Former Marine Adam Driver On What Acting And The Military Have In Common
A year after Sept. 11, actor Adam Driver joined the Marine Corps. He was working odd jobs, selling vacuum cleaners and paying rent to live in his parents' house — and he says, like many other Americans, he felt a sense of patriotism and he wanted retribution.
"I wanted to 'test my manhood' and serve my country and just get even and ... get away from home and everything I didn't like about it," Driver tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "In retrospect, it was actually pretty great."
After suffering from a mountain biking injury, Driver, who now stars in the film comedy While We're Young, had to go on limited duty and decided to pursue acting. Now that his movie career is taking off, Driver says he sees similarities between the military and acting: Each person is part of a group trying to accomplish a mission that's greater than themselves.
"The discipline, the self-maintenance, the comradery — they're so similar," Driver says. "I don't view acting as such a radical departure from the military."
Driver has significant roles in the next Star Wars film and Martin Scorsese's forthcoming film Silence. In While We're Young, he plays one half of a young couple that befriends a middle-aged husband and wife, played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts.
Driver says that whenever he acts, he's hard on himself. "I have a tendency to ... drive myself and the other people around me crazy with the things I want to change. Everything in me wants to try to make it better and I feel like it's just not a healthy thing."
But he's learning to "surrender as much control as possible."
"I don't think of it as a done, set thing that people watch and may have their opinions about," he says. "I let it be what it is and then try to move on in my mind as soon as possible."
On relating more to Stiller's character, a failed documentary filmmaker, than his own character in While We're Young
In a lot of ways I don't really feel ... as connected to my generation or the interconnectedness of my generation, and I feel like there's need for discipline and not having a right answer and not having immediate access to everything. I mean, I'm a total hypocrite because it's not like I don't log onto the Internet or see what's great about social media.
I'm not involved in social media, but for me it just doesn't work. But I just thought there's something honorable [about] a guy [Stiller's character] alone in a room ramming his head against a wall trying to figure out [his artistic] process and being tormented by it and working on it for such a long time.
On why he doesn't do social media
Maybe it's because I have big thumbs that it's literally hard for me to type things on a phone or a computer. If I had smaller thumbs maybe I would have a different opinion about social media. ... It just takes me a long time to figure out buttons.
On getting cast as Adam on Girls
I was the first person to audition, actually. ... I was doing a play at the time and thought TV was evil and not where I wanted to be or do — I wanted to do theater. But it was HBO and I had done some things with HBO before and I thought that they were different and the storytelling is always so good. My agent convinced me to go in because I was having a real high-horse moment and that's when I met [Girls creator Lena Dunham] and that was kind of it.
On the sex scenes in Girls
I felt pretty good with it, not in a weird — what's the word when people like to get naked — ... exhibitionist way, but more for the story. What Lena was really going after didn't seem exploitative. ... It was very much in line with those characters; it wasn't just graphic sex for the sake of it or just for the sake of being controversial.
On not being deployed to Iraq with his platoon because of a broken sternum from a mountain biking accident
Not going because you did something to yourself and hurt yourself was pretty embarrassing and terrible. I tried to go; I kept loading up on drugs and trying to run and they put me back in my unit and it was fine and then ... [I wore] a 90-pound pack and my chest started to separate so I had to go back on limited duty. ... So I kind of screwed myself in the long run because I wanted to go so much. You're trained to do this job for two years with these people, the idea of not going, someone else going in your place or not being there is not really an easy thing to sit with.
On top of that, getting out and going to acting school and meeting up with those guys later and they're like, "What have you been doing?" I had been like wearing pajamas and pretending to give birth to myself in an acting class. Trying to face up to that is pretty devastating.
On going from Marine to Juilliard student
[The other students'] ideas of [me], like, "Oh, you're a Marine so obviously you're going to hit somebody at some point and drag [your] knuckles around or something." ... I could feel their apprehension and being scared, and I guess I was apprehensive and scared, too, in a different way.
I had really strong judgments about civilians — thought of them as nasty civilians who are just wasting time and not disciplined. And it took me a while to get over that and not be so judgmental, or calm down. It's a weird thing to turn off when suddenly you're getting into this crazy civilian world where people are wearing their hats indoors and their clothes untucked and [they] wander in a room looking nasty and cleaning crud out of their eyes. I was ready to act and throw all my effort into it.
On how acting and the military are similar
You have a group of people trying to accomplish a mission that's greater than themselves — it's not about one person. ... Everyone has their specific role and you have to know what your role is and when to show up and be there and when to back away. Then you have usually someone leading it, a platoon leader or a director, and sometimes they know what they're doing and sometimes they really don't know what they're doing, and that's frustrating. Obviously the stakes are completely different.
