Jesse Eisenberg talks about putting on the magic in ‘Now You See Me’
There’s a big difference between being an actor and being a magician, says Jesse Eisenberg. “An actor goes on stage in character. He’s not pretending to do something else”
If you’re familiar with the internet you’ve likely seen the footage wherein a mischievous Jesse Eisenberg takes a dimwit blogger to task for (a) needing to write ‘What was it like working with Morgan Freeman?’ on her hand and (b) getting Morgan Freeman’s name wrong anyway.
The clip – a viral hit from the promotional trail of new film Now You See Me – is the very definition of gently humorous admonishment. And yet the incident saw Eisenberg, the Oscar-nominated star of The Social Network, branded as a jerk. And that was by the gentile, less potty-mouthed outlets.
The Jesse Eisenberg who turns up in Dublin for the movie couldn’t be more humbly different. A softly spoken, timid creature, one can vaguely recognise him as the talented thespian who animated the awkward heroes of Adventureland and The Social Network. But only just.
“It was interesting for me to play a magician,” Eisenberg says (quietly) of the hit Vegas caper Now You See Me. “I realised very quickly that magicians lie and that I am very uncomfortable lying to people. I had learned tricks to practice on the set. And I would perform tricks for the crew and then reveal immediately how it was done. I just couldn’t go on tricking my friends with a lie.”
So he doesn’t see any overlap between acting and chicanery?
“Hmmm. No. Hmmm.”
(He ‘hmmms’ quite a bit throughout our meeting.)
“A magician goes on stage and they say their name they’ll say ‘I’m about to do this’ and then they’ll do something entirely different. An actor goes on stage in character. He’s not pretending to do something else. The bio and the information are right there in the programme or brochure. And what an actor does is real. Or at least the emotional experience of the character is real. Or should be.”
Onscreen, Eisenberg has brought a bundle of comic neuroses to films such as The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland and Holy Rollers. In the flesh, Eisenberg’s neurotic tendencies are generally not of the comic, outspoken Woody Allen variety. He frequently responds to questions with a furrowed brow as though worried that he’s giving a “wrong” answer.
He visibly frets. A lot.
He’s happy to talk about his vegetarianism, his cycling around New York and his Polish ancestry and family: as we speak he’s en route to Szczecin to meet his grandfather’s first cousin. And yet he’s (apologetically) unwilling to divulge the names of his cats: “My sister asked me not to. She rescues cats and puts them up for adoption in Union Square. I’m sorry. She told me not to tell.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Eisenberg’s mother was a clown and children’s entertainer and his sister Hallie was famous as the child star of a series of Pepsi commercials. Jesse’s path toward acting was rather different.
“I think the arts can provide people with a lot of different therapeutic approaches and cures. For me at least. I had a difficult time when I was at school and acting provided me not only with something to do but it made me force myself to feel a different feeling. And that was really good for me. On Now You See Me, for example, I had to force myself into thinking I was really confident performer and I remember by the end of this movie, I felt fantastic.”
What happens when he’s playing a miserable sod?
“Well the most blatant example of that is this movie I did called The Double for Richard Ayoade in England last year. One of my characters is very worried and the other is very assured and brash. So when we were doing the brash character, I always felt that I had got it right after one take and that we could move on to the next scene. Then with the other character I never thought any take was good. Only in retrospect did I realise why I was feeling that way. Acting carries over into your life all the time without you noticing.”
So he’s a little bit method?
“I think every actor is method. It’s just that some are more known for it. But I would say it’s pretty impossible to put your own emotional life into the work and separate the two immediately. If you’re doing a movie, then you’re doing your character 12 hours a day, then sleeping and you have about four hours to yourself left over. And if you’re shouting at someone for those 12 hours, then you can’t just turn that off. You’re still going to be a little bit angry at the end of the day.”
So it pays for him to play happy, confident people?
“That would do it for me. I could force myself to feeling that way all the time. But it tends to be that the more interesting characters are dealing with something more emotionally substantive and are therefore less happy.”
Luckily, though Now You See Me is a great deal of fun, it’s hardly ever substantive. The glitzy crime caper sees a quartet of super-magicians – Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Woody Harrelson – pitch wits against Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent’s law enforcers; Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine reside in the film’s zany margins.
It must have felt like being into the Scooby Doo gang?
“Like being part of a fun team? Or like a videogame character? Yeah. For sure. The movie has all these mythical elements. The magicians are part of this team called the Four Horsemen. And they’re recruited by this secret organisation called The Eye so there’s all these cool supernatural mythical elements. The myths surrounding the magic in the movie are both fictionalised and historical.”
Now You See Me has been an unexpected smash in the US, where it has seen off starrier and bigger budgeted tent-pole releases and sailed toward $100 million in box-office receipts. Not that Jesse Eisenberg cares.
“I don’t know anything about box office. I got an email to say the film was doing great but it’s not something I’m interested in. I remember after Adventureland, I got all these emails on the Monday after release saying ‘I’m so sorry, man’. And I really didn’t understand why they were sorry. They’re sorry because the film has made millions of dollars but not as many millions of dollars as they hoped? It just made me feel bad about something I walked away feeling good about. The numbers have nothing to do with me or what I do.”
It’s not that Jesse Eisenberg is all about the indie sector either: “When you’re doing a movie like Now You See Me, it has an amazing plot and an amazing cast but it can still go wrong. And you can tell yourself ‘But it’s still going to look great’. On an indie film you sometimes think this movie is going to be terrible and it’s going to look terrible.”
In fact, the 29-year-old has hardly any interest in the movieverse at all. Growing up he recalls a film education that stretched to “watching ET a couple of times, maybe”. A pianist and guitar player, he was mostly interested in musical theatre and getting across the Hudson to New York City.
“But I just wasn’t good enough,” he says. “Especially not at dancing.”
Everything changed when, aged 19, he deferred his spot at NYU to star in the Sundance hit Roger Dodger opposite Campbell Scott.
“That was the turning point for me,” says Eisenberg. “I had never been in a movie. I had been queuing for auditions for musicals. And then I was in Roger Dodger and it was well received. The career has ebbed and flowed since but that was huge. That was the difference between waiting in line to being offered movie roles and getting a call from the William Morris Agency.”
Unsurprisingly, Eisenberg sounds far more enthusiastic when discussing theatre and his own plays than he does when he’s chatting about films.
“I do go to plays. But not to movies. I don’t do that,” he confirms. “I don’t feel any connection with movies. I’m always surprised when someone casts me because when I read them I can never picture myself in them. I like doing movies but I love writing plays. When I’m writing, it’s all I can think of from when I wake up.”
A well-travelled anthropology major, to date, Eisenberg’s plays are characterised by an uncommon internationalism.
“My last play took place in Poland; the one before was set in America but was about a Filipino girl. A lot of people I know are very educated but are also underexposed to other cultures. And that dichotomy is strange because they know a lot about other places but only in an academic way that diminishes entire nations and peoples into groups of statistics.”
He smiles, and, warming to the theme, momentarily forgets his nerves: “I have a very narrow range of interests,” he says. “But I have a very broad interest in people.”