After Lex Luthor, the actor and playwright’s new role is as a grieving son — and he won’t see that either
“It’s the strangest thing,” says Jesse Eisenberg, cautiously. “But the truth is, my job is not that different. I did both films simultaneously. In each, my day was the same — I spent four hours getting a wig on and pondering grief. Then, I would go and act.”
The 32-year-old actor, playwright and New York native currently has two film roles that are so different you could probably spend a diverting party game struggling to find a more diametrically opposed pair. One is in Louder Than Bombs, a nuanced family drama by highly regarded Norwegian arthouse director Joachim Trier. The other is as ultra-villain Lex Luthor in the critically savaged but commercially unstoppable Batman v Superman, directed by Zack ‘300’ Snyder and ascertained in one early review to be “about as diverting as having a porcelain sink broken over your head”.
“Sometimes, the sets in the Superman movie would be very big, but often they were intimate rooms,” he continues, “where I had scenes with people like Holly Hunter, who I work with at the same theatre company in New York. And with Louder Than Bombs, Gabriel Byrne and I also cross paths in the theatre community. So, it didn’t seem all that different…”
A waiter stops by, and Eisenberg pauses to thank him effusively. The gilt and mirror surroundings of this downtown New York hotel are a perennial preening destination for international fashion types but, despite celebrated screen roles that include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the award-winning The Social Network, Eisenberg is decidedly low-key — anodyne grey fleece, close-cropped hair, wire-framed glasses. He is attentive, fast-talking and drily humorous, with a tendency to respond to questions of a personal nature with a barrage of questions of his own — consciously or unconsciously, it is hard to tell.
Delicately, I reach for a way to bring up how reactions to the Batman film have by and large not been favourable. “I cocoon myself to such a silly degree!” he interjects, squirming into the recesses of his banquette. “I don’t see the movies I’m in. I’ve not seen either one of these movies. I don’t read any of the notices.”
My next question seems to betray some of my sense of disbelief. “My background is in theatre,” he carries on. “When reviews come out, you still have the entire play to do. It is not easy to go on stage — even if you get good reviews! — because you’ve now become self-conscious. So, it’s just not in my nature. In theatre, no one reads reviews — good or bad. That’s etiquette.”
It must be impossible to avoid reactions completely, one presumes, when they are headline news. “You sometimes get a sense, or something leaks through,” he concedes. “Movies are a different business of course, but I cocoon myself just as much. Look, my job is so narrow. Because I am in the movie and you see my face, I seem like I may be an ambassador for it. I am proud of what I got to do in it and of the work of all my colleagues. But because I don’t watch the movies and engage with the objective scrutiny, I guess I feel kind of… unaware? Uninterested?” He shrugs.
Louder Than Bombs is a complex piece of work loaded with ambiguity and suggestion, with strong appearances from Eisenberg, esteemed veterans Isabelle Huppert and Gabriel Byrne, and talented newcomer Devin Druid. Although the narrative drifts at times, it rewards close attention and does not feature any scenes in which someone gruntingly breaks a porcelain sink over someone else’s head.
“I love actors and I love different things about those people,” says Eisenberg. “Devin, I could be silly and absurd with, and he would be ok with it because he is a 16-year-old guy. And with the other two actors, because I’m younger, I could continue to act immaturely and it still seems appropriate. So, I guess I could do exactly what I wanted to do, which was have some kind of, uh, stifled adolescence.”
Is that what acting is about, to him? “Yes, I think it is probably a goal for me to remain entirely in a state of behaviour that in the real world would be totally inappropriate and infantilising. And yet I get to do it in a safe context. I interned at a company when I was 21, and got fired after a few weeks because I’m not good at that kind of thing — you know, where you have to act like an adult.”
One of the things Louder Than Bombs nails is the sense of insecurity and guilt that follows when someone takes their own life. Eisenberg’s character initially appears to be the more together of the two brothers in the film, but is slowly revealed to be more damaged than he lets on. “Absolutely, I think it’s wonderful as an actor to have a role that has some sort of enigmatic quality,” he says. “I look for that in everything I do. And that’s the kind of stuff I like doing in my plays as well — even though I write them, I try to create an air of mystery around the characters. Because if you do a play 90 times, it feels more fulfilling to be searching every night.”