On his appearance
I did look strange as a teenager — very prominent facial features, a big nose, big ears and tiny eyes, very rat-like. ... I had to develop thick skin. God, in the Marine Corps, if you're insecure about anything or you have ... a mole out of place, people will find it, especially in boot camp, and drill it until you're numb to it, I guess in a way. I was lucky, though, because in my platoon there was another guy who also had big ears and the drill instructors noticed him before they did me, so he was Ears No. 1 and I was Ears No. 2.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Adam Driver, is best known for his role on the HBO series "Girls" as Hannah's on-again, off-again boyfriend, Adam. His movie career is starting to take off. He has significant roles in the next "Star Wars" film and Martin Scorsese's forthcoming film, "Silence." Driver is one of the stars of the new film comedy "While We're Young," which was written and directed by Noah Baumbach.
Driver plays Jamie, a young, hip guy who wants to make documentary films. He shows up in the classroom of a middle-aged documentary filmmaker played by Ben Stiller. Stiller's character, Josh, has made one well-received film, but has been working on his next film for 10 years and can't figure out how to complete it. As the young Jamie tries to ingratiate himself to Josh and enlist Josh's help in the film world, Jamie and his wife, played by Amanda Seyfried, manage to start hanging out with Josh and his wife, Cornelia, played by Naomi Watts. The older couple start to lose their bearings when they find themselves energized by and envious of the younger couple's vitality. And that's where the tension and the comedy come in. In this scene, the four of them are together for the first time. They're finishing dinner at a restaurant. Naomi Watts's character, Cornelia, speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHILE WE'RE YOUNG")
NAOMI WATTS: (As Cornelia) What do you do, Darby?
ADAM DRIVER: (As Jamie) Darby makes ice cream.
AMANDA SEYFRIED: (As Darby) Yeah, I make ice cream.
DRIVER: (As Jamie) I brought some of it to the Whole Foods near us. They're pumped.
SEYFRIED: (As Darby) It's Jamie's idea to sell it. I just do it because I like it.
WATTS: (As Cornelia) And you guys are married? That's so nice and old-fashioned.
DRIVER: (As Jamie) Yeah, we said our vows in an empty water tower in Harlem.
SEYFRIED: (As Darby) There was a mariachi band and a slip 'n slide.
BEN STILLER: (As Josh) Wow.
WATTS: (As Cornelia) Oh.
DRIVER: (As Jamie) It was beautiful. Some rituals exist for a reason, you know?
SEYFRIED: (As Darby) Jamie wanted a big wedding.
WATTS: (As Cornelia) We did it at city hall.
SEYFRIED: (As Darby) Isaac (ph) and Benny are walking the tracks.
DRIVER: (As Jamie) Oh, have you done this? We walked through the subway tunnels of the D Line last week.
STILLER: (As Josh) No, no, we haven't.
SEYFRIED: (As Darby) They're at a bar in Essex. Do you want to come?
STILLER: (As Josh) Oh, do we?
WATTS: (As Cornelia) It's already past our bedtime.
STILLER: (As Josh) Yeah, we're usually in bed by 11. Let me get it.
DRIVER: (As Jamie) Thanks.
SEYFRIED: (As Darby) Yeah, thanks.
STILLER: (As Josh) No, yeah. I'll get it.
GROSS: Adam Driver, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on the show.
DRIVER: Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: So I should say, I just listened back to that clip, but you didn't. You declined to hear it. You took off your headphones. Why don't you want to hear the clip of your film or your own work?
DRIVER: 'Cause I don't want to hear the bad acting that probably was (laughter) happening during that clip.
GROSS: Does it throw you off to hear yourself?
DRIVER: Yeah, no, I've watched myself or listened to myself before, then always hate it. And then wish I could change it, but you can't. And I - you know, I think I have like a tendency to try to make things better or drive myself and the other people around me crazy with the things I wanted to change or I wish I could change.
GROSS: So is there, like, a safety zone where after a period of time, it's safe for you to go back and watch? Like, can you watch the first season of "Girls" or your scene in "Lincoln"?
DRIVER: No, never seen them - yeah.
DRIVER: No. No, I liked, like, doing it then, when we're working on it in the moment. And then it's done, and we do it. And then I try to surrender as much control as possible. It's so collaborative to me that, you know, you can act in a room, but if no one's there to light it right or hair and makeup and the director, like it's so - what you were creating right then in the moment. I don't think of it as like a done, set thing that people watch and they may have their opinions about it. I just - I let it be what it is and then try to move on in my mind as soon as possible.
GROSS: So you're not aware of how awful you really were in "While We're Young"? Just kidding.
DRIVER: No, right. No, I am aware of that. That's the problem (laughter). Then I just look for affirmation that I was right.
GROSS: Well, you were good. You were very good. So let's talk about your character in "While We're Young," in which you and Amanda Seyfried are the younger couple, and Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are the middle-aged couple. Did you find yourself thinking a lot about age?
DRIVER: Yeah, I think about that actually all the time. When I first read it, I really empathized with Josh's character the most.
GROSS: The Ben Stiller character?
