Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg talks to Tim Robey about ‘The Social Network’ and coming face to face with the man he portrays.
Catching an actor in the eye of the awards-season hurricane can be a poignant experience, particularly when the actor in question is as resolutely self-deprecating as Jesse Eisenberg.
The 27-year-old New Yorker, whose profile has increased in steady increments over the past decade, is being universally feted for his eerie, funny and deadpan-mournful performance as Facebook mastermind Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network.
It is the lead role in the most vociferously acclaimed American film of the year; he’s won awards from critics’ groups he didn’t even know existed; he’s been nominated for Best Actor at both the Oscars and Baftas. Needless to say, it’s a busy moment. Flown in to London especially for an evening screening at Bafta HQ, he makes time for a brief chat – and a fig caipirinha – with the Telegraph.
Though he’s been in more than his fair share of well-regarded films, from Roger Dodger (2002) to The Squid and the Whale (2005) and onwards, Eisenberg is a newcomer to the all-consuming media hoopla of awards nominations.
Throughout it all, I can’t help wondering if real life gets rather put on hold. “No, no, no, no, yes, yes,” he says, in a typical flurry of patter. (His sentences trip out and correct themselves in a way that can’t help but remind you of Woody Allen.)
“I wrote a musical. I’ve been trying to complete it over the last two weeks, but I cannot be creative or focused on anything, and I think that primarily has to do with not feeling like I need to. As long as I’m going into these nice hotel rooms, with saunas and whatnot, then I don’t have a need to do anything else. I work best when I have that need.”
This all tumbles out in about five seconds flat. The same hyperactive quality, punctuated by whipcrack comic timing, is key to the kind of thing he pulls off so well on screen. It serves him well as the smart, bewildered guy in comedies (Zombieland) as it does as Zuckerberg, fighting with scarily articulate contempt to protect the intellectual property he feels is his and only his.
Though The Social Network has a propulsive energy and brio, packing 162 pages of Aaron Sorkin’s script into a fat-free two hours, I put it to Eisenberg that it’s also one of the most melancholy pictures to come out of mainstream Hollywood in a long while.
“That’s how I viewed it, too,” he says. “But I viewed the whole movie through my character, and my character is very isolated and sad and lonely. As ambitious and driven and creative as he is, he’s primarily driven by a feeling of isolation.”
It’s not just Zuckerberg who feels tragic or thwarted in The Social Network. No one really escapes the consuming air of chilly dolefulness imparted by Fincher’s direction, least of all the folks who end up suing Zuckerberg – among them his one-time friend and co-founder, Eduardo Saverin. “It’s almost the opposite of a morality tale,” says Eisenberg, “in that Eduardo, the character who seems the most healthy, good-natured and straight-edged, is the one who’s most destroyed, whereas all the lonely characters rise to the top.”
Seeming younger in person than his already-youthful screen image, Eisenberg is restlessly bright, polite and companionable. He started acting in New York’s fringe theatres in his early teens, and began writing film scripts for himself at those times when the stage roles ran dry. This might lead you to think he’s a rabid cinephile, but that could hardly be further from the truth. “I haven’t watched any movies this year,” he says. “I don’t see any movies at all.” He blames a short attention span and a preference for Broadway shows.
That musical he’s writing is called Me Time, which he describes as “a satire on modern self-indulgence”. His eyes light up when I mention Stephen Sondheim, of whom he’s an enormous fan. He tells me he once went to see Company on Broadway after eating a brownie he hadn’t realised had hash in it. “It was,” he says, “the strangest experience I’ve ever had.”
The awards season circus has also brought its fair share of strange experiences for Eisenberg, not least his recent face-to-face encounter with the real Mark Zuckerberg, on Saturday Night Live, an awkward, uncanny, comic moment – but one that suggested, by his very presence, that Zuckerberg held no grudge against his imitator.
Eisenberg admits that his worry, when he accepted the role, was that it might be taken as a personal assault on the Facebook creator. “I don’t want to be part of something that has hurt somebody,” he says. It’s obvious that the character’s near-robotic insensitivity is not a trait the actor shares and that his concern about how the portrait would be received makes it too simplistic to say the movie wilfully sticks the knife in.
“The reaction has been interesting, because I spoke to somebody high-level at Facebook who said that not only has it not hurt their brand, or Mark, but that people under 25 who saw the movie, for example – they did a survey – tend to view Mark in a very favourable light,” Eisenberg says. “Maybe not an older crowd, my mother for example, who doesn’t have experience with computers. It’s a very modern idea, being able to start something from nothing on a computer, overnight.
“My mother’s reaction to the movie was that she wanted to slap me and then, at the end, hug me.” That’s the next best thing to saying he nailed it.
The Social Network is released on DVD on Monday.