Jesse Eisenberg was Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and is soon hitting the mainstream as the villainous Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman. Given what the savvy 30-year-old says in our incisive interview, he’s clearly happier in the independent realm and cites The Double, loosely based on the Dostoevsky novella, as his favourite acting gig.
"I don't watch movies I've been in so I don't know how things turn out"
We are officially meeting to discuss his challenging role as an activist who goes too far in Kelly Reichardt’s environmental thriller Night Moves, which screens in the upcoming Sydney Film Festival. Though Eisenberg, who is currently in a relationship with Mia Wasikowska since the couple met on The Double, offers up a lot more. The son of Amy Fishman, a professional clown performing at children's birthday parties, and Barry Eisenberg, who ran a hospital before becoming a college professor, the talented actor and writer was born in Queens, New York and raised in New Jersey along with two sisters.
HB: I was involved with an environmentalist campaign to save the Daintree Rainforest in the early 1980s. It was all-consuming.
JE: Were you successful?
Could you ever imagine doing something like that?
Yeah, I imagined it a lot when I was working on Night Moves and trying to get in the mind of a character who is so dogmatic and so passionate. Unlike you, I haven't been involved in environmental causes in that way but I have been involved in other things that I feel as extremely passionate about. So it’s understandable that people can get carried away by something. How was it for you?
It was a huge moment in my life and I went on to organise a political campaign. Have you ever had a moment that politicised you? What were the things that you were talking about that you became involved with?
I grew up in a political household and I started getting interested as soon as I moved to New York City [from New Jersey]. My first exposure to politics was with friends who were very liberal and I started to think about the world, I changed my degree in college to anthropology and I started writing about international issues as seen through characters who are ignorant. My first play, Asuncion, was about two young academics who become roommates with this Filipino girl and they assume she must be a mail-order bride and they are smart but totally ignorant about the world. So they try to save her and she of course doesn't want it. My second play, The Revisionist, is about a Polish woman; we did that in 2012. Vanessa Redgrave played the Polish woman. My next play is about a Nepalese guy, so I always write about things that are internationally interesting to me.
How you get involved with Kelly Reichardt and Night Moves?
They sent me the script and I thought it was wonderful. It was a very quick process. I spent two months learning about the environmental movement, about people who are politically dogmatic and then I spent two weeks prior to shooting in Oregon and living in a yurt and working on the farm so I could understand my character’s lifestyle.
Kelly Reichardt has made beautiful films on a tiny budget because no more money was available. Was she on your radar?
Yes. I saw Old Joy in the theatre, and for the first 20 minutes I was wondering what I was watching, and for the last hour-and-20 minutes I thought this is the greatest thing. When I read the script for Night Moves I had the same feeling. With the first 15 pages you are trying to figure out what this is because the character that they sent it to me for is not really speaking, so you don't understand what is driving him. Then by the end of the script you think this is the most fascinating person in the world, because you realise he has been burying his feelings that end up manifesting in a very dangerous way. So Kelly’s stuff is unique and not immediately accessible to everybody in a wonderful way. She is telling stories that are a little different.
Can you tell us more about your character? He is so closed off that you don't really get to see what’s going on in his mind.
He is somebody who has a feeling and instead of expressing it to somebody, he buries it. So there is a cumulative effect of his constantly burying feelings and they end up manifesting in unhealthy and dangerous ways. I think probably everyone does that to a certain extent; there are certain things you suppress and then what inevitably happens is it manifests in some way that is worse than if you had just expressed it initially. He is with two people who are constantly expressing their thoughts and feelings. Dakota Fanning plays a young woman who is idealistic and furious so is constantly expressing what’s on her mind and therefore she is less extreme than my character. Peter Saarsgard plays a guy who just enjoys the kind of adventure of being an activist and so he also doesn't have the same need to express himself in a way that is probably dangerous, like my character.
The fact that he doesn't say a lot means there is a general paranoia.
