Driver spoke following a screening of Marriage Story (2019) at the Egyptian Theatre on December 15, 2019. Driver received a Screen Actors Guild award nomination a few days before and already has a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Charlie Barber in the film.
“Charlie the theater director is so used to having control,” Driver said of his character. “Now everything in his life has been upended. He can’t find his new self except through performance.” The process of going through a divorce with his actress wife, played by Scarlett Johansson, and a custody battle over their son, changes Charlie’s perspective - on people he knows, on things he took for granted, on what he wanted his whole life, on what he could have done, on what he lost. He begins to mourn near the end of the film, when he sings Steven Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at a bar for his friends. By the end of the song, Driver feels, Charlie has transformed into someone different.
“He is an excellent communicator, not just with actors, but with everyone on the set,” Driver recalled of working with director Noah Baumbach. “He has such specificity in what he’s after.”
Driver and Baumbach talked socially about the story and characters for many months before the filming. Driver also talked with lawyers, friends, and others who experienced the divorce process. These conversations went into the writing of what Driver described as “tight, lean, high-stakes” dialogue - to make it exciting and interesting to watch.
“The script is so sure, you just have to say it and mean it,” Driver continued. “The people are not somewhere else - they’re right in front of you. The blocking is very choreographed and thought-through. You have to know your lines so well you forget them and are available for relationships.” Then that “conscious and unconscious” part happens, which Driver described as “why I love acting.”
“With good writing, it opens up - the layers,” said Driver. In addition to strong writing, Marriage Story had sets that were so detailed and specific, that Driver didn’t have to go inside for ideas and actions.
“I like lots of rehearsal,” Driver asserted. “It’s like theater. At the end of a play you want to do it again because you finally have a good idea of how to do it.” With lots of takes, you do it many times. “There is no right way to do a scene. No correct version,” he concluded.
He also liked the stress of the long takes Baumbach used in the film, although “sometimes it doesn’t help.” The camera followed the actors to an unusual degree in Marriage Story. Driver recalled only two times that the camera moved independently of the actors.
In reading a script, actors often identify a scene that they see will be particularly challenging to perform. In Marriage Story, Driver felt all of the scenes were like that. “All the scenes were so lean and so raw, they all seemed too early to shoot,” he said. “The fight scene was longer, but all the scenes were that challenging.”
Driver developed the stamina for such an emotionally-demanding film in his unique training which combined Juilliard and the Marines. At Juilliard, he worked from seven in the morning until midnight for four years.
An audience member asked Driver what his favorite part of filming was. “When it’s over,” he replied. “Whenever a job is over, I always want to move on, be over it, because it affects your life in ways you haven’t anticipated,” Driver explained. “It starts taking over everything.” When the movie is done, Driver described an effort to “just try to flush it out of you and go back to real life.”
“We left our families to work with people we are forced to be intimate with for four months—what are we doing?” Driver joked. “We hope to make it interesting and if it’s not, we’ve failed. What a great opportunity to f*ck up!”
Judith Resell, Ph.D. is a volunteer for the American Cinematheque.