Adam Driver leaves his in­die world be­hind in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

In Noah Baum­bach’s lat­est film, The Meyerovitz Sto­ries: New and Se­lected, re­leased on Net­flix last fall, Adam Driver ap­pears for a sin­gle, brief scene. It should be for­get­table — an ex­pos­i­tory minute to set up the ca­reer of his scene part­ner, Ben Stiller, a high-fly­ing money man­ager to the stars. Driver plays an un­named artist — maybe a mu­si­cian, maybe an ac­tor, even that part is un­clear — in the process of ren­o­vat­ing a Man­hat­tan build­ing, hem­or­rhag­ing money in the form of ex­pen­sive fit­tings, a rooftop pool, and pock­ets full of non-pre­scrip­tion drugs. Of course, this scene — this movie — is not why Adam Driver is on the cover of mag­a­zines. That would be his lat­est, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is the big­gest re­lease of the sea­son. But it’s hard to get to know some­one in a blockbuster like that. The makeup, the cos­tumes, the frenzy — a slew of press in­ter­views, Comic Con ap­pear­ances, and sold­out mid­night show­ings — can cast a fog over a per­former’s true self, when in fact, if you’re Driver, that self is usu­ally ev­i­dent on screen.

In this Baum­bach cameo, for ex­am­ple, you’ll find ev­ery­thing you need to know about Adam Driver. For one thing, it’s a mes­mer­iz­ing few min­utes, the very def­i­ni­tion of scene-stealing. Driver os­cil­lates be­tween mil­i­taris­tic in­ten­sity and boy­ish glee, a smile creep­ing across his face at the very mo­ment he re­al­izes that he, this strange, gan­gly man, is mak­ing Ben Stiller, tiny comic ge­nius, crack up. There are touches of light and dark, of ac­ces­si­bil­ity and com­plete un­knowa­bil­ity, a benev­o­lent aloof­ness.

It’s also im­por­tant for be­ing his third movie with Baum­bach, af­ter 2014’s While We’re Young, in which he played some al­ter­nate-uni­verse ver­sion of this same artist, and 2012’s Frances Ha, in which he plays a slightly goofier, more benev­o­lent ver­sion of these char­ac­ters — char­ac­ters that are, to be fair, also slight it­er­a­tions on the role that made him fa­mous: Adam Sack­ler in Lena Dun­ham’s HBO show Girls. This world of in­die di­rec­tors made him. But with a drive like his, that world never had a chance of con­tain­ing him.

Cin­ema is a di­rec­tor’s medium,” says Driver, when pressed about what really drives him as a per­former. “That’s the only thing I’m drawn to: work­ing with great di­rec­tors.” As it hap­pens, the big­gest blockbuster of the year be­longs to a di­rec­tor’s fran­chise. In 2015, Driver was part of the much-an­tic­i­pated — and much-lauded — Star Wars re­boot, di­rected by J.J. Abrams, the vi­sion­ary be­hind Lost and Star Trek. The lat­est in­stal­la­tion, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is di­rected by Rian John­son, the su­per-nerd be­hind Brick, Looper, and some of the best episodes of Break­ing Bad.

In the se­ries, Driver plays Kylo Ren, son of Han Solo and Princess Leia and one of the most pow­er­ful char­ac­ters on the Dark Side. Driver’s Ren was part of pos­si­bly the most shock­ing mo­ment in movies two years ago, when he faced off against his fa­ther (even Star Wars re­cy­cles plot points) — a clas­sic con­fronta­tion be­tween good and evil. Roger Ebert once said that a film is only as good as its vil­lain; by this mea­sure, The Last Jedi should be ex­tra­or­di­nary. Driver works so well as a blockbuster vil­lain for the same rea­sons he works so well as an in­die movie foil: he strad­dles that line be­tween light and dark bet­ter than al­most any­one. It’s some­thing about his fea­tures. Or maybe it goes deeper than that. Maybe it’s just some­thing about him.

Start with the trade­mark in­ten­sity. Driver was in­deli­bly formed by the mil­i­tary. His ser­vice is im­por­tant to un­der­stand­ing who he is and what his choices have been. Driver en­listed in 2001, just af­ter the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks. He was 17 then and liv­ing at home with his par­ents in a small town in In­di­ana. And he fig­ured he couldn’t just sit there, do­ing noth­ing, wast­ing away while the coun­try burned. So he went out and signed up. And be­cause this is Adam Driver, and he doesn’t do any­thing in half mea­sures, he signed up for the United States Marine Corps — the frickin’ marines — and shipped out to Camp Pendle­ton in Cal­i­for­nia, where he’d spend the next two years train­ing. The coun­try was at war then, and Driver fully ex­pected to see ac­tion. He was a teenager still, and just learn­ing about life, think­ing con­stantly the whole time about death — mor­tal­ity is kind of a big sub­ject for thought in the mil­i­tary. But then, just months be­fore his unit was set to de­ploy for its first tour in Iraq, Driver crashed and fell off his moun­tain bike and broke his ster­num. He tried to train, but couldn’t. He tried to walk, but couldn’t. He tried to go to Iraq, but couldn’t. Driver was med­i­cally dis­charged be­fore he saw any ac­tion. “It was dev­as­tat­ing,” he says.