DRIVER: His view in the world I totally get, or that seems to make sense to me. In a lot of ways, I don't really feel as connected to, I guess, my generation or the interconnectedness of my generation. And I, you know, feel that there's need for discipline and not having a right answer and not having immediate access to everything. I mean, I'm a total hypocrite 'cause it's not like I don't log on the Internet or see what's great about social media. I mean, I'm not involved in social media, but for me, it just doesn't work. But I just thought there's something honorable in this whole - a guy in - alone in a room, ramming his head against the wall, trying to figure out process and being, you know, tormented by it and working on it for such a long time.
GROSS: So in a way, you identify more with Ben Stiller's character, the older character, than you do with the character that you play. And you said that you don't really feel strongly connected to people of your generation. Why not?
DRIVER: Just the idea that there has to be immediate access to everything. And - I mean, maybe it's 'cause I have big thumbs. That - it's actually literally hard for me to type things on a phone or a computer. If I had smaller thumbs, maybe I would have a different opinion about social media.
GROSS: That's a good one (laughter).
DRIVER: Yeah, it just takes me a long time to figure out buttons, and I'm always typing the wrong words. I'm like, oh, I'll just call somebody.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Driver, who plays Adam on "Girls." And now he co-stars in the new movie, "While We're Young." How did you get the part on "Girls?"
DRIVER: I auditioned.
GROSS: Was it a big - like, a large number of people auditioning?
DRIVER: I don't know. I was the first person to audition, actually. And...
GROSS: Were you asked to audition?
DRIVER: Yeah, I was doing a play at the time. And I thought TV was evil and, like, not where I wanted to be or do. I wanted to do theater. But it was HBO. And I had done some things with HBO before. And, you know, I thought that they were different, and the storytelling's always so good. And yeah, I just - my agent convinced me to go in 'cause I was having a real (laughter) high-horse moment. And that's where I met Lena, and then that was kind of it. And then they called me in for a second audition, I think, a couple days later. And that was all.
GROSS: Did you have any experiences in your 20s resembling the experiences of the characters on "Girls"?
DRIVER: I didn't, no. I was in the military at the beginning of my 20s. So then - then when I left the military, went right into an acting conservatory, which is, again, not like a really regular kind of college. It's really strange. I mean, you're locked up with 18-year-old - 18, 18 to 19 to 20 and sometimes a couple students who are older - acting conservatory. Then you were just with 18 or 19-year-old also strangers, you know, in the Marine Corps. So they couldn't have been more opposite.
GROSS: I'd like to play a scene from "Girls."
GROSS: I know you won't want to hear it (laughter).
DRIVER: I'm taking the phones off (laughter).
GROSS: So you take your headphones off, and the rest of us will listen to this scene.
GROSS: But you might just want to hear me describe the scene...
GROSS: So that you know what we've all heard.
DRIVER: Oh yeah, that's good.
GROSS: OK. So this is from not the season that just ended but the season before that. And it's been, you know, it's been great to watch your character, like, you know, grow and mature and become an actor. And this is on his - on your character's big opening night at the theater. But he's really unnerved by Hannah. He's temporarily moved out of their apartment so he could be in his own head space while he's rehearsing and preparing for this show. But on opening night, Hannah goes backstage just before the show's about to start to tell you some big news. She's been admitted to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she's going to accept. That would mean her moving out of New York, which has big implications for your relationship with her. But it's really, like, the wrong time for you to be focusing on that. And it's so typical of Hannah to make your opening night about her. So after the performance, Hannah and her friend, Elijah, played by Andrew Rannells, are waiting for you at the stage door. And Elijah speaks first. Now, Adam, take off your headphones.
DRIVER: All right, I will.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")
ANDREW RANNELLS: (As Elijah) Hey.
LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Hey.
RANNELLS: (As Elijah) Congratulations, awesome job.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Hi, my love. You were amazing.
DRIVER: (As Adam) No, I wasn't. I was terrible.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Are you kidding me? Adam, I had full-body chills.
RANNELLS: (As Elijah) Yeah, she's not joking. She had chills.
DRIVER: (As Adam) See you guys. Why did you tell me that thing about Iowa right before I went on stage? I [expletive] blew it.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) OK, do you live in, like, a parallel universe? There's no way that was blowing it. Everybody was talking about how much they loved it.
DRIVER: (As Adam) Well, I don't care what everyone says. I know if I'm good or not. This is exactly what I thought would happen. This is exactly why I didn't want to see you.
RANNELLS: (As Elijah) I'm going to go ahead, and I will meet you guys at the party, all right? I....
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Elijah loved the play.
DRIVER: (As Adam) Oh, good.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) I told you that thing about grad school 'cause I thought that it was really good news for us as a couple.
DRIVER: (As Adam) So now you're leaving me?
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Leaving you? Adam, you're the one who moved out of our apartment.
DRIVER: (As Adam) I moved a few blocks away for a few weeks.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) I know that this is complicated, but I also know that we can work it out.
DRIVER: (As Adam) Well, I'm sick of trying to work it out. Can't one thing ever be easy with you?
