A few months after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, actor Adam Driver who portrays antagonist Kylo Ren in Star Wars, knew the only thing he could do was to join the US Marine Corps.
With his career going nowhere in a small American town, 17-year-old Adam felt the need for retribution and the desire to do something, anything to help his country.
Speaking for inspirational TED Talks Live in New York, Adam tells of joining the US Marine Corps with 1/1 Weapons Company and serving in 81mm Mortar Section at Camp Pendleton, California, in a video that has been viewed more than ten million times since it was posted on YouTube.
While growing up in Mishawaka, Indiana, Adam’s only exposure to theatre and movies was school plays and renting films from the local Blockbuster, “may she rest in peace” he adds.
As a senior in high school, Adam auditioned for Juilliard, a private performing arts school in New York.
When he didn’t get in, he gave up on the idea of learning to perform.
Instead, he risked everything by moving to Los Angeles with little to no money to be ‘discovered’. Instead, he just about made it to Santa Monica, wandered the beach for 48 hours and returned home convinced his acting career was over.
Adam did anything to pay rent to his parents. He was a vacuum salesman, telemarketer, grass cutter. What he wasn’t, was confident, satisfied or driven.
Joining the US Marines was the turning point for Adam. He said:
“I loved being a Marine, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of having done in my life.”
He enjoyed firing weapons, driving and detonating expensive things but, something else was, surprisingly to him, even more satisfying. He said:
“I loved the Marine Corps the most for the thing I was looking for the least when I joined which was the people.
“These weird dudes. A motley crew of characters from a cross-section of the United States that on the service I had nothing in common with.
“Over time all the political and personal bravado that led me to the military dissolved and for me, the Marine Corps became synonymous with my friends.”
At this point in the talk, former Marine Corporal Bill Corbett felt inspired to comment below the video. He also found the strong bond with his fellow Marines to be life-affirming. He wrote:
“I joined the Marine Corps in 1963 and went from boyhood to manhood.
“I love what you said on how we connected, even though we were all different.”
A few years into his service, and only months away from deploying to Iraq, Adam dislocated his sternum in a mountain bike accident and was medically separated (retired) from military service.
This devastated him. Being told he wasn’t going to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, something he had trained hard for, was incredibly hard to come to terms with. However, he was a Marine. If civilians could do it, he knew he could survive. He said:
“I would go to New York and become an actor and if things didn’t work out, I’d live in Central Park and dumpster dive behind Panera Bread.”
However, that wasn’t necessary. He re-auditioned for Juilliard and got in but was surprised by how difficult his transition from the military to civvy street was.
He found it difficult to do all the activities he was expected to do at acting school while his friends were serving overseas. He also didn’t know how to apply the things he had learned in the military to his new civilian life. He said:
“I was an infantry Marine where you’re shooting machine guns and firing mortars.
“There’s not a lot of places you can put those skills in the civilian world.”
Adam found it difficult to find meaning in his new civilian life. He was used to doing and not doing things for incredibly practical reasons.
Away from the military, none of those rules applied anymore. While in the Marines, the way he wore his uniform and the rank he achieved spoke volumes about him as a person. He said:
“In the civilian world, there’s no rank. Here you’re just another body and I felt that I constantly had to prove my worth all over again.
“The respect civilians were giving me while I was in uniform, didn’t exist while I was out of it."
He didn’t feel a sense of community anymore. He soon realised that on civvy street not everyone has his back. He said:
“How often in the civilian world are you put in a life or death situation with your closest friends and they constantly demonstrate that they’re not going to abandon you?”
A critical moment for Adam was discovering he could use the plays he was reading and performing to understand his military life as more than just “the stereotypical drills, discipline and pain”. He started to remember powerful, emotional human moments nestled within a military background.
“Friends going AWOL because they missed their families. Friends getting divorced, grieving together, celebrating together all within the backdrop of the military.”
Adam saw an opportunity for his military friends to express their feelings about their service to reduce both his and their anxiety. He was often seeing similarities between the military and theatre communities.
They are both groups of people with leaders trying to accomplish a mission greater than themselves. Everyone has a role and knows they are a vital cog in a much bigger machine. He said:
“I thought, how great it would be to create a space that combined these two seemingly dissimilar communities that brought entertainment to a group of people that, considering their occupation, could handle something a bit more thought-provoking than the typical, mandatory fun events that I remember being volun-told to go to."
He decided to make it his mission to create theatre presented through characters that were accessible without being condescending. Because of this he set up non-profit organisation ‘Arts In The Armed Forces’ (AITAF) to use the arts to start conversations between the military personnel and civilians.
In December 2019, Star Wars fans at reddit, in particular those who can be found at r/StarWarsLeaks, rallied behind AITAF because Adam portrays the character Kylo Ren/Ben Solo and “has been one of the greatest things to ever happen in the last three movies of the Star Wars saga.”
Their mission was to raise as much money as possible to show their “appreciation for his hard work and because we believe in the mission of AITAF.”
To date, the ‘Rise of Ben Solo’ GoFundMe page has raised $90,324 which caught the attention of Adam himself. He recorded a message of thanks and posted it to social media on January 7, 2020.
Watch Ted Talks Live: My Journey From Marine To Actor in full below...
Cover Photo: Denis Makarenko / SHUTTERSTOCK