Adam Driver on his journey from Marine to actor, and on theater for veterans


Adam Driver, from trooper to trouper

On this Veteran’s Day, watch Adam Driver — Star Wars villain, Girls beefcake, Broadway veteran and military veteran — talk about his journey from Marine to actor.

Driver is the founder of Arts in the Armed Forces, a nonprofit that brings theater to the military.



Bonus: Hamilton’s Mandy Gonzalez sings The Star-Spangled Banner in honor of Veterans Day:

Below is the  transcript of his interview on Charlie Rose in August about his founding of Arts in the Armed Forces


“The birth of theater was from a military environment. The Greeks — Aeschylus, Euripides, all these elected generals…wrote plays for a culture that was at war.”

Charlie Rose: Adam Driver is here. He is best known for is roles as Adam Sackler in HBO’s “Girls” and Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The Juilliard-trained actor is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. In 2008, he founded Arts in the Armed Forces, the organization seeks to bridge the cultural gap between the Armed Forces and performing arts communities by bringing the best of modern American theater to the military. From August 11th to August 14th, Driver will be in South Korea to stage a production of Kenneth Lonergan’s play, “Lobby Hero.” We’re very pleased to have him here at this table for the first time. Welcome.
Adam Driver: Thank you so much for having me here.
Charlie Rose: Good to have you here. This — the idea that you wanted to do this thing came from where, from your experience in the marines, from your experience in theater, from seeing some connection that other people hadn’t thought about?
Adam Driver: Basically being at school from being in the military was the first time that I felt I was exposed, knowing nothing really about the theater, community, or cultural plays or playwrights or the characters in them. I was interested in it in high school but I left for the military. And then when I got out and went to school was really the first time I discovered Sam Shepherd and David Mamet and found the language — how important language was. And since I had just come from this military environment where there was an emphasis put on, you know, acronyms for acronyms but there’s not so much about using your words to describe your feelings, and I was noticing a change in myself, how I felt less aggressive and how I was able to through plays, you know, use my language more and regret not having that when I was in the military and wanted to share that with my friends, basically. That was kind of the genesis of it.
Charlie Rose: And when you now share it with military friends,do they feel the same thing? Has it been something that was an instant kind of, you know, Adam, you’re right?
Adam Driver: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I remember I met them afterwards. I got out earlier and I was in school trying to explain to them like, I wear pajamas, and you know, I talk about my feelings and acting school and I could see that they were veryapprehensive about what it is here I actually did all day. But it was something about seeing something live and watching somebody live without a filter of a screen, like people get the connection right away. Then also because of the material that we pick. It’s not Shakespeare or the Greeks or — not that there is anything wrong with that — but at the, you know, Mamet or Danitra Vance, it’s very accessible material that I don’t think that, to generalize, the military culture is used to being exposed to. So the language itself, I think, breaks down barriers right away.
Charlie Rose: Is this akin to what’s been happening in someprisons in America, the use of theater there, in a sense toengage and to give people an introduction to theater in a different way?
Adam Driver: Yeah, I think there’s a culture. I think there’s like a strong stereotype, which is odd, since really the birth of theater was from a military environment. You know, the Greeks, Aeschylus, Euripides, all these elected generals who wrote plays for a culture that was at war. Over the course of time, obviously, it has been stereotyped that that culture won’t understand that there — they want to see, you know, the Dallas cheerleaders, or prisoners want to see something violent and aggressive. They weren’t being told that group of people won’t respond to any kind of complexity or nuance, and that you seein theater was insane to me. So, that hopefully we’re trying to break that stereotype.
Charlie Rose: This is what you said to, I think, Vanessa Grigoriadis, who had been here to profile in a conversation with me. She said you said, “For me, becoming a man had a lot to dowith learning communication and I learned about that by acting. Emphasis in the Marine Corps isn’t on talking about your feelings, but as I found myself being able to use my words,I became less aggressive” — as you just told us — as a person, less angry. I mean, it really is the liberation of being able to give voice to what you feel.