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Congratulations on a beautiful opening night.
GROSS: Adam Driver, are you back with us?
DRIVER: I am.
GROSS: I'd love to hear your take on your character, Adam's, relationship with Hannah. You've done a fair number of sex scenes with...
GROSS: With Lena Dunham on "Girls." And what did you want to know beforehand, before actually shooting those scenes? I assume those were your first - that you were, like, an on-screen virgin before that (laughter).
DRIVER: I was, yeah, very much so, especially compared to what we did.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
DRIVER: I think I felt pretty good with it, not in a weird, like - what's the word when people like to get naked?
DRIVER: Yeah, not in a weird exhibitionist way but more for the story. It seemed to - what she was really going after didn't seem...
DRIVER: Yeah, thank you - Jesus.
GROSS: Just keep going.
DRIVER: It was very much in line with those characters. It wasn't just, you know, sex - graphic sex for the sake of it or just for the sake of being controversial. There was always - so much conversation went around those scenes.
GROSS: Yeah, they were real talkers in that first season.
DRIVER: Yeah, it gets pretty graphic. But what exactly is the story that we're trying to tell? What are we trying to say with it? And then, what do we kind of want to leave open and not have so defined?
GROSS: So it's been very gratifying to watch your character become an actor and to become, you know, a little bit acknowledged for his acting. And he gets an antidepressant commercial (laughter) which serves to actually really depress him. Did you get - ever do any commercials? Or would that have been - like, you hardly wanted to "Girls" because it was like - it was like the corporate world. It was television. So would you have ever said yes to a commercial?
DRIVER: I did. I totally did.
GROSS: You did (laughter)?
DRIVER: I think in - I did a pizza commercial. Actually, I don't even think it was for pizza. I think it was just in the scene we ate a bunch of pizza. This was right when I got out of the military, and then I was living in Indianapolis. And it was, you know, taking anything that came my way. But I don't remember what it was for. I just remember we ate a lot of pizza, and I got really sick.
GROSS: Oh, because you had to do so many takes that you ate too much?
DRIVER: Yeah, I think it was for a college. And we were...
GROSS: This is like a method-acting pizza commercial or something. They had you do so many takes.
DRIVER: (Laughter). Well, I didn't know any different. So I think that eventually, they were like, you don't have to eat all of it. You know, we can...
DRIVER: You can spit it out, you know? And it was old and really cold, too. And I'm like, oh, this is it. I'm doing it.
GROSS: Did you ever see it on TV?
DRIVER: No. No, no, no.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Driver. And he plays the character Adam on the HBO series "Girls." He now co-stars in the new film "While We're Young," which was written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Driver. He plays the character Adam on the HBO series, "Girls." And he's one of the stars of the new film. "While We're Young," which also stars Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried. It's a comedy.
So your background is, as you said, very different from the character's on "Girls." You grew up in Indiana. You enlisted in the Marines soon after 9/11. Was that the year after you graduated high school?
DRIVER: Yeah, I graduated in the summer. Then, by January or February 1, I was gone.
GROSS: So what impact did 9/11 have on you that led you to enlist?
DRIVER: Well, I - probably like a lot of people in the country, I felt, you know, a sense of patriotism and wanted retribution and wanted to do something. And that coupled with the fact that I wasn't doing anything, you know... I was working a bunch of odd jobs, you know, selling vacuum cleaners and kind of just making it, living in the back of my parents' house paying rent, you know, not doing anything and wanted to do something, wanted to, you know, test my manhood and serve my country and just get even and...
GROSS: And get away from home?
DRIVER: And get away from home and everything that I didn't like about it. In retrospect, it was actually pretty great. And, you know, all of those things kind of going on at the same time. It seemed like a good idea. All my friends, actually, at the same time, too - I remember having long, into-the-night conversations about what we were going to do. And I was the only one who actually - who actually joined.
GROSS: So you enlisted in the Marines a few months after 9/11 and - or about a year after 9/11, after you graduated high school. And before your platoon was actually deployed, you broke your sternum in a mountain bike accident. So what was it like for you to have to leave for medical reasons before actually doing the work you'd enlisted to do?
DRIVER: Pretty devastating. It took me a long time to get over it. You know, I - like, I joined for all these, like, really what I thought patriotic reasons and things I wanted to do. But all that kind of stuff goes away once you start getting into your unit. And you start meeting the people that you're going to be serving with. And then it really - like, the kind of outside world or patriotism or even Democrat-Republican - it all kind of goes out the window, for me at least, I guess. And it's really about the people, this small, intimate, you know, group of people that you are lucky enough to get to serve with. And it's about them. Then, not going because you did something to yourself and, like, hurt yourself was pretty embarrassing and terrible. And I tried to go. I kept, you know, loading up on drugs and trying to run. And they put me back in my unit. And it was fine. And then we did this hack, which is like two klicks with a 90-pound pack. And my chest started to separate. So I had to go back on limited duty and, you know, be on the board for medical separation. So I kind of screwed myself in the long run 'cause I wanted to go so much. I mean, you were training to do this job for two years with these people. The idea of not going, someone else going in your place or not being there, is not really an easy thing to sit with.
