The hit film, The Social Network, may not have as profound an effect as the social network, Facebook, itself. But the cinematic version has lots of important things to say about the kind of people who make game-changing ideas into a reality and how it impacts on those around them.
When an idea like FB becomes worth, at least on paper, about 50 billion dollars, exceeds Google as the most viewed site with billions of click-throughs and has over 500 million members, it necessitates getting a handle on its implications. And there has been about a billion words written about it.
But when a film like this that comes out, and successfully gives a sense of how a shambling sequence of serendipitous events and synchronicities converge, ebb and flow, not only affects the people it happens to but reshapes them, it becomes really important in its own right.
Yet for all the accolades deservedly applied towards screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, it is actor Jesse Eisenberg who had to inhabit and give life to some being that illustrates what makes a visionary like Mark Zuckerberg tick. If not tick, then give a sense of who this person is behind the headlines.
Before all the ballyhoo about The Social Network being an obvious candidate for an array of awards, Oscar nominations and likely wins, there were several opportunities to speak with its cast and creators. So between appearances at the Soho Apple Store, Lincoln Center Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater — it had its world premiere at the 2010 New York ilm Festival — and the Harvard Club (the film’s distributor Sony Pictures held a press conference there), this Q&A with its 27-year-old star Eisenberg was cobbled together.
Q: Did you do a lot of research into Mark Zuckerberg and his world, or were you more guided by what was in the script?
JE: I did a lot of research during the rehearsal process, but if I didn’t and only had Aaron’s script, that would have been perfectly sufficient. I auditioned for the movie prior to looking up Mark Zuckerberg online. I didn’t know what he looked like — I had never heard him speak — and all I had was Aaron’s incredible characterization, and felt that was more than sufficient to make the audition tape.
Then we had about a month and a half of rehearsal, and in order to feel more prepared and to understand who this guy was I found and watched every interview that was online and got every picture that I could find of him.
But really, as Aaron has said, it’s not really a movie about Facebook as much as it is about these more substantive themes. And in the same way it was not a traditional biography picture; we were trying to do a kind of an imitation of the character of Mark Zuckerberg, and so I was really just focusing on playing Aaron’s characterization.
Q: What is the challenge of playing a character people may think is a big asshole?
JE: It’s impossible to play a role and to look at it, not only in the way that you described it, but look at it objectively at all. I had the unique position in that my main responsibility was to not only understand where my character was coming from but to be able to defend all of his positions, his behavior, and ultimately sympathize with him. And over the course of the movie and really over the course of this publicity experience I’ve developed an even greater affection for my character. You have no choice; it’s impossible to disagree with the character that you’re portraying.
We shot the movie for about five and a half months, they were very long days, and you’re spending a lot of time working hard to defend your character’s behavior. So even if the character is acting in a way that hurts other characters, you still have to understand and ultimately sympathize with all of that behavior; it’s just impossible to play it any other way.
Q: A lot of people in the tech community see Zuckerberg as having a somewhat Asperger’s syndrome-like personality — not into touch, very emotionally muted. Did that quality inform your portrayal of Mark?
JE: I certainly don’t want to diagnose him, but in Aaron’s script and then, in watching his interviews, there’s a certain kind of disengagement that you see. It’s frankly not dissimilar to some disengagement that I probably express when I’m doing interviews because they can be incredibly uncomfortable, so to kind of attribute it to some extreme diagnosis doesn’t feel right to me. But there was a really interesting quality that I wanted to bring out, which is this difficulty connecting to others.
Of course it makes his invention that much more ironic and fitting, that he would create something that connects everybody else, so it was something we tried to bring out. It makes the character far more interesting to play, that he has trouble connecting with others and yet feels particularly comfortable connecting everybody else, and perfectly comfortable in the social environment of Facebook.
It was also something to make me feel the character was really a full person, so even though he maybe appears enigmatic, reserved or detached, there’s still something happening beneath that. [His] feeling, among many other often conflicting emotions, is of [being] lonely. At the end of the movie, he’s a billionaire and has created something really out of nothing almost by himself and he feels still alone.
Q: If you could meet Mark Zuckerberg and speak with him, what would you like to know?
JE: I’d like to go to Johnny Rockets with Mark because I like their shakes. I spent six months thinking about him every day. I developed a great affection for my character and of course by extension the man, and I’d be very interested in meeting him.
Fortunately, my first cousin, Eric, got a great job working at Facebook about a month before we finished shooting, and I’m hoping he’ll facilitate an introduction one day. I don’t know what I would say. It’s the kind of thing you think about all the time but then I’d finally give the card to Lucy and say Merry Christmas, Lucy, instead of Happy Valentine’s Day.
Q: After thoroughly researching, playing and getting feedback from people about Zuckerberg, what’s your impression of him?
JE: My impression is really formed more from the character. I don’t know the real Mark Zuckerberg, though I was like everybody else delighted to see this very generous [$100 million] donation he made [on Sept. 22nd, 2010, to the Newark public schools]. In the movie the character that Aaron created is a guy that is desperately trying to fit in and doesn’t have the social wherewithal to do so. I could certainly relate to that.
Almost to cope, he creates this incredible tool to interact in a way that he feels comfortable. And because of his incredible insight, 500 million other people also feel comfortable using that tool.
It’s just a fascinating character and complicated in all the right ways, so even though he maybe acts in a way that would be hurtful to other characters, like you indicated, it’s by the end of the movie totally understandable.
Q: That first scene is so patently Aaron Sorkin –like he wrote for his show The West Wing; can you tell us what’s happening?
