Adam Driver’s Best Performance Has Always Been 'Girls'
Don’t deny it, kid.
In the 10 years since Girls premiered on HBO, Adam Driver has become a movie star. He’s played Kylo Ren in Star Wars movies, he’s been nominated for two Oscars, and he’s worked with directors like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Noah Baumbach, the Coen brothers, and Steven Soderbergh. Driver is undeniably the breakout star of the polarizing series — and yet he’s never been able to top the work he did on the show in the decade since it premiered. Adam Driver’s best role has always been, and perhaps always will be, Adam Sackler on Lena Dunham’s Girls.
Adam is, all at once, handsome and ugly, rude and sweet, dopey and incisive, scary and comforting, closed off and emotionally intelligent. You can see all of this in Driver’s very first scene on the show, when Hannah (Dunham) comes over to his apartment for a booty call in the middle of the day after being fired from her internship.
Adam answers the door shirtless — the hugeness of Driver’s body is another thing most directors don’t know what to do with — and quickly makes a joke about Hannah getting fired from being an unpaid intern. “So basically they just asked you to not hang out there anymore,” he asks, letting out a rude laugh at her expense. Then there’s a cut to a close-up of Adam, grinning and looking like an overgrown toddler. He’s got big ears and gaps between his teeth, and he looks genuinely excited to have made his joke. Three minutes later he’s commanding Hannah to get naked and hold her ankles while he goes to get lube. Will he get a condom too? “Iiiii’ll consider it,” he says in a sing-song tone. A star was born.
Over the course of Girls’s six seasons, Driver proved again and again that he was a fount of raw talent, fully committing to every choice he made and elevating every line he was given, even and especially when it surely looked insane on the page. Take the scene in season five where Adam and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) get into an explosive fight about Hannah and Adam yells, “Hannah’s a cunt whether she’s around or not,” before breaking the glass on a framed poster of Seance on a Wet Afternoon.
It’s similar to the much-memed moment in the Oscar-nominated Marriage Story where he punches a wall and tells Scarlett Johansson he wishes she would get hit by a car and die, but angrier and more electric. When it comes to watching Driver punch a hole into something, I’m picking Girls every time.
Driver appeared in 49 of the show’s 60 episodes, and over the course of the series we got to see every possible facet of Adam Sackler. It’s not impossible to do that within the constraints of a two-hour movie, but it is certainly harder and less often the point. Most of Driver’s subsequent (and often very good) performances find him hitting emotional notes he already executed better and more truthfully in Girls. Kylo Ren is not as good of a villain as Adam in his worst moments, and the mopey artists of Marriage Story and Paterson are not as believable as Adam was in his painfully earnest quest to be an actor. The closest he’s ever come to recapturing the magic is in Leos Carax’s Annette, where he is allowed to play yet another unclassifiable bundle of contradictions. That’s Driver’s sweetspot, and he should get to play in that sandbox more.
Lena Dunham, who does not get enough credit for discovering him, immediately saw Driver for what he was. "He was really, powerfully odd," she said on a panel in 2017. "He came into the audition and we were like, 'This guy's a freakin' weirdo.'"
Driver is a freakin’ weirdo. Yes, he’s also a tall, handsome movie star, but his magnetism feels dangerous rather than straightforwardly hunky. His energy and sensibilities lie more closely to Willem Dafoe than George Clooney, which occasionally gets lost in his work with the exclusively male directors he’s worked with in his film career. (His one-note performance in House of Gucci, for example, is a great cautionary tale in what can happen when a movie doesn’t know how to use his strengths.)
What Dunham saw in Driver is that his freak tendencies are where his power lies. Adam was so compelling as a love interest, friend, and guy your friend is dating because you couldn’t quite figure him out — and yet you also couldn’t look away. Underneath that weirdness was a man who felt deeply, one who would run across Brooklyn in the middle of the night to comfort his ex in the midst of an OCD flare-up.
Driver is only 38 years old, it’s entirely possible that at some point in his career he will once again reach the heights of his performance in Girls. A performance that is well-rounded and real, one that makes you unsure if you hate him or love him or want to sleep with him or all three. If his filmography is any indication, this is the job for a female auteur. Your move, Jane Campion.