The nature of acting is an odd one. As proof, you don’t need to look any further than Jesse Eisenberg who spent last summer running as fast as he could from zombies and this summer finds himself wearing Hasidic curls.
Eisenberg stars in Holy Rollers, a film about a young Hasidic Jew who finds himself drawn into the drug world when a cartel uses him as a mule, which is out in theaters this weekend.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Eisenberg, who may be the single most polite person I’ve ever spoken with, and we talked about his views on acting, on finding a place within a group, and a little bit about his upcoming role in The Social Network.
Can you talk a little bit about how you saw the theme of community playing out in this film?
Well, that’s a great question because it’s something we really wanted to focus on, and I hope that it’s effective. We basically wanted to create two communities that paralleled each other. One is the Hasidic community which is the first half-hour or longer of the movie, and then the drug world starts to be introduced.
We wanted it to parallel almost character for character Sam’s life in the Hasidic community. The head drug dealer in some ways resembles his father and gives him the encouragement his father never did. His drug dealer’s girlfriend resembles somewhat of a maternal figure and then, almost paradoxically, resembles the wife he was supposed to have in the Hasidic community.
So we wanted to create these two worlds that, one accepts Sam in an easy way – and that’s the drug world. They accept my character because they want to use him. He’s bright, and he’s a good courier. His family accepts him for much more pure reasons – because they love him and because they have raised him.
As the movie gets farther into the drug world, it becomes sadder and sadder for Sam. He becomes more forlorn as he gets involved in this community that doesn’t really love him for him; they love him for what he can do for them financially.
So it’s a juxtaposition of a community’s use of a person or a community’s valuing the intrinsic worth of a person.
Yes. Yes, exactly. That’s exactly it. That’s a perfect way to put it, but that’s not to say that the Hasidic community doesn’t like him for – there were certain implications and there were more in the first version of the script that implied that the Hasidic community was using my character and other characters for their own benefit as well.
Once, the writer thought it would be interesting to imply that maybe the rabbi was friends with Jackie, the main drug dealer. And maybe that there was some interplay between the two communities in a dark way.
The interesting thing to me is that beyond the illegality of it and beyond the roughness of Jackie, the way that Sam is treated in the beginning of the film, it leaves a lot to be desired of the Hasidic community.
Especially because my character doesn’t feel like he fits in. The path has sort of been laid out for him in such a stringent way that he feels uncomfortable. He’s supposed to marry a girl he never met – well, he knows who she is in the community – but he doesn’t feel very comfortable with that and he doesn’t feel comfortable becoming a rabbi because he’s not a very good student naturally.
That is emphasized by his next door neighbor Yosef constantly putting down the community because he’s already started to separate himself from it. So when he says, “Why would I be jealous of marrying a girl I don’t know?” it plants all these ideas for Sam. Maybe he also doesn’t feel comfortable living in that community.
I read in an interview that you don’t want to be aware of the technical side of filmmaking because it would remove you from the emotional side of a part.
Yeah, that’s true.
Is there any fear in being on that emotional road without knowing what the completed result will look like?
Well, the completed result – you’re not in control of that. I know some actors who want to be in control of that, and it’s not a productive or comfortable place to be in. If you get hired to act in something and you feel like you want to be in control of the technical stuff, it’s not a productive way to be on a movie set, I believe. It can be frustrating.
But I guess it’s the downside. It’s the necessary evil. If you want to play a great role – like if you want to play Sam in Holy Rollers, which is such a great role – then someone is going to have to film it and someone’s gonna have to put lights around it. The necessary evil that’s part of the work is to block that out.
That’s where experience really helps. A lot of people say, “Children are so great at acting because they’re unselfconscious,” which may be true, but the real skill can come in when you do a lot, and you learn to block it out, and then you become unselfconscious. That’s when the real skill set comes into play.
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of child actors. Like 99% of them under 12.
But some are very effective in movies, but they haven’t developed the skill set. I acted when I was younger, well when I was fifteen. I was in my first movie when I was eighteen, and I can’t say that I was not self-conscious. In fact, I was very. I wanted to be on the camera. I was very excited to be in a movie. But I can understand what that means for them to be unselfconscious, but it’s not a real developed skill set.
It’s strange. Having said that, I worked with Abigail Breslin last year, and she’s one of the best actresses. She actually, because she’s had so much experience, she’s actually developed the skill set of an adult which has a lot to do with her working a lot. She works a lot frankly.
The great thing there is that when you have a child actor that stands out, they really stand out from the pack. Abigail Breslin is a great example.
She’s a great exception. So, for like the movie I did with her, she was really funny and she had a great sense of the irony of it. All of that takes practice.
Actually, your first film was the introduction I had to you. I was a big Roger Dodger fan back in college.
How did it come to you?
It was a rental situation where I was at Blockbuster looking for something different and it stood out to me. Plus, I was a big Campbell Scott fan.
Wow. From what?
The first thing I saw him in was Secret Lives of Dentists which came out the same year I think. His performance blew me away, so when I saw his name again, I sought it out. And I love Roger Dodger. I think there’s a ton of quotable stuff in it.