GROSS: You said...
DRIVER: And on top of that, going - getting out and going to acting school. So it's like, you know, meeting up with those guys later, and they're like, you know, what have you been doing? Oh, I've been, like, wearing pajamas and pretending to give birth to myself in a...
DRIVER: In an acting class, you know. Like, trying to face up to that is like - is pretty devastating.
GROSS: You said it was embarrassing to have to leave the Marines for medical reasons because you'd hurt yourself. Would it have not been embarrassing if you were injured in the line of duty as opposed to in a mountain biking accident?
DRIVER: Yeah. I think, you know, here I was, PT-ing with another friend of mine. I didn't know anything about mountain biking. But, of course, your mindset at the time is, like, well, let's go to the highest mountain we can find...
DRIVER: And find the steepest drop-off. And then that's what we're going to do. That's going to be our exercise with these, you know, stupid bikes. And we did that. And then, like, you know, I hit a ditch. And the handlebars went into my chest and broke my sternum. I ate it, you know, kind of mid-way. Then you kind of, like, find a path and, like, hobble down and get in a car and, you know, drive to the hospital.
GROSS: Are you all recovered?
DRIVER: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, I think I'm fine now.
GROSS: Did your platoon end up going to Iraq?
DRIVER: They did, yeah.
GROSS: Were any of the men who you served with killed after they deployed to Iraq?
DRIVER: No. No, everyone made it back.
GROSS: Right, are you still in touch with any of them?
DRIVER: I am still in touch with them. They find what I do now very funny.
GROSS: You've said in the past that the experience of being in the Marines made you determined to take acting seriously once you left the Marines. There was an incident with white phosphorus. Would you describe what happened and also tell us what white phosphorus is?
DRIVER: Yeah. White phosphorus is a chemical that's - basically, if you put, like, a pop can of white phosphorus on top of a car, it'll just burn right through the car. It's - you know, it's a highly acidic chemical. And you can make it explode, you know, once it hits the ground, once it goes into the ground it explodes or above the ground, basically. And the FO, the forward observer, the guy who's alone, called in the wrong coordinates. And so artillery fired on us as opposed to what they were supposed be firing, you know, miles away from us.
GROSS: This was an exercise? This was, like, a war game?
DRIVER: This was an exercise, yeah. This is the first time anything like this happened, when you're like, oh, wow, I'm not immortal. And we just hear this big boom. We look up, and all this white phosphorous is coming down on us. And if it wasn't windy, you know - that, coupled with the fact that we're, you know, running like a bunch of kids away from this - you know, this white phosphorus raining down in front of our guns - that, you know, we all would've been dead. So, I'm like, oh, OK, the two things I want to do before I die are smoke and be an actor - smoke cigarettes and be an actor. I don't know why those are the two things that I wanted to do. But those are the two things that I'm like, oh, I should do those things before I die.
GROSS: OK, so the determination to act after a near-death experience, I get that completely. The desire to smoke after you're like - you've run for your life...
GROSS: It's like, what do I really want to do? Put smoke in my lungs 'cause I've just run from white phosphorus. That makes no sense to me at all.
DRIVER: Yeah, the theme in my stories, I guess, is that they don't make much sense. They don't really add up to - it's all very impulsive (laughter).
GROSS: Were you already a smoker?
DRIVER: No. No, not at all. No, that was it.
GROSS: People don't have the ambition to start smoking, though. It's like, yes - (laughter) - my dream is going to come true. I'm going to light up a cigarette. I don't get it at all.
DRIVER: Yeah, but if you're teetering with something and you're like, I wonder what that's like, then you're like, oh, I should find out what that's like, you know...
GROSS: Oh, I see. OK.
DRIVER: People seem to like that thing that a lot of people do. You know, you watch them do it. And they seem pretty excited about it. And it looks really cool. I'm going to do that.
GROSS: Did you?
DRIVER: So I did. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I did for a long time. But then, you know - then you go down the whole rabbit hole, dipping and all that stuff. Then I kind of recently stopped 'cause it's not good. You can't run and smoke.
GROSS: Yeah, and you need your breath on stage too, don't you?
DRIVER: You need your breath to talk and breathe.
GROSS: Yeah, well, you need that, yeah (laughter).
DRIVER: (Laughter). You need your breath to breathe.
GROSS: My guest is Adam Driver. He's one of the stars of the new movie comedy "While We're Young." He also co-stars in the HBO series "Girls." After a short break, he'll tell us about being an acting student at Juilliard and looking in the mirror and thinking, will I ever work as an actor with this face? I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Adam Driver. He's one of the stars of the new film comedy "While We're Young." He's best known for his role in the HBO series "Girls" as Hannah's on-again, off-again boyfriend, Adam. When we left off, we were talking about his experiences in the Marines. He enlisted after graduating from high school. Before his platoon was deployed to Iraq, he broke his sternum in a mountain bike accident. He did his best to stay with his platoon, but he was given a medical discharge. After returning to civilian life, he applied to Juilliard and got in.
