Adam Driver, Ferrari, Michael Mann

Adam Driver’s Chameleon-Like Transformations

Adam Driver’s chameleon-like transformations put him in the rarified company of American male performers who can metamorphose their inner and outer selves.

Michael Mann
25 December 2023 (US)

In 8 CE, the Roman poet Ovid wrote a narrative poem that was destined to become one of the most revered and influential literary works ever authored. Metamorphoses (Transformations) is a genre-defying text as it contains a conglomeration of divergent themes and styles. It became the foundation upon which the greatest dramatists of the following centuries established and expanded their opus. Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and William Shakespeare are some of the most prominent figures who used Ovid’s work as inspiration for their own.

In Metamorphoses, the act of transformation is developed through diverse practices and ideas. However, the author’s pervasive invocation of illusion and disguise highlights their conceptual link with metamorphosis. These two elements are still considered to be the milestones of the transformative experience. Thus, the world of cinema, as the par excellence universe of deception, masquerade, and make-believe, is fertile ground for metamorphosis. Actors are the major agents of these transfigurations, which can range from mild to extreme, and it is of vital importance to be flexible with all aspects of their expression palette, including both their physical body discipline and their delivery of the proper emotional responses/reflexes of their character.

Throughout American cinema history, several male performers have illustrated a propensity for reconstructing their selves from scratch, with a most striking example being Robert De Niro of the 1970s and ’80s eras. His commanding portrayal of Jake La Motta, a real-life midweight boxing champion of the ’50s, in Martin Scorcese’s biopic Raging Bull (1980) is still considered an admirable body transformation. De Niro gained 60 pounds while preparing for the role while he trained and boxed for over 1,000 rounds to add 20 pounds of muscle.

More recently, Christian Bale joined the ranks of this club of the selected few with roles that were so physically demanding that he was compelled (for his role in Brad Anderson’s 2004 thriller, The Machinist) to follow a rigorous diet for four months consuming only 260 calories per day, the equivalent of one can of tuna fish. Nevertheless, the complexity of the transformative procedure doesn’t exhaust itself to the corporeal realm. Actors, specifically those who want to avoid typecasting, frequently face difficult challenges as they are called to interpret characters with fluctuating emotions and idiosyncratic behaviors.

Adam Driver is an exceptional case of an actor as he accomplished so much in so little time. He completed his Bachelor Studies in Fine Arts at the Julliard School for Drama in 2009 – “Chekhov in the morning, Arthur Miller at night” he summarizes his academic training experience – while he landed his first breakthrough role in HBO’s series Girls (2012-2017), playing the loopy Adam Sackler who happens to be the prime love interest of Hannah (Lena Dunham), the definitive protagonist of the show. Driver’s unblemished performance as an unbalanced 20-year-old artist earned him three Emmy Awards nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.

However, that was only the beginning for Adam Driver, the stepson of a Baptist minister father and a paralegal mother, as he worked to achieve his status as one of the most celebrated actors of his generation. During the following years, he would collaborate with some of the biggest names in the American film industry, such as Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, the Coen brothers, and Francis Ford Coppola. These experiences establish his standing as a versatile, chameleon-like actor who knows how to capitalize on his physical attributes and striking facial features: “He has the stolid physicality of Humphrey Bogart; the nebbishness and syncopated vocal style of James Stewart; the shaggy, lanky sexiness of Elliott Gould; the weirdo intensity of Joaquin Phoenix; the stretched, leonine looks of Donald Sutherland, and so on,” writes Philippa Snow for Independent.

Indeed, Adam Driver’s repertoire in cinema and theatre is diverse and multifaceted (let’s not forget that in 2019, he was nominated for the prestigious Tony Prize for his role in Lanford Wilson’s play Burn This). His roles range from playing cartoonish, in all his vileness, antagonist Kylo Ren in three films of the Star Wars saga to the existentially disoriented Professor of Hitler Studies Jack Gladney in Noah Bombach’s 2022 adaptation, White Noise. Driver performs as an emotionally repressed and shattered man during the breakup with his wife in Bombach’s 2019 drama Marriage Story. In Martin Scorsese’s 2016 “passion project” Silence, he plays an emaciated Jesuit Priest. In Spike Lee’s 2018 dramedy BlacKkKlansman, Driver’s character is an average guy who must pretend to be a hardcore racist to infiltrate a KKK sect.

