Woah, and I thought I was a nervous dude. In real life, Jesse Eisenberg — the star of films like The Squid & The Whale, The Social Network, and the new magic-heist film Now You See Me — is as endearingly jittery as you’d expect from his perennially hunched over film protagonists. He talks in quick, clipped sentences, his hands shaking like Ali. At one point during our interview, he even got up and started pacing the room. I don’t know how this guy gets out of bed in the morning, let alone stars in Hollywood blockbusters.
About a month ago, Google was instantly filled with stories labelled “Jesse Eisenberg, jerk” after online reporter Romina Puga wrote a post titled ‘Jesse Eisenberg isn’t very nice’ on her blog, following a flirty interview gone wrong while on a press junket for Now You See Me. Like most news stories these days, the whole thing got blown out of proportion: a glance at the entertaining video didn’t so much reveal Eisenberg’s hidden mean streak, as it did the inherent difficulties in trying to match wits with a guy who once invented a wordplay game titled ‘OneUpMe’ that’s basically a nerd’s version of ‘The Dozens’.
Besides his turn in Now You See Me as the cocky illusionist J. Daniel Atlas (where he stars alongside an impressive cast featuring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco, Brother of James), Eisenberg’s currently working on Night Moves, the new movie from Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy), alongside Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard, and The Double, the new film from Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, Submarine), with local Mia Wasikowska (who Jesse’s apparently now “sharing ice creams” with).
Unfortunately, we didn’t get around to discussing any of those things because we spent 20 minutes talking about basketball. Sorry.
Junkee: After that whole Romina Puga video went viral, you’ve kinda become known as one of Hollywood’s most intimidating interviews…
Jesse Eisenberg: Oh really? Oh goodness.
Yeah, people were telling me to be careful.
Nooooooo! That’s crazy.
How does it feel to have that rep?
Well, um… That’s like a very small range of people that would think that, which is basically people who do interviews for movies. So, like, outside that world, I guess it’s not something I feel I need to contend with.
Were you aware of all the attention that interview received?
I wasn’t, until somebody called me and told me. But people write mean things about people on the internet even if they’re not in movies… I just don’t ever read stuff about myself, otherwise you’ll never leave the house.
The first movie I did, I was like 19 and I looked myself up online and somebody wrote the meanest thing that anybody’s ever said to me. It was mortifying, and so I just learnt not to do that again. I mean, it’s not unique to actors either; it’s just the way media is now. Everybody has something awful written about themselves. My sister’s in college now and there’s a website where you can discuss professors online, and people just say merciless things about college professors. And my dad’s a college professor, so I’m sensitive to this kinda thing. People just say awful things for their own personal agendas.
Congratulations on the success of Now You See Me; I read that it just got picked up for a sequel.
Yeah, but that’s just based on if it makes a certain amount of money. I’m just saying, it’s not like anything we did in it was great, it just means it’s made a lot of money, so they feel that they wanna do it again.
The character’s a bit of a departure for you; he’s kinda cocky, arrogant… Is that what attracted you to the role?
Yeah, it’s something I wanted to do. The way this movie was put together, they had this very complicated blueprint of the storyline, but then they kept rewriting the script and asking the actors for their input. So I kept making my character more and more brash… You don’t see him mostly as a performer in the movie, so I just thought anytime you see him in person, it’d be really fun to play this arrogant guy, so that when he’s onstage and kinda like a charming showman, you realise that behind him is this like, angry guy. ‘Cause that’s what I know well. I’m an actor and I work with people who are very charming onscreen or onstage, but the work it takes to get them there…
How much practical research was involved? Do you know how to saw a person in half now?
I started by reading about magic, the history and stuff, but by the second day, I had to put all the books down and just start learning the tricks. That’s the biggest lesson I learned, just the discipline required. There’s two parts to doing a magic trick: knowing how to do it which is like 10% of a trick, and being able to do it which is 90% of the trick. What’s more important for magicians is their dexterity, learning how to hide cards or make a coin float through your fingers. This stuff requires, like, decades of practice and I only had four weeks, so I just learnt as much as I could and then they had these hand doubles come in and do the rest.
