Read any feature on him. They all start with the same thing:
‘Adam Driver doesn’t look like your conventional leading man’.
They’re right. He doesn’t. When trying to put your finger on what the Girls star’s face reminds you of the most, the closest you’ll get is Roger Waters meets awkward, middle-American vampire. Or at least that’s just me.
In a culture that seems to prioritise the length of his features over the striking, channelled performances he’s consistently putting in on-screen, it’s no surprise that the way he appears seems to be the default way-in of discussing whom I believe to be one of the most important actors in the business right now.
Seriously, I think he’s that good.
Let’s start with Girls. Lena Dunham’s HBO hit was what introduced Driver to the mainstream audience, starring opposite Dunham’s Hannah as her aloof and unpredictable boyfriend, Adam. Adam is intense, controlling, narcissistic, crude and childishly oblivious to these afflictions – on paper, the bloke should suck.
However, here’s the catch: he doesn’t.
Driver plays the character with a man-child vulnerability – managing to construct a stubborn wall around his feelings, whilst dangling his heart from his sleeve at the same time. When Adam smashes up an inanimate object in an outburst of primitive rage (and this happens a lot), you feel that this born out of frustration at his inability to convey the right, or any, kind of emotion. This is Adam’s release in the only way he knows how – and it’s sad. Despite sporting an athletic build and standing at over 6ft3, Adam is hyperaware of his insignificance in the grand scheme, battling with the very concept of masculinity. He makes what should be a repellent character, for me, almost lovable – which isn’t easy.
His stint in Girls naturally led to a number of impressive supporting turns. He featured briefly in Spielberg’s Lincoln, whilst was in recognisable scene-stealing form in the romantic comedy What If, and the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Shawn Levy, his director in the 2014 dramedy This Is Where I Leave You, refers to him without a hint of hyperbole as ‘one of the most formidable actors of his generation’. See, I’m not alone.
Then, came Star Wars.
JJ Abrams cast Driver as the villainous Kylo Ren in Disney’s epic reboot of George Lucas’s film trilogy, the tortured soul of a son to Leia Organa and Han Solo. This, figuratively and literally, propelled him into the stratosphere. Now there are Adam Driver action figures.
The nature of the Star Wars script dictated that Driver was the only actor who had the freedom to, well… act. Kylo Ren perspires violence, yet under his ominous, Vader-esque mask, Driver’s wide-eyed antagonist appears boyish and utterly torn – powerless to both.
Sound familiar? Yep. Driver seems to have discovered his niche in conflicted characters operating on the periphery, but he’s by no means pigeonholed, either. In the aforementioned This Is Where I Leave You, he outfunnys genre heavyweights Jason Bateman and Tina Fey, whilst in Jeff Nichols’s sci-fi ode Midnight Special, he plays the gawky FBI analyst with an emotional grounding and not a hint of stereotype. Nichols echoes Levy’s sentiment, too:
‘I think, the whole ‘Star Wars’ thing aside, he’s probably going to be one of the most important actors of our generation’ he told The Playlist earlier this year. That statement, coming from the director who helped jumpstart The McConassaince, is no mean feat. He’s worked with Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Reece Witherspoon and Jessica Chastain, too – unlike me, you can’t argue that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
So why do you find me here, sat at my computer on a gorgeous afternoon in the sunny month of May, discussing Mr Adam Driver? That’s a great question – you wouldn’t be a fool for asking it. Well firstly, I think he’s bloody great. He manages to be the best thing about anything I’ve seen him in, whilst appearing like a humble, thoroughly likable chap off-screen. But, more importantly, I happened to catch the final episode of Girls.
In the penultimate scene of the conclusive series, we see Driver’s previously-discussed Adam doing what he seems to do best – smashing the shit out of his apartment. Seriously, it’s biblical stuff. He smashes vases, launches decorative bikes (oh, trendy New York) and goes full The Shining on a bathroom door with one of his huge fists. As I was sat there, admiring such a visceral display of physical acting, I found myself unable to take my eyes from one particular thing on-screen.
Shit, fuck, wank! I’m as bad as the rest of them, aren’t I? Here he is, gifting an international audience with one of the finest showings of animalistic rage in primetime television of the recent memory, and I’m pondering the peculiarity of his face! I don’t deserve you, Adam!
Then it dawned on me – it was a little deeper than that.
I wasn’t simply looking at it, I was absolutely drawn to it. Fascinated, if you like. The subtle twitches, hidden creases, those big, sad eyes; there’s an intensity to his facial expression that not only encourages this voyeurism – it inspires it. Driver doesn’t simply have a unique, striking kind of look, rather, he’s a unique, striking actor, who uses his facial range to emphasise this notion. Think Brando, Pacino – and the rest of them. Driver’s face is inescapable, but it’s also part of what makes him such a magnetising performer. Yes, I’m aware I just spoke his name in the same breath as two of the greatest screen actors the film industry has ever been blessed with, and no, I’m not sorry about it.
As if fate wanted me to succeed in my quest in championing the man in question, as I was conducting [extremely minor] research for this piece, I came across the poster for Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s Cannes-debuting Drama that stars none other than, that’s right, Adam Driver.
The poster, set against a pastel orange backdrop with Driver as the only billed cast member, features one, single image.
Words by Niall Flynn