Whenever I see Jesse Eisenberg act in films, it seems that he has the unique ability to inhabit his characters, making them three-dimensional and usually heartbreakingly compelling. (Remember The Social Network, The Squid and the Whale and Roger Dodger.)
Well, it turns out that the guy can write too.
Since October, Eisenberg has been co-starring in his play, Asuncion, at the Cherry Lane Theatre. (Kip Fagan directs.) Often hilarious, sometimes tragic, always thought-provoking, the talented cast, which includes Remy Auberjonois, Justin Bartha, Camille Mana and Eisenberg, play off each other at perfect pitch. Edgar (Eisenberg) and Vinny (Bartha) are misguided and mostly clueless roommates whose lives are turned around when Asuncion, a young Filipina woman (Mana), comes to live with them.
Eisenberg talked to me at length about Asuncion and other matters on his mind.
Q: What inspired you to write Asuncion?
Eisenberg: I like to write about exaggerated parts of myself because I find that it’s a way for me to work through something and to write about something I know very well. In this case, the character is obsessed with world statistics and politics, but has very little life experience. So that’s kind of strange — caught between knowing a lot and not doing much.
Q: How so?
Eisenberg: In the play, the character has been to Cambodia for two days and talks about it nonstop and considers himself an expert in all things Asian. And that happened to me too; I went to Cambodia for a few days. When I came back, if I met anybody from Asia, that was all I wanted to talk about. I would immediately talk about Cambodia as though they were from Cambodia. And I noticed the kind of silly part of myself and so I started writing about that. It gives me an opportunity to work through that strangeness as well as write something that only I could know.
Q: Can you tell me about your writing process?
Eisenberg: I wrote the first scene of the play over a course of a day or two because it was based on something that had happened to me and I thought it would just be an interesting scene. What happened to me was I was attacked on the street — and I did an interview and I defended the kids who attacked me because they grew up in kind of a poor neighborhood. Then somebody sent me a letter with the interview attached, saying, “You racist, ignorant idiot to defend people who attacked. You’re even more ignorant than wanting to put them in jail because you assumed that people who grew up in poor neighborhoods should be attackers.” And I thought, well, he’s right and that is a good point. I actually did do something very condescending and wrong.
So I thought that was an interesting character. Somebody who comes home and defends his attackers and what that says about that person. It’s so rich. I created that first scene in about two days. Then I spent a few months thinking what would be most interesting to insert into these characters’ lives.
Finally, I stumbled upon a series of articles written about sex trafficking from around the world. I thought that would be so interesting to bring somebody from the outside world and drop her off in this apartment. Then see how these two guys, who think they know so much about the world but have actually experienced very little, react to her. And because I was reading a lot about sex trafficking, I thought it would be interesting to bring a woman in who’s clearly not a trafficked woman but by virtue of her being from the Philippines, they just assumed she is. And we could learn a lot about all three of them in this very unique context.
Q: What are some of your writing rituals?
Eisenberg: I have very little discipline. So I would go to private corners of my university — not in a library, but just in a very private alcove. I put in headphones but didn’t play any music so that if people walked by and were talking, I would almost be inspired by whatever they were saying. I’d like just to hear other human dialog and spend a few hours there. And if nothing happened, that was okay. Sometimes 10 pages would happen. But most of the time nothing happened. It was just about spending time with it. I do not know what it’s like for writers who get paid for writing because they have deadlines. I don’t know how they are able to find inspiration. When I would be stuck with the theme, I put it away for a month and just kind of wait for something to hit me.
Q: Do you use a computer?
Eisenberg: I would write with my computer, but the best things that are in the play probably came from scribbling I would make on the subway because those are the kind of little fun lines you think of when you’re walking down the street and don’t have your computer.
Q: I read that you wrote the part of Vinny for Justin Bartha? Is that true?
Eisenberg: I had written it based on conversations I’ve had with a few different friends. And then as I was finishing it, I realized the drama of it, as opposed to just the content, was very similar to what Justin and I were working on while we were doing this movie, Holy Rollers. We were rehearsing for the movie and realized that some of the drama in the play was kind of unconsciously motivated by the rehearsal process we were doing for that movie. And when I read it with Justin, it was immediately clear to me that’s what I had done.
I really like Justin as an actor. He’s able to do so many different things at once — to be scary, but funny at the same time. That’s a very weird combination: where the audience can laugh at a character but have no idea what’s driving him and be kind of off balance. He is able to do a kind of forced self-humor mixed with a kind of seductive quality. He has a very unique range and it contrasts well with my type of humor, which is kind of just quick and thrown away. His is kind of slow and labored. So I like working with him.
Q: What is it like acting your own words?
Eisenberg: I feel comfortable performing in the play because when you’re writing something, you’re trying your best to indicate the pace thing and indicate the style of humor. But when other people take it away and perform it or direct it, it’s out of your hands. So, acting in the play is almost an extension of that kind of control. I am able to set pacing. I’m able to dictate, kind of, at least for my character and style of humor. I am able to emphasize things that should be emphasized because I am there on stage every night. I’m sure another actor could do it too, but for me it is kind of an extension of the writing.
Q: Switching gears, there have been reports in the press that you are suing Lionsgate. Is there anything that you can say about the lawsuit?
Eisenberg: I can say that I initiated the lawsuit based on the principle that artists should not be exploited — in this case — by the company Lionsgate. If there is a financial reward, it will be directed back to nonprofit organizations that I’m affiliated with that provide opportunities for underserved sectors of the artist community that are less advantaged than I’ve gotten to be.”
Presented by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Asuncion is playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre until Dec. 18. The theater is located at 38 Commerce Street in New York.