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How Adam Driver transformed into Kylo Ren

Before 2015, Adam Driver was best known to people who could afford HBO as the love/lust interest of Lena Dunham's character in Girls. Now, he's an Oscar nominee, thanks to his role in BlacKkKlansman, but the character that will follow him around forever is a contender for the Star Wars universe's worst son, Kylo Ren.

Driver was actually still working on Girls when he got the call about a meeting with The Force Awakens director J. J. Abrams. Although he'd been a fan of the franchise since he was a kid, when his dad would chase him around wearing a stormtrooper helmet, Driver hesitated before taking on the part. 

This careful consideration fits right in with the public's perception of Driver as "The Serious Actor." His Star Wars castmates and Abrams have all acknowledged that he's very focused, but that it's less about ego and more about work ethic. And it should come as no surprise that Driver took preparing for the role with the appropriate level of seriousness. Here's how Adam Driver transformed into Kylo Ren.

Being a Marine helped in unexpected ways

After trying unsuccessfully to get into Juilliard, and inspired by the patriotism that followed the 9/11 attacks, Adam Driver postponed his acting dreams at 17 to join the Marines. In a TED Talk he gave in 2015, he said, "So after the 11th [of September 2001] and feeling an overwhelming sense of duty, and just being pissed off in general — at myself, my parents, the government — not having confidence, not having a respectable job ... I joined the Marine Corps and I loved it." His career was cut short when he was medically discharged, but fortunately, when he reapplied for Juilliard, he got in. 

Driver's military life came over in Kylo Ren's physicality. "There's something obviously militant about [Kylo Ren] that makes sense. How he responds to things is probably physically quicker than most, because he's on edge — they're at war," he told an interviewer. However, he sees the connection between being a Marine and an actor more in the dynamics on set and in being a team player. As he explained, "My experience from the military was more in the relationships that I formed, and that camaraderie and work ethic and working as a team. There's somebody in charge who knows what they're doing — the director — and when they know what they're doing, what you're doing feels exciting and important, and when they don't, it feels like a waste of time and resources. So that working as a team ... is what I mostly took away from my military experience."

Adam Driver stayed focused on set

One thing everyone thinks they know about Adam Driver is that he's intense on set. While his Star Wars co-stars John Boyega and Daisy Ridley stayed energized by making everyone laugh, Driver has a reputation for being closer to the brooding Kylo Ren in real life. As Boyega put it, "I think when he's on set as Kylo Ren, the Dark Side of the Force likes to capture him sometimes." Star Wars veteran Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself — described Driver as "very moody and intense," suggesting it was part of his technique.

However, Driver says that wasn't his process. He just liked to stay in the zone so he could deliver the less-than-jokey Kylo Ren when they were ready to roll. He told Vulture, "I like to stay focused on set, but it's not because I have a process that I'm imposing on everybody else. Sometimes you have to be more focused in between scenes because ... it's pure comedy in between takes." One way he did that, he said, was by sometimes staying in character as Ren (although he's not totally a method actor). Basically, since he was trying to channel a character who doesn't have a sense of humor, the jokes between castmates had to come second. Co-star Domhnall Gleeson, who as General Hux was also under pressure to stay villainous while everyone else had fun, explained, "There's enough going on already without adding in knock-knock jokes. ... Depending on the day, Adam is hilarious, but he's always good." No rest for the wicked.

He tried to forget about the Star Wars legacy

Starring in a trilogy that continues the plot of one of the most beloved movie franchises of all time comes with an overwhelming amount of pressure, which is why Driver simply tried not to think about it while playing Kylo Ren. Well, at least that's what he did for his first Star Wars movie, 2015's The Force Awakens. "I think in the first one it was more terror — or denying, 'Look, there's the Millennium Falcon.' You're like, 'Er, okay,' and just put it out of your mind and focus on the story," he told an interviewer. 

In a different interview, Driver said that it wasn't just knowing the history of the franchise that added pressure, but also the sheer scale of the project. He said that by the time they went to film 2017's The Last Jedi, "The level of terror, I think, was different. The Force Awakens, I kinda had no idea what the end result is. It was all new, and I'd never worked on anything that size or scale before." Fortunately, when it came time to return to Kylo Ren for the second movie, he felt comfortable enough with the character and the world that he was able to unwind just a little. As he put it, "The second time I just knew more, so whenever you kind of know more, for me, I relax a little bit."

