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As an undercover cop in 'BlacKkKlansman,' Adam Driver takes it personally

As an undercover cop in 'BlacKkKlansman,' Adam Driver takes it personally
Adam Driver played a detective investigating the Klan in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman." (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Promoting Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Adam Driver gave a brief interview saying that, growing up in Indiana, “there were always Klan rallies, like, every summer.”

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A few historians in Indiana pushed back, accusing Driver of indulging in hyperbole … until they checked newspaper archives and discovered that the Klan was active in the St. Joseph County area during Driver’s youth there in the ’90s.

“I heard about that peripherally,” Driver says of the debate. “That I was making it up. It was very strange. Now, I can’t keep track of every summer, but my point was that it was frequent. I didn't understand why it was questioned.”

After winning acclaim playing Lena Dunham’s aloof, intense love interest on HBO’s “Girls,” Driver has fashioned an impeccable film career, working with such giants as Martin Scorsese (“Silence”), Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson”) and the Coen brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”). And, yes, as Kylo Ren, he killed Han Solo in the seventh installment of the ongoing “Star Wars” franchise. (But we still prefer not to think about that.)

In “BlacKkKlansman,” Driver plays Flip, a Jewish detective who partners with a black cop (played by John David Washington) to infiltrate the Klan. We caught up with Driver recently over coffee during a brief stay in Los Angeles.


Director Spike Lee, actors Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman."
Director Spike Lee, actors Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman." (David Lee / Focus Features)

Were you surprised that people expressed skepticism about white supremacists in the Midwest?

I understand that for people in Indiana, there’s a sensitivity about not being painted with a broad brush as being a haven for racists, which it is not. But to say there is no Klan presence throughout Indiana is frustrating. I was always aware of it. In my own neighborhood, there were people down the street from me.

Flip’s complicated relationship with his own faith and heritage is one of the more interesting aspects of the film. Was that part of the appeal of playing him?

Apart from working with Spike, that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to do the film. I love the idea of your heritage becoming important to you at different times in your life. Flip doesn’t internalize his job, maybe to self-preserve. As an actor, I can understand that. But also, as an actor, I know that you have to be invested at a certain point. And when Flip goes undercover and has to say these terrible things out loud, it affects him. I don’t know how it couldn’t. So he has to face those questions. Maybe he has to take it personally and that’s not a bad thing. It’s empowering.

Topher Grace stars as David Duke and Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman."
Topher Grace stars as David Duke and Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman." (David Lee / Focus Features)

You strike me as an actor who takes things personally.

[Laughs] Well … yes and no. The thing about acting is that you’re always up against time, which is frustrating. You have to get it right and then move on. That’s why I try not to watch anything I’ve done because there are so many other possible ways of doing it.

You mentioned the idea of your heritage becoming important to you at different times. You were raised in the Baptist church. Do you still go?

I don’t. I think everyone is looking for something. Maybe someday, I’ll think about that more. Meanwhile, we’re all looking for some kind of explanation of why we’re here, what we are doing. I like the idea of a community hopefully creating something that explains why we do what we do, why we’re terrible to each other, why we’re great to each other. And then it’s over! [Laughs] But in the meantime, there’s coffee and conversation.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in a scene from the movie "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in a scene from the movie "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

You say you try not to watch anything you’ve done. Does that apply to the “Star Wars” movies too?

“Star Wars” is a little different. There’s such a visual thing going on, especially with the first one where they were like, “Trust us. There’s space behind you. Trust us. Your lightsaber looks like this.” So I needed to see how it would come together.

What was it like watching that?

I was very numb. The first time I saw it was with Carrie Fisher and Daisy Ridley and Carrie’s dog, Gary. And you don’t know how to feel. You’ve been working on it for so long and thinking about it for so long. That’s one of the many reasons I try not to watch anything. To really absorb it, I feel like you’ve got to watch it a lot to think that it’s not you there doing it. To look at the story and not just all the mistakes you made. But I was very numb. It was a lot to take in.

Then, I saw it again at the premiere. I had never sat in the audience of a premiere of a movie I was in before. Something like that, because I knew what was coming up, the Han scene, I was very sick to my stomach, very pale, cold, waiting for it just to be over. Then, the response was so nice. It was a very memorable, crazy night.

What about “The Last Jedi”? Did you see that?

I did. I didn’t have to almost puke that time. I feel like I’m making progress.

Adam Driver
Adam Driver (Kirk McKoy / Los Aneles Times)

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