Jesse did an interview with Buzzine.
There’s a certain inescapable Jewishness that some dramatic actors have, no matter the part. Perhaps the most famous case in point is Dustin Lee Hoffman, whose semitic looks and halting, seemingly nervous delivery was pitch-perfect at conveying a generation’s angst in The Graduate. While it’s unlikely any similarly semantic performer will ascend Hoffman’s Mount Sinai, Jesse Eisenberg is doing quite well in his niche at embodying the nerd generation — one as intelligently far apart from spring break NASCAR-worshiping youth as imaginable.
The NYC scion born of a family where mom clowned at kids’ parties and a younger sister who made no small name for herself as a child star, Jesse Eisenberg made his own acting impression in the 2002 indie dramedy Roger Dodger. Playing opposite Campbell Scott’s misogynist dad, Eisenberg’s smartly inquisitive son set the tone for many similar gifted young men to follow, most impressively as a bookish kid dealing with his uber-schooled parents in The Squid and the Whale, a college student coping with a tough from his past in The Education of Charlie Banks, a wannabe journalist discovering the horror of the Bosnian War in The Hunting Party, and a college grad trying to find himself in an ’80s-era amusement park for Adventureland. While his character’s goal may have been basic survival from the undead in Zombieland, Eisenberg’s nervous gestalt was very much part of his charm.
But if you think you’ve pegged an exceptional shtick from Eisenberg, watching him play a Hasidim-turned-Ecstasy-dealer in Holy Rollers will make fans think again. For what’s easily the most ultra-Jewish part that Eisenberg has played is also the one that takes him furthest afield from the comfort zone. Sure, Sam Gold might seem to be a nice, ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy, but soon his unspoken, simmering dissatisfaction with his social and business prospects becomes full-blown rebellion when Sam is led astray by his neighbor Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha). First enticed by Yosef’s promise of some easy money and a field-trip to Amsterdam, Sam quickly finds that it’s anything but sightseeing when he’s hooked up with Yosef’s decidedly reformed circle of Ecstasy dealers and loose women. While Sam is culture-shocked at first, the enticement of an easy life well outside of his religiously cloistered existence proves to be an apple he can’t help but take a bite of. With disastrous consequences to faith, family and a community who are sucked into his get-rich, no-victim scheme, he rises to head.
Based on a true story, Holy Rollers’s tale of pill-dealing Hasidim is anything but the satire its log-line implies. Instead, it’s a riveting, uniquely “Jewish” film cum neo-realist crime drama. And its unique take on Tefillin-to-riches allows Jesse Eisenberg to follow a tradition of magnetic performances resulting from young men whose well-meaning makes them take the wrong path. Here, Holy Rollers’s ill-gotten roads bring out the best in Jesse Eisenberg with a performance at once empathetic, sleazy, and all-too human, encompassing the actor’s strengths showing a whole new range to Eisenberg’s uniquely cultural combination of angst and intelligence.
Daniel Schweiger: When you hear Holy Rollers’s premise of Hasidic Jews dealing Ecstasy, the audience would probably ask if the film is a comedy, yet this is a serious film that’s based on a true story.
Jesse Eisenberg: Sure, there might be laughter when you hear about Holy Rollers because it sounds like such an absurd juxtaposition — Jews and Ecstasy-dealing. But when you watch the movie, you can kind of substitute dealing Ecstasy for any other morally questionable pursuit, which is what the movie is about — questioning morality, faith and blind faith. So the Ecstasy aspect of the story was secondary to me. I didn’t even hear the summary of Holy Rollers before I read the script, so when my character got involved in drug dealing, it seemed like a very interesting and natural progression for this misguided youth.
DS: What did you think of Hasidic Jews before you started shooting this film?
JE: On one hand, I grew up Jewish, although a reformed one, yet you still feel connected to the Hasidic community because you share an ancestry and cultural traditions with them. But on the other hand, our lives couldn’t have been more divergent. Hasidic Jews don’t watch secular movies, and I act in secular movies. They don’t drive on Friday, and I love driving on Friday and Saturday nights. But in spite of our differences, I’ve always felt that like our branches of Judaism shared something, in a weird way.