Adam Driver: Right, and doing it from playwrights who are way smarter than I am —
Charlie Rose: That’s right.
Adam Driver: — at being able to embody their language and suddenly — and also, the material resonates in ways that isn’t so obvious. We could do “Streamers” which is a great play, but we try to —
Charlie Rose: Is “Streamers,” Tom Stoppard?
Adam Driver: “Streamers,” David Rabe.
Charlie Rose: Oh yeah, David Rabe, yeah, right, right.
Adam Driver: Which we do other David Rabe things, you know,but we really try to focus away from a military theme and reallyshow characters that are struggling through all the human problems that we all share, that are not specifically military or civilian and pick pieces that are diverse in age and race, like a military audience is, to accurately reflect them back. It’s not civilians telling a military audience what it’s like to be in the military, not that people can’t understand a different culture, but it’s — we’re not going in with pre-conceived notions about what people will respond to and what they don’t. One of my favorite things — I’m rambling, but Laura Linney read this monologue from “China” by Scott Oregon and it was about an employer reprimanding her employee for not wearing a bra and afterwards all the marines — we did it at Camp Pendleton, it was one of our first performances — all the marines afterwards were — the male marines were like, “You know, I thought the whole thing was good to go, loved the plays, understood what you guys were after. There was that one monologue about the woman yelling at her employee for not wearing a bra that we thought was a little bit of an indirect attack on the way we do things in the military, that there’s a point for structure and uniformity and we thought you were kind of saying that, you know, you’re mocking our kind of — the structure that we have in place for a good reason.” And then the female marines were leaving the audience, being like, “I loved it. I loved it all, especially the one monologue where — because I know what it’s like to be a female in a very male dominated culture and to wear my, you know, my hair under my cover.”
Charlie Rose: How did you come to Juilliard?
Adam Driver: I was interested in acting before I went into the military, then really after September 11th, I feel like most people my age and at that time doing nothing, you know, I was like working as a telemarketer at the 4H fairgrounds. I felt like I wanted to be involved and I wanted retribution. And the Marine Corps, to me, was like the top of the pyramid as far as military service was. So, I’m like, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do thatand I’m going to be an infantry and I want to go all the way. But then when I got out of the military, I had kind of a false idea that, “Oh, civilian problems are easy.” You know, they — we have to wait in line. You know, like that’s the wrong, you know, percentage of milk, you know, like what are civilian problems?They are easily manageable and solvable. So, anything I want to do, I can do in a civilian world, which is an illusion. But at that time, I had all these misconceived notions about, you know —
Charlie Rose: Do you think most actors would benefit from the kind of experience you had?
Adam Driver: Yeah. A lot of actors have no idea — they’ve never been on a military base, or their associations with the militaryculture is through, you know, film and television. I’m not trying to keep calling out Laura Linney, but one of the first things that she said was, “Oh, I thought it was like the F-troop, but it’s not at all. It’s — you forget that this is — they’re people and thesepeople have feelings and they just happen to have a job where the stakes are really high.
Charlie Rose: Your experiences made you see acting differently.
Adam Driver: Yeah, I think of acting as a service, I guess.
Charlie Rose: That’s what I mean, yeah.
Adam Driver: Yeah, as opposed to — I mean, obviously, it’s a very egotistical, or it can be egotistical, vain, seemingly unnecessary profession, but seeing it used as a tool and especially taking it outside of New York to people who have never been to a play or have never — you really — I feel, see firsthand, watching people see a theater experience for the first time and not knowing how effective live performance can be, really, for me, even though acting is many things, you know, a political act, it’s, you know, a calling or whatever acronym — not acronym — but adjective that is applicable, but it is a service and to use it as that makes it — it takes the pressure off, I think, in doing it also because you’re really just one part ofa bigger thing, the same thing as a military unit. You’re one role in a larger machine. If you don’t show up, then, you know,things aren’t going to happen. It’s the same thing if you’re not there to support your partners or the people you’re with, then what is it — what are you doing, you know. I guess it’s given me less tolerance for things like that where it’s not a team effort or —
