Adam Driver on Marriage Story

Ahead of bringing the new generation of Star Wars to a close, Adam Driver talks to us about his funny and tender performance in Noah Baumbach's bittersweet melodrama Marriage Story

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 30 Oct 2019
  • Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Adam Driver is basically the man right now. We’re speaking to the 35-year-old actor at the London Film Festival, where he has two films in the programme: Scott Z. Burns’ The Report and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Both performances have been widely acclaimed and are sure to bag him a second Oscar nomination (following his Best Supporting Actor nod for BlacKkKlansman last year). And in a few months time he’ll help bring the curtain down on a new Star Wars trilogy, where he plays fallen Jedi knight Kylo Ren, who so far in the series has killed his father (Han Solo), fought his uncle (Luke Skywalker) and usurped his master (Supreme Leader Snoke); talk about issues with authority figures.

Driver’s first feature film performance was for Clint Eastwood in 2011's J Edgar. Since then he’s been bagging roles with legendary filmmakers like he’s playing some sort of auteur Pokémon GO. In the eight years since that debut he’s worked with Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), the Coen brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special), Martin Scorsese (Silence), Terry Gilliam (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky), Jim Jarmusch (Paterson and The Dead Don't Die) and Spike Lee on BlacKkKlansman – more plumb roles than an actor might hope for in a lifetime. And that’s not even to mention his breakout performance as Adam Sackler, the hipster-weirdo boyfriend of Lina Dunham’s Hannah Horvath in HBO’s landmark show Girls.

“I always wanted to work with great directors,” Driver tells us when we sit down to chat in a boujee hotel just off Picadilly Circus. “It's a director's medium, so it seems to make sense to work with the people you admire and who are making interesting movies.” That’s easier said than done, though. “I can want that all I want, of course. A lot of actors want that. But I was lucky in the timing and being available when those people were doing things. I auditioned for a lot of movies by people I wanted to work for and it just happened to work out, so often it was luck – I would be doing a huge disservice if I didn't say that was a huge part of it.”

Driver can call it luck all he wants, but it’s clear he offers his directors something the other actors of his generation can’t quite deliver. He’s as enigmatic as Ryan Gosling, yet with Driver you sense there’s something going on behind the eyes. When the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal or Paul Dano do their crazy guy routine, it feels like pantomime; Driver’s wildness feels real and dangerous. And he’s an intimidating presence, the proverbial brick shit house. He could take any one of Hollywood’s hunky Chrises. Does the fact he keeps being cast by these genius filmmakers give him confidence in his performances at least?

“No,” he says without missing a beat. “I don't look at it as like, ‘Oh, because I've worked with this person, that means I know what I'm doing.’ It's the opposite. One thing I've learned from all these great directors is that they're really good because they've maintained this philosophy of not having a right answer about anything. You would expect to show up on a set with Scorsese and just be a puppet that executes his ideas. But that's not what he wants at all. He wants you to have an opinion, that's why he hired you.” 

The 35-year-old says he certainly didn’t have all the answers on the set of Marriage Story, the film he’s here to discuss. The title is somewhat misleading. As Baumbach’s 12th feature film opens, the eponymous relationship is in the process of dissolving. Driver plays Charlie, a New York director of avant-garde theatre who could be his character from Girls ten years in the future, with a bit of responsibility on his shoulders. Charlie is married to Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actor who gave up her career in Hollywood to be the lynchpin of Charlie’s theatre company. They have a sweet young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), whom they both adore. They seem like the perfect family, but years of unresolved conflict sees them shatter apart in a divorce and custody battle that slowly turns from civil to acrimonious. “This is going to be a dog-fight,” is how Nicole’s perfectly put-together lawyer (Laura Dern) puts it.

Marriage Story is the kind of grown-up melodrama Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore. It’s uproariously funny one minute, devastating the next. You might find yourself laughing and crying while watching the same scene. Baumbach has already made a stunning film about a bitter divorce, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, which follows two teenage boys as they’re caught in the crossfire between their obnoxious father and caring mother's bitter split. But Marriage Story might even best that comic masterwork. What sets the films apart is there are no bad guys in Marriage Story; Charlie and Nicole are two reasonable people who clearly love each other but are no longer good for one another.

Every actor in Marriage Story is operating at the top of their game, particularly Driver. His unique physicality, simultaneously intimidating and goofy, is put to great use as he explores Charlie’s charm, vulnerability and raw, inner rage. The performance didn’t come easy. “Usually there are scenes in a movie that you dread or they seem too early in the schedule, where you're like, ‘I don't really have a sense of my character yet or I don't really know what it is physically,’” he explains. “But this one, every day felt like that. Every scene was, 'Oh, this is too early in the schedule.' Which is a testament to Noah's writing, that every scene had incredibly high stakes.”

This is Driver’s fourth time working with Baumbach. He’s played a Brooklyn ladies’ man in Frances Ha, a supercilious filmmaker in While We're Young and a spendthrift musician in The Meyerowitz Stories – all fun but smaller roles. Charlie is not only Driver’s first lead for the director, it’s a role he helped build from the ground up. “You try and make all of them personal,” he says of his past performances. “Sometimes you're coming in late in the process where you get the script and you're shooting straight away. You weren't involved in crafting it, but you have to make it make sense to you, and you'll maybe change things here or there. But this was totally different. This started with a conversation that Noah and I had years ago. That's what working with Noah feels like. It's an ongoing conversation that starts at a dinner and works its way on to a film set.”

Early in those dinner chats, Baumbach had the idea that Driver should sing the Stephen Sondheim song Being Alive from the great 1970 musical Company. “I've half-joked that I've reverse-engineered this entire movie just to get Adam to sing that song,” Baumbach tells us. “Adam and I had been talking about Company a lot, and that song in particular and how great it is. And I kept thinking, 'I've got to find a way to get Adam to sing that song'.”

Charlie’s a cappella rendition of Being Alive comes towards the end of the film; Johansson gets a song from Company to sing too. It might sound strange for a raw, heartbreaking study of divorce to burst into song at its climax, but for this couple, it makes perfect sense. “I find singing in general terrifying,” says Driver. “If you asked me to sing an Elvis song here for you now, that'd be terrifying. Luckily in that scene, it's focused around character. And Noah was very clear it wasn't just a song for a song's sake, it had to have meaning and purpose.” Charlie and Nichole’s relationship was forged in the theatre, so rapturous song and dance routines that capture the love and heartbreak they feel about moving on to separate lives feels completely apt.

Driver should get used to being terrified. His current project, directed by French filmmaker Leos Carax (Holy Motors, Les Amants du Pont Neuf), also requires him to use his pipes. The music in the film, called Annette, comes courtesy of the mighty Sparks. “They wrote a kind of opera that we've been talking about for six years, and we're finally doing it,” explains Driver. “I'm really excited about it cause [Carax] is such a unique filmmaker who hasn't been given the opportunity to make many films.

“Everybody's singing, but it's not conventional, as you can probably imagine a [Carax] movie wouldn't be. It's beautiful... he's just one of those, I hate to say important, cause I don't really know what that means, but he's one of the great filmmakers alive. I can't believe that someone's paying for us to do it.”

That’s another genius auteur off the list then. Don’t bet against Driver catching them all.

Marriage Story is released in cinemas 15 Nov and on Netflix 6 Dec; The Report is released 15 Nov by Curzon; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released 16 Dec by Disney