Jesse did an interview with MovieLine recently.
It’s purely accidental that Jesse Eisenberg should have three movies opening in theaters in the next 10 days. Still, it’s all the reminder you need that the 26-year-old New Yorker is as in demand as virtually any young actor in the business. Coming off 2009’s mainstream tandem of Zombieland and Adventureland, Eisenberg begins an all indie May this Friday in New York with the microbudget marvel The Living Wake. He follows that next week with the drug-running drama Holy Rollers and the Michael Douglas showcase Solitary Man (as well as Wake’s L.A. opening). And then there’s David Fincher’s The Social Network, which he just completed as well. Needless to say, we had plenty to catch up on recently when Eisenberg called Movieline HQ.
The Living Wake in particular is a must-see curio in the Eisenberg canon. Filmed in 2005 — right around the same time Eisenberg was earning plaudits for his angsty turn in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale — Wake follows the eccentric drunk K. Roth Binew (Mike O’Connell) on a darkly comic journey through his last few hours alive. As Binew’s “manservant” Miles, Eisenberg pedals the dying man around an autumnal mystery town in a rickshaw, inviting family, enemies, ex-lovers and the rest of his limited sphere of influence to a final celebration of his failed life. It’s a brilliant, surprising and challenging riff on the dynamics of delusion, featuring what should be (if there were any justice in the world) a star-making performance by O’Connell. Moreover, it offers Eisenberg in a role that — when matched alongside his Hasidic ecstasy smuggler in Holy Rollers and high-strung college student in Solitary Man — underscores his versatility in an entirely new way.
And one can only imagine how it will play off his performance as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in this fall’s The Social Network, which Fincher directed from a script by Aaron Sorkin. Eisenberg spoke with Movieline about his busy May, revisiting The Living Wake, playing Hasidic, surviving Fincher, and all those nagging insecurities that simply won’t go away.
So: Three movies this month. Busy much?
Well, yes. But the movie I’m calling you about I made, like, five years ago. So…
Exactly. The Living Wake is something I saw on the festival circuit three years ago and totally adored.
I know, I’m disappointed it hasn’t come out sooner.
What tabs have you kept on it over the years?
It’s such a special movie, as you can see. Everybody who did it became such good friends, if only because we thought it was so special. We’ve been talking about how it might be distributed for several years. As you can see, it’s kind of a unique movie, but I don’t think it’s unique enough to where it wouldn’t appeal to a big enough audience to be worthy of a small release.
And as your profile has grown, it’s become a more valuable film to put out there on the market. What kind of leverage, if any, did you want to use to make sure it is seen?
I’ll do anything I can, short of taking my shirt off or something. But I don’t know how relevant I am for these kinds of things. There’s probably 10,000 actors who have the same amount of attention given to themselves as me. So for people who are coming to see “my” movie, I don’t think that’s happening. The fact that the movie is so good and stands alone… If I have an easier time getting interviews, then maybe that’s the advantage. But in terms of people, I don’t think anybody’s going to see me in anything. Except my mother. And she’ll probably go twice. So maybe it is beneficial after all!
Well, that’s something. You just alluded to the relationship between yourself and guys like your co-writer/co-star Mike O’Connell and director Sol Tryon. How has that evolved since making the film?
Mike co-wrote the script with his partner Peter Kline, and I think actors tend to know from their experience talking to other actors that by the end of page one, this is something they want to be involved in. You can just tell if the writing style matches your sensibilities. And I thought that was the case with this. I thought it was just absolutely brilliant. Every line is quotable. So when I first met Mike, I had no idea what to expect because the character is so unique. I thought he was English for the first hour of meeting him, because he speaks in this kind of heightened, fancy talk. He’s such a unique guy. The performance he gives was shocking to me only because I didn’t think he would be such a good actor — that someone that funny and that intelligent gave such a dramatic performance was shocking to me. I just didn’t expect it.
Sol is very different from Mike. Sol is very calm, as opposed to Mike, who’s such a high-energy guy. He’s so calm and sweet. He grew up in a very progressive family in Maine; his name is pronounced “Soul,” not even “Sol.” He grew up in this very peaceful setting, and he brought such a sweetness to the movie that kind of offset the manic energy of the actors.
Where did you fit in as an actor? Your character is regarded essentially as a manservant, right?
Actually, my part was originally mute. We only had like four days to rehearse; I was working in California, and I came out and for four days we rehearsed. And I was just trying to fit in and understand the humor. My favorite type of humor comes from — at the risk of sounding pretentious — this sad place. Where it’s all derived from something very mournful: This guy’s impending death. I loved that, as opposed to characters who are happy or whimsical. These characters are very tragic, almost like Samuel Beckett characters. They’re existentially empty, searching characters. So I had this image in my head of how that would play, and it didn’t come up like that. I didn’t have enough time — nor am I talented enough — to pull that off. I wanted [something] like an Edvard Munch painting, and instead I thought I looked like a Jewish kid in a costume. It ends up being kind of abstract, otherworldly. We shot it so quickly, and it was such a small project. But it looks really great, and….
Well, yes, it looks phenomenal. Are there psychological implications to shooting in Maine during that time of year?