Charlie Rose: Less tolerance for people who don’t appreciatethe team and the mission —
Adam Driver: Yes.
Charlie Rose: — that it’s a shared goal.
Adam Driver: Yeah, everybody decides — Somebody’s paying a lot of money for a lot of people to be in one place at one time to tell some story that hopefully is bigger than any one person, you know, that hopefully it’s worth it, you know, better be worth it and that’s — I think I took that from the military, too.Everyone’s away from their families, they’re — whereas acting, you’re pretending to be in life or death circumstances; and military, you are in life or death circumstances. It better be for a good reason, I guess, and why take it lightly, I guess that’s —
Charlie Rose: I think there are those, and we know the stories in terms of suffering from some kind of depression coming out because they miss that aspect —
Adam Driver: For sure, yeah.
Charlie Rose: — of what their life has been.
Adam Driver: Yeah, and I think also, just speaking from my own experience, looking for — you have all — you’re aware of what you can do in a day. You have so much — in the military, your day is structured and at the end of it, you’re always like, Look at all the things I’ve done.
Charlie Rose: Yeah.
Adam Driver: Then when you go back to a civilian, we’re like,Where can I plug in all of this energy? You know, I’m 23 or 24, I have all this like, you know, I’m — I’m strong, I’m healthy, I want to do something, I want to, you know, looking for that kind of discipline and structure and there’s not a lot of places you can put it, especially with, if you’re an infantry marine or an infantry, what — how are you going to apply that to where — you know, the business world is going to give you a shot and not think that you’re going to, you know, flip out because you were in the military for no reason.
Charlie Rose: Do you have any regret about leaving the military?
Adam Driver: At first, yeah. That I didn’t complete it, and I didn’t complete —
Charlie Rose: You had a medical discharge.
Adam Driver: Yes, I didn’t complete it with the people that I was with. I think about that still. But now, I’m used to a civilian life and it’s great. (LAUGHTER)
Charlie Rose: What’s great about civilian life compared to military life?
Adam Driver: Well, just the freedom obviously, that you can do what you want to do.
Charlie Rose: The lack of someone deciding what you’re going to do and spend every minute of your time.
Adam Driver: Yeah, and also and as far as this, you’re trying to continue your service. You don’t have to worry about the bureaucracy of like what your rank is in comparison to trying to get something done.
Charlie Rose: For those who haven’t seen “Girls,” tell us who Adam Sackler is.
Adam Driver: Adam Sackler is a rhinoceros who runs full forceat something until he gets bored or distracted, then turns — can only see what’s in front of him and he’s Lena’s boyfriend — Hannah, on the show.
Charlie Rose: Right.
Adam Driver: Who, kind of over the course of six seasons — we just finished a couple of weeks ago — kind of evolves into this being more committed to double-down to being an actor and, you know, back and forth in his relationship with Hannah.
Charlie Rose: And how about the “Force Awakens,” how did that happen?
Adam Driver: J.J., I had done the movie “Lincoln” that —
Charlie Rose: Right.
Adam Driver: Kathleen Kennedy was the producer on —
Charlie Rose: Yes, yes.
Adam Driver: — and she recommended me to J.J., and J.J. had only seen “Girls,” and I flew out to L.A. and met him at Bad Robot and we talked about the character. There’s no script, there’s nothing, you know, and kind of gave me a general sense of it and then it was months of thinking about it and — and I think like a month after, they, you know, they said, “Do you want to do it?” And I just wanted to think about it for a long time and —
Charlie Rose: Now why did you have to think about it?
Adam Driver: I mean, there was no script and I think more so,just the idea scared me a lot, you know, I was a fan of those movies and, you know, it’s like a big Hollywood kind of thing and —
Charlie Rose: But you’re thinking — were you thinking, I’m not sure I’m up to doing this? Or were you thinking, “I’m not sure I want this, because it may take me to a place that I really didn’t want to go?”
Adam Driver: No, I never thought of where it would take me, I thought of what if I — the stakes are so big, what if I get there and I have no ideas —
Charlie Rose: Right.
Adam Driver: — and it’s going to be bad, that I’m going to be bad and — sink it, mostly just because of failure on such a big scale like that is like a — is a terrifying idea.