DS: From my own extremely limited interaction with Hasidic people when I lived in New York, you really nailed the interaction they have with people outside of their faith…
JE: Thanks. I would spend a lot of time with the Hasidic Jews in preparation for the role, and I found their barometer for telling a culturally offensive joke was much lower than the secular community’s, where you would be on guard about telling a joke that poked fun at another race or religion. There was some stuff I really liked that was cut out with Justin Bartha’s character Yosef, who’s telling really offensive jokes. They were a great part of the movie because they showed how an isolated community has a much higher tolerance for those kinds of jokes, as opposed to an integrated one.
DS: The religiously isolated Amish culture lets their youths engage in the “Rumspringa,” where their 16-year-olds “run around” for a period of time to see if they really want to become part of their faith and all it entails. Do you think the Hasidic youth would be better off if they were allowed to do that, especially people like Sam and Yosef?
JE: I don’t know. I can’t speak as an ambassador for the Hasidic community, but I’ve heard about that tradition in the Amish community. It sounds great, and I’ve read that most of them end up coming back to the community. But I can only speak for this movie, which shows how an isolated community can be frustrating for youths like my character, who are searching for something else. If Sam were to be let out, I think he’d probably stay out, whereas his neighbor and best friend Leon (Jason Fuchs) goes back to the community. So yeah, there is something certainly nice about letting kids explore the outside world when they reach manhood, but I’m not sure if something like that would work for the Hasidic community.
DS: I felt, for the first time, that you were playing a completely different character than any role you’d ever had before. Do you think Sam was outside your “comfort” zone?
JE: Oh no. Frankly, I felt more comfortable with Holy Rollers than I’ve ever been with a role before. That might have had something to do with the nature of how this movie was made. We had around two years to prepare it, and I got to write a lot of my own dialogue, even though the original script was wonderful. So I was able to give Sam a personal stamp after speaking to a lot of Hasidic kids my age and putting stuff they said to me into the script. But in the end, I think it’s a misconception that actors are in “control” of a movie. Take Zombieland, which was like the most difficult acting job I’ve ever had. Sure, it seemed like anyone could have been in the film because it’s like a silly, popcorn commercial movie, yet it was difficult to achieve such a specific balance of tone between Zombieland’s comedy and drama. So in a way, it’s much easier for me to do a movie like Holy Rollers because you don’t have to account for the mainstream accessibility of it. I only have to account for what’s true to Sam’s character and what’s true to my interpretation of him, and that makes Holy Rollers a much purer acting experience for me, and therefore an easier one.
DS: Tell us about the real Sam Gold.
JE: I think the phrase they’re using here is “inspired by true events,” which couldn’t be more vague. So accordingly, I think my character is really a combination of a bunch of guys who were involved in this case, and it’s a lot more interesting to have created someone instead of having to adhere to specific details of a completely real person.
DS: In a weird way, “Sam” reminded me of a Hasidic version of Charlie Sheen’s character in Wall Street. They’re both young men who want more out of life and to do better than their father. And both fall into the traps of easy money…
JE: I don’t think either Holy Rollers or Wall Street are the first movies to tackle the character of a misguided, lost and confused young man, and that character is my bread and butter, quite frankly. But then I think a lot of young men have this conflict. Though I haven’t seen Wall Street in many years, I’m sure that character’s options were much wider. What makes Holy Rollers so unique is that my character’s path is finite and specific, which makes his struggle to break out of that much greater, and that makes the rift he causes in the Hasidic community that much more severe.
DS: What’s also interesting in Holy Rollers is that it’s about the threat of violence around Sam’s new life, yet this minute-by-minute threat never leads where you think it will, a la some sort of Jewish Scarface!
JE: Yes, I’m glad you picked up on that. Because raising the money left us in pre-production for so long, we were given the time to realize that we wouldn’t be able to afford to shoot the violent scenes in the movie, and I was thrilled about that because I think to have violence in this movie would have limited it. Holy Rollers isn’t about shooting guns or people getting killed over drugs. We just couldn’t afford blanks, so the mantra on set was always, “No one cares who owes who fake money.” What was worth it to us was creating these tense situations, and a threat of violence from characters that are threatening. I think that throws you off-balance in a good way.
