Before meeting Adam Driver, I resolve early on that I'm not going to mention Star Wars for as long as I can help it. In many ways, it makes things easier for me—knowing that I'm not going to put him in the uncomfortable, and surely boring, position of having to regurgitate the non-disclosure mantra he must have spent every interview repeating since he was cast as bad guy Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens.
Trouble is, if we're going to talk about his new film—the Jim Jarmusch-directed Paterson—that presents another problem entirely. How do you talk about a movie in which nothing happens?
"I love that about it," he says when I ask him. "I liked what Jim was after, which was this sort of antidote to action-driven movies."
This is no criticism, but for an actor chiefly associated with the constant emotional flex of Lena Dunham's Girls, the pastiche Brooklyn pseudo-artist in While We're Young, or the cosmic melodrama of Star Wars, it's sobering watching him in Paterson. In the titular role, he plays a bus driver who writes observational poetry between his shifts around a town in New Jersey—in a town which is also called Paterson, by the way. He lives in a modest house with his girlfriend, adhering to strict, ascetic routines: rising early, working, walking the couple's English bulldog, drinking a beer in his local bar.
"It was a great [character] to play for a couple of months. Just to listen—that's his main action, really, just to listen," he says.
Does he ever pine for a pre-Star Wars universe, where he wasn't subject to such a global audience? "All the time!" he blurts back immediately. "It's part of my job—as contentious as it sounds—to be invisible, to be a spy, to observe, live life, have failures, get things wrong, to have experiences. When people are suddenly looking at you, you can't help but become self-conscious, and you have to fight to be in your own world. Then you're also not taking in the world around you. It's challenging."
When people are suddenly looking at you, you can't help but become self-conscious and you have to fight to be in your own world.
Driver's Paterson is very much attached to the real world. He's a working class American male—a character largely imagined in the left's how-did-Trump-happen discourse as either a victim or a bigot—and definitely not a poet. There is also an allusion made to the character's previous service in the military. For Driver, who served in the Marine Corps for three years, this has an obvious personal resonance, but it's made all the more pertinent by Arts in the Armed Forces—a non-profit he founded in order to provide entertainment and start conversations between military and civilians through the arts. The organization spends most of its time staging performances of contemporary American monologues that an audience of veterans—who can enjoy them free of charge—will likely draw parallels with.
"You see a picture at the beginning that shows Paterson in a military uniform, but then it's never mentioned again—it's not something that defines him," Driver explains. "He drives a bus, he's a poet, but he's not defined by that either. It's sort of what we try to do with our project. There's such a broad gap right now—in the military and civilian divide—in the United States, more than at any other time in our history, because less than 1 percent of our population are serving."
The object of Arts in the Armed Forces is to attempt to bridge this gap, by breaking with stereotypes that veterans are likely to be "aggressive" or PTSD sufferers. "The misunderstanding about military culture by civilians is very broad," says Driver. "Their interests are broad, they are a diverse range of ages and races. Why generalize a culture and declare that certain things won't resonate with them?"
Paterson also offers a welcome reminder that America is as much a place of inconsequential deeds and fleeting human interactions as it is the vision of constant upheaval and unrest we're now accustomed to seeing in the news. Driver is more reticent to apply any grand socio-political reading to the film, as if reluctant to muddy its innocence. He defers any questions about its wider meaning to the director: "I think that's a question for Jim," he says again and again. "I don't really remember that being part of the conversation."
That said, for Driver, the location of the film is as important as any actor starring in it. For a seemingly unremarkable town on the northeastern edge of America, it has produced a remarkable number of notable figures—from Lou Costello, to Alexander Hamilton, to Fetty Wap. "It's the weird, rich history of Paterson we were interested in rather than a broader comment on America," he says. "It's a place a lot of people migrated to because of the silk trade, but it's strange how all of these cultural characters ended up coming from the same small town. Seems kinda random in the grand scheme of the States."
But the film feels less "random," more an unconventional interpretation of the American Dream. Paterson isn't about serendipity or mythicism, it simply serves as proof that America is a country of all things and all people—good and bad. A place where everything—or, in this case, barely anything—can happen.
Driver says that he agreed to the movie without reading the script—just so he could work with Jim Jarmusch: "He creates the ideal environment to be working in—it's very focused, but at the same time very playful." Having already worked with the Coen Brothers on Inside Llewyn Davis, Driver is surely making light work of most actors' director wish list—a tally he's adding to with his next film, Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese.
Silence is based on the novel of the same name about missionaries in 17th century Japan, and has been the director's passion project for nearly three decades. "It could easily be a dictatorship, given all he's achieved in his career, but it's not," Driver says. "Scorsese has been planning on doing this movie for 28 years, so you'd think he's got the whole thing mapped out, but it's the opposite—he's got some things figured out, of course, and he knows his subject material, but he's completely willing to throw it all away in the moment for a better idea."
Before we part ways, I ask Driver if he's slipping into the dream routine of many actors—alternating between big budget studio projects and small independents. "My only goal is to work with really great directors," he concludes. "If a really great director is doing something really interesting that happens to be a studio movie, then great. If it happens to be a film with no money, where we bring our own clothes to set, great."
This genuinely seems to be how Driver works. Whether he's playing a poetry-writing bus driver or Darth Vader's grandson, he speaks with the same bemused enthusiasm about every role—as though he's grateful but a little confused to have been asked in the first place. "It's a strange job," he shrugs.