Adam Driver: “To hear that Scorsese wants to talk… it’s surreal”

adam-driverThere are certain moments that can change the course of a person’s life. For Adam Driver, it was being asked to kill Han Solo.

“That’s a big event!” he says, hunching his rangy 6ft 3in frame forward in his chair in a secluded backroom of a Mayfair hotel. The 33-year-old actor made his name playing Lena Dunham’s reliably unreliable boyfriend in her HBO series Girls, has since gone on to work with cult director Jim Jarmusch and will soon be seen in Martin Scorsese’s epic religious drama Silence. Yet despite his success he still sounds incredulous at the memory of those early discussions with JJ Abrams about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

“It was the first or second meeting, when there was no script to read, so JJ was just outlining what happens in the story,” Driver recalls. “That plot point came up very soon as something that would happen. I wanted to think about it for a couple of months just to make sure.”

To make sure you wanted to become the man who killed Han Solo?

“Not just about that, but that played a huge part in my thinking – I love Han Solo,” he says. “But also, the thing as a whole. The scale of it. It’s a huge franchise, and I’d never worked on anything that big.”

One of the factors that helped Driver make the decision was the knowledge that it would put him in the position every actor covets: being able to pick and choose his roles freely.

“I can say no to whatever I don’t want to do,” he confirms. “The director then becomes the biggest part of it. If I’m lucky enough to get the chance to work with a particular director then the part I’m playing is kind of secondary.”

At the very top of Driver’s directorial wishlist has always been the name ‘Martin Scorsese’. When the opportunity came four years ago to audition for Silence, the director’s longterm passion project, Driver leapt at it. Production was delayed, but eventually Driver was invited to meet Scorsese at his home.

“I thought it was still between a few different people,” says Driver. “I didn’t know that at the end of the meeting he was going to offer me the part. It was surreal. He’s a filmmaker who in my mind is the tip of the pyramid to work with. To hear that he wants to talk to you about a role made it a formality on my part. I would have said yes regardless of what it was.”

What it was turned out to be the part of a Portuguese Jesuit missionary in Scorsese’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel. He plays the doubting counterpoint to Andrew Garfield’s lead as the pair travel to Japan to seek their teacher, played by Liam Neeson, who is rumoured to have apostatised. Driver threw himself into the role by losing nearly a third of his weight, undertaking a week-long silent retreat at St. Beuno’s Jesuit house in Wales, and immersing himself in the novel.

“I latched on to this idea of the crisis of faith,” says Driver. “All the characters have a different relationship to it. I based my character on St Peter, because I loved the idea of someone who has committed their life to something but at the same time they’re openly doubtful of what it is they’re doing and questioning why they wanted to do it to begin with. I think that’s a healthy part of creating something and something that I understand.”

It’s also a role that spoke to Driver’s childhood. He was born in California, on 19 November 1983, but when he was seven his mother Nancy took him and his older sister April to her hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana. When his mother remarried it was to Rodney G. Wright, a Baptist minister, but Driver experienced a crisis of faith of his own. “I was raised in a religious household,” he says, “but now I don’t subscribe to any religion.”

Rather than the church, it was film that helped Driver find his place in the world. “My grandfather – my mom’s dad – recorded movies on VHS,” he remembers. “He catalogued them and wrote the title and a brief description and kept them in a laminated book that me and my sister could look through. He kept 500 movies, and 100 tapes were by his bed. It made me realise that these are important artefacts.”

After getting a taste of theatre at high school, Driver applied for a place at the prestigious New York drama school Juilliard but his application was rejected. Then 9/11 happened. Driver was 17 years old and still living with his parents when he decided to enlist. He served as a Marine for two years and eight months, but before his unit deployed to Iraq he broke his sternum mountain biking and was medically discharged. He applied to Juilliard once more. This time he was accepted.

“I thought civilian problems compared to the military would be small and easily manageable, which is an illusion,” he laughs. “It’s hard to be alive regardless what your job is. It gave me this false sense of confidence that I could manage being an actor.”

It was three years after graduating from Juilliard that he won his breakthrough part in Girls, although he remembers at the time simply being happy to have found “steady employment”. “The job turned out so much better than I expected,” he says. “I was just happy to be making more money than I had in the theatre.”

His kinetic physical presence and awkward charisma caught the eye of the sorts of directors he’d always dreamed of acting for. Stephen Spielberg cast him in Lincoln and the Coen Brothers even got him singing in Inside Llewyn Davis. Most recently, he played the eponymous lead in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, a paean to the New York School poets and the beauty of everyday romance. “Jim reached out to me and, again, only as kind of a formality I read the script,” says Driver. “I think he’s brilliant, and his movies are.”

Joining the cast of Star Wars and working with Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese is the sort of fantasy wishlist any young actor might draw up. Is Driver living the dream?

“Yeah, but I definitely had no masterplan,” he laughs. “I’ve been kind of spoiled by it. I’m very aware it’s a director’s medium, so if I can be lucky enough to still keep working with great directors then that’s the only game plan I have.”

Originally published in The i, 16 December 2016.