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For his second Juilliard audition, in 2005, he did Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy. He was working as a security guard at a Target distribution warehouse in Indianapolis when he got a phone call from an administrator in the drama department, who said, as Driver recalls it, “We’d like to ask you to come to New York and be a part of next year’s class.” How did that feel? “I think that’s one of the best moments in my life.” Any jumping? “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says. “Jumping and yelling! I was with the other security guard, and I told him and he was really excited and we were both yelling.”
Where would he be now if he hadn’t been accepted?
“Probably be a fireman. Yeah, I think so.”
He lived in Hoboken, Harlem, Astoria, Woodside, Morningside Heights, and he waited tables for a while at a French restaurant on the Upper West Side. The playwright Tony Kushner came in for a meal, and Driver served him asparagus.
He hasn’t been in a fight since the Marines and doesn’t consider himself a violent person. “Just being in the military, you’re so violent,” he says. “We got into fights about just random things all the time. I don’t think as aggressively as I did when I was in the Marine Corps.”
He sees a connection between his military experience and acting. “You’re working as a team to accomplish something that’s not really about one person,” he says. “It’s knowing your role within that team.”
But the six-foot-three Driver stood out at Juilliard. “I made people in my school cry because it was just the way I was used to talking to people,” he says. “I felt like I wanted to do it! Really hard! Whatever it was! And I needed to calm down a little bit.”
During his second year at Juilliard, Driver and a classmate, Joanne Tucker, who is now his wife, founded a nonprofit organization called Arts in the Armed Forces, “to honor, educate, inspire, and entertain” active-duty soldiers, veterans, and their families. Among those on the advisory council are Laura Linney, Dianne Wiest, Eric Bogosian, and Debra Winger. “This summer, we’re doing another performance at Walter Reed, in Bethesda, Maryland,” Driver says. “We hope to go to Kuwait and Afghanistan at the end of this year.”
Soon after his 2009 graduation from Juilliard, he started getting TV and stage work, as well as a series of small but memorable movie roles: filling-station attendant in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar; excitable Brooklyn bohemian in Baumbach’s Frances Ha; telegraph operator in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln; goofball folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis. When Driver auditioned for Girls, he was very wrapped up in a Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession (just like Adam Sackler in season three of the series). Driver walked into the audition with his motorcycle helmet and a bad attitude. “I trained myself, whenever I walk into auditions, to hate everyone in the room,” he says. “That way, if it doesn’t work out, I can be like, ‘I fucking didn’t like those people anyway!’”
The show’s creator, Dunham, and executive producer Jenni Konner were entranced. “Starstruck,” Konner says. “It was the first day of casting, and he was the first for ‘Adam.’ He walked in, and we couldn’t believe it. He started to do the performance, and it’s really not far off from what he did the first season. From that moment on, there was no other choice.”
The Adam Sackler character was written for only the pilot episode, Konner says, “but once you work with Adam Driver, you never want to stop.” The Girls team got busy expanding the role. “He has a naturalism to him, an instinctual side that is like one-eighteenth of a tiger or something,” Konner says. “He’s like a young De Niro.”
“The first time I worked with him,” says Richard Shepard, who made the crime movie Dom Hemingway and has directed six episodes of Girls, “I said to Jenni and Lena, ‘This guy is incredible.’ I’m so happy for him that suddenly he’s in Star Wars and a Scorsese movie. Sometimes when I’m working with him on Girls, I’m like, This guy can do anything! He’s got that sort of odd look that is ultimately going to help him, because he’s not a straight-ahead leading man, and the way he acts is not straight-ahead. He reminds me of stuff Pacino was doing in the early seventies.”
Pacino, De Niro, and Brando are not names that those who work in the movie industry throw around lightly. There are other ways to flatter a rising young actor that would not require them to go quite that far. By mentioning such names, Driver’s colleagues are signaling that he is unusual in these times, with his throwback intensity. And although the actor was kind enough to share something of himself in my short time with him, he is anomalous in this period of social media and the oversharing that goes with it. So let’s close with a list of questions Driver refused to answer:
(1) Can you say anything about your parents?
(2) How about your religious upbringing?
(3) Are you in favor of premarital sex? What about a mistress—can that work out?
(4) Surely you’ve been hit on once or twice by female admirers.
(5) Are you able to kill someone in ten seconds or less?
(6) Should it be hard to get a gun, or are you OK with the gun laws as they are?
(7) Should a married guy go off with his buddies once a year to camp or hunt?
(8) Are you and your wife moving? Leaving Brooklyn Heights?
(9) Does your wife compliment you?
(10) Do you think some actors take steroids?
(11) Last time you cried?
(12) Phobias? Mantras?
(13) You can’t talk about the Star Wars thing, right?
(14) What do you smell like? Can you describe your scent?