Interview: The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg
Published Date: 29 March 2011
By SIOBHAN SYNNOT
FROM fringe character to cool cultural overlord: right now the nerd seems to be on fire.
But unlike previous generations of movie geeks, this intellectually gifted, socially clumsy archetype doesn’t want our sympathy or support. Nerd culture has been systematically mainstreamed on screen by The Big Bang, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Professor Brian Cox. Now geeks possess a deadpan confidence that outweighs their fear of frat-boy violence. The old nerd was an underdog. New nerd is the top dog.
But mostly Jesse Eisenberg – the latest actor to amass a filmography of romantically challenged, unfashionably smart young men – would like us to stop thinking of nerds as being someone who isn’t us. “Everyone’s a geek in some way or other,” he says. “Everyone’s an outsider.”
In a short but productive career, Eisenberg has come to specialise in precocious intelligence, and also intransigence. From The Squid And The Whale to Zombieland to last year’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Social Network, his characters don’t quite fit in, but they also don’t feel compelled to hide their nonconformity. Nor does Eisenberg, who has a reputation for being as formidably sharp in person as the characters he plays.
Right now he’s everywhere – awards ceremonies, two new films this spring, including Rio, a family-friendly animated adventure, and a hinterland of work rush-released on DVD – but while Eisenberg is now part of our conversation, he’s refusing to join in. “I don’t go to movies, I don’t own a television, I don’t buy magazines and I try not to receive mail so I’m not really aware of popular culture,” he agrees, in one of his rapid, over-caffeinated bursts of fluency.
When he worked with Woody Harrelson on Zombieland, the former Cheers barman tried to hep up his co-star with a few cultural touchstones. “He gave me Radiohead’s OK Computer,” remembers Eisenberg. “I didn’t want to tell him I already had it. Although I bought him a book of Yasmina Reza plays, and the first thing he said was, ‘I already have this.’ So obviously he wasn’t as concerned with being awkward as I was.
“With The Social Network, it’s just strange to be a part of something that has had a cultural impact because I have nothing personally to add to that discussion. I’m also not on Facebook.” Yet it’s hard to think of anyone else who could play Mark Zuckerberg in the film, David Fincher’s fictionalised take on the origins of the website. This Zuckerberg was emotionally aloof and intellectually arrogant; and after playing the role, Eisenberg found himself going around interviews and audience Q&As defending the character.
“It was almost aggressive,” he recalls. “People would say, ‘He was such a jerk. Why would you want to play this character?’ And then at the other extreme there was, ‘I felt so bad for him, I just wanted to give him a hug’ – although that was my mother talking,” Eisenberg jokes.
In 2009 when Eisenberg was cast in The Social Network he knew there was no hope of meeting the famously private Zuckerberg before filming. In fact, when he first got the script and was asked to make an audition tape, he had never heard of the Facebook executive. “There was no time to prepare so I didn’t think I got the voice right or the mannerisms.” Nevertheless, within two days he was asked to fly out and meet Fincher. “He said he didn’t want a facsimile for the movie; his goal was to get to the essence of the story.
“We had a four-hour meeting where he told me how he liked to shoot films. It was so long and I had to pee the whole time, and to be honest I would have preferred to just read my scenes and go home, so I don’t remember much about the meeting, although I wish I did.”
Eisenberg is much more savvy about human interaction than the version of Zuckerberg he plays. He assures you – very often – that he finds interviews excruciating, yet his answers are assured, droll and frequently self-effacing. “If you seem too comfortable, people assume you’re a narcissist,” notes the actor, currently engaged in part-time study for a degree in anthropology.
He’s also had plenty of practice discussing himself. He sees two therapists every week, then compares one set of conclusions against the other, “One therapist sort of brings me down and makes me realise bad things I’ve done, but then the other one says, ‘Don’t worry about it; it’ll be fine.’”
Of course, he has already made the connection between rigorous self-analysis and the escape acting offers. “Some people who are uncomfortable in person open up in performing, and I’m in that category, I think,” he says. “It’s something else in my life that distracts me from everything else.”
