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Actor Jesse Eisenberg is known for playing neurotic, awkward characters. In his 2003 debut Roger Dodger, he played a bumbling high school kid who asks his chauvinistic uncle for help with women, and of course, he earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in 2010’s The Social Network. His latest is Now You See Me, a heist thriller where he plays Michael Atlas, one of the world’s best magicians. Along with three other magicians, Atlas uses a dazzling show as a means to steal millions of dollars from a bank abroad. Mark Ruffalo plays the long-suffering cop who can’t quite figure out the heists, which is fun since Atlas is always one step ahead of him.
Off camera, Eisenberg is a lot like the characters he plays. He’s smart, talks quickly, and has a funny way of pausing between his thoughts. I’m caught up in his nervous energy as I sit down to talk to him about his roles, his plays, and the last movie he watched.
Washington City Paper: I feel bad. I biked here from downtown, and I’m sweating.
Jesse Eisenberg: That’s OK. Where are you from?
WCP: I’m from around here, actually.
JE: OK. Where did you go to college?
WCP: I went to the University of Maryland.
JE: Oh, you did? Hmm.
WCP: What about you?
JE: I went to The New School in New York City. It’s a super liberal arts school.
WCP: I was told by my friend who’s a graduate student there that it’s bad for undergrads because there aren’t any common areas anywhere.
JE: That’s what I was looking for. I hate common areas.
JE: Oh, because all these people gather there, then you’re stuck in the middle of them.
WCP: But you could leave!
JE: Oh, I see what you’re saying. There were no dorms, which is partially why… Maybe there are dorms, but I didn’t have to live in one. All my classes were with senior citizens, who were taking classes but not for credit.
WCP: But you got a degree, though?
JE: I have three classes left.
WCP: Are you going to finish?
JE: I don’t know. It depends how quick we are.
WCP: [Laughs] OK. Let’s breeze through this. What about the script piqued your interest?
JE: Oh, ok. I didn’t mean to… but OK, sure. They sent me the script when I was doing a play in New York, and I was experiencing all sorts of nervousness doing the show every night. It was the first play I had written that I was starring in, and I experienced all this stage fright. When I read the script, the part they asked me to play was the most confident stage performer in the world. He has an attitude as if he’s earned that place, so I thought this was the thing to get over the fear of me performing on stage.
WCP: Did your experience as a playwright change how you evaluate an upcoming project?
JE: When I think about acting, I just look at the character. I don’t really criticize the script. If there are good characters, that’s the most important thing for me. My experience is acting is only through the character. I don’t watch movies I’ve been in. I don’t read reviews of movies I’ve been in, so the only experience I have is playing a role and immersing myself in a role for a few months.
WCP: You mentioned that you liked the character because he’s so smart and confident, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a good character. Was there anything else about him you liked?
JE: I spoke to the director Louis Leterrier and he wanted me to bring myself to it. When I look at a character, I look at the fusion of him and me. With this, I thought I could bring myself to it and exercise a part of myself I don’t get to in my real life, which is to have this attitude from being the best at something. I thought this would be so much fun, and it was. I was the first actor to sign onto the movie, so [Leterrier] not only cast unbelievable actors for the remaining roles, he allowed us to improvise. We talked about the script as it was being tailored for each actor. It was a very long process of figuring out these people, figuring out their back story so we could indulge in them.
WCP: What improvisation of yours made it into the final cut of the movie?
JE: Probably [one did]! I don’t know since I haven’t seen the movie, but we were improvising every day on set.
WCP: Aren’t you curious to see whether they kept a funny improvised line or something similar?
JE: I don’t like to celebrate myself and revel in my good achievements. If there is something funny that made it in the movie, I’m glad I guess… I don’t even know why I’m glad. I don’t care. I’m trying to do my job and set. If I have to see a movie I’m in, which I’ve had to in the past, it’s a mortifying experience.
WCP: What’s the last one?
JE: We had to go to a public screening of The Social Network at Lincoln Center, and I hated it. I mean, I know it’s a good movie because people say it, but I can’t look at my face.
WCP: Do you go to movies that you’re not in?
JE: No, never.
JE: I’ve watched one movie in the past several years and I have to do an interview about it later.
WCP: What’s the movie?
JE: It’s called Submarine. The director asked me to do a movie last year, but the script hadn’t been written yet, so he sent me his latest movie. I thought it was the best movie I’ve ever seen, but I had nothing to compare it to.
WCP: That’s a coming-of-age story, right? I saw it a few years ago.
JE: Did you like it?
WCP: Yeah, it was good.
JE: It was my favorite movie I’ve ever seen in my life, but I also maybe haven’t seen many movies.
WCP: While you were shooting, you were able to reestablish the same rapport you had with Woody Harrelson in Zombieland?
