Actor, humorist, playwright, foster parent to homeless cats—is there anything this guy can’t do?
Author Joe Keohane Illustration Martin O’Neill
Jesse Eisenberg has a good thing going. Best known for his extraordinary turn as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010’s The Social Network, he’s become a first-call actor for big Hollywood roles (he plays Lex Luthor in next year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) but has also retained his indie credentials with films like Adventureland, Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love and The Double, in which he played both a flinching pushover and his domineering alpha-male doppelganger.
He’s also an accomplished playwright, whose latest work, “The Spoils” (starring himself), opened in New York this spring to strong reviews. In his downtime, he contributes humor pieces to The New Yorker, and he’s about to publish a book of short stories, Bream Gives Me Hiccups.
Eisenberg has two very different films out this month: American Ultra, in which he plays a gentle slacker who finds out that he is in fact a lethal government agent, and The End of the Tour, which dramatizes a road trip interview between a reporter (Eisenberg) and canonized American novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), who killed himself in 2008.
Eisenberg spoke to Hemispheres from a dressing room in New York City, where he was readying himself for a performance of “The Spoils.” On the agenda: fame, fear of failure and what he learned from his clown mother.
Hemispheres: So you have this movie coming out, American Ultra, which is kind of a stoner Bourne Identity. What drew you to it?
Jesse Eisenberg: It was one of the most original characters I’ve read. The way he speaks, his thoughts, the strange context. It was so real—even in such an absurd circumstance.
Hemispheres: This one fits with a lot of your other roles. Your characters are often outwardly nebbishy, but then there’s this hardness under the surface. Is that your thing?
Eisenberg: I don’t know. When I write characters for the theater, I’m trying to write what I know, or what I feel. I guess to an outsider my characters may seem like horrible people, but to me, I understand what’s driving them. In movies, I’m just reacting to what people send me.
Hemispheres: How did you get into playwriting?
Eisenberg: Actors find themselves out of work for long periods of time—even very successful actors. It’s the nature of being a freelance professional. I fill that time with writing. I imagine most other actors—at least, the healthy ones—find some other interest, hobby or way to stay busy.
Hemispheres: Has writing changed you as an actor?
Eisenberg: It has, yeah. I’m a little more comfortable not meddling as much. I feel much more comfortable trusting whatever the script is, because I feel like it’s part of some bigger vision, and the more comfortable I get trusting the project, the better I am as an actor. It turns out better than if I were to try to micromanage it with the little power I had.
Hemispheres: You’ve got another movie out, about David Foster Wallace. Are you a big DFW guy?
Eisenberg: I read him in college, and obviously I liked him. I don’t think anyone has a bad opinion of him. He was great. But what’s great about the movie is that you don’t have to know about him to appreciate it. It’s just a really interesting story about these two guys. My character is a less successful novelist who’s been assigned to go be a journalist with an author. He’s experiencing all these conflicting feelings of being a fan, being a competitor, feeling jealous—all these things that anybody in the arts feels when they’re with somebody who’s doing that thing they feel they should be doing.
Hemispheres: Is there a DFW insight you took away from the film?
Eisenberg: This is funny, because we’re doing an interview now, but he talks about the dangers of doing interviews, that when you do them you’re losing the perception of you. And publicity can actually damage the thing that makes you creative.
Hemispheres: Did you use anything you’ve picked up from all the interviews you’ve done yourself?
Eisenberg: I did, yeah. I’ve been in interview situations where you can immediately tell that there’s some kind of antagonistic slant, and I could never understand it. But then, playing this role, I could see it from my character’s point of view. I had an agenda. I was trying to find out about rumors of drug use. I was trying to find out about women. And I can see that, from Wallace’s point of view, my character was not only prying but being antagonistic, in an attempt to rile him up and get some better answers.
Hemispheres: It’s been reported that Wallace’s family is upset that the film was made. Do you feel some sympathy for them?
Eisenberg: I have no idea what they said, but all I can say is the movie presents a picture of someone that I can’t imagine anybody would be upset by. I can’t imagine anybody would feel it wasn’t done with intelligence, respect, care and sensitivity. That said, if a person ever made a movie about my life, I’d probably be uncomfortable that it existed.
Hemispheres: You’ve got a book of short stories coming out in the fall. Tell me about a story.
Eisenberg: So, the first set of stories is about a 9-year-old boy whose parents are divorced, and the only way his mother can continue her lavish lifestyle is to take the boy out with her to the fancy restaurants. The father has agreed to pay for any joint meals, so the only way she can charge them to him is by bringing this boy with her. So he is slowly learning his place in the world and realizing the mother doesn’t necessarily want him there, that she’s struggling to mature as well. They’re all told in the style of restaurant reviews, so you’re learning about their relationship through this little boy’s reviews.
Hemispheres: Aren’t these supposed to be funny? That sounds crushingly sad.
Eisenberg: It is. It’s very sad.
Hemispheres: You said a few years ago that every time you hear about an award or nomination you’re up for, you immediately think of all the times you lost. It made me think of the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. There’s that great bit where he finishes a show, and he’s totally wrung out. He’s exhausted; he’s lying on the couch. And his assistant comes in and says, “You know, that was the best show yet,” and he immediately goes, “What was wrong with the other ones?” Is that how it is with you?
Eisenberg: Oh yeah. I don’t read reviews, good or bad. The bad ones make you feel bad, and the good ones excite you in a way that’s dangerous, because that’s not always gonna be there. It’s not all gonna be good. The more you can enjoy the thing for its own sake, the better you’ll be at it.
Hemispheres: I read that your mother was a clown.
Eisenberg: She was a birthday party clown, yes. Now she works with young doctors teaching them how to interact with patients.
Hemispheres: That’s wonderful. Given that she was a performer, did she pass any wisdom on that has been useful to you?
Eisenberg: Yeah. She was a clown for young kids, but to see that she took performing so seriously had a big impact on me. On weekends she’d have several birthday parties in a row, and she’d be up very early with her guitar, warming up her voice. Right now it’s 4 o’clock, and I’m pacing around the dressing room for an 8 o’clock show, so clearly that had an impact on me. And I think that’s the way to do it. To prepare. Not to torture yourself, but to prepare, and to take any job you do seriously—whether it’s a birthday party or a drama in New York. The last play I did, the other actor in it was Vanessa Redgrave. She’s 78 years old. She’s considered probably the greatest living actress, and she was at the theater early every day, poring over her script.
Hemispheres: I find it incredibly refreshing to see people who are great at what they do worry.
Eisenberg: Yes. And the more I work, the more I see that there is some correlation between worrying about doing well and doing well. You see the people who are really good at what they do still trying, and that’s inspiring.
Hemispheres: You’ve got your second Woody Allen film coming out next year. In a way, you’re on a similar track to his: You’re both writers and actors, you’re both drawn to the Borscht Belt comic sensibility, you both contribute to The New Yorker.
Eisenberg: I wouldn’t compare myself to him in any qualitative way. When I started reading his short stories, I thought, “Oh my goodness, these are so great.” And his movies, everything he does is great. He’s somebody who’s very clearly not affected by mainstream trends. Everything he does feels original, and I like that.
Hemispheres: Were you able to withstand the urge to have a fanboy meltdown when you met him?
Eisenberg: When I’m acting in somebody’s project, I really just try to focus on doing well, because I have a task, and I take my job seriously. But I think if I had met him in any other context, I would have behaved like
Hemispheres: Did he take any interest in you as a writer?
Eisenberg: Yeah, after my last play, about a year and a half ago, he emailed to say that he liked it, and that the box office will probably be in inverse proportion to its quality.
Hemispheres: That’s very Woody. I hear you’re a cat man.
Hemispheres: I’m also a cat man.
Eisenberg: Oh, really? You have cats?
Hemispheres: I’d like to have one, but my apartment’s small, and I’m worried if I introduce a cat into it, it’s going to become dominant in a way I’m not altogether comfortable with. But you foster cats. Do you have any at the moment?
Eisenberg: I have just one at the moment.
Hemispheres: What’s his name?
Eisenberg: The name is this weird Korean name that my sister gave it. It’s unpronounceable. I just call it The Cat. It’s very cute. It doesn’t like to be held, but it also doesn’t like to be alone. So it just trails you all day.
Hemispheres: You’re at a level now where you can fairly be called a movie star. Are you famous enough that it’s becoming a nuisance or a hindrance to living a normal life?
Eisenberg: Not even in any kind of anecdotal way. I live a normal life. People don’t notice me that much. I don’t have any sort of personal life that’s intriguing to anyone but my mother, and even she loses interest.
Joe Keohane, a writer and editor in New York City, swears that his editor put in that line about him fearing cat domination.