This week, the Daily Beast reported that—during an NPR interview about the Noah Baumbach drama Marriage Story—Adam Driver walked out of the studio and didn’t come back after Fresh Air host Terry Gross played a clip from the movie. Driver has not commented on the walkout, but he has spoken frequently about his discomfort over watching or listening to his own performances.
The public response to Driver’s abrupt cancellation has been split between scorn and you-go-guy celebration. Gossip blogger Perez Hilton called him “such a diva.” “Grow up,” tweeted Decider editor Mark Graham (who also chided Gross). “Take the headphones off and promote your movie,” Soledad O’Brien scolded.
His defenders, meanwhile, seem keen to offer exculpation via diagnosis. Actress Jameela Jamil speculated that he might have “anxiety or a phobia.” Writer and activist Charlotte Clymer warned, “We shouldn’t stigmatize mental health” by criticizing Driver. Monica Lewinsky, who walked out of a Fresh Air interview in 1999 when Gross asked her graphic questions, tweeted that “SELF-CARE IS ALWAYS AN OK CHOICE.”
There’s ample evidence that Driver really, really doesn’t enjoy reliving his own performances. In a recent profile in the New Yorker, Michael Schulman described Driver’s aversion as a strong preference dating back years. Gross herself knew this. In a 2015 Fresh Air interview to promote another Baumbach movie, While We’re Young, Driver took off his headphones in the studio while Gross played a clip of Driver in a scene with Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller. “I’ve watched myself or listened to myself before, then always hate it,” he told her. “And then wish I could change it, but you can’t.” He never goes back and watches his old performances, he said. He enjoys the process of acting, and then surrenders control and mentally moves on. The Daily Beast reported that Fresh Air producers invited Driver to remove his headphones again in the 2019 interview, but instead he walked out.
It sure sounds like he doesn’t want to hear himself perform. But what if Driver isn’t clinically anxious or phobic but is simply … an eccentric guy who is reluctant to play by the rules of the Hollywood publicity machine? In my view, that’s refreshing. Which is a more iconic moment: When Marlon Brando graciously accepted an Academy Award in 1955, or when he dramatically rejected it 18 years later?
Yes, Driver could have taken off his headphones instead of walking out. He could have “grown up.” Such unpredictability may annoy colleagues and PR people and journalists, but the stakes could hardly be lower. The interview wasn’t live. There’s no indication that Driver yelled at anyone or was otherwise unpleasant. Driver missed out on an opportunity to promote his movie, but Marriage Story has hardly gone unpromoted elsewhere. Fresh Air producers probably had a stressful few days, but it worked out: They ended up airing a rerun of an interview with Conan O’Brien. Everything was fine.
For what it’s worth, directors who have worked with Driver seem largely sympathetic to his process. “I think he’s rightly concerned that he would become conscious of himself in a way that would be harmful to his acting,” Steven Soderbergh told Schulman. In this view, Driver is trying to preserve a certain unselfconsciousness that he considers important to his process and his product. If so, it’s working. Driver has become a household name within just a few years, has played a huge range of meaty roles with top directors, and has been nominated for almost every major award. Even as he promotes Marriage Story, he is starring in an obscure indie movie called Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that arrives in theaters this weekend.
But Driver’s defenders who want to diagnose him with anxiety or a phobia seem to be missing the point. And we don’t have to reduce Driver to “self-care icon,” as NBC News put it. His aversion to watching himself on screen might not be a pathology, or some deep internal struggle worthy of our pity. It might just be a thing. My view is that we should welcome it when artists are a little weird and unpredictable, when they push back against the demands of relentless promotional cycles and insatiable fan cohorts. (It’s relevant, perhaps, that Driver concealed the birth of his son from the public for two years after his birth.) Relentless normalcy is boring. Bring on the divas with their superstitions and quirks and strange routines. Not all stars need to be “just like us.”