Judging by the breadth of roles he’s taken, Adam Driver’s life gets a little better every year. 2016 alone found him basking in the triumph of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the acclaimed fifth season of “Girls,” hosting “Saturday Night Live,” and playing an NSA operative in “Midnight Special,” a poetic bus driver in “Paterson” and a 17th-century Jesuit monk in “Silence,” which expands to wide release this weekend.
Yes, that’s right: Adam Driver, an Emmy nominee who went from the Marines to Juilliard, ended his blessed 2016 with a supporting role in a Martin Scorsese drama. For a magazine-cover hunk whose star has steadily risen since “Girls” bowed in 2012, Driver manages to retain an enigmatic lure that evades most movie stars. His serious-actor bona fides are cemented, as evidenced by the numerous critics’ groups that have, for good reason, selected his “Paterson” performance as one of the year’s best.
When we sat down to discuss “Silence,” a Scorsese passion project in which Driver and Andrew Garfield portray Portuguese priests vilified for not apostatizing while searching for their mentor (Liam Neeson) in Japan, Driver was modest about reflecting on his own upswing. That’ll probably make you love him more.
“Paterson” was one of my favorite movies last year. Completely independent of my interviewing you, today I stumbled across the news that your doggie co-star died.
Yeah, Nellie. May she rest in peace. It was a female dog playing a man. She died a couple months after. She had cancer. They took her leg off and she didn’t survive. It sucked.
Sorry to open with such a bummer. She was perfect for the movie. Was it easier to to work with an older dog?
I don’t know. I have worked with a younger dog and it was a piece of shit.
Was that when you and Ray had to bring the dog to Staten Island in “Girls”?
Yeah. But “Paterson” was good. Nellie was great. Also because it’s a bulldog, the trainer tried to keep us apart to help the story because we were contentious with each other. But bulldogs have a lot of health and respiratory problems, so I would pick Nellie up and we had to do a scene over and over again where we were walking. Obviously a bond formed.
2016 was a big year for you. Does a behemoth like “Star Wars” now inform how you approach more intimate projects like “Paterson” and “Silence”?
Yeah, yeah, I would say. In a way, the process of working on them is the same in that you try to know as much as you can before, obviously to relieve anxiety. Also I know the pace of a big-budget movie is probably going to be slower than a “Paterson,” where it feels like more of a conversation.
But because J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson were doing the “Star Wars” movies, it still felt very intimate. “Star Wars” is known vocabulary that we just kind of take for granted. People are going to be wearing helmets, it’s going to be set in space, but because those directors encourage specificity, you have to ask those questions again for yourself: Why is everyone covered up? When everyone uses the Force, why are they reaching out? Why is the lightsaber the way it is? So, in a way, it’s the same questions you’re asking for “Paterson”: Why are his clothes pretty much the exact same thing as his uniform? Why does he go to the same bar every night? Why is his pace this way? Why does he hold himself this way?
In a way, the processes are similar, but on one the catering is better.
Is there a type of filmmaking experience you’re still longing for? It seems like you covered all the bases last year.
Oh no, there are so many other directors that have different ways of working that I haven’t done yet, like Mike Leigh. Mike Leigh is heavy on improv and pre-production rehearsal and crafting the scripts with the actors. I’ve kind of done that in plays a little bit. I’d like to do something with Terry Gilliam. He has a very strong visual sense that’s operating in the background that I’m not aware of.
I think directors, or really good ones, have very strong personalities, and their personalities make their way into their movies. So, because they’re different people, the way they work on them is inherently gonna be different.
Tell me about the weeklong silent Welsh retreat you and Andrew Garfield went on to prepare for “Silence.”
Well, It’s kind of a joke, in one sense, because we were with all these Jesuit priests who were all there, and we’re the two asshole actors — no, I shouldn’t say assholes. It’s these two actors coming in, and it was glaringly obvious who the actors were in that group.
I’ve done a silent retreat before. At the end of Juilliard, they added this part of the program where you go on a weeklong retreat with your class that winds up being a bunch of actors on a retreat in Long Island. It turns into a game of Charades every day.