When you got to Juilliard, did being a vet affect how people saw you, especially people who opposed the war in Iraq? Did they have certain preconceptions of you, make assumptions about you?
DRIVER: Yeah, and me about them, too. Like, I feel like a lot of it - for me, I - you know, I'm like, oh, no, I'm really going to take this seriously. I'm going to, like, absorb all the training. I'm going to - I'll stay here if I - like, I was really prepared to do anything 'cause I felt I knew how precious life is and how time is so important. And then there are ideas of, like, you know, oh, you're a Marine, so you're obviously going to hit somebody at some point. And it's like, you know, I don't drag my knuckles around or something - I'm not sure what it was they were - I just - I could feel their apprehension and being scared. And I guess I was apprehensive and scared, too, in a different way.
Just to, you know, readjust - I had really strong judgments about civilians and thought of them as nasty, you know, civilians and - who were just, like, not - who were wasting time and not disciplined, and it took me a while to kind of get over that and not be so judgmental or calm down. You know, it's a weird thing to turn off when suddenly you're getting into this crazy civilian world where people are wearing their hats indoors and, like, their clothes untucked and kind of, like, you know, wander in a room, like, looking nasty and (laughter) cleating crud out of their eyes. Like, I was ready to act and throw all my effort into it.
GROSS: (Laughter). So what kind of roles did you get when you were at Juilliard?
DRIVER: A lot of angry (laughter) - no - I don't know. Juilliard - you know what's...
GROSS: Were you kidding about the a-lot-of-angry part, or does - were you getting a lot of bigger roles?
DRIVER: No, no. I mean, that's something I think I wanted to do, but I think they pushed me away from that as much as possible.
GROSS: Wait, 'cause you were feeling angry?
DRIVER: Yeah. Oh, plus, you're in your 20s, so I feel like you're kind of angry about everything.
GROSS: There's a scene in "Girls" where Shosh says to your character, Adam, after your character has started to act, now you'll have to compete with actors like Zachary Quinto and Armie Hammer.
GROSS: And like, I think the subtext there is, like, kind of handsome actors who haven't quite made it to major leading-man roles yet.
GROSS: So I'm wondering, like, after she says that to you, how did you feel about your looks and how your looks were going to define the roles that you got?
DRIVER: I don't know. I definitely had time - a time when I thought about it, right when I was graduating, of, I don't really look - I look very strange. But then - you know, I don't know. And I guess I kind of got over it.
GROSS: You use the word strange. When you were a teenager, did you think of yourself as looking strange? And if so, what impact did that have on you?
DRIVER: Oh, yeah. No, I did look strange as a teenager - like, you know, like, very prominent facial features. I have a big nose and big ears and kind of tiny eyes - very rat-like.
DRIVER: But I feel like it just made me - I don't know. I just developed - I had to develop thick skin. And God, I mean, like, Marine Corps - if you have any kind of - if you're insecure about anything or you have, like, you know, a mole out of place, people will find it and kind of - especially in boot camp or - you know, and drill it, you know, until you're numb to it (laughter), I guess, in a way.
I was lucky though 'cause in my platoon, there was another guy who also had big ears. And the drill instructors noticed him before they did me, so he was ears number one and I was ears number two.
DRIVER: But as far as, like, acting, I was so scared I would not get a job when I - you know, at Juilliard, they have it set in a way where the first three years, you're really thinking about yourself and your process and - well, I guess actors are always thinking about themselves and their process.
DRIVER: But you're really thinking about it in the first three years. And then in the fourth year, they try to open you up more to, you know, thinking of it as a business. And you have to do these kind of things, like head shots. And then you start to, like, really look at yourself in the mirror and think, like, will I even work, you know, as an actor? And I definitely had that time, around then, when you're, like - you really look at yourself in the mirror and don't know - you don't really see a lot of people the way you look.
GROSS: Did you ever audition for films set in Iraq during the war?
DRIVER: I did not, no.
GROSS: Was that intentional or did it just not come up?
DRIVER: I'm pretty picky about auditioning for things that are military themed on purpose.
DRIVER: 'Cause I don't - I don't know. It's kind of a - in a way, I don't feel like I rate to tell that story, you know? It's like, I didn't go. And with those people in...
GROSS: You got closer than a lot of other actors did.
DRIVER: Well, yeah, but that doesn't have anything to do with it. Like, I - it's - there's that - the not rating, and then it's also just, like, no one will get it right in my opinion. It was just so - you know, it'd really have to be about who's making it and the story. And not that I'm against it, I just haven't really - nothing's come up where I thought, well, that's my - that was the experience I had. Those were the people that I saw.
