When posters for Broadway’s revival of Burn This started heating up New York’s chilly subway stations earlier this winter, stars Adam Driver and Keri Russell, snuggling, entangled, staring holes, seemed a sort of inevitable pairing. Both looked incredible, and he was arriving in step with his Oscar nomination for Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, she a Golden Globe nominee for her still-fresh-in-the-mind final season of The Americans. And both would be appearing in the next installment of Star Wars, no less. If theater marketing had gods, somewhere they were smiling.
The buzzy ad campaign proved both effective and prophetic: The revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1987 drama, directed by Michael Mayer and co-starring David Furr and Brandon Uranowitz, is easily one of the hottest newcomers this Broadway season, pulling in the type of weekly box office – $768,766 for the week ending April 21, the most recent numbers available – that are more typically associated with tourist-friendly musicals than serious plays. The opening on April 16 was met with mostly good reviews, particularly for Driver. “There are two rampaging simians running amok across the Broadway stage these days,” wrote the National Review. “One is King Kong and the other is Adam Driver.” That’s a rave for Driver, in case you were wondering.
In Burn This, Driver plays Pale, the estranged brother of the recently deceased Robbie, a gay dancer killed with his lover in a boating accident. Into the downtown Manhattan lives of Robbie’s artistic, grieving friends arrives the working-class, coke-sniffing, epithet-spewing, maybe, they fear, even violent Pale, a force that seems as strong and destructive as the hurricanes he so admires. Grief has immobilized Robbie’s roommates – Anna (Russell), also a dancer but wanting to choreograph, and Larry (Uranowitz) a frustrated ad man (and, as a character, a precursor to the witty, single gay best pal that, post-’87, would become ubiquitous). And then there’s Burton (Furr), Anna’s wealthy, writer boyfriend who loves her more than she loves him, and for whom Pale will threaten all.
When Deadline spoke to Driver recently – about the play, his co-star, his career – the title of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hadn’t been disclosed, and Driver wasn’t about to do the disclosing. But we had to ask.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: You’ve done this play before, so what’s different? Let’s start there.
Adam Driver: Well, I did it in college as kind of a last-year project. They picked the play for you, and cast you, and doing the play means four performances of it or something like that. You can say this about all well-written plays – four performances isn’t enough. You’re just saying the lines, basically, and making sure that they’re in the right order. We didn’t even scratch the surface. And I was also, like, 23 or something, and had no idea, really, what I was saying. I mean, I had an idea, but now I’m, sadly, the actual age of the character, so it just kind of changes your perspective in ways that I don’t think I’ve quite articulated for myself, nor felt the need to I guess, really.
This production is coming at an incredible time in your career. You were nominated for an Oscar, you have a little movie called Star Wars coming up, and between the two is Burn This. There must be something about the play that spoke to you, for you to put it into this particular spot. What was that?
Well, it was a lot of things. I’ll try to keep the answer short, but it was just a lot of stars aligning. On a technical level, there are not a lot of really great plays in a single setting, that are character driven. It has all these great ideas, all these great characters. I have this non-profit [Arts in the Armed Forces, cofounded with wife Joanne Tucker] where we perform contemporary American plays for a military audience, and there’s limited rehearsal so we try to pick material that’s urgent, and sometimes aggressive, and all the characters feel like they’re desperate to say something, and that kind of energy I was kind of missing. I hadn’t done a play in a long time, but if something came up again that felt that urgent, like you just have to get it out, that every line in the play could be yelled, because there are people that are exorcising something that, there’s just not a lot of plays that are like that. And Burn This is certainly that.
And all the themes of the play, this idea of loss and grief, you know, when it was originally written in the ‘80s, obviously this is Lanford’s AIDS play, and that idea of something beautiful just gone, and not being able to process it.
There’s also something that I think is really beautiful that’s articulated in this play really well, about work, and process. [Actress Tanya Berezin], who owns the rights to Lanford’s plays, has this great story about Lanford and Tennessee Williams, who were working together on something, and in an interview they asked Lanford, “It’s so great that you’re working with Tennessee Williams, you guys kind of have a similar writing style,” or something to that effect, and Lanford was, like, “no, no, no, no, Tennessee writes about sex, and I write about work.” The more we work on Burn This, yes, it has this beautiful theme of loss and people with their acquired family and their genetic family, but it’s also a play about artists, in the room, talking about process.
