A version of this interview was originally published in the April 2014 issue of Clash.
Ask any actor how they feel about doing the rounds on a press circuit and it’s more than likely that you’ll receive a shrug of indifference. After all, to most it’s little more than an obligation that comes with the territory. Few, however, are likely to be quite as blunt about it as the inimitable Jesse Eisenberg. “I wouldn’t want to tell people any more about myself than I have to during these events,” he quips, taking a sip from a cup of tea. “It’s fine,” he adds nonchalantly. “You just get numb talking about yourself.”
As unsurprising an assertion as it might seem coming from an actor frequently characterised as an awkward soul, in person Eisenberg eschews any easy comparison with the personality that he’s often mistaken for. On the contrary, with a catalogue of varied roles to his name, not least the recent announcement that he’ll be assuming the role of Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, in Zack Snyder’s forthcoming Man Of Steel sequel, he remains one of America’s most fascinating actors and a difficult talent to pigeonhole.
“I write characters for myself all the time and they’re never as varied as the characters I get sent to play in movies,” he muses. “It’s strange. I guess my perception of myself is narrower than others. I like trying to give a role emotional inner life. Maybe people qualify that in a certain way but why would you play a role that’s just happy and confident? That just seems so stupid. It’s interesting to play a character that deals with something, otherwise you’re just watching somebody go about their business.”
We meet Eisenberg midway through a visit to London in support of two projects from two wildly different directors – the first, Night Moves, an intimate environmentalist thriller from Meek’s Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt, and the second, Richard Ayoade’s madcap follow-up to Submarine, The Double.
“With Richard, we rehearsed for three weeks prior to shooting. With Kelly we had no rehearsals. Richard does like forty takes per shot. Kelly does one or two. They’re both incredible filmmakers, but Richard had a lot more time. I think Kelly probably wishes she had a lot more time. So my experience on The Double was six months and my experience with Kelly was a month and a half, so that was a very different experience. That said, I just adored the way Kelly works. She would let the camera roll about five minutes before the scene and about five minutes after the scene, so you end up getting this weird experience of lingering in a scene, which you never get in a movie, so that was kind of the advantage to her style. The advantage to Richard’s style is you get forty different opportunities to try something new and then, or in my case, maybe eighty if you’re doing two characters.”
Having begun his career in television with a leading role in short-lived comedy-drama series Get Real, Eisenberg’s early film appearances included Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale and Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst’s directorial debut, The Education of Charlie Banks. His breakthrough came in 2009 with horror comedy Zombieland and an Oscar nod soon followed suit for his blistering performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. In spite of his success, however, he openly admits that his choice of roles has little to do with commercial potential.
“My finger is kind of off the pulse in a way,” he explains. “I can’t gauge what would be popular and what won’t be, but I’ve been lucky enough to occasionally be in big things. I guess this is all to say that I choose things project by project rather than planning some kind of specific calculated trajectory, which to me seems like a really impossible thing to do and also would lead to disappointment.”
Away from cinema, lesser known perhaps are Eisenberg’s pursuits as a writer, a passion that he divides between his ventures as a columnist for The New Yorker and as a playwright, having produced three plays to date. “I prefer to do stuff like that than going to an ecstasy rave,” he jokes. “I do that all the time because that’s the most fun thing for me to do. That isn’t work for me, so I do it in my free time.”
His most recent venture, The Revisionist, which has played to great acclaim off-Broadway, saw Eisenberg co-starring with Vanessa Redgrave, a name whose passing mention elicits enormous enthusiasm. “She’s really great,” he beams. “She would be the first to the theatre every day and the last to leave, because even after the eightieth performance she’s still working on the character, trying to fine tune moments. She’s just phenomenal. And she agreed to do this play with me for five months in a small theatre in New York City. It’s just… who does that at her age and her stature?”
To date, Eisenberg’s stage work has yet to make it to the UK, although he’s eager to see it happen. “London has a great theatre scene,” he states enthusiastically. “In fact, it’s even better than New York because you have a lot more public funding over here. We don’t have anything like that in America. For a lot of people, the play I did three years ago was the first play they’d ever been to. This couldn’t be further from the list of my goals, but you end up being able to expose people to theatre because they’ve seen me in a movie, or something like that. It’s nice. It’s something I value a lot. The theatre company I work with offers really cheap tickets to students so it’s not like this prohibitively expensive thing. It doesn’t have to be this kind of exclusive, elitist thing that all the rich people can go to.”
It isn’t just the UK’s theatre scene that he finds inspiring either. “I like English humour. I really grew up not understanding Monty Python as I didn’t know what I was looking at, but when I watched The Office I thought it was phenomenal. I’m almost never inspired by other actors. You can’t watch another actor and decide to do what they’re doing because you’re filtering it through your own instincts. It’s kind of hard. But when I saw Ricky Gervais in The Office, that was inspiring. He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve never seen a more entertaining character.”
As our time together draws to a close and with awards season fast approaching, we cautiously broach the subject of Oscar buzz and his own 2011 nomination for The Social Network. Somewhat predictably, his response is typically self-effacing. “It’s nice, but it’s odd because if you act a lot you feel particularly good about certain things and sometimes those things get no notice or in some cases get bad notices,” he concedes. “It seems kind of odd to get attention for one thing, I guess – to get so much attention for something. It feels a little like…” He stops himself abruptly and waits a brief moment before correcting himself.
“I should have just said ‘good.’”