Jesse Eisenberg on the Torment of Being an Actor
Way back in August at The Smile, I spoke to Jesse Eisenberg as part of a profile on the actor for our October issue. The self-conscious, fiercely self-critical thespian was easily the most reluctant star I had ever spoken to. Weary of the system he so relied on, terrified of the fame he was most likely destined for, Eisenberg struck me as giant paradox. But you kind of felt it–there was no turning back. And sure enough since then, Zombieland has tasted the zeitgeist (thank you, cameo), is a bona fide box office hit (and franchise!), and Eisenberg is officially a movie star. And then there’s that thing about starring as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg opposite Justin Timberlake in David Fincher’s new movie. Yeah, that can’t help.
Are you comfortable talking about yourself in interviews? No, but to be comfortable with it is probably a weird characteristic. You’d have to be a real narcissist to be comfortable with it. My mom always told me I was precious growing up. so part of me probably feels a sense of deservedness that’s ugly. Having said that—it’s an uncomfortable part of the process. I had to get a publicist and take so many pictures. Had to do publicity and everything. It’s very nice to meet people like you and everything, but it’s under a weird false pretense.
Do you dislike promoting your movies? It’s not daunting, it’s just monotonous. We do the same interviews over and over. For Zombieland I did interviews with Emma Stone and she’s hysterical. We did about 50 interviews and it’s always the same questions, so what we did before each interview is give each other a phrase or a word we would have to work into the interview to make it a little more interesting. The only time we really laughed was when she made me say stiffy.
How did you work ‘stiffy’ into the interview? I didn’t know what to say, but Woody Harrelson’s character is always drinking alcohol so I said, He always has a lot of stiffy drinks, and then I immediately thought of ejaculate and could not stop laughing.
Why don’t you like watching movies? I just get nervous. They make me feel anxious to watch them because I’m aware of the artifice, and then I feel like I’m part of the artifice.
So then where does the joy come from making movies? I like when I feel as free as possible. With Zombieland, for example, even though it’s a kind of a big movie with genre elements, the director let us improvise more that I’d ever done in my life.
You must be forced to watch yourself often, like at premiers. That’s a real uncomfortable way to do it. But with Adventureland, they made me sit at Sundance. I couldn’t leave. I had to watch it. It would have been rude to leave. It’s also rude to do to all the people who make the movie who don’t see themselves in the same solipsistic way I see myself. They think, We all worked on this together, whereas I think it’s all about me. I mean, it’s just, it’s arrogance.
Why are you in this business? To get out of school. That’s why I started when I was younger, literally to get out of school, as in leave early. I like it. It’s a great business to be in. Well, I mean, it’s an awful business, I should say, where every job ends in a constant state of procuring jobs.
Do you look ahead in your career, or take each role as it comes? I want to write plays. One of the plays I wrote is getting turned into a movie in Poland. I recognize how hard it is to sustain an acting career. You do a part, and if you’re good in it, then people say you’ve already done that. If you’re not good in it, then people say you’re bad. Every time I do anything, I just constantly see the failure behind it.
How do you find the failure in something so beloved as The Squid and the Whale? I didn’t have anything to do with the reason that people love that, I’m just acting in it. They could have cast anybody, and I could have been in something terrible. My friend Justin Bartha was in Gigli, and it’s one of the greatest performances ever. He plays this retarded guy and he’s amazing, but the movie was derided that he gets the short end of the stick. So the failure from being in something good is that I had nothing to do with it. I mean, I imagine the director or writer for that movie had maybe a deserved sense of accomplishment, but as an actor, it’s hard to really take credit for being in a movie that’s good. I think they give actors too much credit.
Do you get a lot of offers for roles? Yeah, I get offered movies on a regular basis, but most of them are terrible because most of the movies that are made are terrible. I don’t think anybody saw Adventureland, but they marketed it as a big comedy, so I get sent these really shitty scripts that I think people assume that was like. So many scripts where people are having sex with each other. Every script starts off with sex.
Do you read more bad scripts than good? Yeah, I was on the plane today with my sister and I just had her read one because I just couldn’t stand it. It was just this guy who was trying to have sex with a lot of women. I read like five pages and then my veins hurt.
Based on Zombieland’s final result, I’m guessing that’s the most fun you’ve had on movie set so far? There was a lot of pressure because it was the first time I had a lead role in a big movie.
So you were pretty nervous then? Yeah, I have a lot of natural anxiety. And with a studio film, there are so many added parts of the preparation process. It’s all really smart, well-intentioned people, but it’s just more people and so naturally a little overwhelming. It was very difficult to get into that movie.
What do you mean? I mean, they were nervous to hire me because I’m not famous. There were other more famous people who were auditioning for it. I think the main reason I got into it was because Sony really likes Greg Mottola, who directed Adventureland, so he vouched for me, because he directed their biggest movie in the last several years, Superbad.
Did you enjoy playing with guns? No, guns seem dumb. I felt bad holding guns because I don’t know what influence it has on people watching movies. You can make the argument that it lets people take out their aggression so they don’t do it in real life. You can also make the argument that it makes guns look fun and people are going take them out and play with them.
Was it awkward then, for you to see Abigail Breslin with a gun? No, I mean it’s a fun movie. If someone shoots somebody because they saw the movie then they’re a murderer anyway. All the other characters are proficient with guns, and my character doesn’t really like guns, so he’s more of an amateur. When the camera goes on are you self-aware? I felt that 3 times when I’ve acted in movies. Yeah, that’s the worst. You’re dead when that happens. I feel that way normally in life, so acting sometimes can take you out of that awful feeling of self-consciousness.
So you’re able to step out of it and get inside the character’s head? Yeah, my character in Zombieland is obsessive compulsive, so they were also trying to cast somebody similar to the character. You’re not using your imagination as much as trying to be as funny as you possibly can. If you’re funny with your girlfriend, you try to use that same skill in the movie.
Are you at a stage in your career where you’re getting recognized on the street? I normally get recognized as either a guy from Spring Awakening, or there’s this other guy that screams at me all the time, Hey Napoleon Dynamite!
Are there any perks to your job? No, nothing. I don’t go to nightclubs, I don’t go to nice restaurants. There’s no perk that can be had aside from getting a slice of pizza at interviews. But you could. People really could exploit it. I haven’t been single for 7 years, but I know people who are maybe my level of attractiveness or less and they can have sex quite often.
Does that baffle you? That’s great, because then they’ll tell me about it.