That’s Driver in a nutshell — someone who, in part thanks to his large presence and general way of being, can’t help but command the screen. HBO’s “Girls,” on which he broke out as the volatile Adam Sackler, even features a scene in which another character notes that he “does sort of look like the original man.” The episode aired in 2012, early in a decade that proved to be star-making for the Oscar-nominated actor, and which he has capped with a robust fall slate: He stars as a lead in two films, “Marriage Story” and “The Report,” and plays a villain in the upcoming holiday blockbuster “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
So how did the season of Adam Driver come to be? There’s the aesthetic intrigue mentioned above, which once led the Guardian to ask the lanky actor about “not being the standard Hollywood McHunk.” He candidly responded, “I have been told before that I have an unusual face. But my face is my face.” His success is likely due more to how that sense of grounded honesty comes through in his performances. Driver, who trained at Juilliard after serving in the Marines, broadcasts a quiet intensity that can capture a range of feelings, sometimes all at once. In the earlier seasons of “Girls,” for instance, Adam’s mannerisms often display a mixture of pent-up rage and emotional vulnerability.
Driver has already earned accolades for his performance in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” released Friday on Netflix; he won the Gotham Award for best actor Monday night, bolstering his stance as a front-runner in the Oscar race. Baumbach cast Driver in three other projects before this one, and it becomes clear while watching “Marriage Story” that, as was the case with co-star Scarlett Johansson, the character was written with Driver in mind. They play a couple — theater director Charlie Barber and actress Nicole — whose marriage crumbles over misaligned priorities. Charlie’s company is in New York, where the Barbers have raised their young son for most of his life. Nicole, who has long indulged Charlie’s ego by putting off her dream of returning home to Los Angeles, moves back for work when they separate.
What follows is a meditation on divorce, a compassionate look at how it can liberate two people but still decimate their spirits as they reevaluate their life together. Baumbach infuses his script with comedy, but it’s when the tension between Charlie and Nicole climaxes that the actors shine brightest. When an attempt to hash out the details of their divorce without lawyers escalates to a screaming match, Charlie, red-faced with frustration, shouts at Nicole, “Every day I wake up and wish you were dead.” He immediately bursts into tears, falling to his knees and embracing Nicole’s legs.
In a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, Driver said that, with such scenes, “You don’t push for emotion. It either happens or it doesn’t.” He credited his ability to so transparently portray clashing feelings like Charlie’s to the quality of a script, which rings true — several of his strongest performances are tied to acclaimed writers, including Lena Dunham, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese.
The team effort is especially evident with Driver’s more understated scenes. His final episode of “Girls,” given the aptly awkward title “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” begins with Adam’s desire to prove to his ex-girlfriend Hannah Horvath (Dunham), who he discovers is pregnant, that he has matured into a man who can help raise her child. Following the reunion is a dreamlike sequence that comes crashing down as they sit opposite one another at a diner. Though they continue to discuss the logistics of moving in together — Adam even suggests they get married — it dawns on them that the relationship won’t work out. Hannah’s eyes well up as Adam smiles wistfully, stuttering until his words come to a halt. They sit in silence for a bit. He comments on the quality of his soup.
Driver’s turn as Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones in “The Report” is similarly internal, this time a relatively restrained depiction of anger as he spends years investigating the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11. Driver faces the tough task of anchoring a film that heavily involves sifting through paperwork in a confined space, but he accomplishes it by, as the New York Times put it, expressing that fury “not in explosive confrontations, but in a gradually hardening resolve to protect and disseminate his findings.”
“With Driver, there’s always a sense of something leashed, and his characters seem to be operating on a plane above and beyond everyone else,” reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis continues.
It’s true of his Oscar-nominated role in Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” as Flip Zimmerman, a brooding Jewish cop who goes undercover to take down the Ku Klux Klan. It’s also true of his characters in two Jarmusch films: a bus driver devoted to poetry in “Paterson,” a quiet film about the idyllic rituals of daily life; and a small-town officer in the horror-tinged absurdist comedy “The Dead Don’t Die,” who states from the moment things start to turn upside-down that zombies are to blame. (Or “ghouls,” as he amusingly deadpans.)
And it’s of course true of Kylo Ren, the Force-wielding “Star Wars” villain who operates on another plane in the most literal sense. “The Force Awakens” introduced Kylo as a Darth Vader 2.0, the ruthless son of two legends — Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) — who, in his quest for power, struggles to extinguish the light within him. Driver’s greatest talent is arguably his ability to keep a character’s fiercest emotions brimming beneath the surface, releasing them in bursts both great and small.
He avoids making a cartoonish sci-fi villain of Kylo by approaching him as he would a character in any “prestige” project. Looking back, there’s a strange sort of kinship between his conflicted performance in “The Last Jedi,” which allowed for a deeper exploration of Kylo’s interiority, and Charlie Barber’s reactions to the strain of divorce, or even Adam Sackler’s battle with his more primal tendencies. The season of Adam Driver, a compressed display of the actor’s talents that will only continue to spark awards buzz through February, has been nearly a decade in the making.