Adam Driver’s facial lineament and ferocious physicality are his secret weapons used to unlock the essence of each character. In other words, he has a face that can swiftly turn into multiple façades if the story and the director dictate it. The best directors trust him with challenging roles. American filmmaker and playwright Scott Z. Burns says, “Adam is the kind of actor where if there’s a light flickering, or a string on his wardrobe — he’ll use it in the scene.”

Regarding the distinctiveness of his facial features, Adam Driver said in a 2015 interview with The Guardian: “I have been told before that I have an unusual face. But my face is my face. I had a whole life before acting, over the years. Lots of things have been said about my face.” Kyle Buchanan, in the New York Times writes about Driver’s “resting sphinx face”, in one of the most memorable outlines of the actor’s physiognomy. His facial features of a sexual dimorphic nature – its oblong shape, its length, which is longer than wide, and his rounded cheeks feed a debate regarding whether or not his visage works as a new paradigm of onscreen masculinity. Even his prior service in the US Marines seems to add to his imposing masculine presence, which is further amplified thanks to his deep, husky voice.

Adam Driver has been involved in several advertisement projects, the most popular a Burberry Hero fragrance ad directed by Jonathan Glazer. Driver had to prepare for the shooting for several months, working to chisel his body in such a way as to evoke the physique of a horse: “It took me a couple of months to train! I wanted to be muscular like a horse. And horses are very lean, so I lost weight,” the actor said in his 2022 interview with Lynn Hirschberg. Italian fashion designer Riccardo Tisci provided his individual take on the Driver phenomenon: “[Driver has] this incredible depth in articulating what masculinity means today, (…) how strength can be subtle, and emotions can empower.” 

There is a palpable contradiction of this image with what we observe in the actor’s interviews. Adam Driver often looks nervous and indecisive, while his aversion to watching his own performances is irrefutable proof of his insecurities. He had even walked out mid-interview with NPR and Terry Gross because the journalist played an emotionally moving clip from Marriage Story in which Driver’s character is singing a shortened rendition of “Being Alive”.

Adam Driver’s external strength and internal doubtfulness, or the unusual combination of macho solidity and feral unpredictability”, as Snow puts it, marks the defining contradiction of an actor who has principally incarnated multi-layered characters that often wallow in sorrow and self-loathing when forced to confront or contemplate life’s great mysteries. This split mentality is visually illustrated in Driver’s several collaborations with his friend Noah Baumbach, most recently in White Noise, the adaptation of the “unfilmable” novel by Don de Lillo. Driver plays Professor Jack Gladney who confronts face-on the certainty of death through a series of absurd, post-apocalyptic events and eccentric dialogue, with director and screenwriter Baumbach remaining loyal to de Lillo’s work despite the many obstacles to translating such a work to film.

Even though White Noise was not warmly received by most critics, mainly due to the peculiarities of the original source that were inevitably transferred onscreen, Adam Driver excels in his role as an ordinary family man who is forced to tackle head-on the diachronic question of death and the trembling all humans experience when considering it. His formerly muscular build has vanished, and now we watch an ordinary, middle-aged man with a bulging waist and receding hairline onscreen.

De Lillo’s 1985 novel has been labeled by many critics as an existential comedy combining a scorching critique of the consumer culture as it appeared in the United States during the 1980s and a profound pondering on the most critical ontological questions of the human condition. Adam Driver draws the portrait of Professor Gladney with a vulnerability and inwardness, indicating a mature performer who can adapt and make the most of his character even within such a highly absurd context. His acting strength springs from the actor’s interior and modifies his exterior accordingly in an ever-shifting process of reinvention and recreation.

This is evident in the several Baumbach/Driver collaborations as the indie auteur is widely respected for his body of work that explores profound themes in a subtly comic manner. Baumbach has stated that he’s “interested in people who are very sophisticated in intellectual ways, while being completely off the mark in emotional ones, with these huge blind spots in terms of their own behavior.”

