When Adam Driver was a teenager, growing up in small-town Indiana, he discovered his grandfather’s collection of videotapes. The collection ran to 500 films, each one numbered and labelled. It was through this film library that Driver was first exposed to the work of Martin Scorsese. “The first Scorsese film I watched was GoodFellas,’’ he recalls. “And that led me to Mean Streets, Casino and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
The director quickly became Driver’s hero, which makes the fact that we are meeting to talk about his role in Scorsese’s latest film hard for him to process. Driver – best known as Lena Dunham’s boyfriend in HBO drama Girls and as Kylo Ren in JJ Abrams’s first Star Wars episode, The Force Awakens – has already worked with an impressive array of directors including Clint Eastwood in J Edgar, the Coen brothers in Inside Llewyn Davies and Steven Spielberg in Lincoln. But “Scorsese is at the top of the pyramid in terms of people I have wanted to work with.”
When we meet, Driver, 33, is dressed in a slate grey suit, and is polite, softly spoken and understated. He has a distinctive face – sharp angles, prominent nose, wide ears – but it isn’t only his unconventional looks that set him apart from his contemporaries.
Before he was an actor, Driver was in the US marines. He signed up as a 17-year-old in the days after the 11 September attacks in 2001. “I got swept up in the fervour,” he says. “I was of the age where you wanted to do something and be involved.”
But mainly Driver enlisted because life in his hometown was so uninspiring. He was born in San Diego, the son of a preacher, but his parents divorced when he was seven and his mother took him and his sister to Mishawaka, Indiana.
“I was a transplant from California so I always felt like I was outside the world that I was raised in,” he says. To alleviate the boredom, Driver set up his own Fight Club, inspired by the movie. “It was on the weekends,” he explains – breaking the first rule of Fight Club. “People would ride by on their bikes and we would ask if we could fight them. I’m not quite sure what we gained from it apart from injuries,” he laughs. “But we needed a physical release. I needed a challenge.”
The US Marines provided another challenge. Driver spent two years with 1st battalion at Camp Pendleton in California. “I loved being in the military,” he recalls. “I feel like I took the best parts of it with me – relationships, a work ethic…”
How prepared was he to take part in actual combat? “It is your job to be prepared for that,” he states plainly, “and I was ready and willing to be on the front line.”
Driver would have seen combat had he not suffered a mountain bike accident three months before his unit was to be deployed to Iraq. He broke his sternum and was deemed unfit for service.
Was it like rehearsing for a production and not getting to first night? “That’s a great way of putting it! I felt guilt. I regretted it for a long time, still regret that I didn’t get a chance to go over with my guys and do my job – that sucks.”
His military dreams over, Driver applied to study drama at New York’s Juilliard School where he met his future wife, Joanne Tucker, with whom he would later set up a charity that performs theatre for military audiences. After graduating, he appeared in a few off-Broadway plays before landing the part in Girls.
“I had spent 27 years of my life with people not knowing who I was,” he recalls, “so for people to suddenly call you out in a crowd was a very interesting experience… very interesting,” he says, with an intonation that strongly suggests “seriously weird”.
Driver was on the set of Girls when he received a call saying JJ Abrams wanted to meet him to discuss a role in Star Wars. “I remember being overwhelmed by the size of it,” he says about the prospect. “I was nervous and had to think about it for a couple of months.”
He eventually took the role of Kylo Ren because, “I found myself feeling anxious about it, and that made me think it was a good thing to do. If you are lucky enough to work outside your comfort zone, that is good.”
For his role in Scorsese’s Silence (in cinemas from New Year’s Day), Driver was also forced out of his comfort zone. Silence is less GoodFellas and more “God fellows”: Driver and Andrew Garfield play two 17th-century Jesuit priests who face persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor, played by Liam Neeson.
In preparation for the role, he lost over three-and-a-half stone. “I was drinking a lot of coffee and smoothies, and running in full sweats for seven miles,” he recalls.
The regime sounds almost military and it makes me wonder about the direction Driver’s life may have taken had he not had his mountain bike accident. “I would have stayed in the military,” he says matter-of-factly. “I would have probably ended up in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
At the time, not serving in the military felt like cruel luck, but perhaps it was the best thing to ever happen to him. “Was it a lucky break? At the time I didn’t think so but now, maybe,” he says, and then adds with a half smile, “It is a good thing to be alive.”