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?"
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."
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."
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.")
Hoping to capitalize on his experience acting in a few high school plays, he auditioned for Juilliard – "It was supposed to be the best school" – and was rejected. Undeterred, he decided to head to Hollywood to make it big, setting off in his 1990 Lincoln Town Car, only to break down 10 miles outside of Amarillo, Texas. By the time he got to California, his meager funds were so depleted that he left after two days. "It was really embarrassing, actually. I had said goodbye to friends and family, like, 'So long, guys! I'm out of this shithole town, on to something!' Literally, like, four days later I was moving back in with my fridge."
Then 9/11 happened, and in the wave of patriotism that followed, there was a lot of tall talk about joining the military among guys Driver knew. "I was having an argument with my stepfather, and he was like, 'Why don't you join the Marine Corps?' And I was like, 'Noooo! Well, maybe, actually . . .' I went and saw the recruiter, who was like, 'Are you on the run from the cops? Because we've never had someone want to leave so fast.'" Driver's reason was more metaphysical. "I was like, 'I'm going to be a man.'"
He trained at Camp Pendleton in California and was surprised to find that military life suited him. "I never played sports or got into the whole guy camaraderie of, like, 'I love you, man! Seniors forever!' So suddenly being in the military with these guys who were under these very heightened circumstances, isolated from their families, living this very kind of Greek lifestyle, it changed my life in a really big way. I really, really loved it, actually." He appreciated the hierarchy, the order, knowing where he stood when he entered a room. He also appreciated the perspective, the fact that "when you're in the military, you're confronted with your own mortality" – a point driven home when, during a training exercise, his group was accidentally the target of deadly white phosphorus and was saved only by the direction of the wind. The experience made Driver immediately aware of two things. "I was like, 'I'm going to smoke cigarettes and be an actor when I get out.' Those were my two thoughts. I wanted to smoke cigarettes and be an actor."
But first, Driver wanted to serve and was therefore devastated when, after breaking his sternum in a mountain-biking accident – "I got the bike from Target because it was on sale; I'd never gone mountain biking before" – he learned that he would not be deployed to the Middle East. "I would do very extreme things like put my gas mask and pack on and go for runs or load up on hydrocodone and lift weights to show that I was fine," he says. But after two years in the Marines, he was medically discharged. "It was pretty heartbreaking. Suddenly having to go into the civilian world, where people are just doing fucking crazy shit like wearing hats indoors and having their shirts untucked, and, you know, slouching in their chairs? It's hard to recalibrate to, like, wait a minute, everything that had meaning now will just kind of seem like a fairy tale." (He returned the bike to Target for a full refund.)
Back home in Indiana, he was working at a warehouse when he decided to again audition for Juilliard; this time around he was accepted. He moved into a closet in his uncle's one-room apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, and got a job waiting tables, once serving Tony Kushner asparagus. His aggressiveness, a holdover from the Marines, sometimes made classmates cry. "All my friends were overseas, while I was in a cushy air-conditioned room watching somebody give birth to themselves," he says. "I'm like, 'What the fuck am I doing?'"
Driver still sometimes feels that way. He runs a nonprofit called Arts in the Armed Forces, which brings highbrow theater to military personnel and their families, and almost didn't audition for Girls, because "I did not like TV. Usually for auditions, I've created a whole family tree before I've walked in the room, but I went in less prepared than I usually am. Then I met Lena. That kind of sealed the deal for me." As did the writing, the fact that every little detail propels the story forward, including – or especially – the unpretty sex in which the characters are constantly engaging. "It's all very technical. There's conversations about zits, like, 'Should we have these covered up?' We always lean toward no."
This hasn't stopped Driver from becoming a guy who's so incredibly good at pretending to have incredibly bad sex that he's become a bit of a sex symbol because of it. There's a Twitter feed devoted to his naked chest, and his six-foot-three body is featured prominently in Gap's "Back to Blue" campaign and a Vogue spread shot in Ireland by Annie Leibovitz. "I'm not fashionable," he says of this unexpected turn of events. "I just kept dressing like a 15-year-old until my wife" – actress Joanne Tucker, whom he met while at Juilliard and married this past summer – "was basically like, 'You know, you should wear long pants now. Maybe shorts are good for some people, but not you. And maybe you should get your toe looked at, 'cause, you know, it looks like a turtle shell.'" Says Dunham, "I've been asked what he smells like more times than I'd care to admit."
Which, you know, is a weird question to ask, making it a fitting one for Driver (who smells freshly laundered, by the way) and a testament to the flesh-and-bones aura he brings to any role. And, coming up, he's got plenty. Besides finishing the third season of Girls, he has wrapped his second Noah Baumbach film, While We're Young, gotten early accolades for a memorable part in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis (in which a song he sings with Justin Timberlake is a case study in how adorable unmitigated dorkiness can be) and will begin shooting Midnight Special in February. In a few minutes, he's getting picked up to shoot another singing scene in what he describes as a very intense Saverio Costanzo indie about a struggling husband and wife. True to form, Driver thinks he's got it under control. "I try to exhaust every option possible," he says in a measured tone. "And then I try to let it all go."
This story is from the January 30th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.