He doesn't see Kylo Ren as a villain

While viewers might consider Kylo Ren's patricide, his siding with the clearly evil Snoke, and his desire for galactic domination — plus the red lightsaber — as obvious signs of villainy, Driver disagrees. He said that while preparing to play Ren, he looked for the character's human side and why he behaves the way he does. "I didn't think of him as a villain. When we were working on it, I tried to — through J.J. [Abrams], hearing what he had to say about him — I tried to hopefully make him as human as possible ... as opposed to an end result, we tried to think of how that person began." 

Driver told Empire that part of the reason for Ren's questionable morals is that he's a fanatic, saying, "When they think of their actions as morally justified, it makes them dangerous and unpredictable. ... I never thought of the character as an evil person." He also lays some of the blame with Ren's parents, Han Solo and General Leia Organa, and their obsession with the Rebellion's cause, which Ren didn't connect with. "Looking around and not seeing yourself and not identifying with what's around you, I think, affects how we behave," Driver told Entertainment Weekly. It helps that Driver sees himself as being closer to the Dark Side. "I live in the Dark Side," he once joked. "Constantly reminding ourselves that we're all going to die soon."

He thought young to play the impetuous Kylo Ren

For the thoughtful, serious Adam Driver, playing a character who's prone to fits of rage amounting to lightsaber-enabled temper tantrums meant tuning in to a certain mindset. First of all, Driver has said that he views Kylo Ren as being young, impetuous, and driven by strong convictions that aren't entirely rational. 

In an official behind-the-scenes interview, he said, "It's the first person that I've actually played that's younger than I am, which was ... something that was in Rian's [Johnson] writing innately, of someone who's almost, not becoming a man, necessarily, but becoming more entrenched in his ideas. ... Something about the youthfulness of him was not lost in Rian's writing." When first getting the script, Driver could see that Ren was at that point of early adulthood when he had to decide who he wanted to be and where his place was in the world, so when playing him, he moved beyond his own measured demeanor to show Ren's less mature, more impulsive attitude.

Given Driver's supposedly stony-faced temperament, you'd think it would've been pretty easy for him to access anger to channel into Ren's explosive outbursts. But when a journalist asked him how he found his way to that dark place emotionally, his refreshingly funny response revealed a source of rage that many of us will recognize. "I just think about taxes and traffic, and then I'm there," he joked. Even Ren resents the long arm of the IRS.

He's not a fan of the greenscreen

Even the finest theater school can't prepare you for every acting challenge, and Driver struggled with one major aspect of playing Kylo Ren: the greenscreen. He told Seth Meyers that it was hard to get into character as the leader of a universally feared army when all he could see was a sand-covered warehouse. "You're standing in front of the screen, and they're like, 'Trust us, your lightsaber is working,' or 'There's space behind you, it looks really cool,'" Driver said. "When you're standing in a rainy backlot, it doesn't seem very impressive. You don't feel like you're commanding anybody — other than sticks and ping pong balls."

One thing that helped Driver better connect to Ren's world was actually watching the final product. Driver has said that normally he doesn't watch movies he's in, as it makes him feel too self-conscious, and it interferes with his ability to embody his character in the moment. However, he made an exception for Star Wars because he wanted to see what Ren was experiencing while Driver was talking to ping pong balls. He told Esquire, "Part of the impulse in wanting to see it is because there is so much visual s**t going on that I didn't know what was happening." He added that seeing The Force Awakens helped him understand that world and reassured him that he was on the right track — to the extent that he was undecided about whether to see The Last Jedi. (Ultimately, he did.)

Driver had to figure out the costume

The first item on any Dark Side warrior's checklist is an intimidating mask — even if it's more about inspiring fear than for life support. While Kylo Ren's mask positions him in a long line of Star Wars villains from his very first scene, Driver found that the headgear was more of a hindrance than a help when it came to transforming into his character. He even described the costume as the hardest part of returning to the role for The Last Jedi, saying that working with the mask specifically is challenging because it limits his vision. "But I think it's a beautiful mask," he told Screen Slam.

