With three concurrent starring roles in buzzworthy films this season, actor Adam Driver was an obvious choice for an interview on “Fresh Air,” the popular and influential NPR talk show produced by WHYY.
Now, Driver and “Fresh Air” are making headlines not for the interview, but for the interview that wasn’t.
On Tuesday, the Daily Beast reported that Driver left in the middle of his interview taped earlier this month. NPR sources told the Daily Beast that Driver’s abrupt exit came after “expressing displeasure at the idea of listening to a clip of himself singing ‘Being Alive’ from the musical ‘Company’ ” — a song Driver’s character sings in the new Netflix film, “Marriage Story.” The actor also stars in the current films “The Report” and the latest installment of “Star Wars.”
Reactions shared to social media were split between defending Driver’s right to set boundaries and criticizing him for being unprofessional. Poynter, the nonprofit media studies institute, raised in its Wednesday morning newsletter whether this was a question of attitude or ethics, asking, “A moody actor? A misunderstanding? A veteran journalist who got what she asked for?”
“Fresh Air” host Terry Gross mentioned the incident only briefly during the show’s Dec. 11 episode where a rerun was broadcast. “We had promised you an interview with actor Adam Driver today, but unfortunately we weren’t able to do it as planned,” Gross said.
Representatives for Driver did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“Fresh Air” executive producer Danny Miller confirmed the incident in an email to The Washington Post.
“Honestly, we’re surprised this has become such a big deal. We always play clips when we have on actors — that’s just standard procedure for any broadcast or podcast interview,” he said. “But knowing that Adam Driver does not like to hear back clips of himself, we invited him to remove his headphones while playing back the clip from ‘Marriage Story,’ which, after all, he was on Fresh Air to talk about.”
Miller said they did the same thing — cuing him to remove his headphones during a clip playback — during his 2015 interview on “Fresh Air,” which “seemed to work out fine.”
“We still don’t understand why he left, and we wish we would have been able to feature him as a guest on our show last week,” Miller said.
“Fresh Air” interviews seldom take place with the interviewer and subject in the same room; Gross interviews from a booth in WHYY’s studio in Philadelphia while interviewees are synced in from other locations.
When Driver sat for the 2015 interview to talk about his service in the Marines and his starring role in the comedy “While We’re Young,” Gross quickly picked up on the actor’s discomfort hearing himself.
Asked why he didn’t want to hear the clip of his own work, Driver responded to Gross, ” ‘Cause I don’t want to hear the bad acting that probably was (laughter) happening during that clip,” adding, “I’ve watched myself or listened to myself before, then always hate it. And then wish I could change it, but you can’t.” He relayed the same sentiment during a 2015 interview with Howard Stern.
A recent New Yorker profile described Driver’s aversion to seeing his work as “amount[ing] to a phobia.” It detailed how Driver waited out the “BlacKkKlansman” screening at Cannes in a green room and how sitting through the premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” left him feeling “totally cold” and as if he was about to be sick.
Asking probing or unpleasant questions is often a necessary part of journalism, but there’s also a balance to strike on how, when and who to push, said Don Heider, who directs the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
“As journalists, we want to be sensitive to people we interview and want to know if they have anything that triggers fear,” Heider told The Post. “The other side of that is we’re trying to get to some version of the truth. The question is in this particular case is: How important was it to play this clip during the interview?”
Driver isn’t the first subject to walk out on Gross. In 1999, Monica Lewinsky walked out midinterview after a string of questions in which Gross grilled the former White House intern on her sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton.
“Lewinsky told me that my questions were ‘too intimate’ and that she didn’t want to continue the interview. She seemed under the impression that our conversation was supposed to be limited to subjects such as her book tour and her recent experiences in Europe,” Gross said at the time. “She wasn’t hostile and she even apologized for having to end the interview, but end it she did.”
Lewinsky tweeted her support of Driver on Wednesday, noting “self-care is always a choice.”
Heider looked at the fact that the Driver interview was not an investigative story but acknowledged that good journalism also entails asking subjects questions they find difficult or unpleasant. Finding the balance isn’t always clear or easy.
“In this case, in an interview about a film, it’s a bit more difficult to make a justification for pushing too hard,” Heider said. “On the other hand, it seems odd to me (if his publicist or PR team) didn’t set clear terms (with ‘Fresh Air’) for the interview.”
Regardless of where the ethical line falls inside or out of this incident, Heider suggested people may at least identify on some level with Driver.
“Most people I know hate the sound of their own voice, and it’s traumatic to watch yourself on air and go, ‘Oh, no, why do I look like that? Why do I sound like that? Why do I hold my head like that?’ ” he said. “I think we can all be empathetic to that.”