He is dealing with some very conflicting emotions. One is feeling like he did something that was good because he’s opposed to what the dam is doing to the environment. On the other hand, he feels an increasing sense of concern that his actions are going to get him into some severe trouble and as the movie unfolds in the second half he becomes a little paranoid. At the same time, he has the desire to feel proud about what he’s doing so that’s very difficult.
There is also the fact that nobody reacts the way he was sure they would react.
The people he would seek approval from are the people he works on the farm with and they disapprove with the action. So I think he feels increasingly alienated, like when he was growing up. He’s somebody who has been constantly alienated from group to group and it’s really tragic. At the end of the movie he is left in a difficult place with limited options and I think one of the interesting things about the movie is that it discusses the real consequences of taking extreme actions. The consequences that my character deals with are not glorified.
Wasn’t he deluded about what they would achieve? They hadn't thought it through properly.
I think he was consumed with dogmatism and when you are consumed with dogmatism you are acting from a place of emotion and so you are not thinking logically through the consequences of your actions.
You played the Woody Allen alter ego in To Rome with Love. You remind me a bit of Allen. Do you feel close to your Jewish roots at all?
I don't know. I live in New York City.
Were you brought up with any religion?
No. The most exposure I had to religion was when I did a movie a few years ago [Holy Rollers] where I played a Hasidic Jewish guy. So I ended up learning a lot about a religion that I eschewed as a kid.
Why did you eschew it?
I guess I eschewed anything that felt like it was chosen for me and embraced anything that felt I wasn't suppose to do.
Where does this fast-talking intensity come from then? Is it in your Jewish family?
No, my parents are relaxed people. I have met a lot of Christians who are also intense.
But in your performances even.
I feel better playing intense people. I just prefer it. I don't know why and I write characters that are really intense. I don't like acting in a way that feels casual.
Personally, you said you didn't like religion because it felt imposed. Are you a rebel against dogma? Were you this person in class who if you had to do something you would go out of your way not to do that?
No. I hated school so much I was just trying to get through as quickly as possible. But unfortunately it still takes the allotted 12 years. I never did anything to get in trouble. The character in this movie risks his own safety. I never did that.
Were you smart at school?
I always felt I wasn't exceptional which is why I wanted to start acting when I was young. I didn't really excel.
Did you somehow know that you were going to be good at acting?
I knew I would do something.
You've starred in some hugely successful movies, as a magician in Now You See Me and as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. How do you manage to capture the zeitgeist?
I don't. My finger couldn't be farther from the pulse. I have been in things that I think will be great that no one sees and then I've been in things that I think will not work out and they do. I just guess I have been lucky and I see actors who are equally driven and talented and who don't find consistent successes or any successes. The entertainment industry is confusing because you do things that you feel creatively inspired by and then in order to continue doing them they have to be successful in some kind of public way. Yet the public way seems at odds with the private feelings you have going into it. So I don't understand how anybody can predict anything.
Now You See Me was a real surprise, wasn't it?
Yeah, I guess that was popular. The most surprise I had was thinking things were good and then no one else was thinking that.
(Laughs) I don't watch movies I've been in so I don't know how things turn out.
No. So when I act in something the experience I have is so personal and you think this is wonderful because I am feeling all these real feelings for something and then it turns into something that is totally different even if they put a different song underneath the scene or whatever.
Do you watch old movies?
No. I used to watch movies when I was younger and when I started acting I stopped. I saw Old Joy 10 years ago. That was one of the last times I was in the movie theatre.
I don't know. I think a lot of actors do this. You become self-conscious and you are very conscious of the process of how it’s being made. I have been on a lot of sets, I know how movies are made, but in terms of the actual watching them, it just became harder to enjoy.
Could you tell us something about The Double, working with Mia Wasikowska and your character having his double turn up in his life?