Oh, yeah. Well, it’s a great script. It’s full of great lines.
Getting back to Holy Rollers a bit, I’m curious to know about your favorite scene to shoot versus your favorite scene that ended up on screen. If they are the same scene or if there’s a difference?
That’s a nice question to ask. Sometimes they coincide and sometimes they couldn’t be farther apart. I had a really good time filming with Justin Bartha who plays my next door neighbor because he’s been my good friend for several years, and we’d always wanted to work together.
When I got the script just before him, I thought he’d be perfect for the role and said, “Hey, this is a great opportunity for that.” I really love some of our scenes in the movie, because we were both aiming for the same goal which is this power struggle between us. I’m the newbie in the operation, and he’s the veteran who’s starting to get squeezed out because he’s irresponsible.
I really loved that we had this scene on an airplane. I think it’s my favorite scene in the movie. It’s just a brief conversation on an airplane, but it really encapsulates what we wanted for the entire movie. It’s kind of intimate, but there’s a hint of a power struggle, a struggle of both intelligence and class, and everything is happening in that brief scene.
It was really fun to shoot it because I thought it was good, but I also enjoying shooting scenes with Ari Graynor who plays the girl who’s dating the drug dealer. In the scene, she’s on Ecstasy, and she has a great ability to be, in terms of unselfconscious, she couldn’t be more so. She has the ability of being very funny without sacrificing anything that’s realistic or dramatic, or in that case, this drug-induced state.
And those coincided with what you liked filming and what you liked seeing on screen?
Yeah, because there was so much to work with. When you act often in movies, because the scenes are so short, you usually don’t have much to work with. You’re usually playing one specific goal or emotion, but those scenes had a lot to do, so you could look for other things.
Did you gain anything from this character that you brought along to play Mark Zuckerberg?
Well, the more practice you get in acting in movies, the better you are. So, in that way yes, but the characters couldn’t be more different. The main thing to Sam in Holy Rollers is that he’s so explicitly sympathetic, and that was something that I wanted. That was a goal of mine: that he be incredibly sympathetic because we wanted to humanize both his character but also the Hasidic community. So one of my goals was really to get behind this character.
With the other movie, that was less important because it’s a different kind of story. It’s not the typical coming of age story the way that Holy Rollers is. The characters will look very different, even though for me, I want to make every character look like they are behind their decisions even if we as an audience disagree with them.
An actor has to justify his actions even if he’s playing a villain. I’ve never played that kind of role, but I’m thinking of the classic villains. Justin’s character in Holy Rollers is a good example because he’s not a good guy. He doesn’t have good intentions, and yet the way Justin plays him, you get these brief glimpses of this character feeling really out of place in this community and desperate. That’s what makes it interesting.
Was it difficult with The Social Network playing not only a real person, but someone who is both still alive and your age?
Well, in fact he’s younger.
Oh, is he?
Yeah. That stuff is only an obstacle if the movie is lacking. Then you have to fall back, you know if you make a bad biography movie – the people who make a bad biography movie always justify it because the subject is so interesting. But their movie might not be as interesting. Whereas, with this movie, the most interesting part of it was the wonderful script by Aaron Sorkin and the wonderful direction of David Fincher, so it was less important for me to feel personally like it’s a biography picture.
You’ve balanced a career with studio films and with independent films. It seems clear how actors get work with the studios because they’re so visible, but how do you get work steadily from different, smaller production companies?
Well, if you’re in any big movie, I can guarantee that they’ll find you. One of the unfortunate things about the independent film world is that they are usually pre-funded and selling the foreign rights based on the names involved, so independents desperately want people from bigger movies.
I’ve been in a lot of meetings with movies I’m supposed to do that are smaller movies where they’re throwing out people who are not appropriate for the roles. They’re inappropriate for the role, but because they were in some bigger movies, the producers are desperate to get them. Often times they will.
So I don’t think that’s the challenge if you want to do independent movies and you’ve been fortunate enough to have been in a bigger movie. Just make sure your agency – that’s the only prohibitive factor. The agency might be less inclined to send – mine do because they know that’s what I like – but agencies will often be less inclined to send their client a movie that will make them $5,000 when they could go out and make a lot more money doing a car movie or something.
What about before you got into larger movies?
That’s much harder I think, because for independent movies, they won’t hold big casting tryouts or they won’t throw the net wide. When they do studio movies, they’ll audition in several cities. When they were casting for Zombieland, they auditioned in multiple cities. Not just New York and LA. And the movie I did before that, Adventureland, I think they held auditions in many cities. You said you saw Roger Dodger – I got into that movie because they came to my high school. I was going to a performing arts high school, and they got my name, and I just got into the movie.
And here you are 8 years later with three movies in theaters at the same time. Well, thanks a lot for speaking with me. It was a pleasure.
Likewise. Thank you very much. And have a great wedding.
Thanks a lot. That’s really nice of you. Good luck with everything.