The Jesse Eisenberg principle
‘Analysis’ could be the ‘Social Network’ actor’s middle name. It’s how he creates his characters – including the overthinkers of his new book
Jesse Eisenberg: “An astute observer of human delusion.” Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Jesse Eisenberg has a habit of using five sentences where one might do, unless it’s on the topic of moviemaking. Thankfully we’re discussing his debut story collection, Bream Gives Me Hiccups: And Other Stories, about which he has plenty to say.
“I feel exhausted discussing that experience,” he says on the phone from New York when asked about the absence of movies – sets or stars – from his book. The strongest voices in the stories are younger characters, suggesting that the literary world Eisenberg is drawn to is one that predates his time in Hollywood. “If I invite someone to a movie set the typical experience, frankly, is the first 10 minutes are really interesting and the last 10 hours are just mind-numbing.”
The 31-year-old is racking up one of the most impressive résumés of his generation: his upcoming films include American Ultra, with Kristen Stewart, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which he plays Lex Luthor, and a film about the late writer David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour. Still, you sense he has little interest in the business of moviemaking, preferring his own creative pursuits to brainless box-office promotion.
Growing up in a secular Jewish household in New Jersey, Eisenberg was a sensitive child who, he says, “felt a lot of the pain of the world, which is maybe kind of a self-centred experience”. His mother was a professional clown, and he started writing by constructing jokes.
As a teenager he was interested in stand-up comedy but didn’t think he had the personality for it. “Even though I’m an actor, stand-up comedy requires a different kind of performance skill set,” he says. When he was 16 he wrote a movie script about Woody Allen, which earned him a letter from the man himself. “I felt very encouraged to write.”
Global success came with a breakthrough role in Zombieland, in 2009, followed by nominations for a Golden Globe and an Oscar for The Social Network, in which he played Mark Zuckerberg, in 2011.
Eisenberg is also a playwright and contributor to the New Yorker magazine and McSweeney’s. He’s more comfortable discussing this output than he is talking about his acting – but “comfortable” is not an ideal word to describe him. His reputation may be soaring, and his roles expanding, but Eisenberg seems closer to the high-achieving sophomore type of his earlier parts, including that of Zuckerberg, the alpha-geek Facebook founder.
“Analysis” could be Eisenberg’s middle name. The story collection even analyses itself: “Jesus, I’ve written another loser,” a writer-character thinks in one story, analysing his story as he writes it. There’s a lot of active thinking in Eisenberg’s work.
It’s a way of pre-empting criticism – getting there first – and Eisenberg does this in conversation too. He is quick to point out his celebrity advantage, anticipating the scrutiny actors receive for their perceived leg-up.
“I have to do a little more self-censoring, because I have an easier time getting people to read my plays or my books, because of my work in another, related field,” he says.
Does this make him more self-critical? “Yes, because the more known you are, the wider the circle of people saying you’re great is, so to have any kind of normal self-perspective, you have to try to offset that.”
The inevitable question about Woody Allen’s influence – in a nice stroke of symmetry, he’s currently filming with Allen in his latest movie – provokes sighs, stuttering, reversing and rerouting. Is that a difficult question or just an inanely obvious one? Gradually, it becomes clear that the sighs are aimed not at me, nor even at the question, but at language in general, as if the answer is bound to be inadequate. (This gist is that Allen is the pioneer of all this stuff.)
For Eisenberg, Allen’s shadow is a long one. The world of Bream Gives Me Hiccups is full of overthinkers; a neurotic urban world populated by therapists, crammed with pseudo-intellectual references and fuelled by the anxiety of the privileged. It’s at its funniest when its characters’ neuroses overwhelm rational behaviour and make everything far more complicated than is necessary. A college room-mate stealing noodles prompts a series of footnoted letters; a marriage counsellor heckles at a New York Knicks basketball game using phrases such as “Let’s go Knicks!!! But let’s also recognize the positive attributes of the opposing team!!!”
Eisenberg sees himself as working within a particularly New York and Jewish comic tradition. “It isn’t exclusive to Jews, but Jews have been doing it forever and have survived in unusual circumstances using [humour], and I don’t mean survived in a literal way but to thrive in American culture. The most popular comedies in America are usually made from people in this culture, whether it’s Judd Apatow or Woody Allen. It’s possible I have that bubble of a life perspective, but it also seems that that’s a life perspective that a lot of people are interested in, irrespective of their own bubble.”
