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Adam Driver on playing a bus-driving poet for Jim Jarmusch

The star of Lena Dunham’s Girls talks about Skyping with Method Man, losing 51lbs for Martin Scorsese and being educated on poetry by Jarmusch for his role in ‘Paterson

In Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Paterson, Adam Driver is a poet within a poem. Even the synopsis feels like it should be read out in verse. In Paterson, Driver stars as Paterson, a bus driver and poet who resides in Paterson, New Jersey. He shares a house with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), also an artist, and each evening he walks their pet bulldog to a bar where he drinks one beer and one beer only. But, most importantly, he scribbles poetry into a notebook – just for himself.

The mellow drama spends a week in Paterson’s life, and each day is a stanza in itself; rhyming couplets, such as literal twins, appear in the visuals, and Paterson’s routine plays out at a zen tempo. Noticeably, Paterson’s hero is William Carlos Williams, a full-time doctor who grew up in Paterson and, like Paterson, wrote poems in his spare time, including one called “Paterson”. With cameos from Method Man, Masatoshi Nagase and the two runaway kids from Moonrise Kingdom, it’s a non-sappy love poem from Jarmusch to his fans.

Of course, Paterson wouldn’t work without Driver. Like Ghost Dog and Night on Earth, it’s another Jarmusch film about someone doing their job, and passages involve observing Driver as he pensively drinks in his surroundings. Few actors could pull it off, and it’s no surprise he does. Seriously, stick him anywhere – the 60s recording studio of Inside Llewyn Davis, the sci-fi landscape of Midnight Special, the Brooklyn flats of Frances Ha – and witness why the natural scene-stealer is on every filmmaker’s wish list.

Driver, in five years, has worked with Noah Baumbach, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Lena Dunham, Jeff Nichols, Clint Eastwood, the Coen brothers, Rian Johnson, Steven Soderbergh and now Jim Jarmusch. Yet he refuses to watch his films, including Paterson, and was horrified when I mentioned his Girls audition is on YouTube. (“Oh no, I did not know about that…”) To find out more, we sat down with the uniquely-faced actor to discuss the Jarmuschian poetry of Paterson, his Skype sessions with Method Man, and losing 51lbs (FYI, that’s 23kg) for Martin Scorsese’s Silence.

Paterson finds inspiration from observing his surroundings and meeting new people. As an actor, is it important for you to do the same?

Adam Driver: Absolutely. It’s very much part of my job to be a spy, to have experiences and fail, to do things wrong and learn from experience, and to be in public and observe. It’s tricky when people are observing you – and then I feel self-conscious, and that makes it about me, and I unplug from the world around me. That’s the challenge.

Terry Gilliam said recently that you have difficulty going out in London because you’re so tall and recognisable. How do you ensure you’re not trapped in a bubble?

Adam Driver: (laughs) Yeah, I’ve tried things like wearing a hat or a scarf, and I think I’m totally incognito. And people go, “There’s that guy, but wearing a hat.” I live in New York City, one of the most populated cities in the world. It’s challenging. But I’m married. I can’t live in a bubble. I have to be able to go out and share the world with someone else.

Were you a fan of William Carlos Williams before taking on Paterson?

Adam Driver: I knew ‘This Is Just to Say’, but apart from that, I had a very elementary knowledge of poetry. But since then, I’ve been really interested in William Carlos Williams and Ron Padgett, who wrote the poetry for this, and Frank O’Hara, who did the Lunch Poems.

Did you and Jim have a book club beforehand?

Adam Driver: It was mostly Jim educating me on the ‘New York School’ of poets. It’s actually a title they don’t like, but it’s a good way to describe them. Jim studied poetry at Columbia. I’d been to a lot of poetry readings, but when you’re introduced to poetry through the eyes of someone who’s very passionate about it, it’s hard to not be interested.

How was it acting with Method Man? His character is an interesting contrast with Paterson – they’re both poets, but one’s secretive and the other loves performing.

Adam Driver: That’s great – no one’s asked me about Method Man yet. He’s very generous and very funny. With the poem he was rapping, he did his research, and he presented something in the theme of the movie. I remember him doing it over Skype with me and Jim for the first time, and it was amazing. It’s the great thing about Jim. My character’s main action in this movie is to listen to everybody around him, but he’s surrounded me with people like Golshifteh Farahani and Barry Shabaka Henley, who plays Doc, and Method Man. It’s easy to watch them. I could watch Method Man all day long.

Do you listen to much hip hop?

Adam Driver: I haven’t listened to Wu-Tang Clan in a while, but yeah, as much as I can. With anything, I feel behind the times in all genres of ‘what’s new’.

