Hometown: Mishawaka, Indiana
Currently: Starring as a Jewish World War II survivor determined to seek revenge against the Germans in Playwrights Horizons’ off-Broadway world premiere of Daniel Goldfarb’s The Retributionists.
Opposites Attract: Let’s skip straight to the most interesting combination of factoids about Adam Driver: He’s a recent graduate of Juilliard (not so unusual for an up-and-coming stage actor). And he was a Marine, in the 81st Platoon infantry. “They’re definitely on opposite ends of the spectrum,” he says with laugh. Both decisions—to enlist in the toughest branch of the military and audition for one of the most prestigious drama programs—came from Driver’s desire to challenge himself. Rejected on his first try at Juilliard, he felt desperate to escape his small hometown. “College wasn’t something I saw myself doing,” he recalls, “and after 9/11, that sense of patriotism accumulated and I joined the Marine Corps.”
The Few, The Proud: The Iraq war was a year away when Driver became a Marine in February 2002, but he fully expected to serve in harm’s way. “That was my goal—to go overseas,” he says. “The politics of it, whether [war] is good or bad, never entered my mind. When you train to do a job for two and a half years, you’re excited to go over and do it.” Instead, a broken sternum (suffered during a mountain bike accident) led to a medical discharge. “I had convinced my battalion to deploy me in spite of the injury, but when they put me back into training, I wound up injuring it worse.” Newly recommitted to acting, Driver spent a year at the University of Indianapolis while waiting for another shot at Juilliard. This time, he was accepted.
He Said What?! As classes began at Lincoln Center, Driver quickly realized he wasn’t at Camp Pendleton anymore. “I made three people cry my first semester,” he says with a rueful laugh. “I was used to a very aggressive way of talking to people. I would consider it having a discussion, but I guess others didn’t see it that way! So I calmed down and found a way to communicate exactly what I was feeling.” Classmate Joanne Tucker, a Dalton grad who became Driver’s girlfriend, also helped him adjust to city life. “She taught me what Gouda cheese is,” he jokes, “and that you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full and spit on the sidewalk.” In return, he expanded her reading list beyond The New Yorker: “I told her about Rolling Stone and how it could be interesting and entertaining.”
Tell It to the Marines: While at Juilliard, Driver began dreaming of taking theater to the troops in a meaningful way—say, a tour of Sam Shepard’s True West. The USO was unimpressed, insisting on “stars” such as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. (Justin Timberlake would have been acceptable, as well.) A determined Driver put together an evening of monologues and enlisted alums Laura Linney and Tracie Thoms to appear with him at Camp Pendleton. The event drew an admiring New York Times piece, which led to Driver’s involvement in a series of readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes for combat veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Sophocles was a general, a warrior writing plays about military situations,” he explains, adding that the ancient works create “a form of catharsis. I’m looking forward to doing more readings and talkbacks at military bases around the country.”
One-Two Punch: Driver wasted no time after graduation this past spring, landing juicy parts in two off-Broadway productions. He drew great reviews as an abusive closeted high school student in Rattlestick Theatre’s recent production of Slipping and began previews in late August in The Retributionists as a charismatic Jew who hatches a plan for the mass slaughter of Germans in 1946, assisted by two women who love him. “At one point, I was making out with four people a day,” he says with amusement, “Cristin [Milioti] and Margarita [Levieva], because I was rehearsing Retributionists during the day, Seth [Numrich] in Slipping at night, and then my girlfriend. There was a lot of mouthwash and toothpaste before I could go home.”
Revenge Fantasy: Loosely based on The Avengers, Rich Cohen’s account of a group of Jews who tried to exact revenge after the war, The Retributionists presents Driver’s character, Dov, as single-minded and not entirely rational. “He’s motivated and fueled by anger,” the actor says. “The play is about what happens when the thing that’s been driving you is suddenly gone.” Though audience members may compare Dov to a modern-day terrorist, Driver doesn’t see it that way: “I think he finds his actions totally justifiable given what he experienced during the war. He’s an exciting character to bring to life.”