DRIVER: The things that I read, it was like, this is some crappy, watered-down version of it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Driver. He's one of the stars of the HBO series "Girls." He plays the character Adam. He was also one of the stars of the new movie comedy "While We're Young." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Driver. He plays the character Adam on the HBO series "Girls," and he's one of the stars, along with Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried, of the new film "While We're Young," which was written and directed by Noah Baumbach.
Let's talk about growing up. You grew up in - pronounce it for me?
GROSS: In Indiana. Is that a small town or a suburb?
DRIVER: Yeah, it's 40,000 people.
GROSS: And describe your neighborhood for us.
DRIVER: Mishawaka - there was, like, a big Uniroyal plant that was in the '50s that closed down I think in the '70s or somewhere around there.
GROSS: What kind of plant did you say?
DRIVER: A Uniroyal plant.
GROSS: Tires - is that tires?
DRIVER: I think tires, yeah, right? 'Cause there's the Hummer plant that's there now that's kind of the big source of income for the area. Then there's Grape Road, which has a lot of like, you know, restaurants and Denver Mattress and Kohl's and things like that where people cruise in front of the Taco Bell. I was actually just there this weekend. I haven't been in a while. It's very flat, you know, very close to the ground. My parents split, and then they - I lived with my grandparents with my mom and sister. And then she - my mom remarried, and we, you know, got this really small house and - I keep saying small, but yeah, going back again, I'm like I didn't remember it being this small, but it is.
GROSS: Your stepfather was a Baptist minister, and you sang in the church choir. What can you tell us about the church?
DRIVER: Yeah, was and is. He still is.
DRIVER: Yeah, it's a very small church. I went there for Easter. He's - my mom plays the piano and does the kind of Easter programs and leads the songs, and so my sister and myself were recruited to sing in the choir. And I think there's, like, probably 20 regular members that go there.
GROSS: Was it a very conservative form of Christianity that you were brought up in? The - culturally conservative?
DRIVER: Yeah, I'd say so, yeah.
GROSS: Were there things that you weren't allowed to do that you wanted to do, things like television and music and movies that other people your age were allowed to do and you weren't?
DRIVER: Oh, yeah. I mean, well, smoking, clearly.
GROSS: That made a big impression on you.
DRIVER: I really wanted to - I can't emphasize this enough...
GROSS: Bucket list.
DRIVER: ...I really wanted to smoke. Yeah, there also wasn't a lot to do in Mishawaka. I mean, there's not really a lot of things to do that - I mean, you're limited, but again - by your imagination, so I would do those things as much as possible. But movies turned into a big thing for me as far as a big avenue of escape and culture and things like that - not just Hollywood Video, but my grandpa - he's dead now. But when he was alive he would record movies off the TV on VHS. You know, how you put a piece of tape over the tab, and he would record movies off TV specifically so my sister and myself could watch them.
So I saw all these really great movies. And he would, like, create a book that he laminated and typed out like all the movies that were on -"The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre" and then type a description of what the movie was. And, you know, "Lethal Weapon," you know, Mel Gibson, you know, is living on a razor's edge - you know, and he would type, like, a little paragraph and they would all be numbered and they would all have, like, a clear case. And right next to his bed in his bedroom - this huge bookshelf filled with all these movies. So I was kind of aware, when we moved there, how important these things were, all these Audie Murphy movies and how he would reference them all the time. So...
GROSS: That's wonderful that he curated movies for you.
DRIVER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I, you know, didn't really see the real version of "Die Hard" until, you know, I was older. I'm like whoa, whoa (laughter) this is so much better.
GROSS: (Laughter) You saw the TV version.
DRIVER: The trash that he was giving us. Yeah, right.
GROSS: So one of the things that you've recently done is combine your military experience with your theater experience. And you started a theater group for performances for the military. It's called Arts in the Armed Forces. So tell us what the idea was when you started this.
DRIVER: Through theater and acting in plays and playwrights, and for the first time I was able to use language to - I mean, you wouldn't know it from this interview, but to express myself and not aggression. And I noticed in myself how when I was able to like put things into words that I would be less aggressive. And the first people that I thought of, as I thought of all the time at that time, was the people that I served with.
I wanted to kind of stay away from things that, like, hinted at the military because I feel like it's always - it's always kind of tricky for a military audience to hear from civilians what it's like to be in the military. But just expose to - just troop entertainment that has good theater from great writers in hopes that people would just find a connection and - the first one we did was at Camp Pendleton. And one of the ones that we did was this monologue by this guy Scott Oregon (ph). It was this play called "China." And Laura Linney read it and it was about an employer reprimanding her employee for not wearing a bra - not following a dress code. And a male marine came up to one of our guys afterwards were - actually someone was a reporter there and was like, I liked the whole thing, it was really good to go. I just didn't like that one monologue. I thought it was an indirect attack on how we do things in the military, you know? And it's not a military-themed monologue at all, and I picked it because the person that I saw do it, it was really funny and thought that they would kind of get it. And they were like I thought this was, you know, a little bit controversial.