Eisenberg has had success as a playwright, usually also acting in them, such as The Spoils, in which he plays an arrogant, narcissistic film student — well reviewed in New York last year, and coming to London’s Trafalgar Studios in June. He also writes a humour column for the New Yorker, and mentions his collection of short stories Bream Gives Me Hiccups is being adapted into a television series, which he will direct.
“You know, there is this strange thing as an actor, especially with these movies that have such a long life,” he adopts a conspiratorial tone, “it seems as if I am working a lot more than I am. I end up having a lot of time off. And if you don’t fill that with healthy, creative things, then you can lose whatever spark you have whenever you do finally get a wonderful job to act in,” then adding, “and you can also probably become a little depressed.”
Does he want to work on a film script? “Less so. When I was 16, I wrote my first movie script. I was at a performing arts high school. It was about Woody Allen, so someone sent it to an agent, who sent it to a lawyer, who then sent me a cease and desist letter from Woody Allen. So, I put that away.”
Eisenberg ended up starring in Allen’s 2012 film To Rome With Love, and returns in his upcoming Café Society, alongside Kristen Stewart (who he previously appeared with in comedy-drama Adventureland and last year’s stoner-adventure American Ultra). Not that surprisingly, Eisenberg says he never brought up his doomed teenage project with the venerable director since, as he notes, past lawsuits aren’t really the sort of thing you chat about.
A few months ago, Eisenberg ruffled more feathers with one of his columns in the New Yorker, entitled “An Honest Film Review”, which portrayed a jaded critic who hates the film he is reviewing because it vaguely resembles something of his that was once rejected, and idly wonders if the PR will sleep with him. It was fairly innocuous (if not rib-crackingly funny) but that didn’t stop a series of irked film reviewers taking to the keyboards to express in a series of hot takes just how upset they were — not, one presumes, a community any working actor would be wise to antagonise.
He leans across the table, eyes widening. “I was MORTIFIED. I have no interest in riling anything up, that’s why I write humour pieces that are fictional. I am so worried about hurting people’s feelings! Even though humour can be satirical, this was SO clearly a joke. I obviously also have no ill will towards film critics, who in my career have been a benefit for me! If I really wanted to rile people up, I would endorse a candidate…”
Recent reports claim he did just that, supposedly begging Cory Booker, the dynamic New Jersey senator, to ‘save us all’… “I said nothing of the sort!” he snorts. “But they put it into a headline anyway. I met him for 30 seconds on the carpet,” he says, exasperated. “I find it all absolutely mortifying that I should warrant any attention other than the fictional things I involve myself in… He’s not even running for President.”
He talks about how he employed the word ‘squaw’ in a New Yorker piece, which was an “absolute mistake and an oversight on my part. That’s real, because I used a word that is offensive… But if something is deliberately misinterpreted in an attempt to create controversy, there’s nothing I can say. How do you apologise for a thing you didn’t do?”
When Eisenberg hosted Saturday Night Live a few years ago, he guested with fearsome rapper Nicki Minaj and the real-life Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg’s portrayal of him was not exactly sympathetic) — who, one wonders, was he more intimidated to meet? “Ha! My cousin actually worked for Zuckerberg while we were filming the movie, so we had something to talk about other than this potentially uncomfortable situation. Nicki, I don’t know if I met her — they sequester all the people, then bring you on to do your bit. Ha! It wasn’t like the three of us all sitting in a room trying to make small talk.”
So, he never got to find out what Zuckerberg really thought of his playing him? “No. I just imagine it must be this really uncomfortable thing, like the scrutiny we were just talking about, which I find to be so uncomfortable.”
All this talk of feeling uncomfortable is starting to feel uncomfortable. “I’m the one sitting here in the corner,” he says, pressing himself further into it. So, if he really does want to exist in a cocoon, what drives him to do things like appearing in superhero blockbusters instead of actually hiding away, maybe just being a writer?
He thinks for a moment. “Probably because I have an ambitious streak and a creative streak that motivates me to do these things,” he says. “And then as soon as they’re finished, I immediately feel mortified that I put myself out there in such a public way… I think I’m probably wired for this kind of self-conscious reaction. And I guess I have a limited enough short-term memory to remember the,” he emits a burst of wry laughter, “uh, discomfort… so it happens again. I am stuck in a cycle.”
Originally published in The Times, 15 April 2016