Girls star Adam Driver isn’t in the new Coen brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, for long, but boy, does he leave an impression, popping up unexpectedly in a recording-studio scene where our folk-singer protagonist Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) must add his pipes to a dorky pop song called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” As Llewyn sings backup alongside a guitar-strumming frenemy played by Justin Timberlake, Driver’s cowboy-hatted character adds unexpected exclamations at the end of last line, bellowing “Uh-oh!” and “Owooot!” to punctuate every croon. Whether or not you agree that it’s the most magically amazing scene of the year (but you will agree, because it is), you have to at least acknowledge that Driver’s curveball comic timing makes him a perfect fit for the Coen brothers’ unique sensibility. Last weekend in Los Angeles, Vulture sat down with Driver to find out how it all came together and how he’s feeling now that he’s wrapped the upcoming third season of Girls.
You recently performed “Please Mr. Kennedy” onstage at an Inside Llewyn Davis concert in New York. What was that like for you?
Oh yeah, I did it with Elvis Costello. That was all very surreal. Patti Smith was there — that was the big one for me. It’s wildly intimidating, because it’s not my world. I think all the actors backstage were like “Jesus fucking Christ!” and all the musicians were just cool as cucumbers. One of the best parts was that there were all these impromptu jam sessions happening backstage, because no one could sit idle, so you have Jack White playing with the Punch Brothers, and it’s, like, fucking crazy. Sorry, I’m cursing.
I know that Justin and T-Bone Burnett and the Coen brothers rewrote “Please Mr. Kennedy,” since it was based on an actual song from the 60s. Did you audition with it?
There was a different version that they had for the audition — the original song was just on the Internet, and then they made their own version of it. It very much evolved. They had an idea for it, and then everyone sort of met for pre-records in the studio, and that was all very surreal.
You’d never done that sort of thing before, I take it.
No, not at all. I don’t think I had ever even walked into a studio before. And then it’s myself and Justin Timberlake and Oscar and then looking up, there’s T-Bone, and the Punch Brothers are coming in and out, and Marcus Mumford is there, and we’re all in a circle trying to figure out this song. It was fucking crazy, what was happening. I think the only good thing I did was surrender control completely to everyone around me, since I felt they were far more qualified. I was just trying to be there and to enact the best version of what they wanted.
Is it ever daunting to get thrown into the deep end with these pros from a totally different field than what you’re used to?
I try to approach it like everything else. I think there’s something masochistic in actors anyway — they enjoy that feeling like, “Okay, everything in my body is telling me that I should run away and cry and vomit, but I’m going to suppress all those impulses and try to be focused.” You get some kind of sick pleasure from that.
Does that make you a less inhibited person in real life, to have gone through those experiences while acting?
Maybe for some people it does, but for me, it doesn’t. I feel just as inhibited! That’s the good thing about getting to work on things like this in film and theater, that you have an avenue to put all that energy into. You get to channel those impulses that aren’t really appropriate in life.
You guys tend to wrap a season of Girls before it actually starts airing. Do you watch it when it’s on TV?
No, no, no. I did watch the pilot with Lena, like, four months or so after we shot it, when we’d just found out that it was picked up. I watched it on her laptop in her apartment.
You don’t tend to watch the things you’re in?
No, definitely not. I watched Inside Llewyn Davis because I wanted to see the music, but it gets a little absurd. And that’s something that I have to figure out, because … take Lincoln. I haven’t seen Lincoln.
But you’re hardly in it!
I know. The movie’s not called Samuel Beckwith the Telegraph Operator, it’s called Lincoln. But it still hasn’t really sunk in that I was in that movie, and there was something about watching it that I’m just not ready for. With Girls, after I saw the pilot, I was like, “There’s no way I can watch the rest of this series, especially if it continues to go on,” because I feel like there’s an impulse to try to make it look better or neater or more perfect, and when I watch theater, television, movies, it’s always the imperfection I’m always more attracted to. And I feel like with the things I’m in that I have watched, I go into a spiral and obsess about all the mistakes I made. Even with the pilot — there are so many mistakes I wish I would have changed, but you know, you just can’t. I’ll drive myself crazy and the people around me crazy for months, just thinking about it.
If you have trouble watching yourself onscreen, how do you deal with all those Gap billboards you’re on right now?
That’s all very surreal, too! I didn’t do it to get on those billboards — I had very sentimental feelings about the Gap, actually. There was a Gap across the street from me at Juilliard when I first moved to the city and I didn’t have any money, and they have the clearance section with all the shirts that you normally can’t afford. That’s where I got this suit jacket that I wore for five years until my wife eventually was like, “You have to get rid of that. It’s lost all its shape.” So when that ad campaign came up, I was like, “Oh yes, of course I’ll do it! That seems like a no-brainer to me.” But I didn’t really process that when they said “global campaign,” that actually meant that it would be around the planet. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I never would have seen myself doing something like that. So it’s been interesting.
Do you engage with any of the critical discussion about Girls? Or are you even aware of it?
I hear about it through people, basically. Through friends. I don’t really follow it online so much. I find it’s not helpful to really get involved. People have such strong opinions about things, and it’s good to be involved in something that strikes a chord with people — I mean, who doesn’t want to be involved in something like that as an actor — but I don’t think it’s really helpful as far as creating it. So I try to keep somewhat pleasantly aloof.
Can you feel the residue of past performances in you, or do you shake them off once you finish?
I’m not sure. Obviously, if I watched them all, I’d be like, “Oh, fuck.” And you notice habits that you try to break as much as possible. But it’s interesting — we had to do additional photography for a movie I did four months after we’d shot it, and I forgot how much that character was a part of my life, because I had lived with him for a long time. That’s a very ambiguous answer to your question, but I feel like you try to be there as much as possible when you’re on set, and then as soon as it’s done, you try to divorce yourself from it as quickly as possible.
So there aren’t any fingerprints still left from your Law & Order: SVU stint opposite Gilbert Gottfried?
Oh, that one permeates everything. [Laughs.]