And then the female Marines were coming out of the same performance and being - I liked all the monologues, especially that monologue about the employer - you know, getting unemployed for not wearing a bra 'cause I know what it's like to be, you know, a female in a male-dominant society and have to pull my hair back under my cover and wear a very shapeless uniform, and she found how that was so funny. And she just got it. People were just making their own connections. Just kind of things that you just can't - that you kind of hope that people will get to say. It's not an audience filled with people who've seen "Hedda Gabler" 15 times.
GROSS: So it sounds like one of the reasons for creating Arts in the Armed Forces, your theater group, is that you wanted to bridge the gap between two parts of your life - you know, the Marine training - your time in the Marines and your work at Juilliard and, you know, your theatrical aspirations. They seemed like two really radically different things at the time when you were going to Juilliard. But this, it sounds like, made them connected.
DRIVER: Yeah, there's - and also I wanted to continue my service. I - you know, I stopped short of doing what I wanted to do. And I still felt connected to that - and still feel connected to that community although I've done other things. Like, I feel that acting is a service, and it's so much not about one person or - and that kind of comradery and - the military and the acting world are actually so similar in my kind of take on it.
You know, you have a group of people trying to accomplish a mission that's greater than themselves. It's not about one person. You know, to have an effective gun team, you have to kind of - everyone has their specific role, and you have to know what your role is and when to kind of show up and be there and when to kind of back away. And then you have usually someone leading it, you know, a platoon leader or a director, and sometimes they know what they're doing and sometimes they really don't know what they're doing. And that's frustrating. Obviously the stakes are completely different. Even though you're trying to act like - you know, in acting like the stakes are life or death, but they're not really life or death, you know, that's also a tricky thing to balance. But the discipline, self-maintenance, the, you know, comradery, the - they're so similar. It's - I don't view them at all as such radical - the acting as such a radical departure from the military.
GROSS: So, yeah. When did you first get interested in acting? 'Cause you were interested in acting before you even enlisted.
DRIVER: I was, yeah. I did plays in high school. But there wasn't a lot of, like - it didn't seem like something like a reasonable thing I could do in Mishawaka, Ind. Also I got grounded a lot, so I couldn't do plays but...
GROSS: Grounded by school or by your parents?
DRIVER: My parents - yeah, I didn't get good grades and really wasn't interested in school, but was interested in doing plays and did "Arsenic And Old Lace" and that was really fun. But then, you know, the idea of going to New York or - I don't know why I didn't think about - well, actually I did think about California.
At one point I tried to move to California to be an actor 'cause I heard all those stories of people, like, moving to California with five bucks, you know, and then being an actor. This is right when I graduated. And my car broke down - I had a 1990 Lincoln Town Car - outside of Amarillo, Texas. And I had to walk 10 miles to Amarillo and then spend all my money on getting my car fixed. I had everything in my car, like a refrigerator and all my possessions basically. I made a really big production about saying goodbye, too. That's what I remembered that was really embarrassing, like, goodbye friends, you know. Like, I'll see you when I see you. You know, I'll see you on the big screen. And, you know, kind of like had the conversation with my girlfriend at the time like, this is going to be hard, you know, like - but we'll figure out a way to survive.
And then by the time I got - I didn't even make it to LA. I just made it to Santa Monica to meet some - like a professor who taught film or something like that. It was my connection, you know? And I was staying at a youth hostel, and I had no money - like, I just had no more money. And calling home to ask for money wasn't an option so I took the final $200 that I had to pay for gas and drove all the way back. I drove right back to Indiana. I think I was probably gone for maybe total a week.
GROSS: So did you think, well, I blew it I'll never have that chance again...
GROSS: ...I'll give up on the whole acting idea?
DRIVER: Yeah, yeah. That was...
GROSS: And is that when you joined the Marines?
DRIVER: A couple months after that, yeah. Well, obviously this was before September 11.
GROSS: I see.
DRIVER: And I remember they sent me a brochure in the mail - the Marine Corps. And we were having an argument, you know, because I wasn't doing anything. And that was an option that was presented to me by my parents. You should, you know, think about - no, no way, no way. And then months later - then September 11 happened. And then suddenly, you know, things changed.
GROSS: So this is another example of why your life seemed to be going nowhere at the time you joined the Marines.
DRIVER: Yeah, that's a good example (laughter) of life going nowhere.
GROSS: One of the best (laughter).
DRIVER: Yeah, selling vacuum cleaners to people at my parents' church and them still not - them still not buying it. I'm, like, they go to my parents' church this is totally going to be an in.
GROSS: Adam Driver, thank you for talking with us. It's been great. I appreciate it.
DRIVER: Yeah, thanks for having me.
GROSS: Adam Driver is one of the stars of the new film comedy "While We're Young," and he co-stars on the new HBO series "Girls." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review Kendrick Lamar's latest album. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.