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Adam Driver gets in touch with spiritual life in ‘Silence’

Adam Driver (left) and Andrew Garfield play Jesuit priests in "Silence." | Paramount Pictures

NEW YORK — Before playing the role of a mid-17th century Portuguese Jesuit priest in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” (opening Friday), Adam Driver let go of some preconceptions about men of the cloth.

“The exciting thing about this project was I didn’t have to worry about the stereotypical image of a priest that I have always had in my mind — that being stoic, measured and always in control,” said Driver.

The actor pointed out that “Silence” is set during an early period in the history of the Jesuits, who had only been founded by Ignatius Loyola merely a century before. “We didn’t have to adhere to our modern image at all, because these men in the film were like pioneers in that particular set of Catholicism. They not only had less creature comforts than most modern priests possess, but they were more aggressive and pioneers in physical ways. They had to exhibit more survival techniques than I have always associated with the clergy.”

In the film, based on Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed novel, Driver’s Father Francisco Garupe and his Jesuit partner, Father Sebastian Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield), set off for Japan in search of their long-missing mentor, Father Christavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who had been on a mission to introduce and spread Christianity in the Asian island nation. Once they arrive in Japan, the two Jesuits learn the government authorities have brutally crushed the emergence of Christianity, which they perceive as a major threat to the country’s Buddhist traditions.

In Driver’s opinion, that campaign to eradicate Catholicism, as taught by the Jesuit missionaries, was as much a political move by the Japanese authorities. “It’s another example of government-sponsored persecution of people, because the Japanese leadership felt the adoption of Christianity would make them lose their own history. So they felt morally justified to root out that so-called problem and destroy in any way they saw fit.”

Acknowledging that “Silence” had been a passion project for Scorsese — in the works for a quarter century — Driver laughed as he admitted agreeing to sign on to the film “was a no-brainer. You get the call from Marty and that’s it! I was thrilled to become involved in this.”

Driver said he was constantly amazed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s approach to moviemaking.

“As has been well-documented, Marty is so generous with his time, when working with everyone involved. But beyond that, I was amazed by his infectious energy — even though he’s been doing this for such a long time. I also was intrigued by how generous he was in sharing his anxiety about making the movie. Some people might perceive that as a weakness to wear that emotion on his sleeve. But I felt that was good for us all to see, considering he has been making films for so long and has accomplished so much. But sharing his anxieties on a daily basis, you got the sense of the battle he was waging to tell the best story he could on each and every day while we were filming.”

Turning himself into Father Garupe took a huge physical toll on Driver. “I basically starved myself for five months,” losing an estimated 50-plus pounds from his already lean frame. “We didn’t know how low I could go, but we went as far as we could. … Afterward, I made up for it and ate a lot!”

Though making a movie that revolves around challenges to the personal faith of the two principal characters — Garupe and Rodrigues — could have had an impact on Driver’s personal spirituality, the actor said that wasn’t the case.

“In the sense you’d think, it didn’t really change my perspective. I was raised Baptist, but it didn’t stick when I got older, as is often the case with many people. … Maybe when I get older I’ll think about it more. I have always been curious about religions, but I’m leery of groups being together in that way. I think persecution and prejudice often comes from people creating dividing lines — the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ concept. I would never want to do anything to encourage that.

“Having said that, I do think faith in what comes next is an ongoing monologue. We all wonder about what happens when we die, but I don’t have any answers.”

This season, Driver also is receiving great critical buzz for “Paterson,” opening Jan. 13 in Chicago and directed and written by Jim Jarmusch. In the movie, an extremely low-key Paterson, New Jersey, bus driver whose name also is Paterson pens poignant poetry in his spare time.

Adam Driver plays a bus driver in “Paterson.” | Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street
Adam Driver plays a bus driver in “Paterson.” | Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

“I love the fact it is such a beautiful, subtle way of telling a gentle story about quote-unquote ordinary people,” Driver said, adding, “I like that we see — especially with the Paterson character — subtle talents like writing poetry, that other people would never imagine he was capable of creating.”

On another subject, the sixth season of Driver’s HBO series “Girls” will premiere Feb. 17, and it will be the series’ last. The end of its decade-long run was “a very bittersweet feeling,” he said. “It not only was a job for me for 10 years, but included becoming very close to people with whom I’ve grown up, in a way. I spent the majority of my 20s with them. But the full impact of the show ending likely won’t hit me until this summer. We always shot in the summer, so that’s likely when it will really hit me.”

Turning finally to a last mention of “Silence,” Driver remembered his first reading of Endo’s 1966 novel. “One of the very first sentences in the translation that I first read made the point about the anguish of faith — the anguish those priests had to experience. That stuck with me throughout the entire filming process. Anguish is a huge part of what those men went through. It’s not an easy life to be a missionary, especially in a hostile environment. It takes enormous fortitude and devotion to faith to remain committed to something as those Jesuits were.”