Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” depicts the experiences of Colorado police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who impersonates a white man on the phone to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, but it’s not only focused on him. In order to go undercover at Klan meetings, Stallworth sends fellow officer Philip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in his place, forcing the white character to confront his own struggles with a Jewish identity he’s repressed for years when experiencing the group’s antisemitism up close.
At the Cannes Film Festival, Driver was still thinking through Zimmerman’s dilemma. “It’s not something where he punches his card each day and doesn’t take it personally,” he said on a terrance overlooking the French Riviera. “He’s affected by what he’s doing as much as he tries to say that he’s not. He’s confronted for the first time in his life about whether his personal history is important.” Unlike Stallworth, however, Zimmerman can hide behind his whiteness. “Are you tied to your genetics?” Driver wondered. “It matters for some people and for others it doesn’t. I think that’s a very human thing. I haven’t been exposed to it so I don’t really think about it.”
At the same time, the actor acknowledged the extent to which he has been affected by privilege. “There’s no question that you have more opportunities as a white straight male than there are for everybody else,” he said, looking back on a career that has included his role as the main villain in two “Star Wars” movies. “It’s a fact.”
For better or worse, Driver’s role as Kylo Ren in “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” generated some backlash when “Girls” creator Lena Dunham pointed out that none of the female stars on the show were offered similar big roles. “It’s important,” Driver said. “I can’t give you data, like I think about it 50 percent or 75 percent or 100 percent, but it’s on my mind.”
Generally speaking, the actor said he’s oriented toward projects based on the filmmakers attached. Over the past few years, that inclination has found him starring in everything from Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” to Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” — and now, the double-header of Spike Lee and Terry Gilliam in two Cannes movies. “I’ve grown up watching their movies,” he said about all four directors. “I just love their movies. I want to work with filmmakers I’ve always admired. I could want to do that a lot and not get the opportunity, so I’ve been lucky that timing or whatever has worked out.”
Driver sits at a unique crossroads in his career, one year after the series finale of “Girls,” which provided him with a consistent role as his movie career took off. “You get used to the summers in New York for six years shooting in the city and suddenly that’s not happening, all those people — the crew you’re used to seeing, the other actors,” he said. “It’s a shift, but there’s nothing you can do about that.”
Driver has gone from one ongoing storyline to another. As the third entry in the current “Star Wars” trilogy prepares to shoot this year, the reserved actor has to content with talking about a franchise that isn’t always the most prominent project on his mind. “It’s always strange to talk about movies you shot a year and a half ago,” he said, expressing a general disdain for the promotional machine. “It’s my favorite thing,” he added. “It like, we just saw your movie, now tell us about your movie. We said it in the movie. I don’t know what else we have to say.”
He was unfazed by the baggage that comes with being the face of a now-iconic villain. “I don’t really think about characters as likable or unlikable,” he said, instead phrasing it in terms of the questions he asks himself. “Does it make sense? Are they three-dimensional people? Is it part of the story overall? If it does, that’s the character. I don’t believe that all characters should be likable. “
He emphasized that the two “Star Wars” movies to date have also reflected his predilection for working with specific filmmakers — in those cases, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson. “‘Star Wars’ feels like small indie movies, because I was lucky enough that it was J.J. and Rian, who know how to break things into little pieces and small moments to make them feel really specific,” he said. “The budget doesn’t matter to me if it’s really great filmmakers.”
As for Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” Driver said that he had watched “Man of La Mancha,” the documentary about Gilliam’s earlier ill-fated attempts to make the movie. But it didn’t impact his experience on the production, now completed after all these years.
“I didn’t think, ‘Oh, this had a problem before, so it’s going to continue to have a problem,’” he said. “You hope it’ll get made like any movie. A lot of movies you do that fall apart for various reasons, not because they’re cursed. You know, Scorsese tried to make ‘Silence’ for 20-something years, and because of timing and legal reasons he couldn’t make it.” The logistical challenges of more expensive movies didn’t bother him. “That’s the thing I like about cinema,” he said. “It’s ‘Jaws’ and ‘The French Connection.’ If it’s good, if the director’s good, if the script makes sense, if it’s saying something interesting, then you want to be involved in it regardless of the budget.”
He had yet to watch “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which screened the night prior to his promotional duties at Cannes, and admitted that he wasn’t following the news cycle around the ballooning Star Wars Expanded Universe. “I don’t keep up on the details of it, but I hope they all do well,” he said. “As far as the people who see it, that’s beyond my control. It doesn’t change the work you do on it because it’s a blockbuster or something. The budget doesn’t matter, it just makes things more comfortable when you’re shooting it. You hope people see the small ones, too.”
“BlackKklansman” opens theatrically in August.