In Baumbach’s magnum opus, Marriage Story, Adam Driver plays Charlie Barber, an ambitious theatre producer on the verge of a breakthrough in his career when his marriage with his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) crumbles, and they decide to divorce. Baumbach has a knack for depicting people in a state of transition, and casting Driver is the optimal choice for this type of character. Initially, Charlie is exhibiting narcissistic behavior, rendering him unlikable. However, his sensitive side is revealed gradually with the climactic final scene among the most moving contemporary film sequences.

In another momentous scene, Charlie, unable to accurately explain the divorce’s impact on him, sings the aforementioned abridged version of “Being Alive”, demonstrating another dimension of Driver’s kaleidoscopic talent. The chemistry that Driver shares with Scarlett Johansson is another factor that made Marriage Story one of the must-sees for 2019, and the production invaded the 2020 Academy Awards, earning six nominations, including Best Motion Picture of the Year, and eventually winning in the category of Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Laura Dern).

The year 2021 marked two collaborations between the veteran director Ridley Scott and the proven actor Adam Driver. The first was The Last Duel, a blend of historical drama and action based on the true story of the last trial by combat in the Middle Ages. The screenplay, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, was the product of the fruitful collaboration between Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nicole Holofcener and the film gained both critical and commercial success. The Last Duel was particularly praised for the performances by the primary members of the cast with Driver leading the show and stealing the thunder from several seasoned and skilled actors.

Driver plays Jacques Le Gris, a difficult and risky role as a lesser actor could easily overplay his hand and diminish the character’s plausibility. However, Driver effortlessly avoids any such pitfalls, delivering an emotionally charged performance, without resorting to hyperbole. The second and most discussed Scott/Driver teamwork was the glossy and exuberant chronicle of the true life story of the legendary Gucci family and the assassination of Maurizio Gucci in 1995 by his former wife Patrizia Reggiani. In Scott’s House of Gucci (2021) Driver plays Maurizio. Lady Gaga, in one of the most pleasant surprises of that cinematic year, proves that her training as an actor paid off, incarnating Patrizia with an indelible openness and bravado.

Driver has worked hard for this project, as the character of Maurizio felt alien to him at the beginning: “I do not live in the same world as Maurizio Gucci. The way he picks up things that are valuable and discards them, the way he is the most elegant man—those qualities were interesting to think about. But after 14 hours a day of being a Gucci, I was ready for it to be over.” His interpretation of the role is reflected through the character’s journey from being a timid and reluctant inheritor of a dynasty in his youth to a cruel, ruthless businessman who has no time for feelings. Driver’s powerful performance overshadows the all-star group of actors (Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto) who complete the ensemble cast. Throughout House of Gucci‘s runtime, Driver undergoes a gradual transformation that is completed near the finalé. It is the very essence of his personality that eventually seals Maurizio’s fate as Patrizia’s love turns to deadly hate.

As we are reaching the end of 2023, Adam Driver fans are eagerly anticipating the release of Michael Mann’s latest biography, Ferrari (releasing 25 December, 2023) in which Driver leads the cast as Enzo Ferrari. The story takes place in the summer of 1957, a critical period for the notorious automobile empire, with Enzo resolving to make a bold move to resuscitate his business. Many Driver admirers wait to see the actor’s most impressive transformation yet in his career. Driver is utterly convincing as the 60-year-old magnate, the picture of oozing authority and inner strength. It seems that we’re in for another treat as the cinematic lizard king is going to display one of his most impressive metamorphoses yet.

Works Cited

Hirschberg, Lynn. “Adam Driver Couldn’t Wait to Stop Being a Gucci”. W Magazine. 11 January 2022.

Industrial Scripts. “20 Illuminating Noah Baumbach Quotest for Writers and Directors”. 10 February 2023.

Sisley, Dominique. “‘Do I smell?’: 10 minutes with Burberry’s Hero, Adam Driver”. Dazed Digital. 9 November 2022.

Snow, Philippa. “Adam Driver’s appeal as an actor has been mischaracterised. He’s a very modern movie star”. Independent. 30 December 2022.