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Scorsese's newest star, Adam Driver

NEW YORK - Adam Driver - the tall, lanky actor who has Lena Dunham's Girls and Noah Baumbach's While We're Young on his resumé - is invited to Martin Scorsese's house to discuss a new project.

Adam Driver as Father Garupe in "Silence."
Adam Driver as Father Garupe in "Silence."Read moreKerry Brown

NEW YORK - Adam Driver - the tall, lanky actor who has Lena Dunham's Girls and Noah Baumbach's While We're Young on his resumé - is invited to Martin Scorsese's house to discuss a new project.

It's late 2013. Driver shows up at the famous filmmaker's home - the actor is too much of a gentleman to reveal the neighborhood, but an Architectural Digest spread puts Scorsese's 1860s townhouse on a tree-lined street on Manhattan's Upper East Side - and the two men, one starting out his career, the other showing no signs of letting up as he hits his 70s, talk Silence.

The film, set in the 17th century and opening Friday at the Ritz East, follows two Jesuit priests from Portugal on an arduous journey to and through Japan in search of a missing mentor rumored to have repudiated his faith under fierce pressure from anti-Christian government authorities.

Scorsese has been trying to make the movie for almost 20 years. Now he has the financing. And his cast is coming together: Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira, the vanished possible apostate; Andrew Garfield as one of the two young clerics, Sebastiao Rodrigues.

And Driver, perhaps, for the other priest, Francisco Garrpe?

"It was a Friday evening, and we talked for a couple of hours," Driver said, sitting in a Central Park South hotel last month, flashing back to his meeting with the director of Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull.

"The only thing that I did right was not talk a lot - because when he starts sentences like, 'When we were working on King of Comedy,' it seems like the smartest thing to do is just listen.

"And we talked about Silence a little bit," Driver said. "He told me about his relationship with the project and asked what did I get out of the script. And the theme, the anguish of faith, is something that I understood.

"I was raised in a religious household, as Baptists" - Driver's father and stepfather were ministers - "so I understood the concept of guilt. Not that you have to be raised around religion to understand guilt. But I understood the themes and the story, but also definitely thought of it as a metaphor towards any kind of faith, towards any relationship, or anything that you've committed your life to.

"At the end of the evening, I didn't know if I had the job. I thought it was just a meeting. But then he said, 'Do you want to do this?' and I was like, 'Yeah, I do.' And that was kind of it."

As Driver was leaving, he was introduced to Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime editor, who was in the editing room, putting the final touches on The Wolf of Wall Street.

"Meeting her was also surreal because she's a legend," Driver said. And then he walked home - downtown, across the Brooklyn Bridge, to the apartment he shared with his wife, Joanne Tucker, whom he met when both were in the theater program at Juilliard.

"It was a long walk, a good walk. I just couldn't believe that it worked out. I was very excited. And then the anxiety set in: 'I better not mess this up.' "

Driver, 33, is refreshingly, revealingly, still full of anxiety and self-doubt when it comes to his job. This despite the fact that his career has literally gone galactic.

A year and a few weeks ago, the Indiana-raised kid who enlisted in the Marines after high school, and then got accepted into Juilliard to study theater, showed up as one of the principal players in a little release called Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Driver will be back as Kylo Ren, son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, grandson of Darth Vader, in December 2017's Star Wars: Episode VIII. His turn in Scorsese's epic Silence has garnered raves. His quiet and shambling collaboration with Jim Jarmusch, Paterson - about a bus driver in Paterson, N.J., whose name is Paterson and whose quiet passion for poetry fills his soul - opens Jan. 13 in Philadelphia. It's a gem.

Driver has made movies with Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and the Coen brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis). His Girls character, the self-involved but somehow beguiling carpenter and actor Adam Sackler, is a complicated dude, both loved and reviled by fans of the HBO series. It's a portrayal that landed him three consecutive Emmy nominations. Films with Steven Soderbergh and Terry Gilliam are forthcoming.

"All the time, all the time" is the actor's response when I ask whether he's still subject to bouts of uncertainty about his craft - and it's a response that does not smack of disingenuousness or false modesty.

"You're doing scenes and you're thinking, I'm not getting it right - if there is such a thing as getting it right. I'm not telling the story effectively. This is not the stance that I wanted to be in doing this. The physical life is wrong. I've made a wrong choice that is actually about me, as opposed to telling the story. I didn't diplomatically argue my point enough about this thing, so now it's gone, and we can't go back to that moment. It screws things up. You know, I got the accent wrong, this is not a subtle Portuguese, this is like, Australian. Or whatever. This person doesn't like me. Now I'm thinking about that as opposed to just being present in the scene.

"There's a constant monologue of doubt in your mind, of second-guessing yourself. Or the projects you pick, you start thinking that maybe they aren't as effective as you thought they were going to be. It's filled with - like, Do I really want to do this? Do I want to commit my life to this? Yeah, I feel that constantly."

How does he work through all that and focus on the role, on Father Garrpe, on Paterson?

"I don't know. You just have to ride out that emotion," he said. "Or sometimes, maybe, you get tired and move on, or you have a great support system around you who tell you you're right, or you're wrong, and that's encouraging.

"I find a lot of solace in other art forms," he said. "Painting. Or other actors, or other musicians. I mean, I'm not a musician, but musicians that inspire you to go back to what it was originally about this job that you like, and what you were trying to do.

"And people's commitment to their jobs I always find very inspiring, regardless if it's in the arts or not. People doing a good job at whatever it is, taking it seriously, but then having a sense of humor - I find inspiration in that, and then that makes you want to go back to work, and ignore the noise and just focus."

For Silence, Driver had to lose weight - 51 pounds to be exact, as his character, Garrpe, is subjected to torture and deprivation at the hands of Japanese inquisitors. "I don't know if it was affecting my brain," he said about his extreme diet, "because, sometimes, I felt like I was thinking completely clearly, and maybe I wasn't."

One of the toughest scenes for the actor to do was one in which he and Garfield are huddled against a sea cliff, hiding in fear, watching as three Japanese converts to Christianity are strapped to crosses as the waves of a rough ocean lap up and over them, leaving them to drown.

"They are getting crucified, and Andrew and I are sitting watching from a ledge," Driver said. "It was hard to control the emotion of it. It was beautiful, tragic, sweeping - my language is sentimental - but it was at the same time heroic, the story, but also enraging.

"There was just a lot of my own relationship to religion [in there] and how sometimes I feel like it dilutes issues and sometimes it empowers communities of people to put good into the world. And at the same time, just because no one has the patience to understand a culture and would rather meet it with judgment as opposed to interest and curiosity - there were a lot of complicated feelings going on at the time. Plus, we were just really hungry, and emotions were high.

"That was the scene where I thought I was on the verge almost of losing control."

Did Scorsese, at that first meeting at his house, or at any time during the production in Taiwan (subbing for Japan), let drop the names of some of the other actors he had considered for Silence if he had been able to make it 20 years ago, or 15 years ago? Javier Bardem, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Benicio Del Toro were actors whose participation had been reported way back when. What about Scorsese's go-to, Harvey Keitel, or Robert De Niro, even?

"Oh no, we never asked," Driver said with a laugh. "Probably because I'd be like, 'Well, if he thinks about those other people, I'm out of a job.' Yeah, right. 'They would have been great. You, on the other hand -.' "