Adam Driver might be best known for playing Lena Dunham’s on-again, off-again boyfriend on HBO’s show “Girls,” but it’s on the big screen where he’s really stretching. Before “Girls” even came around, the Juilliard grad had already worked under Clint Eastwood on “J. Edgar” and Barry Levinson on the HBO TV movie “You Don’t Know Jack.” And since the show hit the air back in 2012, Driver has continued to make good on his early promise, collaborating with folks including Steven Spielberg (“Lincoln”), Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha”), John Curran (the upcoming “Tracks”) and Jeff Nichols (the upcoming “Midnight Special”).
The busy Driver caught up with Indiewire to discuss his all-singing role in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (the film goes wide this Friday), his amazing run up to now, and the upcoming third season of “Girls.”
You’re only 29 and have already worked with Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Noah Baumbach and now the Coens. What’s it like to hear those names in succession?
That’s pretty crazy. I wish I could say it was all part of my master plan. But yeah that’s incredible. I’ve been very lucky.
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Working for Clint Eastwood early in your career must have put you in Hollywood’s good graces.
That would be a nice thought to imagine, but I don’t know if that’s true.
How did working with the Coens compare to your other experiences thus far?
I think with all of them they just have a common theme, even though they work in completely different ways. Specificity of story, so clear with what it is they’re after, and they have different opinions about how to get there but they’re all kind of unanimous in that way. Just to see the Coens at the state they are in with their careers and how they still have this relentless pursuit to tell the best version possible and do all their homework — it’s incredible to be able to have witnessed.
How does one get cast by the Coens?
I got a call. This was two years ago, before the first of season of “Girls,” before “Lincoln.” I got a call from my agent who was like, “Do you want to audition for this?” And obviously I said yes. So I went in and auditioned, sang a song and that was it.
How intimidated were you, walking into that room?
Very intimidated, as you can probably imagine. Not just due to acting in a scene but to sing, and not just singing but singing for the Coen Brothers. Singing is very scary anyway. I don’t know what else you could do that is more vulnerable — maybe dancing — than singing.
Having such great respect for all their movies and being so excited just to meet them… if was over after the audition, I would’ve been completely satisfied. But then it kept going and then getting a job and then at the costume sittings and slowly but surely realizing that this is actually a real thing, this is actually happening —
What did they have you sing?
I forget what the actual song was. I think it was a different version of “Please Mr. Kennedy.”
My favorite scene of yours features you singing with Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake. How was shooting opposite them in a sound studio?
It was pretty awesome. The song was a great example of what I mean by doing the homework, but at the same time kind of being open to what was happening in the moment. First it’s surreal to be recording in a studio and looking to your left and there’s Justin Timberlake and T-Bone Burnett and Oscar and the Coen Brothers, and the revolving cast of characters that were coming in and out like the Punch Brothers and things like that. Watching those guys listen to music was something completely different from the way I listen to music. That was fascinating to watch.
We did a pre-record version of it, then it kept evolving. It wasn’t quite where they wanted it, we kept on tweaking it. Even on the day, Ethan had a lot of great ideas of what he wanted to do or how he wanted it to sound. Then he was like, “Maybe you should be warming up here.” I wish I could claim any responsibility but the only good thing I did was kind of sit back and defer to the people that were in charge.
In that scene, you give this guttural, quack-sounding noise that defies easy description. Where did that even come from?
That was not my concoction, that was all them. [laughs]
You’re a Juilliard grad, so singing must have come easy to you.
No, they keep the music department very separate from the actors at Juilliard. I am musical, though. I grew up in church and did a lot of singing at choir and a lot of singing at choir in school and playing the piano, things like that — but I wouldn’t call myself a musician by any means compared to the people [in the movie]. Musical in that I own instruments that are at my house that I play with people. But not like in that I have mastered any of them like the people that are in the movie.
What instruments do you own?
I own a guitar, a piano, a bass.
The third season of “Girls” is right around the corner. Despite sharing the same name as your character on the show, you two seem to have nothing in common. Adam’s a slacker, whereas you’re clearly not if your recent output is anything to go by.
I actually don’t think of him as a slacker. I feel like he has very strong-willed goals, it just doesn’t really fit into the mold of what’s conventional. He has these proclamations about a way that he’s going to live his life or ideas, and then at the drop of a hat he kind of shifts them.
It’s all about being present and not. I think the challenge in him is that he hasn’t quite really articulated things for himself so he feels things very intensely before he actually finds the words to fit it. That’s an ongoing battle for him. That’s a very universal thing.
What’s the experience been like of playing the same character over the course of three seasons?
I don’t know, every season is a different thing. The first season we were still trying to figure out what it is we’re doing and I still feel that that applies to the third season, which we just did. It was constantly: how do we keep going deeper and keep going deeper? There’s still an ambitious pursuit of “How do we go deeper and surprise ourselves?”
What keeps you coming back every season? That surprise element?
Yeah, I just love the character and the people that I get to work with, not just the cast but the crew. The crew is an amazing part of the process — in a way they’re our first audience. They’ve set up an environment that’s really trusting. Why would you not want to go down to the bottom and see how deep it can go? That’s an interesting challenge.
I’ve never worked in anything where it has the potential to be going on for many years. The most you play a character in the theater is like a couple months and then you put it away. It’s an interesting challenge to live in someone for a couple years. I’ve never done that, so why not try and make the most of it?