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How Adam Driver turned naked vulnerability into unconventional stardom

He’s made a career out of challenging the usual ideas of both heroes and villains

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After you see Darth Vader’s true face for the first time in Return of the Jedi, the image is hard to shake. Beneath the mask, this titan has grown as pallid and fleshy as a waterlogged corpse. His decaying face is a strong analogue to the once-mighty Empire he served. It’s crumbling. It’s the face of a conqueror at the end of his rope.

But when The Force Awakens first reveals the face of newcomer villain Kylo Ren, we’re surprised to learn he’s just some guy. He’s got a weak chin, a low-set nose, gentle eyes, and flowing black tresses that would look more appropriate on a poetry grad student. He kinda looks like a grouchy cat. His face doesn’t seem like the face of a killer, because Kylo Ren isn’t a typical megalomaniacal evildoer. And that’s because Adam Driver isn’t a typical movie star.

Starting with his breakout as Girls’ resident boy, probably best exemplified as The Force Awakens’ emo-lite antagonist, and continuing to his much-praised role in the new Jim Jarmusch movie Paterson, Adam Driver has defied the classical mold of the Movie Star, even as he’s risen to a level of fame that can’t be described with any other term.

He may not carry himself like it, but Driver is a bona fide screen idol, and one of the buzziest names currently working. He made his mark on Girls, and landed early gigs with Steven Spielberg (a bit part in Lincoln), Clint Eastwood (an even bittier part in J. Edgar), and the Coen brothers (a one-scene wonder in Inside Llewyn Davis as a faux-cowboy studio musician). He’s worked with Noah Baumbach, J.J. Abrams, Jeff Nichols, Jarmusch, Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Rian Johnson, but he also commands hordes of feverish fanboys at comic conventions. He is, as the meme has it, the “man who can do both.”

HBO

December has been a huge month for Driver, with two roles other actors might spend their careers chasing. Echoing past metamorphoses from Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, Driver shed 50 pounds to play a Jesuit missionary questioning his faith in Martin Scorsese’s Silence. He inhabits an even more Driver-y type for Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, as a bus driver who shares his name with the film, the New Jersey town where Paterson is set, and the 300-page-plus William Carlos Williams poem that thematically unites them all. Driver’s performance serves as a masterclass in making passivity and inertia into drama and profundity — for an actor, it’s practically alchemy.

Paterson (the character) enjoys a simple, modest existence: he wakes up without an alarm, drafts poems in a small notebook before the workday gets going, enjoys a single beer at the neighborhood bar after driving all over town, and goes home to his beloved artsy wife (Golshifteh Farahani). Guidebooks advise young scriptwriters that conflict and growth are the two engines for compelling characters and sound stories, but Driver takes a back route to creating his character. Paterson shows himself by reacting to his world rather than shaping it, and that reaction is either quiet contentment, or equally muted discomfort. Driver prefers to play men who don’t exactly mature, but rather advance to a new stage of flux. On Girls, his character Adam keeps hopping between phases of arrested development. His hipster documentarian in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young floats through life with minimal self-awareness. And in Paterson, the only lesson he learns is just how little he understands of the world.

And yet, despite taking roles that flout convention, Driver has achieved certified A-list success, balancing work in Hollywood blockbusters with artier fare. He’s done it in a way that marks him as a singular talent, uniquely reflective of his era. Driver has cultivated a complicated persona as an actor, one usually rooted in insecurity, as opposed to more traditionally testosterone-fueled masculinity. He’s a leading man in an age when the definition of manhood has been completely overhauled.

Kylo Ren Vanity Fair

But as his hot streak has gotten progressively hotter, Driver has held fast to the awkwardness and unease that initially set him apart from his peers. The prototypical male movie star is handsome, charismatic, and confident: a George Clooney, a Brad Pitt, a Cary Grant. Even the more offbeat upper-crust actors, the Dustin Hoffmans of the world, have had a sly charm that reels audiences in. A lifelong zagger as others have zigged, Driver has consistently sought out roles defined by uncertainty, sensitivity, and imperfection.

It wasn’t the Force that pulled Driver into the role of Kylo Ren. The atypicality of that villain falls neatly in line with the roles he took before and after The Force Awakens. Rogue One recently reminded us that Vader was a pitiless commander, a brutal warrior, and evil as they come. Emperor Palpatine was a heartless schemer and an effective puppet master. But Ren displays a set of emotions rarely seen in science fiction / fantasy epics. His dominant mode is petulance, an unlikely fit for the future emperor of the galaxy.

The Force Awakens’ big emotional beats stem from Ren’s estrangement from his parents, revealed to be Han Solo and Leia in the film’s “Luke, I am your father!” moment. All this evil, we discover, might boil down to daddy issues. That injects some psychological complexity into the franchise, but it also paints Ren as an unusual villain. He wants so badly to be taken seriously, to be feared like the old tyrants of the Empire, but as soon as that desire becomes clear to the audience, it defeats itself. Ren is strong, but he has a pitiful edge, and Driver teases it out.

Paramount Pictures

He’s bringing that same softness to theaters right now, in Paterson. In his role as a bus-driving poet, Driver offers alternative perspectives on strength and the mores of masculinity. At one point, Paterson takes on a gun-waving bar patron, which would seem heroic if not for the dewy-eyed sadness in Driver’s eyes. Paterson fulfills the duties of a husband and a man, but with a softer-than-average touch, projecting an innocent sort of sweetness in his unflagging devotion to his lover. Fidelity, gentleness, a willingness to do more listening than speaking — Driver and Jarmusch both suggest these are the true building blocks of manhood. Trace it all the way back to Girls, if you like; Driver’s temperamental actor Adam magnetized Lena Dunham’s character Hannah with a rugged sex appeal, but over the course of the seasons, he revealed himself to be as wounded and fragile as anyone else on the show.

In a larger sense, Driver arrived at the best possible time. He comes to Hollywood in a cinematic era when the nature of manliness appears to be more elastic than ever. Musclemen like Dwayne Johnson and Terry Crews are free to be as gentle or goofy as they please. It-heartthrobs like Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt can balance sex symbol status with inveterate silly streaks. A few decades ago, Driver would have been a gawky Peter Lorre, a weird presence strategically deployed for supporting roles. But his perpetual state of desperately-working-on-it has struck a chord with the public. His gawkiness and flaws speak to the ones we see in ourselves. Even when his characters travel to the furthest reaches of space, they’ve always remained grounded in the minor shortcomings of human behavior. His talent for projecting pettiness, self-doubt, and stunted emotions has made him an unpredictable and engaging quantity onscreen. He’s the rare actor who understands that vulnerability and weakness are different things, and he doesn’t shy away from either of those things. Of course Kylo Ren was human beneath the mask. But who knew just how human he’d turn out to be?

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