very theatrical, if anything. Because in the plays that I’ve done, a six-month run, on the very last day, you finally feel like, “Oh, now I have a better understanding of what it is that I want to do. I wish we could do this all over again.” Working on a play, the questions you can ask yourself are infinite, and that’s what’s torturous about film sometimes – you only have one shot to get it right. And you can do a lot of takes, but we’re not all going to get back together again and do this. But for something you’re doing for six years, you still have a chance to go back and make something a little bit more articulated.