Horribly late for an interview, Adam Driver makes it from Brooklyn to Times Square in only 30 minutes, sprinting into the American Airlines Theatre with his heart pounding and a stream of apologies in his wake.
The 27-year-old actor, still angry at himself, escorts a visitor to his dressing room and digs out a cellphone from his jeans, plopping it on a table. Then he thinks better of it.
"Let me turn this off so I don't add insult to injury," he says apologizing again as he fiddles with the phone. "It's like the worst impression you can possibly give someone about who you are as a person."
Not to worry. Driver comes across as a sweet, thoughtful guy who laughs easily at himself and gamely answers every question, no matter how long it takes. And time is something this former Marine-turned-actor has little of these days.
Since graduating from The Juilliard School in 2009, the lean, 6-feet and 3-inches Driver has been on something of a hot streak, getting roles in several off-Broadway shows and making his Broadway debut last year opposite Cherry Jones in "Mrs. Warren's Profession." He then replaced Zachary Quinto in a revival of Tony Kushner's mammoth "Angels in America," filmed an independent movie written and directed by Noah Baumbach and now finds himself back on Broadway in a revival of Terence Rattigan's "Man and Boy" opposite Frank Langella.
The play is set during the Great Depression, when a ruthless financier in trouble (Langella) tracks down his estranged son (Driver) in the hopes of using his apartment as a base to make a company-saving deal. Echoes of Bernard Madoff are inescapable.
"It really goes to dark places that I wasn't expecting," says Driver. "I mean, everyone wants validation from their father and this play really doesn't shy away from tackling that head-on."
It's a good thing Driver is so busy: "If I'm not doing something or working on something, I literally just sit in the room and think, which I don't think is productive," he says. "I won't go outside for days."
Driver has only one day after the new show closes in November to relax before rehearsals begin the next day for John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger," which will run off-Broadway until April. By summer, he hopes to be filming the second season of the yet-to-debut HBO series "Girls," about 20-somethings living in New York.
By that time, Driver will have filmed small scenes in two much-anticipated biopics — "Lincoln" directed by Steven Spielberg, and "J. Edgar" (about the FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover) that's being directed by Clint Eastwood.
"Looking back on it, these past two years, has been really crazy," Driver says. "I don't know what to make of it or how I should be feeling. I feel obviously excited and happy to be working."
Asked about why he's in such demand, he bashfully balks. "I can tell more about my weaknesses than my strengths," he says. And then he does: "I think my biggest problem and my biggest fault is getting out of the way of what the story is, getting out of my own head.
"Man and Boy" director Maria Aitken says Driver didn't instantly win his role. His first reading didn't go well and he muttered as much to Langella. Driver was given a second chance and this time came better prepared. He blew everyone away.
"He has got this astonishing vulnerability. He's like a wounded Great Dane or something," says Aitken. "That's an unusual thing — to be a sort of a hunk, but to carry complexity and vulnerability."
Driver took an unusual path to acting. Born in San Diego but raised in the small town of Mishawaka, Ind., he graduated from high school at 17 and then did odd jobs, including telemarketing and selling vacuum cleaners.
"It just really was a disaster," he laughs.
After 9/11, he and some friends vowed to join the military out of patriotism and adventure, but only Driver actually did, becoming a Marine and requesting to be in the infantry. Why the Marines? He considered it the toughest branch.
Driver recalls the specific moment when he decided to become an actor: During a training mission at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, fellow Marines using the wrong coordinates accidentally detonated white phosphorus over his position. He and his buddies started running, trying to outlast the cloud of deadly chemicals.
"If it wasn't windy, we all would be dead," he says. "That was a very clear moment. It just took everything away." He suddenly had two clear desires: He wanted to smoke and he wanted to become an actor. He was 19.
The cigarettes soon lost their luster, but Driver made it to Juilliard, where he confesses to having been a little aggressive when he first arrived. He eventually fell in love with how powerful words can be in the hands of a good playwright and pulled on his experiences to create intense characters.
"I'd say my best acting training by far was being in the military," says Driver. "The lifestyle is so heightened and very dramatic. The characters that you're with — there's no better acting training than that."
He hopes to bring these two seemingly opposite parts of his past together, having founded Arts in the Armed Forces, a nonprofit that performs monologues and music for military personnel and their families.
His two worlds — the military and the theater — are, to him, not that dissimilar. "Acting is really about having the courage to fail in front of people," he says. "It is a dangerous thing and has the same rush as fast-roping from a helicopter."
Arts in the Armed Forces' next performance is scheduled for Nov. 7 at the American Airlines Theatre, featuring Driver, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose and Eric Bogosian, among other. The guest speaker will be John Patrick Shanley.
Driver has so far resisted most efforts to splash his name over the group's website. "I want it to be about the mission, what it is that we're trying to accomplish, and not make it appear that it's about me or that I have some ulterior motive for doing it," he says.
These days, Driver is extending his education by carefully listening to the stories told by an older generation of actors, like Jones, Dianne Wiest, with whom he worked on an off-Broadway production of "The Forest," and Langella.
"There's a certain skill and a patience that me, being in my 20s, I haven't quite mastered because I'm in my 20s and angry about everything," he says. "There are certain people who have found a way to exist and have lives that's similar to what I see for myself."
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