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The Accidental Success of Adam Driver

How an alienated kid from a small town in the heartland became Hollywood's oddest star

January 20, 2014 9:00 AM ET
Adam Driver, RS1201
Adam Driver
Theo Wenner

Let's say Adam Driver is in need of some eggs. He goes to a store. He selects the eggs. He approaches the checkout line to purchase said eggs. The cashier looks up and—

"You're an asshole!" she proclaims with a wide grin.

Driver does not even blink. "Thank you," he says, placing his eggs on the counter.

"I like you, but you're an asshole!"

"Uh, fuck you?" Driver responds in that funny, goofy, asshole-y way he's perfected on TV. "Are these eggs at a discount?"

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For Driver, 30, that was kind of the way it went for a while. If ever there was a less appealing paramour than Adam Sackler the sexually debased actor-carpenter-weirdo that he plays with Emmy-nominated aplomb on HBO's Girls, you'd be hard-pressed to envision him, and Driver nailed the role so brilliantly that he soon found himself taking the flak for his character's predilections. Sackler peed on show creator Lena Dunham's character, Hannah Horvath, in the shower? Driver was pegged an asshole. Sackler asked a woman to crawl to his bed on her hands and knees? Driver was the kinky, borderline-abusive freak.

But while Sackler may be such a perfect incarnation of raw id that he can ask, "Would you have fucked a four-year-old me?" as if casually inquiring about the weather, by the end of the first season he'd magically morphed into Hannah's actual boyfriend, proving himself less dick than some kind of lost feral creature. And he could be a real sweetheart, even if his sweetness was so idiosyncratic that it bordered on Asperger's ("Gather my fat," he once told Hannah when she had a moment of paralyzing self-consciousness. "You'll feel less alone if you gather my fat"). Suddenly Sackler was the good(ish) guy – a hipster, fun-house version of Carrie Bradshaw's Mr. Big – and Driver was no longer a pop-cultural asshole. Now at an airy cafe near his Brooklyn apartment, he describes past run-ins with Sackler's infamy with the same bashfulness with which he encountered them and seems to deal with much of life. "It was very awkward," he says. "But now I don't get harassed so much. It's just all very nice."

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And in person so is Driver – or as Dunham puts it, he's "a million times more mature, driven and civilized." But he's still an oddity, with an elongated face that has the striking ability to appear both monumental and elfin, and a hulkish body that buzzes with nervous energy. He eats six eggs (minus four yolks) each day ("I have a control problem," he says. "I hate the feeling of not being in control"). He works out obsessively ("I feel like I have to move violently once a day or I'll lose my mind"). He once slept for several weeks in a paint storage room on the roof of Juilliard in preparation for a role in which he felt the character needed to feel isolated, and looks forward to having kids so that he has an excuse to always stay home. He doesn't do Twitter ("I don't understand technology, and I'm very scared of it"), he doesn't have cable ("I've actually tried getting cable, like, three different times and, goddamn, it's expensive"), and he refuses to watch Girls ("That's a way that I try to not have control over what's happening"). The show may be the zeitgeist-iest byproduct of the millennial generation – and Sackler its most perfectly portrayed poster boy – but Driver himself seems immune to the culture that created it. "What does 'zeitgeist-y' mean, again?" he asks without a hint of irony, tucking into his seventh and eighth eggs of the day. "I feel very disjointed from my generation. I feel disjointed from what's happening."

To a large extent, that's his appeal, and what helped land him the part on Girls. A relative unknown, he was the first person to audition for Sackler and came in to the screen test holding a motorcycle helmet ("Which," Dunham says, "was highly intriguing"), and his take on the character was so surprising that she got up from the casting table to read with him. "She jumped in, and we played around for a while," he says. "I feel like we found something that was playful and seemed to kind of work and make sense." In fact, says Dunham, "his intensity informed the writing from the start. We were star-struck, even though we'd never seen him before. All I could mutter was, 'Wow, you have the same name as this character,' like a total dingbat."

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Driver was born in San Diego, the son of a preacher. After his parents' divorce, his mom moved him and his older sister to her hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana, where she married a Baptist minister. Driver got crappy grades and was grounded a lot. In Mishawaka, a town of "cheerleaders and football teams and homecomings and things like that," he describes himself as a misfit – a kid adept at climbing radio towers and lurking around railroad tracks and lighting things on fire who was so inspired by the movie Fight Club that he started his own. "They had a big grassy field behind fuckin' Celebrations Unlimited, an event space that people rent out to get married or whatever, and we would go out there in the middle of the night and beat the shit out of our neighbors."

After graduating high school, he sold vacuums door-to-door, mowed lawns, and worked as a telemarketer for a basement-waterproofing company while living in a back room of his parents' house and paying $200 a month in rent – his parents' tough-love measure. "I couldn't go to the front of the house," he says wryly. "They made me buy my own refrigerator and microwave." (His relationship with his parents is such that he didn't bother to tell them when he got cast in Girls. "It's just hard to keep in contact," he says with a shrug. "We have very different lives.")

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