It was good in that you don’t have a lot of time for quiet in your life. Everything is kind of oversaturated and loud, and to not speak is great. I’m all for it. You can’t help but be self-reflective and have a long, ongoing internal monologue. We also weren’t eating then. We were on the diet to start losing weight, so also at dinnertime we were very short, watching Andrew and myself savor lettuce and things like that. But it was good to watch people, especially to see everyone else who has committed their lives to the church. That kind of faith, to see it practiced, is useful and reassuring.
What are you wearing during this retreat?
Anything you want. You can wear sweatpants. But mostly T-shirts and jeans. There are big grounds that surround the property, so there’s a church that’s 500 meters from the main building. People are walking around in nature. There are paths around where I went for runs around the Welsh countryside.
Did you read?
You read a lot. I think I read A Christmas Carol.
Did you bring that with you?
No, there was a library.
Are there rules?
Yeah, you don’t talk. You have a bed and desk, and that’s pretty much it. You have a communal bathroom that’s down the hall that you share. They tell you when lunch is, they tell you when mass is every night. And that’s kind of it. The schedule is up to you.
So you selected A Christmas Carol?
Yeah, I read that book. I read something else too. And I looked at a lot of picture books. You’re reading the history of Jesuits at that time. The researcher for “Silence” gave us a packet of Jesuit history. We did a lot of reading, a lot of walking around looking at paintings.
That feels like a very Adam Driver thing to do, going on this Method-y silent retreat. Since the moment we learned your name, you were associated with this everyday, real-guy image, as in, “Adam Driver is not a movie star, he’s one of us. He’s a real person.” Is that weird to you?
[Laughs] Is it weird to me that I’m a real person?
And that people write about you that way. It popped up in a lot of profiles I’ve read about you.
Yeah, I don’t know that I have a thought about that. I guess I don’t overthink it. I just don’t know how to be anybody other than who I am, I guess. No, I haven’t really put much thought into it. That’s a nice thing ― it’s good to be real or to be a person. That’s always good.
It’s hard to synthesize what I mean, but I think you’re an example of our changing value system when it comes to movie stars. To a degree, we’ve moved away from Old Hollywood glamour and opted for relatability. It seems like the roles you’ve chosen show you care about that too.
I do. I mean, for me, maybe it’s not as tactical as that. To me, they’re no-brainers. I grew up watching films, and all the people I’ve been lucky enough to work with, I’ve been largely inspired by them, from Spielberg and the Coen brothers and Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch. It makes sense to me.
I have no ambition to follow some formula in Hollywood where you do a small movie and then suddenly you have to do a lot of Hollywood movies. I think suddenly I’m aware of the value of making a movie and how special and rare and lucky it is. I don’t take it for granted.
There are parallels between Kylo Ren and your “Silence” character. They both flirt with the antithesis of their convictions. Kylo Ren is tempted away from the Dark Side, so much so that popular fan theories think he’s actually a good guy. And in “Silence,” Father Garrpe risks dying if he doesn’t renounce his faith. There are interesting good-versus-evil battles in both.
I didn’t think of it as good and evil, necessarily, but more the anguish of faith. Since you’re making that comparison, they both have strong doubt, and strong doubt goes hand-in-hand with faith. On the outside is actually probably a healthier way to live than just complete devotion to whatever it is.
They’re also two movies where a kind of superpower is persecuting against a smaller organization or belief system. They both feel morally justified to behave however they need to to accomplish that, regardless of whether it means persecuting other people that they just don’t understand. So in that way, yeah, they both have anguish of faith. It’s yet to be determined for Kylo Ren, but I guess it’s more determined in “Silence” whether the character rises to the occasion or not.
We tend to love villains in cinema, and there’s a villainous aspect to the inquisitors in “Silence,” even if it takes a different form than it does in “Star Wars.” Do you feel that people would want these two guys to save themselves or hang on to those convictions?
I think maybe “Silence” asks more questions than it really tries to create a master thesis about it all. I think, as a human, it’s because we live in a world that’s saturated with everything, where the value of things are less. This is very much at a time when actions meant something and your words meant something, probably more than they do now. To watch people with strong conviction is always very moving.
Before we wrap up, did you ever imagine “Girls” would lead to Adam and Jessa getting together?
I didn’t. No, not at all.
What was your first thought?
I was excited. I like working with Jemima.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.