“With the poem he was rapping, (Method Man) did his research, and he presented something in the theme of the movie. I remember him doing it over Skype with me and Jim for the first time, and it was amazing”

I had a creative writing tutor at university who would tell me – or maybe warn me – that ‘poetry is the opposite of money’. Would you agree with that statement?

Adam Driver: (laughs) Yeah, Ron Padgett would always joke with Jim: ‘You’ve really picked a moneymaking subject matter – a bus-driving poet.’ And Jim would always joke on set, ‘We really need to figure this out because dozens of people watch my movies.’

Speaking of which, a lot of art is motivated by the ability to share it – you and Jim want audiences to see this movie. But it’s quite moving to see how valuable Paterson finds the act of writing poetry purely for himself.

Adam Driver: Yeah, part of art is to share it with an audience. You’re only doing one half of it: people’s responses, and what it means to them, seems to be the other half. Whether it’s a theatre experience or a movie, half the experience is what the audience brings. But someone was telling me, like you, the value he gets from that personally, maybe that’s good enough. But I also think he would eventually share it. We just happen to be catching him in a week when he’s not there yet.

What’s your personal relationship with Jim’s films? I imagine you were a fan beforehand.

Adam Driver: I was. I grew up in a very small town in Indiana where access to culture wasn’t prominent. So video stores were my connection to the world. Jim’s movies were very much a part of that. I think the first one was Down by Law, but I was immediately aware that his sense of humour was different.

But Martin Scorsese, who you did Silence with, seems to be the polar opposite in terms of vibe and how he talks. How does it differ when the person in charge of a set is Jim, who’s really calm and cool, or if it’s Martin, who has a lot of frantic energy?

Adam Driver: It’s hard to say. The projects were very different. With Silence, we had to lose a lot of weight, so that peppered a lot of it. We were shooting on mountainsides, and there were seven different languages going on. So the obstacles were greater. But they’re similar in that you see them as young filmmakers when you’re working with them. Not only in their youthful ambition to do the best version possible in a short amount of time, but that they get together with a bunch of people whose opinions they respect, and they make it a collaborative effort. Martin Scorsese has wanted to make Silence for 28 years. So you could expect with him or Jim, with where they’re at in their careers, for it to be a dictatorship where you walk in and they tell you exactly what to do. That would have been fine with me. But they hire you for your opinions, and they want you to take ownership of your part.

Sometimes that means challenging their ideas. Eventually, you start to understand the part better than anybody else does, because you’re living it more. Both of those people are more similar than different, in that they really collaborate – they’re great at it. And they set up a mood on sets where the best idea wins and everyone’s free to get it wrong for as long as you want.

With Silence, was it a challenge to live like a 17th-century Jesuit priest? Because I read that you usually eat six eggs a day.

Adam Driver: Yeah, I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it because I love food so much. But I tried losing weight on my own for two months, and that was a disaster. I lost weight, but everybody around me in my personal life suffered. But they hired a guy who helped me lose the additional weight. It wasn’t necessarily easier, but it was more structured.

How much did you lose?

Adam Driver: 51lbs. I’m not sure what that is in kilos, but yeah, 51lbs.

Wow. But are you back to six eggs a day?

Adam Driver: Oh yeah.

“I tried losing weight) my own for two months (for Silence), and that was a disaster. I lost weight, but everybody around me in my personal life suffered”

Is it a coincidence that Paterson, like you, has a military background? Or did Jim write it in?

Adam Driver: Jim wrote it in when I agreed to do it. But the reason I liked it so much is because I’m always skeptical of people who are in the military in movies. I feel that people always write them or direct them as if they’re not people, as if they’re solely indoctrinated into the military. That’s what I love about this character – it’s mentioned he’s in the military, but it’s not addressed again. He just happens to have been someone who was in the military. He drives a bus. He just happens to be a bus driver who also writes poetry. But none of those things define him.

You’ve played a poet in Paterson, a photographer in Tracks, a filmmaker in While We’re Young, and a singer in Inside Llewyn Davis. Directors believe you look like an artist. Do you have a creative outlet outside of acting?

Adam Driver: There’s not a set thing like, ‘I paint!’ I try to create things around me. Like, I have a non-profit with my wife. We perform live theatre for a military audience. We want to be very involved in the design and we curate the website and we curate what the format of it is. We don’t want it to be a formal theatre experience, so we set music stands up in a semi-circle facing the audience, so that the actors can watch the audience, and the audience can watch the actors respond to other actors.

That’s something where we try to be creative, and we try to live artfully in everything we do. We have an apartment, but, as bougie as it sounds, we try to design it and curate it so it’s a beautiful place to come home to. Even an oven doesn’t have to just be an oven. I mean, I’m not making a fucking oven… (laughs) Like, lately, I’ve been inspired by paintings – especially mid-century painters like Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombly. You want to surround yourself with beautiful things.