We were filming in November in Maine, and it couldn’t have been colder in the United States unless we were in Alaska. In the scenes during the living wake, there were people who walked off-set. We were shooting over two nights. I don’t know the actual temperature, but… In terms of affecting performance, it forces you to buy into the movie a lot more quickly. I just finished a movie last month where we were on soundstages for the last two months of the [shoot]. In order to give yourself over to it, it takes a little more work to buy into the fakeness of the movie and the contrivance of the story. When you’re shooting in zero-degree weather, in the middle of the night, outdoors in Maine, the weather takes care of that work for you. You have no choice but to buy into the contrivance of the movie. You’re in such an extreme condition. I’m sure that’s heightened even more for people who are in war movies; as there are things going on around you, I’m sure it’s much more extreme as well. It does some of the work for you.
After spending all that time on a soundstage, do you ever sense — or act on — an impulse to revert to smaller films? I’m thinking of things like Holy Rollers at this point.
The size, for me, is really irrelevant. When I first read Holy Rollers I assumed it was a big-budget movie. The first draft had more thriller elements. I just assumed it was a bigger movie. The movie I just finished was about Facebook, and it was a character movie, and I didn’t have any idea about the size of it. It turned into kind of a bigger production. The size is never really relevant to me; I just want to do the project for what it is. I was surprised they were able to make Holy Rollers at the level that they made it. It was the smallest-budget movie I’ve gotten to do. But nothing felt compromised: The shoot was quicker, but nothing ever felt compromised. I think actors feel it less than other departments on set.
I think there’s sometimes a misconception that characters in a smaller movie are somehow more rich. I think that’s kind of ridiculous. The movie I did last year was kind of a zombie comedy where the characters are — at least to me, from reading the script — as rich as any quality independent movie. There’s kind of a misconception that independent movies have better characters. I don’t think that’s the case across the board.
Were you familiar with Holy Rollers’ true story going into it?
No, I’d never heard of it. I’d always been fascinated with Hasidic Jews because I’d lived so close to them. But no. Were you?
No. I was shocked. What was your learning curve on that one? What did you look into, what did you study?
Actually, the one advantage to waiting for the money — and it was a year and a half for this one after I signed on — is that you kind of get a little more time to prepare. So I would go into Borough Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg — the three predominantly Hasidic areas of New York — to meet people and to research. I spent a lot of time with kids, sometimes telling them what I was doing, but most often not. It just raised some strange questions. People were open oftentimes to discussing their lives. When I first read the script I couldn’t tell if this was a character who should even be played by an actor. I thought he should played by a real Hasidic Jew. it’d be more interesting that way. That was the first thing I pitched to the people making the movie: I shouldn’t be playing this in the first place.
But what I found was that the more time I spent with these kids was that they were very similar to me. Their accents were very infrequently hard to understand. Most of the time they sounded exactly like me — like a New York kid, with a bit of a Brooklyn [accent]. We went to these dialect coaches, and for them it was more about getting a sense of the Brooklyn accent than the Yiddish accent. So I realized it would be appropriate to play. And then when my friend Justin [Bartha] signed on to it, we kind of had to create our own sect because we were hiring actors who could work for one day. It was a New York movie; they were New York actors. You couldn’t ask them to grow a beard for 10 years. So we created our own sect that deviates a little bit from what would actually be, just to try to make it consistent. But it as very interesting to learn about — like actors get to learn kung-fu.
You know, you spoke with Movieline last year at Comic-Con, and you adopted a self-effacement that seemed to invoke your limitations. You’ve done the same thing here, but I get the sense you think your limitations bring something extra.
I don’t know. I’m hoping the Zoloft will take care of that. I think there’s an advantage to knowing what you can do and staying in a safety zone. The thing about acting in movies is that it’s oftentimes a very competitive and tenuous job. There’s comfort to having a safety zone because you can work consistently. My friend Justin is a good example of that. We talk about it all the time. He’s my closest actor friend, he has a much different sense of things; he’s always trying to play something new. He’s playing a part now, and he said, “I always wanted to play this guy, because I pictured him in my head…” And he had this goal of playing a certain role. That’s never, ever occurred to me. I’m embarrassed every time I get cast in a movie because I feel like I’m just going to screw it up — even though I want to be in in it in the first place. As soon as I’m cast, I think, “Now I’m going to ruin it.” It’s not a healthy attitude to have, and maybe it’s been limiting in some ways. But I’m sure that would go with me [in] every job I did.
But that could happen at any job. I mean, I’m a writer; it hits me all the time.
And I’m sure you meet colleagues of yours who feel very confident! Who go home and… I don’t know. They work on something. “I’m going to write this book.” Like Nabokov. Right? It must be like that in every industry, right?
Absolutely. But let’s go back to The Social Network, in which you’re working with a guy like David Fincher, who is notorious for chewing up and spitting out vulnerable actors. How do you approach that — knowing what you know about yourself and your apprehensions?
I guess I didn’t know that about him. He didn’t fire anybody from the movie or anything. I made an audition tape for him, and then I met with him in California. I got the sense immediately that he was happy with me and the tape I made. It wasn’t just a little tape; it was 30 pages of dialogue or something. There were a lot of scenes from the movie. I guess I felt assurance from the director right off the bat that I right for it. And also, I have a certain amount of confidence when I’m there. I often feel after a scene is done, “That didn’t go as well as it could have,” and I’ve been learning that everyone feels that way. You just have to realize that it’s OK. And I guess like anything else, the more you do something — and it’s going well, and you’re not forced out of it — the more confidence you get just by virtue of having more practice.
But I don’t know. Acting is a weird, kind of alienating job because you’re in an isolated place. Even if you’re working with a lot of other people, you’re kind of alienated. Actors say that a lot, and I kind of find that to be true. You’re in a place where you’re working [from] your own imagination. If judged objectively, then that can be kind of off-putting.