Jesse Eisenberg was so compelling as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” I merged him in my mind with the character he played: cold, sly, scheming.
So it was kind of a shock when I spoke to him on the phone the other day about his new play, “Asuncion,” and he was eager, friendly, open and even, perhaps, a little anxious.
The play, which he wrote as well as stars in, along with Justin Bartha (“The Hangover”), is a swerve from Eisenberg’s blossoming career as a movie star.
Instead of capitalizing on “The Social Network,” his biggest success and the source of his best-actor Oscar nomination, he’s toiling at the small Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village. “Asuncion,” now in previews, opens at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre Oct. 27.
He said he loves making movies — “there’s no greater job in the world than film acting; the money is unreal” — but it’s clear he’s nourished by writing.
“I started writing bad movie scripts when I was 16,” said Eisenberg, who moved with his family from Queens to East Brunswick (“the Jewish diaspora”) when he was 4, and began acting as a youngster. “I actually had some [screenwriting] success; I had a script optioned. But they asked me to make endless changes.”
In order to maintain control of his work, he turned to play scripts.
“When you’re writing, and things are going well, it’s the most thrilling thing in the world,” he said. “And when it’s not working, it’s the worst feeling.”
One thing he’s learned from the production process is that it isn’t easy to appear in his own play.
“I’m not sure if I want to do that again. When you’re on the stage, it’s hard to see how much of the play is hitting. You see maybe 25 percent.”
Purely from a description, “Asuncion” sounds like a standard, clash-of-opposites comedy.
Two young men, a left-wing blogger (Eisenberg) and a Ph.D. candidate in African-American studies (Bartha), share an apartment in Binghamton, N.Y.
The brother of one of the roommates stops by with a Filipino woman — his new wife, he explains — and says he needs a place for her to stay temporarily.
She moves in, and her hosts find their liberalism challenged by encountering someone from another culture.
Eisenberg, 28, said the play is not an impersonal social satire.
“I wrote it partly about myself, to explore myself,” he said, suggesting its implications could be extended to an entire generation that has had unprecedented access to information.
“I know a lot of things, but I haven’t had a lot of experiences. There’s a great disconnection. I’m not fully formed yet.”
Eisenberg’s becoming an actor was also a bid for self-discovery.
“School was a difficult time for me,” he said. “I didn’t get along with the other students, and acting was very comforting. It was something I could look forward to every day.”
After working in community theater in Central Jersey, he moved on to New York, then television and movies.
He acknowledged his good fortune in being able to make intelligent, quality films, such as “The Squid and the Whale” and “Roger Dodger.”
But he’s also aware of the clout made possible by being in a major commercial success, like “Zombieland.”
“I’d been trying to raise money for this film about Hasidic Jewish drug dealers, and couldn’t get a penny. And then, I was in a hit film, and all the money came through in one day.” (The independent movie, “Holy Rollers,” came out last year.)
His association with the Rattlestick company began before “The Social Network” was released.
“It’s my favorite theater in New York,” said Eisenberg. “They don’t do standard programming, and I have a lot of respect for them.
“They did a reading of my play two years ago, and they said they had a slot open for a production in the fall of 2011. I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ ”
Eisenberg’s hiatus from films will be relatively brief. He has a healthy list of movies scheduled to be made or released in the coming months and years, including Woody Allen’s “The Bop Decameron.”
You get the sense, though, that he’s into playwriting for the long haul, as well.