Before Adam Driver was our best working movie star, he was the best working actor on TV.
Lena Dunham’s Girls contributed many things to the culture: that “voice of a generation” joke; a concentration of thinkpieces scientists have deemed toxic to human life; an easy shorthand for describing a particular subset of 2010s Brooklyn. Yet the show’s most enduring legacy might be Dunham and cocreator Jenni Konner’s casting of its fifth-billed part—the kind of role that won’t sink a show if its performance is forgettable but can tip its vehicle from merely buzzy to a Truly Big Deal.
Adam Sackler is Girls’ answer to Jesse Pinkman, a character who wasn’t a cornerstone of his show’s initial long game but became so over time. He started as Hannah Horvath’s person-she’s-dating, an easy stand-in for all the not-quite-relationships that serve as a stereotype of millennial coupledom. Over six seasons, though, he evolved into something much more specific, a walking slab whose physical stature and uncivilized bearing made him a man out of time—a Cro-Magnon among 21st-century yuppies. Sometimes the contrast was comedic; other times it was terrifying, erupting into explosions of violence the norms of polite society couldn’t contain. Or it was both, as in this room-wrecking fight between Adam and his new love interest, who also happens to be his ex’s best friend:
Most of Girls’ autofictional intrigue surrounded Dunham herself, whom observers regularly and casually conflated with the exaggeratedly narcissistic Hannah. But it’s also worth noting Adam Driver’s breakthrough role was as a character named “Adam” who comes from an unconventional background before finding success as an actor, embodying qualities that have continued to define Driver through the ensuing near-decade of a stratospheric career. Before Driver assembled a list of collaborators that includes Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and the Coen brothers—a fun and frustrating party game is to brainstorm the A-list filmmakers Driver hasn’t worked with—he was a grunting, howling carpenter on HBO. Already, he embodied the contrast that’s since taken him to Broadway and 17th-century Japan and a galaxy far, far away: a primal sort of masculinity wrapped around an aching core of pure feeling, shot through with a dopey sort of goofiness. You can go far with that depth and range, and Driver has.
Driver’s worked consistently, and at a consistently high level, since practically the moment Adam and Hannah had their first excruciatingly awkward bit of roleplay. (His star picked up around the time Driver shared an uncomfortable, ambiguous sex scene with Shiri Appleby, and was secure by his final episode, in which Adam and Hannah spend a day playacting a relationship they know won’t work out.) Even by the lofty standards he’s set for himself, however, this fall is an unprecedented peak—in the parlance of the internet, we’re headed into Driver Season. This week sees the release of Marriage Story, the Noah Baumbach divorce drama for which Driver is already a heavy favorite headed into the Oscar race. Less buzzy but compounding Driver’s presence is The Report, the true story of a dogged Senate staffer collecting a record of the CIA’s atrocities in American safety’s name. And in December, The Rise of Skywalker concludes Driver’s four-year, three-movie run as Kylo Ren, the single best creation of the new Star Wars trilogy and a strong contender for the title of best reigning movie villain. As if Peak Driver didn’t speak for itself, the era has been cemented with a New Yorker profile, in which Driver, amusingly separated from the online world, at one point asks writer Michael Schulman, “What do you mean, ‘toxic masculinity’?”
Driver’s own origin story is more or less the opposite of Kylo’s, the son of two iconic heroes born into prominence. Northern Indiana is no one’s idea of the spotlight; Driver spent his youth there, and apart from an abortive trip to Los Angeles just out of high school, he went straight into the military, another place far from Hollywood’s glitz. (Driver was never deployed after suffering a collarbone injury during training.) By the time Driver arrived at Juilliard, fresh off a gig as a security guard at a Target distribution facility, he already had a background that set him apart from the average show business aspirant. It’s not hard to see elements of the gruff, lanky He-Man Driver would soon play on Girls in the stories about him from Juilliard: eating an entire chicken for lunch; running five miles to school every day from Queens; making a classmate cry for using a yoga mat. “I’d never heard of broccoli rabe,” he told Schulman of his obligatory stint waiting tables.
You don’t survive an awards campaign without becoming acquainted with some specialty vegetables, but Driver retains an edge that hasn’t yet been sanded down by years at the top of the call sheet. His first Oscar nomination was for BlacKkKlansman, last year’s Spike Lee joint in which he played a Jewish cop who goes undercover with the KKK. “Law enforcement officer” may be a standard entry in the leading man stable, yet there’s a credibility to Driver’s portrayal of one who goes beyond being 6-foot-2 and muscle-bound. His physicality has a practiced grace; in Logan Lucky, he played an amputee with lived-in ease, making a martini one-handed in an unconventional, if impressive, form of stunt. And yet he’s entirely plausible as the poetry-loving bus driver he portrayed in Jarmusch’s Paterson. Driver’s energy is übermasculine, but it’s not machismo. His emotions aren’t repressed, in the strong-and-silent-type tradition; they’re barely concealed, seething below the surface.
Driver is also weird. Appearance-wise, he’s the opposite of the airbrushed, symmetrical, and relentlessly bland look I’ve come to think of as “CW hot.” On Girls, he was on-screen siblings with the actress Gaby Hoffmann, a pairing made extra believable by the pair’s shared appeal: “unconventionally attractive” not as a backhanded compliment, but an acknowledgement that there are different kinds of hunkiness than the cookie-cutter variety mass media spoon-feeds us. Driver is still a strapping white dude who looks perfectly at home with a goat draped over his bare shoulders, but he also has a quasi-beaky nose and a heavy brow that make him look like he’s in a period piece even when he’s sifting through CIA computers. It’s the opposite of texting face.
And then there’s that voice, a reedy baritone that’s spawned a disproportionate share of viral moments. Driver’s sole contribution to Inside Llewyn Davis is to don a cowboy hat and periodically intone the words “outer space,” but he does so with such relish it’s one of the most memorable bits of the movie. And while his line reading of “ghouls” may have gotten the most attention in The Dead Don’t Die, the zombie comedy cum climate change allegory that marked his second collaboration with Jarmusch, I’m more partial to his deadpan summation of the grisly crime scene his small-town cop confronts in a diner: “Yuck.” (Here is where I would be remiss not to link to a picture of noted large man Driver wedged into a very small car.) Driver can deliver a monologue, though the quality of his instrument means he rarely has to.
In a happy and rare coincidence, Driver’s best role is also his most popular. Driver may be a star, but he’s hardly a celebrity, going so far as to conceal the birth of his child for years before the press found out. Which is to say that while a Star Wars paycheck may have spoken for itself, Driver has treated Kylo Ren with all the seriousness of an auteur project, and delivered a character who gives malevolence a much-needed update. Kylo is obsessed with emulating the menace of his grandfather, Darth Vader, but finds his feelings—love for his mother, attraction to his enemy-crush, rage at his own insufficiencies—bursting through at the most inconvenient times. References to Gamergate and Hot Topic are easy to infer, but Kylo works because he lacks the ripped-from-the-headlines quality and accompanying thirst for relevance that can make characters turn stale. Driver turns him into an overgrown child, awful because he’s pitiable, not in spite of it.
Marriage Story, meanwhile, turns Driver from the product of a tempestuous union into half of one. The Report is relatively restrained, though “restrained” for a Driver character still amounts to spending five years in a basement risking everything for a document that may not see the light of day. Combined with Kylo’s last, likely futile, stand against the Jedi, the two roles demonstrate both the intensity that’s propelled Driver and the startling array of applications Hollywood has found for it. There was always something slightly feral about Adam Sackler. It hasn’t yet been tamed.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the title of the upcoming Star Wars movie.