I approach Jesse Eisenberg with caution. It would be wrong to say he has an awkward reputation – everyone I know who has worked with him has liked him – but he is not known for embracing the interview process. Few compare him with clubbable anecdotalists such as Peter Ustinov or David Niven. He takes questions at face value. He doesn’t view this as a sport.
As I arrive on an upper floor of a suave club in Covent Garden, Eisenberg – actor, author, playwright – is pacing the floor like a young academic trying to regain a lost train of thought. He has travelled to discuss his role as a harried house owner in Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium. Almost before I’ve sat down, he’s machine-gunning his way through a consideration of the compact horror film’s elusive Irishness. It is filmed in the country. But is it set there? He and Imogen Poots play a couple trapped in eternal suburban conformity. You get that everywhere these days.
“It’s an Irish movie, but not specifically set there, right?” he says.
I guess so. Most of the world will see them driving on the “wrong” side of the road and think nothing more specific than “somewhere that’s not America”.
“Yes, exactly. Most people will probably assume England because Imogen has a British accent,” he says. “Figuring out what is Irish about this movie, my thoughts go to what Lorcan said about there being a housing shortage in Ireland. They started writing about these characters who are eager to own a home and they are forced out of the city into this estate. It’s about the desperation of wanting to buy a house as a young person.”
He is already into a fierce debate with himself about the nature of Irishness. There’s a lack of sentimentality there. On the other hand, he’s just been working with John Carney – director of Once and Sing Street – on his new series for Amazon.
“He quite likes sentiment. So maybe that’s not Irish,” he says. “I am writing and directing and starring in an episode set in Bosnia. He is quite different from Lorcan. So maybe I can’t make any sort of broad generalisation on your culture. I shouldn’t do that.”
It is quickly apparent that there is no filter with Eisenberg. He is refreshingly honest and refreshingly himself. The fast-talking, nervous kid you remember from The Squid and the Whale is there. You get something of the restless Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network. What you also get is an unexpected chumminess. He’s as interested in you as you are in him.
“Imogen Poots and I had done a movie that was a tenth of the size a year earlier,” he says. “The best films come along in all sizes. She had suggested me to Lorcan. And I am delighted she did because he might not have thought of me. It’s not an American movie and the character is not specifically ‘me’. He is the male presence in the movie and not the leading eccentric, which is something I am usually more attracted to.”
Now that’s an arresting comment. One might almost call it an admission. It’s hard to think of a better description of Eisenberg’s key persona than “leading eccentric”. By 2017 he had so perfected the agitated neurotic that he got to turn Lex Luthor into a version of that character for Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. It doesn’t sound as if he’s complaining about being typecast.
I don’t use Twitter or Facebook because I am convinced 95 per cent of it will be difficult to read or boring
“No, I like doing that more than anything,” he says. “That’s what I normally do. I thought it would be interesting to play the … you know, the male rock – the stable guy. That was an interesting experience, but I don’t want to do that all the time.”
Eisenberg was born 36 years ago in the New York borough of Queens. His mother worked as a clown before becoming a teacher. Dad ploughed through similarly tough jobs on his way to life as a sociology lecturer. There is no sense of a privileged background here.
“Bernie Sanders always gets made fun of for his accent,” he says. “But, to me, he just sounds exactly like my family. My parents are from Bronx and Brooklyn. He is from Brooklyn and he sounds it!”
The family moved to New Jersey when he was young. He attended an everyday public school there before transferring to the Professional Performing Arts School on the West Side of Manhattan. Eisenberg has talked about wanting first to become a writer (he later became a regular contributor to the New Yorker) but acting got in the way early on. Was he planning to become a novelist? Was he looking more towards the theatre?
“It was humour writing mostly,” he says. “I was writing jokes. I thought I would maybe submit to Saturday Night Live when I finished high school. And then I got randomly into this movie: Roger Dodger. That was right out of high school and it turned out to be a good movie. It was day and night. I suddenly had an acting career. I would not have pursued it otherwise, because it’s such an unstable profession.”
It turned out that the movies needed someone like Jesse Eisenberg. Roger Dodger, a hip sex comedy co-starring Campbell Scott, was among the best-reviewed films of 2002. Three years later he was brilliant as one of several squabbling New Yorkers in Noah Baumbach’s breakthrough The Squid and the Whale. He was in the cult hit Zombieland. He scored an Oscar nomination for The Social Network in 2011. Meanwhile he was writing pieces for magazines and circling off-Broadway producers. There are not many writers who can persuade Vanessa Redgrave into their first play. Working with the great lady on The Revisionist in 2013, Eisenberg got some sense of how insecurity follows even distinguished actors about.