Charlie Rose: But it’s also given you a huge profile now.
Adam Driver: Yeah, yeah. Well, yes, yeah, it’s definitely made things easier for ATEF, which is good.
Charlie Rose: Yes, exactly, I was gonna say that, of course! Hello, Adam Driver on the line.
Adam Driver: Right, yeah. But then you also have to fight for the right kind of money because it’s a tricky thing to donate –Obviously, the arts is always tricky to raise money for because it’s not like data-driven philanthropy, especially when people want to support worthy causes like, you know, supporting PTSD. We’re not saying, “Give us $100 and that’ll go towards” — You know, it will go towards art, you know, and the benefit will — may not be immediate, but it might be down the road. But that’s easier — but I lost your question.
Charlie Rose: No, no. I mean, tell me about Kylo. I mean, do you see — I mean, how did you see him?
Adam Driver: Well, this is also I guess tying into why I decided to do it, it’s because it was J.J. and because I was expecting Hollywood movies. Obviously, I have a strong chip on my shoulder that it’s a lot about spectacle and not character and it’s —
Charlie Rose: But it is.
Adam Driver: But not — I would say with — the first words out of JJ’s mouth were story and character and the spectacle —
Charlie Rose: Maybe why he’s so good.
Adam Driver: — of it will be secondary and that will give yousomething nuanced to play and hopefully not something that’s generic. Their relationship is what — the idea of parents and fathers and —
Charlie Rose: That’s true with Spielberg, too.
Adam Driver: What’s that?
Charlie Rose: The sense of story and thought —
Adam Driver: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Charlie Rose: — and parent and father —
Adam Driver: Yes.
Charlie Rose: — and same stories in terms of the perspective of relationships and character.
Adam Driver: Right, and for some reason, studios don’t seethat that is what makes those movies have a long life. They’re interested in short lives, not something that has like a long-lasting impact.
Charlie Rose: Has all of this changed your ambition in any way?And I mean ambition in the best sense of the way. I mean, clearly, ambition of what you’re doing here is ambition.
Adam Driver: Yes. Sometimes it’s ahead of me where I think that — I mean, the fact that I’m sitting here at this table talking to you is a very — about a nonprofit, you know, that we started six years ago in, you know, at Juilliard, is way ahead of what I imagined, and sometimes that you just — knowing that the attention is on you sometimes — I don’t feel yet comfortable with, or even being a spokesperson or cheerleader for any kind of cause, I never imagined that something like that would bemy life or I would be comfortable doing it. So, sometimes I’m getting more comfortable to it. I don’t know if that answered your question.
Charlie Rose: Now, my point, too, though, is with your fame, or whatever that’s the word —
Adam Driver: Right.
Charlie Rose: — high profile, but it is popularity and fame –with that, can you do more for this nonprofit?
Adam Driver: Oh, for sure, yeah.
Charlie Rose: You know?
Adam Driver: I mean, just because people, even though they — whereas before, they’re like, “What is it, theater?” Now, it’s like, “OK, yeah, we’re fans of “Star Wars,” but you can come here.” (LAUGHTER) I also was saying about fundraising that was like —
Charlie Rose: Yeah, you can come here.
Adam Driver: — you have to take the right money from — to feel like your — you can sleep well at night. Because it’s like, “Well, what’s this nonprofit? Sure, sure.” But come to our bank and take a picture with my daughter.
Charlie Rose: Oh, yeah.
Adam Driver: No, no. Does anyone want to support the cause, you know?
Charlie Rose: Yeah.
Adam Driver: And that’s what we’re going towards in the future, making it less about, you know, me and my journey –Telling a group of people that they are not — can’t intellectually understand a play is absurd to me.
Charlie Rose: Exactly.
Adam Driver: And keeping that away from people that generallywon’t have exposure to —
Charlie Rose: Because you can connect it to your own life.
Adam Driver: Right.
Charlie Rose: It is about all the basic emotions you —
Adam Driver: Of course, yeah.
Charlie Rose: — guys, men and women in the marines, feel.
Adam Driver: Right, yeah. And — and — again, you know, we have, like, Tony Kushner and all these great writers, hearing their language, it’s hard not to make the connection to what’s great about and what’s terrible about and what’s difficult about being a human, you know, and being alive, and — and there is no other community, right, specifically the military, where those stakes are just so high, you know. Everyone’s away from their families and needs a way to process.
Charlie Rose: Thank you for coming.
Adam Driver: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply