Jesse Eisenberg is that rare breed of artist who routinely fails to be uninteresting. Whether he's waxing satirical in the Shouts and Murmurs section of the New Yorker, performing on stage in a play he wrote, or descending into madness as Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman, Eisenberg is forging his own unique trajectory.
Eisenberg is one of those enviable people who doesn't contemplate creating—he just does. Most recently he constructed a brilliant role, with the help of Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier, in Louder Than Bombs, opening in theaters April 8. In Trier's follow-up to the harrowing Oslo, August 31st, Eisenberg plays Jonah, the older of two brothers forced to grapple with the death of their mother, a celebrated war photographer. Jonah is a troubled 20-something, conflicted, confused, and undergoing several big life changes, which Eisenberg conveys with a palpable emotion that anchors the film.
In conversation, Eisenberg is more like an agile boxer than anything else, ducking broad queries, jabbing here and there with sarcasm. The gifted actor has made his (understandable) disdain for press junkets clear before—especially in this Funny or Die parody in which Kristen Stewart asks him all the alternatively personal and banal questions hackneyed journalists seem to resort to. Eventually, though, Eisenberg—who is a good mix of thoughtful and playful—can be a willing interview subject. You just have to get up to speed. We recently spoke over the phone about his interest in autobiographical films, his sportscaster friend Marv Albert, and whether there is any connection between Lex Luthor and Mark Zuckerberg. Of course, true to his unconventional nature, the interview began with him asking the questions.
Jesse Eisenberg: Are you in Chicago?
VICE: I'm from there, yeah. Family lives around the area by Midway airport.
I think a few years ago there was some controversy about the landing strip.
There was a bad crash. Kind of a morbid way to start this conversation.
Well, I had done some research on you and had realized you had grew up right around there and thought it would make a good icebreaker.
It's good you're researching me. The David Lipsky approach, right?
You know, between Squid and the Whale , Adventureland, and now Louder Than Bombs, there's a clear through line: Each are particularly vulnerable and painful depictions of being a teenager.
And all three movies feature characters that were proxies for the people making them. Joachim [Trier] certainly didn't abandon his wife and child, but a lot of the feelings—we would talk about them at great length—came from him. The other movies were explicitly autobiographical.
Is that a prerequisite for you in taking a role?
No, but it does mean that the characters are rendered in a thoughtful way and are able to behave in ways that don't seem immediately accessible. The characters can do things that seem emotionally honest, even if they're not behaviorally logical, because they are lived-in feelings. They've been created from the inside out.
How often are we behaviorally logical?
Well, in fictional stories, when they are created in order to facilitate a plot or prized argument at the midway point, I think the artifice increased. And then with a movie like [ Louder Than Bombs], such subtlety and an observational approach [means] you have more leeway. The stuff you're doing doesn't necessarily further a plot. You can have a feeling that audience may not be able to immediately pin on behavior.
Is it daunting to be the avatar for the directors in their movies?
Yes, especially when I was in Avatar, playing James Cameron.
I was thinking about that, but I was given explicit directions by your publicist not to discuss that movie or time in your life. Sensitive subject.
Ha, you probably were. Especially because I was so surprised that he went through all of that. My god. Going to that planet and everything? But yes, I find that stuff is kind of wonderful because anything I could do that feels less than explicit is great. As an actor, you're frequently tasked with propelling a plot and that can sometimes be in conflict with the authentic feelings you might have in any given moment. And you often have to make the plot progress paramount just by virtue of being a small part of a bigger whole.
You've worked with David Fincher, Kelly Reichardt, and Woody Allen. And then you're in Now You See Me 2 or 3?
The second one, yes, yes. If any luck, you'll have to see a third one. They intend for it to be a franchise I suppose. The thing I discover retroactively is that they're not that different. I was doing Louder Than Bombs the same time I was doing Batman v. Superman. The processes were so similar. I would wake up in the morning, too early, because I had to spend four hours getting a wig on. In another movie I was contemplating grief as it relates to losing a parent in a mysterious way. In Batman I'm contemplating grief with regards to a troubled childhood—the thirst for power and stability in a world that seems increasingly unstable. Put in those terms, the experiences are very similar.
That was a very intellectualized response, Jesse.
Yes, I try to give all questions a way too long answer.
On a Venn diagram, do you see a lot in the middle between Mark Zuckerberg and Lex Luthor?
No, no, no. Lex Luthor is a character who predates all of us. Who has been seen in so many incarnations. He's a character that's incredibly gregarious to the point of megalomania.
Aren't they both mendacious?
I think it would be impossible to discount the idea that this guy, in private, is trying to kill a flying alien. That probably supersedes any comparison to someone who is not doing that.
They both have a bit of emotional detachment, though. Robotic.
That's probably my interest in playing characters with a level of intensity that may not be warranted.
But that's your greatest asset as an actor. You fully assume both of these characters with true intensity.
That's certainly the goal if you're given the opportunity. Unfortunately, you're so rarely given the opportunity to play a character that feels at once pathological and someone who the audience wants to give a hug to, if only you could be sure they didn't stab you.
Judging by your filmography, you don't seem too interested in playing characters that people want to hug by the end.
It's the constant push and pull between behaving in a way that the audience may find amoral but justifying the behavior with an emotional undercurrent that makes the character seem credible. That's why Louder Than Bombs is done so well because each character is behaving in immature, irresponsible, and tantalizing ways, and yet you have an understanding of this behavior that creates an intriguing story.
Do you ever think in retrospect, Shit, I could've done that role better ?
I feel that way not only about characters, but about the individual scenes and lines. I've done three plays that I've written and performed and we do about 80–90 performances of these plays, and I can tell you specific performances I didn't like.
I remember who saw [The Revisionist], and what happened—almost moment for moment. I know there was one unspoken moment three years ago, with Richard Ayoade in the audience, and there was a joke where I screwed up the line and it killed me. I don't think I'm alone in that way. I'm friends with Marv Albert, the sports announcer, who told me there are games that he still laments because he missed a call or a phrase that he thought would've improved the telecast. People who care about what they do—whether they're good at what they do—think that way.
Are you good at what you do?
That's not for me to judge. All I know is that I feel compelled enough to continue doing it. Even if I wasn't asked to do it, I would find a way to do it.
You also write quite a bit. Recently you penned an article in the New Yorker titled "An Honest Film Review." People were not thrilled about that one.
I have only one reaction to that, and it's total mortification. I'm so ashamed and embarrassed that I possibly could've hurt people's feelings with that joke. Not only hurting people's feelings, but people that have been very good to me. A film journalist community that has helped me when I'm in movies like Louder Than Bombs that doesn't have a million-dollar marketing campaign. So the fact that I hurt a group that I've benefited from is absolutely mortifying to me. On the list of intentions with that piece, hurting somebody or being snarky, was not on the list. In fact, if anything, it would be on the list of things not to do. I feel like the things I wrote in the New Yorker, which is humor, shouldn't be upsetting or offensive. They should be sly or winky, but not offensive. It's heartbreaking. I had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes I do things—by virtue of being a movie actor—that gets scrutinized in a way that makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Sometimes it's a little too difficult to tell what's going to do that. In the case of that article, it was shocking.
How do you deal with that?
Oh, it's... it's incredibly upsetting. Professionally speaking, that was one of the worst days of my life. It was one of the most embarrassing moments for me. And I'm speaking as someone who doesn't read anything. Just knowing by third- and fourth-hand that there's that reaction to it online. I haven't met anybody who brushes things off.
In movies you're often playing these bookish, erudite characters. Literary types. If you could do one thing, would writing be it?
I spent the first ten years of my life training to be a banana. And the next ten wanting to play in the NBA.
I'm surprised the second one didn't work out. I saw that jump shot in Batman v. Superman.
[Laughs] That's right. It's funny, the movie is out now so I'm just waiting by the phone for a call. Thus far, nothing. A lot of NBA scouts are going to screenings of the movie. I feel more that a) I'm not going to be able to produce something, or b) the thing won't be good. What I'd like to do never crosses my mind in any kind of aspirational way, because I'm driven entirely by the idea that I may not be able to do something again.
That fear is still there?
Oh, god. It only increases with exposure. I think David Foster Wallace said something in [The End of the Tour] that I was in like, "It only gets harder because the more people that say they like you, the bigger fear you have of being a fraud." Suddenly the self-image you have has to be reconciled with the subjective public scrutiny.
What's the self-image you have?
I don't know. I don't watch any movies that I'm in. I don't read about myself. I occasionally glance in the mirror but only because it's right near my closet.
Every time there's a question that may unpack who you are, you deflect with a joke.
Well, we've only met! Even though I know everything about you.
Certainly you have some perception of yourself.
The strange part of what I do—especially with being in a popular movie, like Batman—you feel almost increasingly separate from the image you planned on having. The struggle is to maintain whatever idea you have yourself. In the beginning you kind of just hope that anybody will watch you do the thing. When you're an actor, and a lot of people start to see it, that's when you start thinking, Geez, I wish I thought about this more before I sent it out.
Louder Than Bombs opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 8. Batman v. Superman is playing in theaters nationwide.