Meet the next big leading man of Hollywood, Adam Driver
I don’t know what is more touching, men who can cook, or men who can cry. Actor Adam Driver does both in the film, Marriage Story (MS), directed by Noah Baumbach. What makes this a breakout film, for Driver, is that, so far, he has displayed a different skill set: how to glower, sabre-rattle or wear a cape or be the galaxy’s best bad boy as Kylo Ren, in Stars Wars films such as The Force Awakens.
There’s a strong buzz that Driver will be an Oscar contender for best actor in MS (the second most talked about film of 2019, after The Irishman), a bittersweet film about negotiating a divorce and child custody, but which is actually a story about two people in love who cannot live together.
From Kylo Ren to detective Flip Zimmerman in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman to becoming Dad, the Lego Builder who is also an avant-garde theatre director, in his latest, Driver has shown ambition. More importantly, most of his directors say he has shown that he has game. But it didn’t come together in a day.
The actor grew up in Northern Indiana, in a town called Mishawaka, not the centre of anything at all in the US. He sang in a choir at church. The child of estranged parents, he was awkward and angsty. To let off steam, he told M Magazine, he climbed radio towers, set objects on fire, and organised a fight club. He also wanted to act, which he put on hold to join the Marines in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
What he brought back from being in the army, besides an impressive physique –– Vogue noticed, and had Annie Leibovitz shoot him bare chest with a goat draped around his neck –– is a certain body language the audience is unused to in a Hollywood male lead. Driver fills up the screen with a disquieting stillness. He doesn’t walk into a space, he ambushes it. His default expression is stone-faced; he rarely smiles. Should a director write a scene where he needs a man to plant a bomb under his own kitchen table, Driver would be the actor he would most likely pick. Driver’s presence is nondescript, yet lethal. He is the Everyman, till the day he decides he isn’t.
In MS, Baumbach presents Driver, playing Charlie Barber, a theatre director of a high on the hip quotient but of a low-rent theatre establishment, in a new light. MS is the film that, in a first, paints Driver’s face in a kaleidoscope of emotions.
Charlie has many endearing qualities. His actress wife, Nicole (a luminous Scarlett Johansson), lists them in a note to the first lawyer mediating their divorce. He doesn’t eat but devour a sandwich; he is a great dresser; he is always closing the cabinet doors that his wife leaves open; he makes even the intern feel included; he relies on his wife to open the pickle jars.... How much more normal can Adam Driver get?
In MS, Driver has shown fine comic timing too. He is convincing as the husband who doesn’t let up on commenting on little details about his wife’s life, her hair, her new film project, even as they formally separate. His coming to grips with his mess and the stoic acceptance of his lot is exquisite. The breaks in his baritone as he sings in a bar, and in the process, realises the scale of his loss, is an inspired Driver performance as you have never seen before. Driver as Charlie Barber is the hero of a Greek tragedy set in California minus the pitched battles, and long speeches.
In television interviews, Driver has explained MS as “the telling of a relationship through the end of it”. He also reveals, with no irony intended, that his directors hire him “for my opinions”.
In just a decade-old career, Driver has cemented his place in Hollywood as a serious guy. He is always thinking on sets, say his co-stars. But Driver makes light of it. In an interview to 5news when asked how he reaches his ‘dark side’ to help him emote, he is self-deprecatory, but still quite the method actor: “Oh, I just think about taxes and traffic, and then I’m there.”
Beginnings: Adam Driver’s first break was in the Clint Eastwood-directed biographical drama, J Edgar, in 2011.
Honours: He was judged Best Actor at the 2014 Venice film festival for the relationship drama, Hungry Hearts. His first Oscar nomination was for portraying a cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
Directors: He has worked with Jim Jarmusch (Paterson); Martin Scorsese (Silence), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, While We’re Young, The Meyerowitz Stories, Marriage Story).