It’s 9am on Monday morning in New York City and sirens are blaring behind Jesse Eisenberg. The Queens-native is walking to rehearsals of his latest play, ‘Happy Talk’, which opens at the end of the month. Susan Sarandon is the lead, playing the disturbed protagonist trying to save her dying mother — it’s a role that would usually be reserved for Eisenberg, but he refers to Sarandon as “a more than beyond exciting replacement for me.”
“It’s equal parts flattering and mortifying,” says the fast-talking Eisenberg, without a second of hesitation.
“Flattering when it’s going well — you feel like the luckiest person in the world, that the thing that you kind of conceived of in your bedroom is being treated with such care by such talented people. And then mortifying when you feel it’s not going well, and that you’ve let these amazing people down and, you know, ruined their life,” he explains, laughing.
This is standard fare from the genial 35-year-old actor, who has made this cross-continental phone call directly and without the buffer of a publicist — and who apologises more than once for having someone accommodate his busy schedule.
Eisenberg appears this weekend in ‘The Hummingbird Project’, an unusual heist film about beating the stock market by milliseconds to make millions of dollars. In it, he stars across from physically transformed versions of Salma Hayek and Alexander Skarsgard.
Skarsgard, who plays Eisenberg’s cousin, is particularly unrecognisable to his usual self. The statuesque Scandinavian actor was getting his hair plucked out one by one with a tweezer the day they met.
“Even more than enjoying watching him was the feeling that I can kind of treat him like a kid,” says Eisenberg.
“[His character is] so socially inept that I have to really take care of him, so the fact that he kind of is not this gorgeous, tall, attractive guy makes it easier — because I think it would be a little more difficult to try to treat the real Alex like a child… With him, it was just particularly easy and fun because he committed so fully to this guy.”
THE SOCIAL NETWORK — TAKE TWO?
It’s a big year for Eisenberg. Aside from ‘The Hummingbird Project’ and his star-led play, he will also appear in the long-awaited sequel to the post-apocalyptic cult comedy ‘Zombieland’.
Ten years after the first film, the original cast — Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin — will return in ‘Zombieland: Double Tap’, which releases in October.
“The schedules were obviously difficult, but more than the schedules was just the fact that we wanted to make sure the script was right, and so it took really almost 10 years to get a script that we all agreed was worth going back and doing,” says Eisenberg.
“Because the first movie is not just a popular movie, but also kind of a beloved movie... It was actually a movie that people love and feel a personal connection to and watch over and over.”
The award-winning biopic ‘The Social Network’ will also celebrate a decade next year, and with it Eisenberg’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of billionaire entrepreneur and creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.
Writer Aaron Sorkin said earlier this year that it’s time for a sequel. Would Eisenberg be onboard?
“I don’t know anything about it, but yeah — I mean, I love that kind of thing in terms of playing a character again,” he says.
“My background is in theatre — I’m actually walking to my play rehearsal now, where you would do a show 200 times and still feel like there’s more to explore. Obviously, if it’s a good role, you’re happy to play it in perpetuity.”
Eisenberg’s career has been varied — from the comedy-drama ‘Adventureland’ and the indie drama ‘Holy Rollers’, to the heist franchise ‘Now You See Me’ and playing bad as Lex Luthor in ‘Batman v Superman’. He consistently revels in the kind of comedy “that comes from the character’s absurd plight, rather than the character talking like a stand-up comedian, or something.”
“There’s something particular about that tone that really allows me to be fully dramatic and funny in a way that feels real to a character rather than just telling jokes,” he says.
Several of his films have a social commentary aspect to them, as well, with ‘The Hummingbird Project’ labelled by some as a capitalist critique. Does the actor have a specific message he wants to convey through his body of work?
“Not in particular, but I only like to do things that align with my set of values,” says Eisenberg.
“My wife has been heavily involved in issues of domestic violence and also works with like, 100 inner city schools in New York City... She’s politically active and is an activist for social justice, and so I wouldn’t be able to go home at night if I wasn’t doing something that at least had some, I don’t know, either a good value system, or in the case of ‘Zombieland’, which is not a kind of political movie in any way, at least presents these people as kind of like, sweet, thoughtful characters.”
Eisenberg seems familiar with Hollywood’s fickle nature. As he walks to rehearsals, nearly two weeks to the day to opening night of ‘Happy Talk’, he explains how theatre can be nerve-racking in a different way.
“Unlike a movie where you get to edit it and figure out exactly what the audience is going to see, plays have a kind of unpredictability that you have to accept, and therefore we’re getting to the place where it gets a little more nerve-racking,” says Eisenberg.
“But I love the medium. I love being able to discuss important social topics in a true entertainment... As movies change and television changes, theatre has kind of remained the same,” he adds.
The actor has yet to break into serialised storytelling in the same way he has film and theatre, but suggests that his brain is wired more towards the stage than the television set.
“I wrote a TV show that I was doing with JJ Abrams, the director, and it didn’t get picked up... I actually don’t know why it didn’t get picked up,” says Eisenberg.
“I was going to write and direct that and act in it — and then, no one wanted to make it... But if I have another idea in that direction, I’m aware of the quality of the medium, so if another idea strikes me, I would do it. But, unfortunately, my mind just naturally goes to other places,” says Eisenberg.
The actor has plenty on his plate as it is. But is there a milestone he’d still like to achieve?
“I don’t have those feelings,” admits Eisenberg.
“I think like a lot of people in the entertainment industry, because it’s kind of a freelance industry, I have this constant feeling of great luck and great gratitude that I get to do the things that I get to do. I have zero expectations of anything greater, or greater ambition than the stuff I’m doing right now. I just feel so fortunate. And if I can just maintain generally the level of busyness that I have now, I’d be so grateful that I wouldn’t even know what to do.”
Don’t miss it
‘The Hummingbird Project’ releases in the UAE on April 18.