Any time I’ve had any kind of success or been part of anything that’s a hit in the popular culture, I just feel: Okay, this buys me, like, six months
“I went to her house and first thing she said to me in a quivering voice was: ‘I think I could do a good job with this,’ ” he remembers. “I was, like: ‘Are you kidding me? You’re the greatest living actor.’ This is the first thing I did. And she was kind of having to prove herself. That taught me a lot. In a way it was kind of a relief. It takes the burden off. I don’t feel that I have to feel that this is a comfortable, stable place.”
It’s okay to worry?
“Sure, yeah, yeah. The people who are confident are usually not as good as Vanessa Redgrave. Because they stop worrying.”
He confirms that he is, indeed, always concerned that the career might be on the point of implosion. One suspects that the success of The Social Network may have eased that paranoia (if that’s the word), but Eisenberg has never allowed himself to get complacent. He always has an eye on the cultural barometer.
“Things end so quickly,” he says. “The business is oftentimes based on cultural shifts – the taste of the masses, which is impossible to predict. So, any time I’ve had any kind of success or been part of anything that’s a hit in the popular culture, I just feel: Okay, this buys me, like, six months.”
Eisenberg has a playful quality, but you need to pass through a deal of angst to get at it. He takes life and his work very seriously. Surprisingly, he looks back to his mother’s experiences as a clown when addressing his own earnestness. She spent years entertaining at children’s parties and choreographing school productions.
“She did what I would consider silly juvenile performances, but she took it so seriously,” he says. “There she is, putting on silly make-up and wearing a silly outfit and a hat with a spinny thing on top of it. And yet she took it as seriously as John Gielgud would take his job. To me that says a lot about the work ethic of the artist. Vanessa Redgrave was doing our off-Broadway play for 289 people and she would get to the theatre four hours early every night to go over her script.”
Jesse Eisenberg couldn’t be easier to get on with. He’s modest, funny and engaged. As I’m tidying up, he quizzes me on the accents of Ireland
There’s something delightfully old-fashioned about Jesse Eisenberg. He’s worked with some of the hippest actors and directors. He is connected to many of the clued-in postmodernists of the era, but he radiates an offline sensibility that would fit comfortably into post-war Bohemia. When we move on to talk about Batman Vs Superman, he explains that he got no sense of how the DC enthusiasts felt about his Lex Luthor. He simply refuses to dip into the online maelstrom.
“I live completely in a bubble,” he says. “I don’t use Twitter or Facebook because I am convinced 95 per cent of it will be difficult to read or boring,” he says (remember this is the man who played Mark Zuckerberg). “Maybe 5 per cent of it might make me feel good, but in a way that’s unsustainable. So I stay away from all that stuff. To me, because I’m outside of it all, there’s no difference between being in a movie like Vivarium or a movie like Batman. Your experience is really the same – except that there are more posters for Batman.”
Does he ever feel left out of conversations with his contemporaries? So much chatter is these days driven by the ebbs and flows of social media.
“Well, my two best friends are in their 50s and my wife is older than me,” he says. “My wife grew up without a television. So she has no sense of popular culture and nor do my friends so, um, no. I am friendly with like-minded people.”
Eisenberg has been married to Anna Strout, a writer and producer, since 2017 and they have one child. She has a particular interest in Ireland and recently helped produce an event titled The People Speak Ireland, hosted by Stephen Rea, which addressed political protest in the country.
“Yes, she was all round the country,” he says. “I couldn’t go then, as I was working. My wife’s brother wrote the book The People Speak Ireland so she had seen everything and I was in the studio most of the day. So I lost my opportunity to see it all with her. I have to go back to Ireland. It’s famously the most beautiful, lush place on Earth and I was stuck in a cramped movie studio.”
Jesse Eisenberg couldn’t be easier to get on with. He’s modest, funny and engaged. As I’m tidying up, he quizzes me on the accents of Ireland. Where is Liam Neeson from? Where was Michael Collins from? What does a Cork accent sound like?
He waves me off and promises to return to the lush scenery as soon as life will allow. Happy to have him.
Vivarium is released on March 27th