The characters are all kind of on the precipice of maybe doing something good. Anna, with her relationship with Pale and maybe the grief over Robbie, is creating her first really adult dance piece. Burton, at the end of the play, says, “I’ve never lost before,” and he’s wanting to write something epic, but doesn’t know how, and maybe Lanford is saying that it just takes so much. It has to cost you something to create something beautiful. This idea of Robbie, who was a constant workhorse, just obsessed with work and no one saw that, his family missed it, and to take that away from him is like taking away his identity.
And Pale is constantly, he works all the time, and you know, he thinks he could have been a composer and compose these tome poems, and concertos, but that didn’t go anywhere. And that’s a kind of loss. All these…this is a long answer, but there are so many different reasons why I did this play, why I wanted to live it for four or five months, you know, and just keep exploring it because all these great, well-written plays constantly are teaching you something.
Yes. Now, Pale…
It gives you something to explore, I guess, not necessarily teaches you something…
You said the characters are all on the precipice of doing something good, but at the end of the play, Pale quits his job as a restaurant manager to become a bartender. Does his trajectory fit with the others?
I don’t think he’s defeated. I don’t think him quitting is taking a step back. If anything, it’s a step forward. He’s working less hours. He’s open to the world more. He’s seeking more balance. For the first time, he’s changing everything, and that’s scary. Everybody’s on the precipice of moving, longing for a better, different life, and I think they all go for it.
You said this was Lanford Wilson’s AIDS play, and yet AIDS is never mentioned in Burn This. I’m wondering if you and the rest of the cast, and your director, explored why Lanford made that decision.
Well, I’m quoting what he said, when he was asked, is this your AIDS play he said, yes, it was. That’s a theme, but we can’t really play that. It’s something that was discussed, but it’s not an active, actionable thing to play. You can’t play an idea. But the idea of loss, of suddenly having all these beautiful men gone, and these characters not being able to process it, and so they start maybe acquiring strangers because of that loss. Loss can be a powerful bond, and that we definitely discussed.
How did this production come about for you?
I think I was approached by my agent, who kind of spearheaded this thing. If I’m remembering it correctly, and I think I am, I talked with Michael [Mayer, director] on the phone, and I was of course familiar with the play, and we talked about timing, and seeing if we were on the same page creatively. And that was kind of it. Two years ago, I think, when we first started…
So there really was no way you could have foreseen where your career would be. I’m wondering how actors make these decisions – “I need to do a play now because I just did this movie and I’m about to do this movie…”
No. Nothing is carefully planned, unfortunately. I wish I had more of a plan, but I mean, not to be all cavalier about it, but no. This was two years ago, and I was anxious to do a play again, but it wouldn’t work out, schedule-wise, for the two years. They were patient with me. I always loved this play, I love Lanford’s plays, so obviously it was important to me, and so we just kind of winged it. But no, there was no master plan, like, Now it’s important that I do something different….
When did Keri Russell come aboard? You knew her before this, I think.
Yeah. I know Matthew Rhys, her partner. I did a play with him. That was the last play I did, Look Back in Anger, so I knew Keri through Matthew. I think she came – someone else will probably know the timeline better – but I feel like last year?
So the coincidence of you two appearing in the next Star Wars, that was just…
Star Wars wasn’t a reality then. This pre-dated Star Wars, and then Keri got involved. Most of this stuff is coincidental.
[A publicist says Driver’s time for the interview is running out…]
You have to leave in a few minutes, so I need to think of something I really want to ask you. Let’s see. Well, you can’t tell me the title of the next Star Wars, can you, or…?
So you haven’t really wanted to ask me all these other questions?
I have, really. I saw the play last night and could spend another 45 minutes asking you about it and your choices, like the scene where you start crying, that first really powerful cry, and where that came from…
Are you seriously asking me this?
Sure, I’m seriously asking you this. How do you dredge that up, where does something like that come from?
You know, I don’t know. It’s not really a thing that I’ve really sat down to articulate. There’s a theme of opera, of music, that is all throughout the play, where I talk about classical music, and Vivaldi, and Puccini, and the Flying Dutchman and Senta throwing herself into the sea, and Burton wants to create something big, larger than life. These people are smaller than life, and Pale comes in and says he likes hurricanes, things that can amaze you. The other characters are people desperate to live big lives in order to feel something, and Pale comes into their world. He’s not embarrassed by having a feeling, or by expressing it.