JE: I saw the movie for the first time [at the premiere] and had the same reaction to the first scene that I had when I first read Aaron’s script, even though I knew the scene so intimately, which is that after two or three minutes of the scene you realize that it’s not going to end. And it’s such a wonderful surprise because you just don’t see scenes not only of that nuance and complexity in movies, but of that length as well. And for an actor that’s kind of what you want, that’s what’s really thrilling about working with a script like Aaron’s.
A kind of an interesting anecdote is that David Fincher does a lot of takes, we performed that scene 99 times. He refused to do it an extra time to get an even 100, and it was just really exciting. It was shot on the third day of the shoot and it was exciting for me to kind of figure out who Mark is and have two nights — we shot it over the course of two nights — to kind of experiment with the character. How detached is he? How is he affected by what she’s saying, and by extension how is he affected in general by conflict? And it was wonderful to have the luxury of the two nights to film such an exciting scene.
Q: Yes, Fincher is known for doing a lot of takes. What scene required the most takes or the least you had to do, and what was your reaction to seeing the film for the first time?
JE: We’re asked about the great amount of takes almost as though the actors are in opposition to doing that, and every actor I know would stay there all day if there’s more film in the camera. The alternative is sitting in the trailer. So it was an absolute blessing to do it and we’re all thrilled for the amount of time we were able to spend actually acting and not sitting around waiting to act.
Q: Have you ever had a chance to just hand somebody his ass, as in that second scene, with the lawyers?
JE: I got in a fight with somebody on the subway once because I asked them if they were a vegetarian, and he said that was too personal — and I got angry. But he wasn’t a lawyer.
Q: What form did your anger take?
JE: I said, “That’s not personal.” He said, “It is.” I said, “I just became a vegetarian; I was wondering if you had any tips.” And he said, “That’s not appropriate to ask somebody.” I said, “You work in an animal shelter; I figured it would be.” And then he took off.
Q: While shooting the half-hour conversation in the film, what were you thinking?
JE: I had to pee and about four hours into the meeting. I said [to David], “Listen, I really have to pee,” and he said, “That’s okay, you can go do that,” and so I did and then I felt fine. But I really can’t remember what happened prior to doing that because I was just trying to move my legs in such a way. But [David's direction] often was, “Be more opaque,” and that’s not something I was used to.
In acting class you’re trained to express yourself as much as you can and it was a challenge and an interesting one to kind of figure out how to express these often very conflicting feelings that this character has. He’s both desperate to connect and also really struggling to, while remaining frequently expressionless.
Q: When were you finally comfortable with the scene?
JE: To do it that many times I didn’t get increasingly more comfortable. I felt comfortable just when the emotion kind of hit at the same time that my character’s emotion hit. There was one scene in the movie, in the deposition room, and my character has a legal notepad — and it was a difficult scene for me. I felt I only got two good takes.
There was number 12 and 18. I wrote it down on the pad like, “Please only use 12 and 18 when you edit the movie, and those are also the ones you had circled.” And we maybe went up to 40, so it was not like I got increasingly more comfortable and got to a point where I really felt it was right; It’s just kind of peaks and valleys.
Q: What was it was like to work with Aaron Sorkin as a writer and as an actor — after all he plays an ad executive?
JE: I was really thrilled to get the opportunity to read his dialogue. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. I used to videotape Sports Night because when I would watch it when it was on TV I couldn’t get all of it; it was so fascinating I would watch it over and over again.
He’s a great playwright. I’ve done a lot of plays, and to do a 10-page scene in a movie is very rare, but something that really is exciting to me. And many of the scenes in the movie, while they’re not 10 pages, they’re longer than traditional movie scenes. So it was a great opportunity.
Q: Did you turn to David and say, “Are we really pushing this particular moment?” Did you feel at any time that you were being unfair?
JE: No, because I never thought that what I was doing was critical of a person. First of all, I thought of it as an actor acting in a scene. The fact that it was about somebody real we had kind of already thought about and dealt with, and we weren’t focusing on that while we were shooting, of course.
I genuinely felt, and still do, that everything I do as my character is explainable, and that’s what I was hired to do: to go through each moment and each action and interaction and all of his behavior and find a way to not only justify it but to sympathize with it and be able to defend it. I feel comfortable that that’s what I did.
Q: Does acting give you a chance to shape your life in some way that is comfortable to you, like it would be for Mark Zuckerberg, the guy who is the boss, who can say, “I’m it, bitch. I am this person now so that I can control it. I can decide to friend who I want to friend and not the other people over there.” You can create a life for yourself in that.
JE: Yeah, that’s why I started acting, really. For similar reasons I felt really uncomfortable in school, and acting allowed me to interact in an entirely contrived setting that made me feel almost counter-intuitively much more comfortable.
Q: Is there a moment that particularly resonates for you about the making of this movie?
JE: During that second clip you saw where I have the monolog to that lawyer. There were brief moments where I felt good because there were these deposition room scenes that are peppered throughout the film. They take place four years after the creation of Facebook, and we filmed all of them at the end of the shooting section.
I didn’t realize it, but I kind of built up a lot of frustration during the film through my character feeling really put upon by these other characters. During that scene and some other scenes that are similar, I was able to kind of purge myself of that frustration and it felt really good.
Q: What do people need to know going into this movie?
JE: I’m not an authority on this the same way that David is, but what really interested me about the movie was that it had almost nothing to do with the fact that it was about Facebook. The characters and the story are incredibly characters, the theme that the story covers are classical. The fact that it’s about something topical makes it more relevant but is not relevant to the value of the story.
Q: Are you on Facebook?
JE: I signed up for Facebook the first day of rehearsal so I could understand what my character was talking about, and when we started shooting and I had to learn all those lines, I stopped using it.
Q: Did you keep any souvenir of your Mark Zuckerberg incarnation?
JE: I think I stole a hoodie from the set. I tried to take a computer but the prop guy came after me.