It’s a good time to be Adam Driver. Not only is his star hitched to Star Wars, in which he plays Kylo Ren with tremendous fury and anxious nuance, he’s also currently doing press for Paterson, the latest masterwork from Jim Jarmusch, which was greeted at Cannes to glowing reviews for both the film itself and Driver. For Driver, the point of the work seems to be as much in getting a chance at big projects like Star Wars as it is about working with great, distinct artists like Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese, and Terry Gilliam.
So, it’s not surprising that while doing an interview with our very own Steven Weintraub for Paterson, the actor took time to also comment on working on Star Wars: Episode VIII and his admiration for writer-director Rian Johnson. Here’s what he had to say about Johnson’s ability to pick up where J.J. Abrams left things off in The Force Awakens:
Collider: What was it like working with Rian Johnson after knowing the character (Kylo Ren) and now working a new director? What was that experience like?
ADAM DRIVER: Maybe this is just me thinking of myself, but I’m surprised [because] in their shoes I’d be way more stressed out than [J.J. and Rian] seem to be. Rian is coming into something that we kind of set up and he just took it to the next level in a really great way. He wrote it, too, and Rian’s writing is so clear. I learned a lot of things about my character through his writing. Some things we talked about before and some things we didn’t. He was working on [the script] while we were still working on the first one. To understand what J.J. was doing and take ownership from there is kind of a remarkable thing. And he’s the most polite, unassuming guy and he was appropriately territorial about some things but would still be the first to admit when something’s not working. A lot of times you need to rise to understand what the script is, and perhaps I’m beginning to be unclear, but he’s a great person to work with.
It’s not an entirely alien opinion that Johnson is a talented writer. His scripts for Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and especially Looper are all teeming with stunning use of stylized dialogue and often subvert many accepted modes of storytelling in terms of building up tension. And Driver went on to talk about how he does see similarities between the still untitled Episode 8 and The Empire Strikes Back, less in terms of how “dark” they are and more for their overall tonality. Here’s what he had to say about that:
Collider: That’s all I ever ask, how was the script?
DRIVER: It’s great. It’s similar to how The Empire Strikes Back has a different tone. For that people always go “oooh, it’s dark” but I don’t know that it necessarily is. It’s just different in tone in a way that I think is great and necessary but also very clear. He trusts [that] his audience is ready for nuance and ambiguity. He’s not dumbing anything down for someone and that’s really fun to play.
The “not dumbing anything down” part is not something that seemed to be in danger of happening exactly, but then it’s probably good news for those who thought The Force Awakens was a bit too safe and familiar. And it’s great to hear words like “nuance and ambiguity” bandied about in a franchise that, for all its fantastic characters and consistent, joyous thrills, has never been great with the small stuff, like any moment that diverges from the turns of the plot. For Driver, it’s all about doing his work as an actor and being able to get what the director needs from the scenes. Here’s him going in depth on returning to the role of Kylo Ren under Johnson:
I would imagine when you’re first stepping on set with J.J. that there’s a level of nervousness—you’re playing a big role in a big franchise that the whole planet cares about—but how is it for you as an actor now that you’re coming back for a second time, knowing that people really liked your performance and they really liked the movie? Talk about the energy on [this] set compared to the other one?
DRIVER: The stakes are even higher, I think. No one’s relaxing. Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I didn’t feel more relaxed as if we’d accomplished anything. It’s one more reason we have to redouble our efforts and just make it even more specific, but then you also have to let it all go and not think too much while you’re working on it. It’s the same thing you do when you’re working on something like Jim (Jarmusch’s) movie, too.
I think I said something like this to you last year, but I remember being very overwhelmed by the idea of working on something [like this] where the scale was so big. I remember calling J.J. and saying, “I’m overwhelmed by the machine of it” and him basically saying that we’ll break it down into pieces and solve it in these little moments. One moment will lead to this moment and then that moment will lead to this moment and at the end of it hopefully we’ll have a movie. Of course, that’s like working with anything. The scale is bigger, and obviously the catering and the trailers are better when compared to a smaller independent movie, but that doesn’t matter. You’re not watching a movie thinking about how they had really great trailers, or about their catering, you’re trying to follow these moments and follow these characters. So working on it, even though the scale is different, the approach to making it is the exact same. And I feel like I’ve been lucky working with J.J. and Rian, who are two people who get that instinctually.
It’s not my job to worry about the bigger picture or what it means or try to appease a certain group of people. It’s my job to read the script, be prepared, and be generous to the other people that I’m acting with in order to tell the best version of the story that Rian came up with. Then whatever it means and whatever meaning people attach to it, by that point it’s not my responsibility.
There’s a lot of wisdom in what Driver is saying here, especially for anyone who has worked on a movie set with performers. It’s Johnson and Abrams’ jobs to think of the big picture, to see how all of this will fit together both as a movie and as a trilogy. It’s important for actors to consider that as well but not get obsessed with it to the point that you’re thinking of the long game in a scene instead of the moment that you are currently in. It’s a problem in writing as well: so many modern comic book adaptations and reboots look too far ahead, to the overall franchise cohesion, rather than simply making a movie that exists in the here and now. Johnson has never done that in his films before and after hearing what Driver has to say about Episode 8, anticipation for what is probably the most anticipated film currently on the horizon has never been quite as intense.
Look for Steve’s full interview with Adam Driver in the coming days. Click here for all our previous Star Wars coverage.