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Dark Star Rising

How Adam Driver’s angst and brooding intensity made the world fall in love with a ‘Star Wars’ supervillain
Carlos Serrao for Rolling Stone

T here he was, the actor Martin Scorsese would later describe as “one of the finest, if not the finest of his generation,” dressed up like an intergalactic scarecrow, stalking his way onto what would’ve been the biggest set he’d ever seen — if only he could see it through his helmet. For Adam Driver, the privilege of making it all the way from small-town Indiana to working alongside directors whose movies he used to rent comes with an obligation to “throw all your energy at what you’re doing.” He wants to exhaust every possible option, to do whatever it takes to make his characters feel alive. On that day in mid-2014, however, shooting his very first scene for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Driver had to dial down his ambitions a bit.

At London’s Pinewood Studios, surrounded by a squadron of actors in stormtrooper outfits and a life-size X-wing Fighter prop, his vision almost entirely blocked by a not-quite-finalized version of his Kylo Ren mask, Driver was forced to focus mostly on a practical matter: avoiding grievous injury to an 85-year-old Hollywood legend. “My first thing I had to do was kill Max von Sydow,” says Driver, who was supposed to attack the Exorcist star with a violent lightsaber swipe. “I have this long saber, and I can’t see where it’s going. So I didn’t want to, on my first day, just whack Max von Sydow. That would be the end of the movie, for me. I missed him — but it was total luck, because I was kind of swinging blind.”

So went Driver’s first day as a legit movie star. From there, it’s pretty much all been uphill at hyperspeed, even as he continues, for all his training and obsessive preparation, to feel like he’s swinging blind. “The great thing about acting,” he says, “is you never figure anything out…. I’m 35, and I still don’t know anything about anything.”

It’s certainly hard to name an actor who’s having a bigger 2019: Driver spent his spring and summer on Broadway, throwing hilarious and heartbreaking nightly fits onstage in a production of the verbose 1980s play Burn This alongside Keri Russell, and will close out the year with three movies in succession: the slow-burning The Report (in which Driver plays Daniel J. Jones, who led a damning investigation on the full extent of U.S. torture of terror suspects), Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (in which Driver plays a theater director going through the grown-up horror story of a bicoastal divorce and custody battle with Scarlett Johansson), and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (in which Driver finishes out his trilogy as Kylo Ren in one of the most anticipated movies ever made, the Emperor returns, and, if you believe the trailer, C-3PO might die).

Driver is having trouble taking in this season of triumphs, or maybe he deliberately avoids thinking about it. “I often think that there’s someone hanging in the sidelines,” he says, “with, like, a big fly swatter. I’m waiting for reality to hit.”

He brings a nearly monomaniacal focus to his craft, always looking for the hard way to do things, perhaps because he misses the “high-stakes environment” of his aborted career in the Marines. For The Report, he “devoured” the 500-page-long publicly available version of the titular document, says director Scott Z. Burns: “He wasn’t going to say a single fucking word if he didn’t know exactly why he was saying it.”

His frequent collaborator Baumbach says Driver “brings added majesty” to his lines, reminding him of the “character actors who became stars in the Seventies — Pacino, Hoffman, De Niro, the best movie actors ever. I connect that a lot with him.”

None of those guys ever flew a spaceship. But Driver is fully himself even as the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, a role that found him delivering a monologue to Darth Vader’s melted helmet. J.J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, and a major Driver fan, says the actor’s between-scenes demeanor can “sometimes be off-putting . . . because he’s so in his own head that you don’t quite know how to talk to him. It’s all because he’s processing. It’s not just that he’s like, ‘Ah, I’m in a bad mood.’ He’s wrestling with the material.” As the story goes, while making the original Star Wars, Mark Hamill once fretted aloud that after Leia, Han, and Luke escaped the garbage compactor on the Death Star, their hair should have been wet and mussed in subsequent scenes. Harrison Ford smirked and told him, “This ain’t that kind of movie, kid.”

For Driver, every movie is that kind of movie.

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Adam Driver is Kylo Ren in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER.
Photo: Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.
Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, Driver is back in his home neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights after a weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, where Scorsese personally adorned him with a silver medallion for acting greatness. We meet near the waterfront, where Driver shows up with a brownish dog on a leash. “This is Moose,” he says, making a formal introduction. Moose is part Rottweiler, part mystery breed, part pit bull, and his owner is a fierce defender of pits. “They’re great dogs,” he says. “It’s just they have shitty owners. That’s why they’re bad.”

An entire literary subgenre could be built out of attempts to describe Driver’s physicality. Among the best is when a Girls character said he looks like “an old-timey criminal”; the most unkind and inaccurate comes from Driver himself, who called his adolescent features “ratlike.” What was originally striking about him in his perpetually shirtless Girls days remains so: a hyperbuff, perfected body, contrasted with a face that seems less finished, more mutable, almost a rough draft of a face, finalized only when he’s in character.

Driver and I have spoken several times over the years, most recently in July, backstage at Burn This. His mood that day was nearly giddy as he approached the end of an acclaimed Broadway run. Today, in a moment stolen between film festivals and a movie shoot in Brussels, both he and Moose are subdued. They plop down facing a vast view of the East River and Lower Manhattan, Driver on a bench, Moose watchfully on the ground (he’s apparently looking for white dogs, to which he has taken a dislike). Driver is wearing sunglasses, a crisp white pocket tee, and knee-length Dickies shorts with low-top Adidas; he’s noticeably lost weight since July, part of a transformation for his next part.

His packed schedule is getting to him; as his son gets older, it’s getting more painful to leave him and Joanne Tucker, Driver’s wife of six years. “I’m trying to not work a lot,” he says. “The stakes are different now. It really has to be worth it, because you have to be gone a lot.” Driver has “a problem with multitasking — I see one thing and obsess about that thing until it’s over.” That worked well for him until fatherhood, which he feels requires him to think harder about making time to “be a person.”

Driver’s focus “can be helpful sometimes,” he says. “It’s also a hamster wheel of wasted energy.” He says the Telluride honor and Scorsese tribute left him feeling “joy,” but he can’t help sounding bummed out when he discusses it. “I mean, actually what I thought is, ‘Oh, well, now there’s something to live up to.’ ”

Both The Report and Marriage Story have personal resonance for Driver. His parents divorced when he was seven years old, and his mom got remarried to a man who became a Baptist preacher, leaving him with complex feelings about his upbringing and father issues he tends to allude to more than address. The Report, meanwhile, offers an eyebrow-raising intersection with Driver’s life story: He joined the Marines after 9/11, intending to fight in the very war that devolved into the torture-laden interrogations his character spends the movie investigating.

“When I joined the military, I was not thinking of politics at all,” he says. “I was swept up like many people of the age to actually do something. That enemy was faceless in my mind. I just knew that whoever attacked us, I wanted to attack them back. I came from a world that trusted government, and I put my faith in institutions. It wasn’t until later in life that I had perspective.”

He lost his military career in a near-fatal burst of misapplied energy. During training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, he and a friend missed physical training one morning, and their captain told them to go off and exercise on their own. Driver had bought himself a mountain bike, and promptly plunged down a steep cliff at high speed. “That’s just the way that Marines are off-hours,” he says. “Most injuries happen for Marines when they’re off base. You’re going to Oceanside and getting in fights or going to Tijuana, being chased by the militia. You’re getting drunk all the time and driving your car. Your job involves a lot of adrenaline, so you seek it in other ways.” He was having a great time on that cliff, until he hit a ditch and his handlebars slammed into his chest. The impact dislocated his sternum, which bounced off his pericardium, the sac that surrounds the heart. He attempted to carry on in the wake of the injury, but ended up honorably discharged. He felt pretty guilty about it all, until he got a text not long ago from a Marine friend who told him he should stop worrying about it. “That was helpful to start letting it go,” Driver says.

After the Marines, he found his way to Juilliard, and eventually to an audition room for an HBO show called Girls. The show’s co-creator, Lena Dunham, was enchanted by his total lack of fear. “I literally thought, ‘This guy does not give a shit,’” Dunham once told me. “It came from the fact that he’s an eccentric person who doesn’t follow any typical rules, and he’s not really interested in living life according to anybody else’s game plan.”

Somewhere in there, though it doesn’t quite fit the narrative of monastic overachievement, Driver did have some species of fun. “I did do drugs,” he tells me, when I note how impressive his hilariously coked-up entrance in Burn This was for someone who presumably had never done a drug in his life. “In my twenties. I don’t do them now! I’m too exhausted. That just sounds exhausting.”

In February, Driver sat on an airplane headed home from London, looking so dazed and distressed that a flight attendant asked if he was OK. He said he was, but didn’t explain what was on his mind: He had just wrapped one of his final shoots for this Star Wars trilogy — and what he believed to be Kylo Ren’s final Rise of Skywalker scene — and then sprinted for the airport. “Everybody else was asleep, and I didn’t even realize that I was just sitting there in a daze,” he says. “These movies have been a part of my life for six years. That’s a hard thing to wrap up — where they have taken me, and what I’ve learned in making them, that there’s an ending to these movies. How do you begin to process what that means?”