His book and his plays are full of international touchstones. The stories are heavily peppered with cultural, historical and ethnic references, often as ways to explore, by comparison, the self. The Bosnian war is an “obsession” of Eisenberg’s, but it operates in the book as an analogy for the strikes and tactics of a teenage email relationship. The laconically titled An Email Exchange With My First Girlfriend, Which at a Certain Point Is Taken Over By My Older Sister, a College Student Studying the Bosnian Genocide takes an age-old comparison of love and war into its juvenile, cyber and “ironic” dimensions.
Eisenberg can be an astute observer of human delusion, and he looks wryly on a zeitgeist of gender confusion with stories such as A Post-Gender-Normative Man Tries to Pick Up a Woman at a Bar.
“Just because the words he’s using are more politically correct doesn’t make him any less horrifying,” says Eisenberg of a character whose opening chat-up line is, “I noticed that you were about to finish your drink and I was wondering if I could possibly watch you purchase another one.”
Oh, the romance. Gender, in these stories, he says, is “secondary to the attempt at being overly politically correct to the point that communication becomes impossible”.
Eisenberg may have a personal motivation to satirise political correctness, having recently been twice at the receiving end of the internet’s outrage. First he hit the headlines for comparing to “some kind of genocide” the experience of being screamed at by thousands of fans at Comic-Con International, the huge convention held in San Diego each year. (He later apologised, saying he was “using hyperbole” to describe the sensory overload he felt.) Another incident blew up online when he used the term “squaw”, a description that offends many Native Americans, in a humour supposedly funny piece for the New Yorker.
Has he learned to watch what he says in an era of digital eggshells and viral policing? “I’m in a certain weird position where people parse whatever I say by virtue of being in a mainstream movie, and if I let that govern me I would never get up in the morning. I can’t concern myself with hypersensitivity. That said, to use a culturally disparaging term for an already oppressed group is not in my interests.” The New Yorker incident was, he says, a “complete oversight”.
“I like to play selfish characters. That’s funny to me, to have a character that’s very self-involved,” he says. “All of my plays have been about culturally insensitive people and the shaming of them. I’m hypersensitive to that stuff.”
In a way it’s a continuum of a type of millennial, slightly infantilised and self-centred character that he enjoys creating. But Eisenberg also wants to reach the universal in this recognisable version of the selfie-age solipsist. For all their thinking, the characters remain trapped in their own heads.
But then Eisenberg has already said this himself, writing: “It’s why I blame everything on the Mongols and the World Bank and the IMF and Robert Mugabe and Cecil Rhodes and Immanuel Kant and Freud and Maslow and Chomsky and your mother! But it’s me. It’s just me!”
Stage to page: Five other actors with books under their belts
Ethan Hawke: Hawke’s third novel, Rules for a Knight, “a parable for all ages”, is published this November. The actor, who has been nominated for four Oscars – most recently for Boyhood – has written two previous books, The Hottest State (1996) and Ash Wednesday (2002). The latter garnered a comparison to JD Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye.
Carrie Fisher: The American actor, best known for her portrayal of Princess Leia Organa in the original Star Wars trilogy, and for Postcards from the Edge, has written four novels in a hugely successful second career. The novels were generally semi-autobiographical and fictionalised events from her real life, before she wrote her first out-and-out memoir, Wishful Drinking.
James Franco: Despite the wishes of some, James Franco is a widely published writer in addition to donning other hats as a film-maker, teacher, selfie-taker and serial student. Palo Alto, Franco’s debut collection of short fiction, is a series of linked stories narrated by Californian suburban teenagers. It received some tentative praise and a few outright pannings.
Hugh Laurie: Hugh Laurie first came to prominence as half of a double act with Stephen Fry. Then he starred in Blackadder and, more recently, was acclaimed as the lead in House. The OBE’s first novel, The Gun Seller, was a bestseller in the 1990s. The thriller owes a debt to PG Wodehouse, whom Laurie has said helped save his life. Fans await the second novel, overdue since 2009.
Emma Thompson: The Oscar-winning actor also finds time to write screenplays and children’s books. She wrote one based on Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit series to commemorate the book’s 110th anniversary. Thompson’s The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit was a New York Times bestseller. She followed it in 2013 with The Christmas Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Bream Gives Me Hiccups: And Other Stories is published by Grove Press