So are you pulling coins outta people’s ears wherever you go now?
Yeah, I do a lot of that kinda thing… Pulling people’s noses off… It’s useful stuff.
Would you call yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
Um, well, I think like anybody else, I change from group to group. With my family I probably don’t shut up, but if I don’t know the people I probably wouldn’t talk at all. It’s also a very different thing, performing versus being. A lot of actors I know are the shyest people, but for some reason they come alive when they need to.
Do you know Barbara Walters? So I recently saw an interview with her, and they asked her ‘How do you interview these world leaders and ask them if they’ve murdered people? It seems like such a brave thing to do…” And she said “I don’t know. In my life, I’m a very shy person and very nervous, but for some reason when I’m in that room and that space and it’s for journalism, I can do it; I feel really emboldened.”
I feel the same way. I just finished doing a play in New York and every day I just spent really quiet and alone in my house and worried, and then for some reason I can go up onstage and do the show and it seems to not make sense. But, you know, then I see actors who are very loud and fun and always on, and then they get onstage and there’s nothing there. So I don’t think one correlates to the other.
What’s your writing routine? I really enjoy that ongoing series you write for McSweeney’s, ‘Bream Gives Me Hiccups: Restaurant Reviews From A Privileged Nine-Year-Old’…
Oh! How did you find it?
I don’t know… It’s on the internet.
Oh. Isn’t it sweet, with the little boy? He’s my favourite guy. It’s so sad (laughs). The rubric is now just “What’s the worst thing that can possibly happen to a person?” Because I just want it to happen to this little boy.
Eisenberg, the writer
That’s the way you approach it?
I just think “What is the saddest possible thing he could see?”, and then he filters it through his view. And it’s just the saddest thing, because he’s just hoping for the best in every situation (laughs). Yeah, thanks for reading it. He’s so sweet; I don’t know where to take him next, but I’ll probably just put him in a concentration camp or something.
I know (laughs). “Concentration camp: 2 stars out of 2000.”
Are you working on a novel?
I’m thinking of that boy from ‘Bream Gives Me Hiccups’, and turning it into something… I have a book coming out in October, which is the last play I did. My stuff is published by Grove Press, so they’re putting out my play, but it was like a two book deal, so I can put together anything for the other one. I’m thinking about this character, but he’ll probably die quite early on.
What do you when you’re not writing, acting or performing?
Um, like, I ride a bicycle and watch basketball. Those are pretty much the only things.
That sounds like a great life.
I’d like to somehow combine the two, but it seems dangerous. You watch basketball here?
Eisenberg watching hoops at last year’s Olympics, and being mistaken for Mark Zuckerberg
Yeah, I love basketball.
So there’s Andrew Bogut and Luc Longley… Is there anybody else?
Yeah, we’ve got Patty Mills…
Oh yeah, Patty Mills from the San Antonio Spurs.
And maybe half of Kyrie Irving?
He was born in Melbourne. Oh, and I guess Brett Brown, the assistant coach for the Spurs, who just got offered the head coaching job for the Sixers.
Yeah, I just read that today! That’s awesome.
Yeah, he’s a local. Well, he’s American, but he coached here for a while.
For the local basketball league.
Oh really? And did he do a good job?
Yeah, he coached the Sydney Kings, and some Melbourne teams to some titles a few years back.
Oh, so maybe he’ll do a good job? I just read that the Sixers are the worst team in terms of odds in Vegas for winning a championship…
Yeah, apparently he’s being advised not to take the job. It’s a guaranteed tank season.
Oh, so then they’ll fire him next year? That’s not a good way to start your head coaching stint. So you watch NBA? How? Do you have a League Pass?
Yeah, I have a League Pass.
Oh! You do that? Isn’t that the best?
Yes! My team’s the Pistons, though, so it hasn’t been too good lately.
Your team’s the Pistons? What a waste of a League Pass!
So anyway, that was a weird detour into basketball.
No, that was great. Please spread the word that I’m not an asshole.
Now You See Me is now showing in cinemas nationally.