When he was younger, he struggled socially and emotionally. Eventually he ended up missing a year of school. “I had great difficulty connecting with other people. Then I started acting in plays– these contrived, fake settings – and I felt more comfortable because it was a prescribed setting, one that had the roles already established; yet you could be creative.”
Eisenberg broke into movies in 2002 playing Campbell Scott’s unworldly nephew in Roger Dodger, and gained wider attention as the eldest son in Noah Baumbach’s caustically funny, awfully sad coming-of-age story The Squid And The Whale. By then he had already been on the stage for years.
Born in Queens, New York, and raised in New Jersey, Eisenberg grew up with a professor father while his mother performed as a clown at local birthday parties He is not the only actor in his family. For years his sister Kate was the face of Pepsi. “It seems absurd to say she quit the business aged 12, but that’s what she did.”
In his downtime, he lives quietly in Manhattan with his girlfriend Amy, 33, and says he can still ride a bike around the place without causing much of a stir (“in New York, everybody is their own celebrity, so they’re not so interested in other people”). Even so, after his undead comedy Zombieland he learned to avoid cycling past schools, where that film had been warmly embraced. “It makes you not want to do stupid movies because then you would end up having to talk to people who like stupid movies.”
Voicing a timid macaw who flies off for adventure with Anne Hathaway in Rio may not offer much intellectually rigorous debate in Chelsea, but Eisenberg’s new fame is the reason Holy Rollers is now coming to the UK after sitting on the shelf for a year. Based on the true story of a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who gets ensnared in an ecstasy smuggling ring, Mazel tovs are definitely in order.
“I wish I knew more about old-school Jewish values, but I dropped out of Hebrew school when I was 12.” He also refused a bar mitzvah because “where I lived, kids did it for the money”. After spending time with the Hasidic community learning, however, he wanted to become closer, and aged 26 finally went through the ceremony. “A man at last,” he quips.
Eisenberg has been through another rite of passage in the last 12 months with the Klieg spotlight of The Social Network. He was Oscar nominated this year and could have collected the statuette, had he not been battling the belief that it was time to reward Colin Firth or he might make Mamma Mia! 2.
Eisenberg doesn’t mind because he didn’t expect to win, although he grumbles mildly that the studio’s global awards campaign meant he was unable to appear in an off-Broadway play. Instead, for three months, he toured the western world’s gong shows, including the Baftas in February. “You build up this great anticipation and it’s just, you know, it’s a strange kind of place to live in for several months with that kind of that anticipation,” he says. “It’s a strange and unsustainable feeling to have.”
Arguably, landing an Oscar would have been some unnecessary icing on his cake. Just getting to the nominees’ circle – and the attention it brings – has been enough to change his life. For years Eisenberg has been writing plays, and thanks to the new buzz, his musical, Me Time, may now finally go into production. “It’s very hard to be a playwright because it’s very competitive,” he says. “But if you’re in movies people are more apt to produce your stuff, even if it’s bad.”
He also hopes it will change the kind of scripts he’s offered. “Back when I was offered Zombieland, I remember the first thing I read was, ‘We hear the voice of a witty, anxiety-ridden Everyman, such as Seth Green.’ I wondered, ‘So why did they send me this?’” Apparently, though, he’s the forgiving type since he’s already teamed back up with Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer for an action comedy 30 Minutes or Less, about a pizza boy kidnapped and forced to rob a bank by a pair of criminals, and is also set to make Zombieland 2.
In the end, even Mark Zuckerberg has surrendered to The Social Network. In interviews, Eisenberg has been careful to rebut accusations that he is unlikable in the film, and such gentle diplomacy seems to have thawed relations. The good sportsmanship reached its height last month when the two social networkers finally met to perform a brief skit together on the American TV show Saturday Night Live.
“We met at the dress rehearsal and that was probably the best way to meet him.” Did that feel awkward? “No, no. I was happy he had agreed to do it,” says Eisenberg immediately. The encounter was brief: Zuckerberg arrived shortly before filming and Eisenberg had to fly out after the show to another awards red carpet, and their discussions tended to focus on the technical details of their performance. Nevertheless, Eisenberg thinks it’s clear this was a goodwill gesture – and perhaps even an endorsement.
It seems the real revenge of the nerds is to embrace it.
Rio is released 8 April