That was a strange process to film because it takes place in this strange Dystopian world, and both of my characters are very extreme but in opposite ways. One character is this meek office worker who the world seems to be against in every way, elevator doors close on him, he has the worst existential luck. And then his doppelganger comes in and he has the greatest luck in the world, the doors open perfectly for him, the coffee comes out when he puts his cup underneath, everyone seems to like him and they laugh at his dumb jokes. Both characters are very intense.
So you play two intense characters!
Yeah, but one is intensely cavalier, and the other is this intensely worried person. It was a fun experience but taxing I guess.
And working with Mia?
She is great. I had never met her before that. Her character immediately likes this one guy who hasn't earned the right to be liked by anybody and doesn't like the first guy just because that’s the way the world is set up in some strange way. So she plays a really funny character whose emotions are inexplicable because they just take place in this weird world.
What is the film that you have enjoyed the most doing so far?
The most creatively fulfilling movie was The Double because I got to play these two roles. When you play a very intense character it stays with you all day and all night. With The Double, it was important to kind of relieve myself of one character immediately to play another, so it was just exercising a lot of acting muscles because you were not stuck in one mode.
Richard Ayoade is a very creative director.
Yes, he is incredible. He created a world, an entire universe. I have never seen anybody do that before. Not just physically, and by physically I mean creating every building and room that the movie takes place in, but emotionally creating a world where emotions exist in this strange realm. He is a really creative guy and allowed me to have an acting experience that is unparalleled. We did dozens and dozens of takes in each role and then we would shoot the other character and then go back and shoot the original character based on what we'd change with the second character.
You had a lot of input.
Yes, and a lot of time. The movie is not a huge budget action movie that gives you six months of filming, but he was able to get a lot of time. He is very popular in England so people gave him the luxury.
Mia is the opposite of you in this movie?
In the movie she plays a more frantic, fast-talking woman.
Did you see Tracks and could you play something stoic like that?
Oh, I don't know. Night Moves is the first movie where I was asked to not speak at all and so I had to find different ways to express myself. You end up just burying your emotions.
Are you really extroverted in private?
No, I am quiet in my life otherwise but when I do interviews I am required to talk because of the nature of the question and answer rubric. (He is talking really, really fast as in so many of his roles).
How do you divide your time between acting and writing?
I write equally as much as writing. Writing plays is similar to acting because I am writing dialogue. I also write for the New Yorker magazine, where I tend to write either monologues or dialogue, so it’s similar to acting because you are expressing an emotion through words.
Do you watch TV?
How do you choose your roles because you don't have a wish list like other actors?
I know. It’s a mistake. I should do that. I realise that now, that if I integrated into the world more, I would be better for it.
How do you choose your roles? Purely on script?
Yes. I guess I've also made mistakes because I don't watch things. I put myself at a disadvantage.
Who advises you then?
Luckily I have agents. You need people to watch stuff and to tell you that this guy is great and you should meet this person. And then I meet them and tell them I have never seen anything they have done. I go with it if the character is good. As an actor you are having a very personal experience and often I will not talk to the director while I am filming a movie. I had to hire a director for my play and I hired a guy who I got along with very well even if I have never seen a play he's directed and he is wonderful.
Do you watch plays?
Yes, I go to the theatre. It’s easier.
You’re not on Facebook or any social media.
I have been avoiding it since I was 19 when I made my first movie and I Googled my name and that was the last time I ever did that because it’s horrifying. People write horrifying things about you, so no, I don't go on Twitter or anything.
But do you use the internet a lot for other things?
Like anybody else, but not to self-promote or anything.
Nicolas Winding Refn, for instance, is very big on Twitter to get the word out there for his edgy movies.
Oh, maybe it is a good idea then. I don't know.
He says it’s better than having interviews with journalists. Of course, he can then say what he wants.
Oh, well, that puts you at a disadvantage doesn't it? That’s not good. So I will support the journalism industry.
The Double is in cinemas now. Night Moves screens at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival on June 6 and June 9. See the festival website for more information.