Adam Driver: Undercovering the KKK

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen August 21, 2018
Actor Adam Driver

ANTONIN THUILLIER/getty images

In  Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, Adam Driver plays Colorado Springs cop Philip Zimmerman, who steps in to pretend he is his colleague Ron Stallworth – played by John David Washington – in an undercover effort to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Together – Zimmerman, in person, Stallworth, over the phone – they would attempt what seemed to be impossible in the 1970s’ Colorado. We talked to Adam Driver about the role and the bizarre true story behind the film.

What did Spike Lee, you and your fellow cast members talk about in relation to the themes covered in BlacKkKlansman?

Overall we talked about how one of the themes in the movie is how love and empathy are so much more effective in making a connection with someone rather than racism and bigotry. It seems kind of obvious - but hard in practice.

BlacKkKlansman is about organized racism among other things. What did working with Spike Lee teach you about some nuances of the black experience that you were unaware of?

I don’t think I am going to speak about the black experience, but for me, the movie was not just about racism – but a lot of different things. I don’t really think of themes when we are shooting it. I often do not know what the end result is so it is not something that was part of the moment to moment solving scenes. You cannot play scenes and think that this is important while playing it. It gets in the way of what you are doing and it is not helpful, so that really was not part of the conversation.

Your character, Philip Zimmerman, is a white Jewish cop who gets a rather unusual assignment. What does he learn from going undercover to infiltrate the KKK?

He is someone who is set in his job and is pretty good at it and is confronted by this thing that was kind of unexpected and gives a face to hatred in really the first time to his face. Because he is an open police officer and an open person, he is kind of confronted with these themes that he was not before – whether or not personal history is important. If you are married to your genetics. So this chances the way he works from then on. But we did not talk about those big themes while we were shooting.

A scene from "BlacKklansman"

With John David Washington in a scene from BlacKkKlansman.

universal pictures

 

Philip Zimmerman pretends to be his black colleague, Ron Stallworth, to infiltrate the KKK and learn more about them. He is himself Jewish, so he almost gets in trouble with the KKK members. Did you get a chance to speak to the real-life Zimmerman and what this kind of surreal teamwork between these cops was like?

No. He was kind of out of the picture. Ron Stallworth was available so we talked a little bit to him about what the working dynamic was. But my partner is a really great actor - John David Washington - so it is that thing of playing a real person where you kind of have to cherry pick and open your imagination and leave all the other things that don’t make sense or don’t really help the scene at the door.

How was your partnership with John David Washington?

I think we have a natural rapport between us – maybe because we both like each other a lot. That is what we were focused on. We did not feel we had to honor some kind of dynamic that existed between other people. We had to make it between ourselves.

Did you learn anything about KKK that you did not know and do you think we should fear them a little more than we do today – as it is kind of indicated at the end of BlacKkKlansman?

I did not learn much that did not reaffirm an idea that I had about them already. The thing that I kept shocking me as we were shooting it and I had to be reminded of is how organized hatred can be. We all know the archetypal image of wearing the bed sheets and the eyes cut out of the head parts but it gets so much more absurd when you have something like the KKK and you start thinking about membership and enrollment and that there is a membership card. That means that there is somebody that typed it up and they had to make a decision about the font and they had to put it through a computer and they had to stitch a costume. I start getting lost in the details of how the first animal instinct of hatred is turned into people actually organizing because they feel it should be some kind of business. It just seems that much more absurd to me. So the process of shooting a movie just made what I assumed to be ludicrous, to begin with just that much worse.