DS: Your own sister, Hallie Kat, plays Sam’s disapproving sister Ruth. While most audiences know her childhood roles in movies like Paulie and Bicentennial Man, Holy Rollers is one of the first truly adult roles we’ve seen her play…
JE: Hallie acted as a child and became successful very quickly doing high-profile movies. Later, she decided to take a break from it to study international law in college. My parents are normal, healthy people, so when Hallie casually mentioned that she was interested in acting again, they were not only fine with it but also supportive of what she wanted to do. When they were casting Holy Rollers, they found how difficult it was to get the right actress to play Ruth, so I proposed it to Hallie, and she agreed to do it as a favor to me. I was overwhelmed with how well she did in the movie because I thought she’d be so uninterested in acting again that she wouldn’t give it her all. But not only did Hallie give it her all, she shocked us by how great she was in the movie. I’m really grateful to Hallie for that.
DS: How do you think Holy Rollers fits into the “tradition” of movies about Jews?
JE: I don’t know. My idea of a “Jewish” movie is like a Woody Allen film — one that’s more culturally Jewish rather that it being specifically about the religion. I think Holy Rollers is a provocative movie about Hasidic Jews which people will be interested in, especially because they don’t know much about them. I think the main accomplishment of the movie is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the “strangeness” of the community. When I first read the script, I felt I was interested in seeing this movie because I found Hasidic Jews so fascinating. In that way, it fits into the pantheon of Jewish movies as a provocative look into the Hasidic community. You kind of accept them at face value before recognizing your own struggles and family life in their existences.
DS: Because of that, Holy Rollers hopefully won’t be getting a South Park response from this from the Hasidic community…
JE: Right. I think this movie couldn’t be less controversial in terms of its presentation of the Jewish community. If people do have that kind of reaction, I think they probably weren’t watching Holy Rollers very carefully. In broad strokes, a movie about Hasidic Jewish Ecstasy mules can be viewed as being offensive, but when you see Holy Rollers, it couldn’t be less offensive. The characters that you like in the movie are good, real people, and the characters you don’t like are the real antagonists. They all happen to be Jewish, but that’s not a judgment on the community. It’s those nuances that make the basic idea of Holy Rollers less offensive. Holy Rollers is also a small independent movie. It’s not coming out in 5,000 theaters where it needs that kind of “controversial” press, so it’ll probably stay under the radar in terms of inciting anyone.
DS: You’re in another terrific film coming out this month called A Solitary Man, where you’re playing an innocent college student opposite Michael Douglas’s returning Lothario. You’re like the kind of kid he wishes he were in school…
JE: My character in that is a contrast to his. His guy is so cocky and emotionally cut off, and I show how you can be a good person and still get what you want without being Machiavellian about it.
DS: How do you think your unassuming chemistry plays off of Michael’s?
JE: I don’t really believe in “chemistry” with actors. I think if the performers are good, the script is well-written, and the movie is put together with care, then the chemistry will come through. That’s because no amount of personal chemistry or getting along with an actor off the set can put a band-aid on a flawed movie. Michael Douglas is a wonderful actor, so I can’t imagine anybody ever coming across poorly with him. He brings that out of anyone he works with, so I hope our chemistry is okay in the movie…but I would attribute that to him being a great actor — not anything that we have personally.
DS: Michael’s character of Ben tries to teach Cheston the ropes. In terms of acting, what do you think you learned from working with Michael?
JE: You’ll definitely learn from working with people who have been doing it for so much longer than you. I did a three-character play four years ago with Al Pacino, where I was on the stage the whole time for three months. It’s just everyday shocking that somebody is that good, and Michael Douglas is the same way. You pick up things that are probably indescribable. It’s like playing basketball with someone who’s better than you. Being with them makes you better.
DS: One my favorite films you’ve made is Greg Mottola’s Adventureland. Having gotten out of college myself in ’80s, I found the movie just absolutely nailed the period and the angst over what to do with your life during it.
JE: I sign on to a lot of good movies, but they have a lot of trouble getting made because they’re not commercial. So the experience of having a movie like Adventureland get made was fulfilling creatively, especially because I got to work on it for an extended period of time. I was just bowled by Greg’s script because it’s extremely rare, if not almost impossible, to find movies that are both true to their mature characters while also being funny, sophisticated and funded by a major company.
