Adam Driver has been on my mind for a while. Beyond his dashing charm (I’ll spare the discourse on that—there’s plenty already), he’s strikingly talented and has flourished on screen with his energy, spunk, and grace. From his first major role as Adam Sackler in Lena Dunham’s controversial Girls to his portrayal of Lev in Frances Ha (2012), to Kylo Ren in the latest Star Wars trilogy (2019), to Kylo Ren undercover on SNL, to Charlie Barber in Marriage Story (2019), Driver has proven he can do it all—beyond, too, the U.S. Marines and Julliard. To each character he’s brought distinctive dimensions of his acting ability: troubled, passionate, soft, quirky, smug, uptight, unhinged, and more. And I haven’t seen BlacKkKlansman, The Report, or Paterson yet.
Pop culture, in addition to the film industry, has rightly come to recognize how extraordinary Driver really is. In late October, The New Yorker profiled the actor, naming him “the original man” and “Hollywood’s most unconventional lead.” He sings, not only in Marriage Story but also in Annette (2020), a yet-to-be released movie musical in which Driver will play a “provocative” stand-up comedian. Driver is also simply a man with quirks and reservations. He enjoys Danish modern chairs, and likes to eat burrito bowls and run water over his head before delving into a difficult scene on stage. Like many of us, he gets uneasy hearing his voice in a recording and seeing himself act on television.
There’s still something special about Driver: his every move and gaze feels natural, idiosyncratic, and unconventional. Driver steers clear from the typical—even trite—successful male Hollywood actor. Yes, he’s white and conventionally masculine. But he’s also uncannily authentic, doesn’t look straight out of a Barbie and Ken doll package, and is capable of expressing sweetness, fear, and rage in ways that not only touch but also tingle, even nudge with slight discomfort, the many senses of his viewers. At once, Driver can flip the switch from carrying himself as composed and endearingly benign (think Charlie and Adam in their best moments) to explosive, pained, and vulnerable to the point of obscenity (think Kylo, or Adam and Charlie at their worst). His acting capacities push limits, revealing themselves in vastly different characters that pique interest in various ways.
What draws me most toward Driver is his obscenity: the way his characters reek of raw tension, the ways they lurch out of control. Not only does Driver seek to be seen and heard—he demands to be felt and to be questioned. To collide with Driver, to find oneself at odds with him, is to truly feel the rewards of his craft. Faced with the camera, Driver releases all abandon and in doing so grants us permission to do the same. He aggravates fickle standards of normalcy and control, and in this act brings a kind of freedom to the human experience.
Driver can be enchanting and lovable even when you hate him. His character in Marriage Story, for which he was nominated Best Actor this year, demands our empathy despite his rash and hurtful decision-making. One step further in Girls, Driver defies divisive dualities and encapsulates all the extremes—whether sexual, social, or romantic—while keeping his viewers rapt and endeared.
The coming-of-age comedy-drama, which aired for six successful seasons in the last decade, features Driver as Adam Sackler: the chaotic, enigmatic, and on-and-off partner of the show’s protagonist, Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham). In the shoes of Adam, Driver is reckless, borderline abusive, and at times nonsensical. Still, his behavior is rounded out and complemented by some literally incredible moments of selflessness, composure, determination, and softness. Woven into Adam’s rash behavior are thoughtfulness, intellect, and passion. Watching Girls, we learn that such traits can never exist in isolation, and that when they do, they might render a person simplistic and banal. Ever since his television debut, Driver has challenged what one can do on screen, generously expanding over the course of his career the notoriously limited landscape of what it means to act and to be in Hollywood.
As an afterthought, I should probably consider why I’m so deep in this obsession with a man whom I don’t actually know, one who’s not Timothée Chalamet, and one whom I admire for his extremity as much as his tenderness, though it’s comforting that I’m not the only one. I might have to reflect on my relationship with my dad and my maybe-questionable taste in men, and that might get uncomfortable. But at least I’ll be dissecting my zeal for Driver in the most fitting way: one that is direct and unabashed, albeit mildly unsettling.
By Becky Zhang
Photo by Richard Burbridge for The New Yorker