The only sav­ing grace for Driver was that he had a plan: he was go­ing to be­come an ac­tor. And again, there would be no half mea­sures. He ap­plied for — and got into — Juil­liard, very likely the world’s fore­most act­ing academy and a fast track to the Broad­way stage. He moved to New York, where he still lives with his wife, and dove head­long into this new life, try­ing to make sense of it as best he could.

“I had to fig­ure out how to use the lessons I learned in the mil­i­tary to adapt to civil­ian life,” he says. “The big­gest thing for me was dis­ci­pline, es­pe­cially as an ac­tor.”

Driver took act­ing school se­ri­ously. When he grad­u­ated, he set up shop in New York, au­di­tion­ing, hop­ing to land any­thing — the­atre, film, tele­vi­sion, what­ever. “I was just look­ing to get work,” he says. “Any­thing that paid was great.” Any­thing that proved he’d made the right choice, that his

“I had bud­dies go­ing out to Iraq and dy­ing for their coun­try, and I was in a room watch­ing peo­ple in span­dex give birth to them­selves. It was a dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion.”

civil­ian life could be worth some­thing sub­stan­tial, too.

“Adapt­ing was hard,” he says. “I had bud­dies go­ing out to Iraq and dy­ing for their coun­try, and I was in a room watch­ing peo­ple in span­dex give birth to them­selves. It was a dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion.”

In 2012, af­ter years of gig­ging on and off Broad­way, he ap­peared in the pi­lot of Girls, an un­usual show on HBO by writer/ di­rec­tor/ac­tor Lena Dun­ham. This changed ev­ery­thing. Driver played Dun­ham’s ob­ses­sive, pas­sion­ate, part-time car­pen­ter/part-time ac­tor boyfriend Adam Sack­ler. The show was an im­me­di­ate hit, at least among a cer­tain set of highly ed­u­cated mil­len­nial slack­ers, and Driver its im­me­di­ate break­out star. His per­for­mance was raw, en­er­getic, oc­ca­sion­ally manic, hard­edged but, clearly, im­mensely vul­ner­a­ble.

Driver’s por­trayal of Sack­ler, for which he earned three Out­stand­ing Sup­port­ing Ac­tor Emmy nom­i­na­tions, set the tone for the rest of his work — un­til Star Wars. He has tended to­ward parts, like his Meyerovitz cameo, that are a lit­tle bit se­ri­ous, a lit­tle bit snarky — a lit­tle bit light, a lit­tle bit dark. And more than any­thing, he has tended to­wards roles that pair him with artists he ad­mires. “The mil­i­tary and the­atre com­mu­ni­ties are ac­tu­ally very sim­i­lar,” he says. “You have a group of peo­ple try­ing to ac­com­plish a mis­sion greater than them­selves. You have a role, you have to know your role within that team, and ev­ery team has a leader or di­rec­tor.” And for his part, he’s man­aged to work with some of the in­dus­try’s best di­rec­tors, in­clud­ing Baum­bach, Abrams, John­son, Mar­tin Scors­ese, Jim Jar­musch, Steven Spiel­berg, the Coen broth­ers, Jeff Nichols, and Clint East­wood. That, it seems, is what dis­ci­pline gets you.

Un­like most young ac­tors with his level of suc­cess, Driver has not pur­sued the usual course of tabloid scan­dals and fra­grance en­dorse­ments. In­stead he has used his new-found fame for good, merg­ing his two lives as a US Marine and an artist to start and sup­port his own ini­tia­tive, Arts in the Armed Forces. The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s goal is sim­ple: bring qual­ity mod­ern the­atre to those serv­ing their coun­try, many of whom are tired of the mind­less­ness of USO shows and the other usu­ally va­pid en­ter­tain­ment they get while on duty. “We choose mono­logues from con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can plays that are di­verse in age and race, like a mil­i­tary au­di­ence,” says Driver, “and keep the pro­duc­tion value as min­i­mal as pos­si­ble — no sets, no cos­tumes, no lights, just read­ing, so the em­pha­sis is on the lan­guage.”

And here Driver lights up more than at any other point in our con­ver­sa­tion. “The re­sponse is amaz­ing. Peo­ple in the mil­i­tary are smart and en­gaged, and many of them wouldn’t oth­er­wise have ac­cess to the­atre — they wouldn’t get to New York or go to a Broad­way play. But they love it.”

In some ways, this helps ex­plain Driver’s re­cent ca­reer choices, a pos­si­ble through-line from the armed forces to the Force. In­die films and hip­ster TV shows have their mer­its, but they also have their lim­i­ta­tions. Their au­di­ences are spe­cific and gran­u­lar — com­fort zones, for the most part, are not be­ing breached. But Star Wars? That’s art you can bring to the masses. It al­ways has been — think of Alec Guin­ness and Car­rie Fisher in the orig­i­nal se­ries, act­ing the vinyl off those storm troop­ers. Driver seems to un­der­stand that he’s part of that tra­di­tion, of bring­ing thought­ful, en­gag­ing work to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, of pro­vid­ing an in­tense, artis­tic rip­ple be­neath the sur­face of the pop­u­lar. What a per­fectly honourable mis­sion.

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