Plus, as usual, he was worrying whether he had done enough takes. “It was just the weight of it. You’re finally sitting, and you have six hours to think about your last shot. Did I get it right? Was this line right? Was that right? There’s lots of things to process.”

Driver told me in 2015 that entering the Star Wars universe was “not an easy yes. I took a while to think about it,” he said. “Just because people can remake something, or revisit a world, doesn’t necessarily mean they should. I’ve seen a lot of bigger-budget movies that sacrifice character and stories for spectacle, and I had no idea what it was going to look like or what the script was. But the first words out of J.J.’s mouth were about character and story. It was all really cool. And even then, you have doubts. Can I live up to that? I’m a fan of the movies. You don’t want to fuck it up, by any means. It seemed that because I was scared of it, maybe it was a good reason to do it.”

At the same time, he didn’t quite understand the level of fame to which he was about to ascend. He’s still grappling with all of it, and is trying to learn from his recent co-star and fellow tall dude Bill Murray’s comfort with his place in the world. “He doesn’t let the people’s perception of him get in the way of him living life,” says Driver, who’s unnerved by the idea that he’s always being watched in public. “He practices a way of being in the world that takes the celebrity out of it.”

Still, Driver doesn’t mind when kids in his building say, “Good morning, Kylo Ren.” And he’s taken home a full version of his costume, which he keeps in a box in his guest room. “I’ll wear it around the neighborhood if I’m really, really bored,” he jokes.

Driver always played Kylo Ren as younger than his actual age, and it’s the unformed aspect of the character that helps make him compelling. A confused, angry man-boy radicalized by powerful forces whispering in his ear, an heir to generational trauma raised in an era of endless war, is an all-too-believable threat. But when you get glimpses of him as pre-Dark Side Ben Solo, the character is also unexpectedly sympathetic, even as he’s nearly weeping in frustration as he commands an entire army to train their lasers on Luke Skywalker.

“There’s something in having an antagonist who is a little more vulnerable,” says Driver. “That seems to be more relatable and human than just someone who is a psychopath.”

Some of Driver’s best moments as Kylo come in silence, when we get to watch the pain in his eyes (and in general, Driver loves scenes where he gets to listen without saying a word). “So much plays on his face,” says Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who first suggested Driver for the role after working with him on his tiny part (as a telegraph operator) in Lincoln, in her prior capacity as Steven Spielberg’s longtime producer. “There’s a real complexity to Kylo Ren, and you get a sense there’s real psychological damage in what he’s gone through.” Driver is so protective of the character and his trials that he takes time in a follow-up phone call to register his objection to my assessment of him as “petulant.”

There is a dark allure to Kylo Ren as well, albeit a slightly different brand of it than Darth Vader’s. “It’s the hero part I want in movies like that,” says Baumbach. “Even though he’s in some ways the villain. He was pretty heroic in that red room.” He’s referring to the scene in 2017’s The Last Jedi where Kylo briefly teams with Daisy Ridley’s fledgling Jedi Rey to defeat eight foes at once. “It’s not so much the character,” Baumbach adds, “as the performance and the presence.”

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Carlos Serrao for Rolling Stone

There is an undeniable onscreen chemistry between Driver and Ridley, and the films have been teasing a connection, maybe even a romantic one, between their characters. And fans, being fans, have responded by going wild over the whole thing, with a passionate group of so-called Reylos advocating for the relationship. A common objection, which I pose to Driver, is that Kylo has done horrible things (murdered most of his Jedi-training classmates, killed his dad, almost blasted his mom, had stormtroopers murder innocent villagers, walked around shirtless in high-waisted pants). “I mean, of course I’m sympathetic to him and I understand,” Driver says. “But I can see on the outside, if I analyzed it, which I don’t, that someone who’s killed his class doesn’t really seem to be good boyfriend material.” To be fair, the Reylos acknowledge that Kylo must experience redemption — Bendemption, naturally — before love can flourish.

And maybe it’s not redemption, per se, but Kylo Ren is headed somewhere, always has been — Driver says he and Abrams early on discussed an arc for the character that will, at least in part, come to fruition in Rise of Skywalker. “He’s almost like a spoiled rich kid who has to evolve into something,” says Driver. “He’s following his path of finding who he is. You might have had to metaphorically, or in this case literally, kill your father to find out who you are. To be your own person, at a certain point you have to claim it.” He offers a half-smile. “But then again, we never really figure out who we are.”


Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Daniel J. Jones, played by Adam Driver in The Report, leaked a report on the CIA’s use of torture. In fact, Jones never leaked the report and fought for its release via official channels. Rolling Stone regrets the error.