JE: Well, our characters have a different dynamic. Our characters are rivals, and are competitive peers. It was a different rapport, but I like working with Woody Harrelson because he works the same [as] I do. He takes it very seriously, and brings his own sensibilities and his sense of humor to the role. I know this seems obvious, but it’s rare when people take the job seriously and bring themselves to the role.
WCP: What then is the typical approach an actor takes?
JE: I don’t know, but [Woody] doesn’t treat the work casually. When I’m on a movie set, there are 100 people standing around so I want to take it seriously. He plays a lot of roles that seem whimsical or funny, but he’s actually working hard to achieve that persona. Like me, he makes a million notes on the script so there are so many different ways to approach a scene. Improvisation is not just thinking of a joke; it’s thinking of a 100 ways to act before you’re even filmed.
WCP: Do you always take tons of notes?
JE: Yeah. It’s not that I want to shoot a scene a hundred different ways, but it helps me think about the role enough, so I’m prepared when I’m there. You’re then more comfortable when you get to a set and they’ve spent millions of dollars to film a permanent record of you.
WCP: How has your experience with Roger Dodger informed your approach to acting now?
JE: Oh, you saw it?
WCP: Yeah, I saw it 10 years ago.
JE: Oh, good. It was the first movie I was in, and it totally shaped my feeling about what acting could be. I was working with Campbell Scott, who’s not just a great actor but also the most humble person who’s also in movies, which is not the best barometer of humility. The character he played in Roger Dodger was unlikable from the viewer’s perspective, and he just eschewed all the typical archetypes. It made me think it’d be interesting to play characters that are more realistic. In [Now You See Me], my character is more arrogant and brash. I feel comfortable doing that without thinking there should be this comeuppance… Then again, I don’t even know what’s in the movie.
WCP: [Pause] I think you and I talk similarly.
JE: [Laughs] Yeah, I was thinking about that, too. I’m sorry.
WCP: It’s all right. Anyway, did you see any similarities between the character here and the one in The Social Network? Both movies have scenes where you basically declare that you’re the smartest guy in the room.
JE: I think the character in that movie is more driven by anger and feeling excluded, whereas in this movie the character has confidence from feeling good about himself. That’s a key difference. A lot of times people are acting confident out of insecurity, which is not what’s going on with my character. He’s actually thinks he’s the best.
WCP: That makes sense. So I went to the Tribeca Film Festival last year, and I saw Free Samples, which you were in…
JE: Yeah, I saw that on your notebook.
WCP: Can you read upside down?
WCP: I’m impressed because I can’t, and my handwriting is terrible.
JE: No, your handwriting is pretty good. I saw that and was curious what you were going to ask me.
WCP: Well, the movie never really took off. Does that inform how you make your choices, if it all?
JE: Not really. I worked on that movie for one day. My friend Jim Beggarly wrote it, and I like to collaborate with him. I write musicals; I write the songs, and he writes the book [the dialogue]. To help him get his movie off the ground, I worked on it. I loved his script; I read all of them because he’s a writer/collaborator/friend, so that’s why I did that. The other actors are great, too. I know them from various projects.
WCP: What’s your musical background?
JE: I grew up doing musical theater, so anytime I write music it comes out as musical theater even though I’m trying to do something like Elliott Smith. It still sounds like Andrew Lloyd Weber.
WCP: What’s the musical you did with him?
JE: We’ve done a few. The first one was called Me Time. The next one is coming out this year, and it’s a satire of modern self-indulgence.
WCP: Speaking of satire, I read your essay about not getting a Pulitzer in the New Yorker, and you have all these posts in McSweeney’s. How did you come to write them?
JE: I write usually one thing a week for one of those sites. One of the things I wrote on McSweeney’s is going to become a TV show. I just like writing a lot, but mostly I write plays. That’s my favorite thing to work on.
WCP: Do you have a new play coming up?
JE: I just finished a play in New York called The Revisionsists. I did that with Vanessa Redgrave, and we’re about to do it again in February.
WCP: What’s that about?
JE: It’s about a young science-fiction novelist who goes to Poland to revise his book. While he’s there, he stays with his second cousin, who Vanessa played. It’s about their relationship, and she’s harboring some very complicated history from her past regarding World War II.
WCP:Is it intimidating to have an actor like Vanessa Redgrave read words you wrote?
JE: When we started rehearsing, I was worried because she’s the greatest actress of all time and I thought she’d find a problem with my script and we’d have to cancel the show. She did the opposite. I asked her, “Do you want me to change anything?” and she goes, “No, darling, you are the writer.” She didn’t change a word, and it was amazing. We ran for four months, and it was a terrific experience.
WCP: Well that’s a perfect place to end, no?
JE: Great! Thanks a lot, Alan.