The Holy Rollers star talks fame, being funny and not being the coolest guy in Hollywood.
Labelling Jesse Eisenberg ‘awkward’ feels a little like calling greyhounds ‘rangy’; while undeniably true, it’s just a little unnecessary. Sitting in the nondescript Farringdon offices of a PR company the Saturday before the BAFTAs, Eisenberg is polite, funny, extremely modest but jitterier than a rattlesnake on a washing machine. It’s not that he’s rude; just a little, well, awkward…
LWLies: Congratulations on all the awards. How you feeling about all that stuff?
Eisenberg: Well, it’s very nice. But I recognise that it’s a temporary experience to do with a single movie… I look forward to never having it again.
In lots of your films – The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, The Social Network, Holy Rollers – you’ve played fairly unlikeable characters that at the same time are interesting and even charming. Are you worried that the new profile means you’re going to have to play nice guys from now on?
I never really think of a character as likeable or not likeable. In the same way that a person doesn’t think of themselves as likeable or not likeable. You try to think of a role inside out. For instance, with a film like The Social Network, my character does things that are hurtful to other characters. That may make his less likeable in movie terms, but for me as the actor I always knew why he was doing those things and why he would make those decisions. They’re all the heroes of their own story.
In both The Social Network and Holy Rollers you’re playing characters based on real people. That can come with big pitfalls; what made you take on those roles?
Luckily, I didn’t experience the pitfalls, which is when your portrayal is compared to the real person. Even with someone like Mark Zuckerberg, who is in the public eye and my contemporary, I was asked to create a character, not do an impression. In Holy Rollers I was really playing a combination of a few people who no one really knows. The advantages are far greater. It’s inspiring to learn about a person’s life and to think how you can bring that life to a character. So, for example, for Holy Rollers I read about how Hassidic Jews wouldn’t touch or shake hands with a woman. That made me think about how, as a Hassidic Jew, you would feel when you saw a woman walking down the street. Maybe you would feel simultaneously attracted but also guilty.
You’re 26. How have you got so far so quickly?
A lot of it is luck. I know fantastic actors with the same skill set as mine that aren’t working in anything that we would have seen. I mean, I’ve been in a lot of things that no one’s ever seen. Or if they’ve seen them no one’s ever liked them.
Have you got any advice for other young actors?
There are some great advantages to being in a really big movie; you can make a living from it, it offers you other opportunities and maybe the movie itself is good. But if you like the performance side of acting, as opposed to the publicity part, then you should want to do it in any capacity, in any venue.
With something like The Squid and the Whale, reactions were often very different depending on your individual circumstances – like, if your parents had split or not. Are you expecting a similarly mixed response to Holy Rollers?
After The Squid and the Whale came out I got approached by a lot of people whose parents had divorced, who wanted to tell me how they identified with my character. It was nice, although my parents are still married so I couldn’t really relate. In Holy Rollers, the personal reactions have come from people who have dealings with Hassidic Jews but are not Hassidic themselves. That’s been really interesting. Hassidic Jews in major urban centres like London and New York are integrated into the world, but also very foreign. You know, although I ride the subway with them every day, they live in a house that I’ll never enter; they go to a temple that I would never be allowed inside. And yet we have the same background in many ways, and the same physical appearance.
Is it true that you’re making a sequel to Zombieland?
No. They’re writing the script right now but I haven’t seen it and I suspect that the longer we wait, the less relevant it will be. I mean, all the actors would love to do it and the director would love to do it but I’m not sure what’s happening.
Is Bill Murray the coolest guy in Hollywood?
Yeah, he’s very funny. I’ve been to a couple of awards ceremonies recently and he’s made some hysterical speeches. So yes, I suspect he would take the title that you bestow upon him.
Talking of funny, is it true that your mother is a clown? Did you have quite a creative, performing background?
My mother was a birthday party clown and my father is a professor in a university. So they understand and support the arts. That provided a nice basis for me. We lived in the suburbs of New Jersey and I didn’t have a good feeling in my school, so the entertainment world of New York was very alluring. When I was 14-years-old I was old enough to do it. I was very attracted to theatre and movies but at the same time there was this dark side, people taking advantage of each other, and I was slightly repelled by that.
You’ve recently been described as the acceptable face of geek Hollywood. Are you happy with that, or are you doing to do a massive action film now to counteract it?
I mean, I haven’t accepted that title. I just don’t think it really sticks. But, you know, thank you for it, I guess.