Filmgoers who know Adam Driver only as the evil Kylo Ren from “The Force Awakens” will get a chance to see a totally different side to the “Star Wars” actor this month. Two sides, in fact.
Driver has a starring role in “Paterson,” writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s love letter to the poetry of Paterson, N.J., bard William Carlos Williams, and in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” a nearly three-hour epic based on Shusako Endo’s 1966 historical novel. In “Paterson,” Driver plays a laconic bus driver who writes plain-spoken poetry, and in “Silence,” he and Andrew Garfield portray 17th-century Jesuit priests.
We spoke to the 33-year-old by phone recently about the differences — and some surprising similarities — between the films.
Q: “Paterson” has the structure and repetition of poetry: Your character, a creature of deep habit named Paterson, lives and works in the town of Paterson, and several literal twins appear throughout the film, like visual rhymes. Did you and Jarmusch talk about how the movie, the character and the town all function as forms of what’s called “concrete poetry”?
A: We didn’t talk so much about end-result stuff. We talked about Paterson’s philosophy. There’s a line where he says, “Words are written on water.” So there’s this mind-set that he’s creating things, but he’s not overly ambitious to show them yet. And when they disappear, he mourns the loss of them, but he knows that — as with any kind of creative activity — you’re making it in the moment. It happens, and then it’s gone.
Q: Newsweek described your breakout role as Adam Sackler on “Girls” as “emotionally incontinent.” If Paterson isn’t his polar opposite — emotionally constipated — then he’s close. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
A: I’m an actor, so I have no idea who I am. There are parts of Paterson that I really aspire to — being so present and aware of the beauty in details around you. There are things about his philosophy — he’s almost someone out of time — that I really relate to. He’s not connected to things. He finds, maybe, a value in boredom, which I also kind of relate to.
Q: Your character in “While We’re Young,” the unethical hipster filmmaker Jamie, also was out of step with the times, a connoisseur of typewriters and other obsolete technology. Are the two characters similar?
A: This may be a back way into answering your question, but Jamie wasn’t really creating anything new. He was appropriating other people’s hard work and creating something with that. I have conversations with friends about whether there is only one authentic way to do something. But there really is no right or wrong way. Whereas Jamie appropriated other people’s work, Paterson is more original, in a sense. He has a strong work ethic. It’s almost like he’s not putting on a show, like Jamie. He’s living it.
Q: He’s more genuine then?
A: I guess. But who’s to say that either way is the right way to create something? Everyone borrows. Paterson definitely finds value in not being so connected to things. It’s kind of like Jim’s internal joke that every time someone mentions a phone in the film, it’s always called a “smartphone,” because he just thinks it’s really funny. There’s an ad on the side of the bus where it says, “Get a divorce on your smartphone — for 99 cents.” When the bus breaks down, Paterson asks a girl, “Can I use your smartphone?” Jim just loves the idea of a “smart” piece of technology that we’re connected to. Except that Paterson isn’t.
Q: Do you use a smartphone?
A: I do, yeah. I’m talking to you on it now.
Q: You learned how to drive a bus for “Paterson.” Couldn’t you just fake it?
A: Yeah, I got my CDL [commercial driver’s license], Class D, for lots of reasons. We’re trying to tell a story where Paterson’s physical life is a well-worn groove. I didn’t want to waste time on the day we’re shooting thinking about “What gauge is this? What mirror should I be looking at? What lever opens the door?” We wanted to tell the story that he is physically on autopilot.
Q: What was your level of engagement with poetry before the film?
A: Very entry level. . . . Like most people, I was really exposed to poetry in college, where you go to a lot of bad readings about someone’s blanket when they were a kid. Jim has this great description of that kind of poetry, where it’s screamed from a mountaintop with a tone of self-importance that he and I both find off-putting. He was always attracted to the New York school of poets, where it seems more like an intimate conversation with one person. Ron Padgett, who wrote the poems for this movie, is very much of that school, along with Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara. When you discover something through someone who is as fiercely passionate about it as Jim is, that makes it inherently more exciting. I was familiar with William Carlos Williams and knew “This Is Just to Say,” but I didn’t know many of his other poems. Discovering them through Jim was a great crash course.
Q: Paterson’s poetry is not the only verse in the film. Did Padgett write it all?
A: When I first read the script, there were no poems in it. Jim knew Ron for a long time and kept saying that he was going to be doing the poetry. It wasn’t until we started working on the script in rehearsals that Jim really started nailing down what the poems were going to be. We used a lot that were already written by Ron. But in the scene where the teenage girl reads the poem about rain “falling like hair across a young girl’s shoulders,” Jim wrote that. When you see [rapper] Method Man [a.k.a. Clifford Smith] working out a rap at the laundromat [about the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar], that’s a poem that Method Man wrote after reading the script.
Q: Superficially, “Paterson” and “Silence” seem nothing alike. Are there similarities?
A: They’re both set in ritual. “Paterson,” even though it’s not about religious ritual, has to do with a structured way of being in the world that I think both religion and poetry can give you: a set of boundaries that you can work within. Also, I think that anyone can relate to the idea of a crisis of faith with regard to decisions you made in your youth. As you become older and your relationship to the world changes, suddenly you have to reassess the commitments you may have made as a different person and see if they make sense anymore. As an actor, I always feel doubt in what I’m doing or whether what I’m doing has an impact.
Q: Your stepfather is a minister, and you were raised in the Baptist church. How did your own faith journey inform your performance in “Silence”?
A: Unlike poetry, I was very familiar with the Bible and those feelings of guilt and being conflicted in your faith. But I am not religious. I was raised in a church, but I didn’t keep with it. Not that I judge people who do, because I think it does put good into the world, or it can. For me, religion in “Silence” is like the poetry in “Paterson.” I take it as more of an analogy. Both can be seen as substitutes for any kind of life commitment that you have made.
Paterson (R, 115 minutes) and Silence (R, 161 minutes) open Friday in area theaters.