Despite the physical difficulties, the costume was a big factor in helping Driver get his head around the requirements of the role. He said his first costume fitting "was the first time [he] was like, Oh my God, this is Star Wars." He felt that the mask specifically helped him understand and convey Ren's internal conflict. The costume department carefully decided which characters wore masks, because they didn't want the looks to feel derivative of the original movies. Driver said that Ren's reason for wearing one is that he's trying to hide his insecurities about living up to Darth Vader. He told GQ, "The person Kylo's pretending to be on the outside is not who he is. He's a vulnerable kid who doesn't know where to put his energy, but when he puts his mask on, suddenly, he's playing a role."

Getting Kylo Ren's voice right was a process

In order to make Kylo Ren work as a character, Driver had to find a voice that was full of barely concealed rage but without being laughable. He worked with the sound team to come up with the robotic voice that would come from under the mask. Sound editor Matthew Wood said, "I actually came up with a process to allow Adam Driver to be very method about it, and hear what his mask was sounding like while he was performing. We'd bring him into the studio ... and he could get right up on the microphone and get really creepy about his process and hear it." 

It wasn't just Driver and Wood who had to be happy. Wood said that J.J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, "really wanted people to feel it. He wanted that organic process, and he wanted Kylo Ren's mask to portray that sort of intimidation."

However, once on set, Abrams apparently changed his mind about the voice they'd worked on. Driver's co-star Oscar Isaac, aka fighter pilot Poe Dameron, recalled that the first scene both actors shot together was a torture scene. Isaac said that after the first take, Abrams came over and asked Driver to "maybe try something different." Isaac then added, speaking to Driver, "And you started pacing back and forth, freaking out about the voice." Fortunately, after that false start, Driver was able to give Ren the appropriate level of menace.

He bulked up for that shirtless scene

As a 6'3" former Marine, Driver was no stranger to the physicality required of a Force-wielding soldier, but he hit the gym to prepare for the role. And contrary to those myths about his intensity on set (which other castmates have dispelled), he made some friends. Shane Finn, who owned the gym in Kerry, Ireland, where Driver trained for The Last Jedi, described the actor as "one of the nicest guys I've had in here," and said that Driver made an effort to thank the staff and ask for recommendations. 

Driver's hard work paid off, inspiring The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson to introduce a shirtless scene that quickly became a talking point. Speaking with W magazine, Johnson said, "He knew he looked good. Adam looks so damn good because he'd been training hardcore for the past six months for those fight scenes. I'm like, 'Eh. He looks so good. We should put him up there.'" 

The shirtless scene lived on even after the movie finally left cinemas, thanks to a viral idea that came to be known as the Kylo Ren Challenge. Fans, internet lurkers and John Mayer posted photos of themselves shirtless, but wearing the kind of eyebrow-raising, high-waisted pants Driver wore for the scene, posting themselves with the hashtag #KyloRenChallenge. 

Adam Driver loved lightsaber training

Of course, the greatest part about being in Star Wars is getting to play — er, fight — with lightsabers. And Kylo Ren's red sword, with its plasma crossguard, has already become one of the franchise's most iconic. Driver said that this generation of Star Wars actors have had the privilege of working with the best lightsabers yet. "This is the first time that we're actually fighting with the whole lightsaber too," he told The Telegraph. "Before it was just the hilt with [something] like an antenna or a green stick, but this was state of the art — it actually sends off light."

Driver's commitment to lightsaber training earned his co-stars' respect. Daisy Ridley said, "I was watching Adam, and he gives it so full-out every single time." Driver added, "It's rigorous, in a great way, and these stunt guys are very disciplined so you can't half-ass it." 

Luckily for the cast, mastering the moves for The Force Awakens made getting ready for The Last Jedi feel more familiar, if not exactly easy. Speaking with Screen SlamDriver said, "The first one, I feel like the vocabulary of the fighting style that we were kind of going with, we were coming at totally fresh. Because we started [Last Jedi] almost a month after we finished The Force Awakens, that kind of vocabulary was still in our bodies, so it made things easier, a little bit faster. But the rigor of doing it was maybe more intense for this one."