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What it means to call Adam Driver a leading man

Adam Driver isn’t a weird leading man. He’s a traditional one.

Adam Driver attends the 31st annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on January 2, 2020, in Palm Springs, California.
Rich Fury/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Adam Driver is having his moment.

Seven years after emerging as the “murder-y in a sexy way” love interest on Girls, Driver currently stars in both Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, one of the biggest blockbuster movie events of the year, and in Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s critically acclaimed intimate divorce drama. Earlier this fall, you could catch Driver in The Report; if you were in New York last spring, you could have seen him on Broadway in Burn This. With Rise of Skywalker, Driver has brought in millions; for Marriage Story, he’s already earned multiple awards and award nominations, and he appears to be on track to score an Oscar nomination later this month.

Driver’s rise to superstardom was rapid. In 2012, he debuted on Girls as Hannah’s “murder-y in a sexy way” boyfriend. That same year, he delivered supporting roles in Spielberg’s Lincoln and Baumbach’s Frances Ha, followed by another supporting role in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013. And then, in 2015, came his turn as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens — and the birth of Adam Driver, major movie star. But Driver did not immediately parlay his new cred toward blockbuster franchises, à la the Chrises. He kept doing prestige work, and in 2019, earned his first Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in BlacKkKlansman.

Now, Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeed News has declared Driver potentially the best actor of his generation. Martin Scorsese agrees. As we begin 2020, the Adam Driver narrative has become so strong that even not having any opinion on him at all has become a bold contrarian stance. “Adam Driver does not elicit a strong reaction from me,” confessed Pajiba’s Kate Hudson in an essay titled, “What’s the Deal with All the Adam Driver Discourse?

Driver has a reputation for being a little weird, a little left of center; he’s seen as an antidote to Hollywood’s cookie-cutter action stars. But between the blockbuster credibility, the awards buzz, and the cultural discourse, Driver has officially arrived as that most beloved and generic of creatures: a white leading man in Hollywood at the beginning of his career’s peak.

Writing about leading men tends to focus on their quirks. But it’s their perfections that are really interesting.

Essays about white leading men tend to be dull, because to be a white leading man means to be a blank subject. By their nature, whiteness and masculinity work to render themselves invisible, so that what they modify we experience as a default, unraced and ungendered. And white male movie stars express an ideal of white masculinity so perfectly that we can see no effort or labor in their performance: We see only an ideal of a white man, by which we generally mean an ideal of a human being. A perfect white leading man is a figure whom we are all being taught to want to be.

Stories about leading men tend to dwell on the leading man’s artistic idiosyncrasies, his weirdness. By saying that the white men we use as stand-ins for all of humanity are off-kilter, it’s as though we can trick ourselves into thinking that our ideals are intriguingly subversive, rather than monolithic and unvaried. “He’s a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body” is a phrase that has been applied to nearly every A-list white leading man of the past few decades, including Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Reynolds, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert Downey, Jr. It is a phrase so ubiquitous, it has become clear that what we actually want from our leading men — part of the ideal we ask them to express — is at least a pretense at the originality, the artistic integrity and quirkiness, that we ascribe to character actors, the leading man’s less-beautiful counterpart. We want our leading men to feel new, even primordial. We want them to be what the New Yorker called Driver: “the original man.”

Accordingly, essays about white leading men tend to minutely catalog fine degrees of variance among their subjects. But even these variants have their clichés, their codifying rules. Is this white leading man more of a Cary Grant, or is he more of a Jimmy Stewart? Is he suave, or is he nice, or is he intellectual? Is he debonair, or athletic, or brooding, or dangerous?

But what the obsession with tiny variances actually asks is: In what capacities are this leading man’s perfections most perfect? And how can we learn to follow in his footsteps?

For that reason, what is most interesting in the conversation surrounding any white leading man is not his strangeness, not the much-lingered-on details that ostensibly show how he fails to measure up to an ideal. In fact, it is the ways in which he expresses that ideal perfectly. Because there, stars like Driver show us exactly what our current ideals are. He shows us what we want to be, and what we are afraid we can never be.

Adam Driver is not a “weird” leading man. He’s just a leading man.

Adam Driver signs autographs for fans at the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival

People who love Adam Driver will often say they love him because he is weird. He carries that slight quirkiness we demand of our leading men literally on his face, which has just enough distance from the symmetrical ideal of classical handsomeness: If you wanted to describe it as “the face of a character actor,” you could, but it’s also not a stretch for people to find him attractive. His acting has an intensity that is not quite traditional. He will talk about how he devours six eggs and a whole chicken every day in interviews. He reportedly walked out on one sit-down with NPR’s Terry Gross because he could not stand to listen to a recording of himself acting, and Gross’s producer’s offer to let him take off his headphones while the clip played was apparently not enough. He is safely, intriguingly strange, in a way that has already led to multiple writers opining that, if you think about it, Driver really is a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body.

But Driver’s weirdness is not the thing that makes him a bankable, awards-worthy, buzzy success. The thing that makes Driver a successful public figure is also what makes him an ideal. His most winning quality is his ability to perform physical strength and both intellectual and artistic rigor.

In Petersen’s study of Driver’s star image, she notes that much of that image can be essentially encapsulated in a line from a director who talked to GQ about Driver in 2014: He’s “a fucking Marine who went to Juilliard.” This is the thread to which Driver profiles return again and again: that he enlisted in the Marines after 9/11, and after he received a medical discharge three years later, he auditioned for Juilliard and got in.

There is an enormous amount of aspiration packed into those two facets of the Driver mythology. Our idea of Driver is a Marine, meaning that all those muscles aren’t just for show but are useful, that he is the ideal of man as a virile warrior. And our idea of Driver is a Juilliard-trained actor, meaning he isn’t just a pretty-boy action star but a real actor, that he takes his craft seriously, that he is the ideal of man as a soulful artist.

What we’re asking Driver to do, essentially, is solve the mind-body problem. We are asking him to convince us that men can be warriors and artists, that they can be both strong and smart, that they can achieve excellence with both their minds and their bodies. And to the extent that he can convince us of as much, we continue to reward him.

Adam Driver is not famous because he is weird. He is famous because he is what we want to be and what we fear we never will be. And so the only thing we can do with him is project him onto a screen, glowing and larger than life, and project ourselves into all that we have asked him to symbolize.

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