Writer-director Riley Stearns’ new movie The Art of Self Defense, which premiered at SXSW, puts toxic masculinity under a satirical microscope. In the film, Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, an awkward, sensitive guy who is traumatized after a random mugging. Casey finds acceptance and strength at a local dojo, run by enigmatic alpha-male Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). As Sensei tutors Casey, he starts to warp his ideas of what it means to be a “real man.” Casey also notices that Anna (Imogen Poots), arguably the dojo’s most devoted student, continues to be held back and overlooked in favor of her male peers.
The deeper Casey gets into his experience at the dojo, the more is revealed about the darker purposes that motivate Sensei’s teaching and business practices. Like Stearns’ previous film, Faults, there are elements of cult-like devotion, deception and blunt violence throughout The Art of Self Defense. Here, Stearns uses them to comment on our culture’s unhealthy understanding of masculinity, female roles, and the use of violence as a show of personal strength and control. The film’s martial arts setting also has a personal connection for Stearns, who has a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Riley, what motivated you to make this film, and to make it in the way that you did?
Riley Stearns: So, I have a particular tone I like to stick to, exploring things that you’d normally expect certain things from, and then subverting those expectations. I knew I wanted to do something in the world of martial arts, I’ve been doing Jiu-Jitsu for about six years, but I didn’t want to do a traditional martial arts film. It’s set in the world of karate, but it’s about so many other things. Particularly, at the time I was writing it, in late 2015, I was questioning my own masculinity. Were the societal expectations of being a man something I was living up to? Did I want to live up to that? Was it better to just be myself? All of those were ideas that happened to be things I was thinking about a lot at the time and ended up finding their way into the script. I’m very happy with the path it ended up taking.
To follow up on that, what role do you think violence plays in our understanding of masculinity?
Stearns: I think shocking images for the sake of shock aren’t interesting to me. But, if you use it in the context of storytelling in a way that’s intelligent, that’s interesting to me. In real life, I’m so anti-violence. I practice martial arts, but I don’t ever want to be in a fight. I don’t like watching violent things. I don’t think you have to be violent or full of raw emotion to be a man.
What statements is the film making about masculinity?
Jesse Eisenberg: Part of the comedy of the film comes from the idea that in a typical story like this, the goal for the main character would be to become more masculine and to defend himself. But as the story unfolds, you realize that’s not the goal for this main character. The goal is something far more internal and personal. So the comedy in the movie comes from what you’re normally expecting this movie about. In that way, the movie’s kind of a commentary of the absurdity of how we think about masculinity.
Imogen Poots: The masculinity element is also a comment on, in the case of Sensei (Nivola’s character), silly people ending up in control and making silly decisions based on gender or ability. The inherent absurdity of hierarchy and who ends up making the big decisions is, in our current culture, fundamentally ridiculous.
Alessandro Nivola: Also, the ways in which feeling impotent can result in overcompensation. Sensei, in my mind…when I say that Casey (Eisenberg’s character) reminds me of myself before I became a man, I think actually that should be taken completely at face value in the movie. (Sensei) was someone who was struggling with feeling weak and socially uncomfortable, and not sure how to navigate through a typical day in his life. He discovered there was this world that could empower him, but because he was coming at it from a point of such low self-esteem and confused identity, it became a monster in him and subsuming him in rage and violence.
Imogen, your character, Anna, is the only female member of the dojo in the film. I wanted to ask you how you feel about the movie’s portrayal of female power. What ways do you think the film comments on that in contrast to the way it comments on the men?
Poots: (In Anna) we see a girl who’s been totally suppressed by the system. She’s obviously so much better than a lot of the people in the room at her craft and is looking for that chance to ascend in the ranks. Slowly that’s been fermenting, and she’s boiling over with rage. The violence happens, and I think it’s inevitable for her. She’s a boiling pot of a character with her own sort of darkness, and she is underestimated. But I liked how that isn’t flaunted in Riley’s writing. There was just sort of this discreet understanding that there was a power that would be revealed. I enjoyed the task of playing a character who wasn’t paint by numbers, and her actions weren’t really predictable.
So, let’s talk about the actual martial arts aspect of the film. What was the experience like of learning to train for this?
Poots: I loved the karate, I loved learning that. I thought it was so cool and extraordinary, and highly embarrassing and humiliating! You’ve got seven-year-olds who are just killing those moves, and you’re just like, not functioning.
Eisenberg: I didn’t like it because I wasn’t good at it right away. But, I also didn’t have to be great at it. Alessandro actually was great at it, and he didn’t have as much training as we did. He was just naturally good.
Stearns (to Nivola): Well, you put in the work, the little bit of time you had, you really put in the work to learn.
Nivola: Yeah, it was fun. When I read the script, I had a vague notion that I had so much karate-ing to do. I remember having a conversation with Riley on the phone, I was in South Africa working on another film, right up until a day before I started this. I remember telling him, “I don’t know if I have all the time to learn this much karate,” and he said, “You know, there’s not much you have to do,” and it turned out he was right, it was just this one little routine I had to do, but it’s a comic routine, really. It was kind of a clown routine I had to learn.
Riley, between this film and your first film, Faults, it seems like there are some shared themes about personal control and belief in almost a cult-like structure. The dojo seems to have its own cult-like atmosphere. Are those themes that interest you as a filmmaker?
Stearns: I guess it wasn’t a conscious decision. Faults explores one cult member’s personal relationship to a cult. That was fun to explore since lots of cult movies tend to focus on the group mentality, and here we’re singling one person out and getting their experience with it, whether or not that ends up being made up by her. With this one, it was really about the group mentality, and Casey just wanting to belong to something. In a cult, sometimes people just want to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. In general, martial arts tend to have a little bit of that. Not in a nefarious way, but some places tend to push that agenda. I find mind control and relationships fascinating, and it just happened to be a thing that, two films in a row, has popped up now. In the third one, I’ll probably move on from that, but I definitely am fascinated by that topic.