DS: Do you think Adventureland is ultimately going to find its audience?
JE: I hope so because it’s so much easier to see movies nowadays. Technology allows for a movie that didn’t have a very successful theatrical run to find an audience, and Adventureland already has. I get stopped on the street mostly from people who’ve seen that movie, so it indicates to me that the life span of movies is probably very different than it was five years ago.
DS: Your first real big commercial hit was Zombieland. It’s got a comedic lightness to it that really makes this a zombie film for people who hate zombie films.
JE: I think it’s exactly what you said. I don’t like those kinds of zombie genre movies because so many of them seem unoriginal. I wonder why people would even want to make a movie about zombies. But this one was great because the quality of the material was evident on page one of the script. The characters are real and authentic, and the story is funny in a real way without being pandering or exploitative. I liked it on all of those terms, rather than any kind of commercial expectations you’d get from a title like “Zombieland.” I wasn’t expecting it to be so successful.
DS: What can you tell us about the Zombieland sequel?
JE: I think they’re trying to write the script right now. If it’s good one, I know everyone will want to be in it, especially because we all felt the first movie exceeded our expectations. Everybody liked the characters and style of the movie, which was so much fun. Zombieland will be a very difficult movie to top because it came together for a series of reasons that are more intangible than scientific, and that always starts with a good script.
DS: You’re going to be playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network. What can we expect from the movie?
JE: We just finished it, so I feel like I haven’t even come out of the filming. I do know that it’s just a wonderful and important story, and it’s told in the best possible way with a great director like Fincher. And Aaron Sorkin is one of the greatest writers of all time. You’ve also got a great producer like Scott Rudin behind it, and the other cast was unbelievable. The movie couldn’t have been a higher quality production.
DS: Do you think Facebook is the new Ecstasy? Lots of people are completely hooked on it…
JE: I don’t know. I don’t use Facebook, but I imagine if I wasn’t in a public position, I’d probably be on it every day as well.
DS: What do you think the style of The Social Network is going to be like?
JE: It’s hard to say. I never know how a movie I’m in will turn out because I don’t like to watch dailies, in addition to the final product. Watching dailies just makes me feel self-conscious. I feel like I’m not doing well during the shoot, so it just screws me up to watch myself. Take Zombieland. When I first saw the movie, I was shocked because it had this polished, interesting, almost video game quality to it. But when I was making it, I thought it was going to be this very dark “run and gun” type movie. As far as The Social Network, I just know David Fincher has a very specific tone for it. He doesn’t do anything without a hundred reasons for it. David’s a meticulous artist, and I’m sure his movie will have a very distinctive tone. I’m very interested to see what it is. You also have Aaron Sorkin, whose scripts have a very distinctive voice, so the marriage of those two very distinctive people will be interesting.
DS: Do characters that are morally adrift, like Sam in Holy Rollers, appeal to you?
JE: I think characters that are trying to find their way defines every single movie, or at least every character in a movie. You’ve got to have that emotional conflict or otherwise there’s no story. Maybe there is more introspection in the movies I’ve been in as opposed to playing characters that have to make quick decisions like Columbus in Zombieland. He’s not so much a character trying to find his way as a character that’s trying to survive because of the nature of that movie. But overall, the characters I like, and are the most interesting ones to play, are the ones who are conflicted or lost — especially when you’re on a movie set for several months.
DS: What kind of character would you like to play that no one could ever expect you doing?
JE: I’m an anthropology major, so I’m interested in the way young people talk about the world in a way that reveals their own naiveté rather than their own experience. We have access to so much information now, and yet we’re more indoors than ever. I like that kind of irony. I write plays, and recently I created a character for myself who thinks he knows everything about the world but couldn’t be more misguided. When it comes to my films, the opportunities I’ve been given by other people have always exceeded my desires. I never thought I’d get to play a Hasidic Jew or Mark Zuckerberg. They’re such wonderful acting opportunities. I say this without false modesty, but I never thought I deserved to play these people while reading them. I feel very lucky.