EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a daily December series that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year's most notable cinematic voices.
Soft spoken, humble and thin in appearance, Jesse Eisenberg may not be the most imposing actor to come across our screens this year, but that didn't stop him from blowing up. At 27, Eisenberg has been subjected to praise most actors would only dream of over the span of an entire career for his performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's ecstatically received "The Social Network."
Shortly after learning he was a Golden Globe nominee for his turn in the film, Eisenberg took part in a Q&A with indieWIRE's Brian Brooks at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), following a special screening of "The Social Network," as part of MoMA's The Contenders series.
Below are snippets from the chat, where he discusses everything from working with Fincher, to the reason behind the film's resonance with audiences and critics.
Eisenberg on the ecstatic reception the film has received on how it all came about...
It's been overwhelming really. When we were making it we thought it was great, but usually when that happens the audience tells you otherwise when it's said and done. This is that rare experience where our reaction meets that of the audience who are seeing it.
It was a very traditional casting process. I read the script, and made a videotape, and got a call the next day to meet David Fincher. The funny thing is, the day I made the tape I had to catch a flight to Seattle. The whole plane ride I was thinking the tape I made was terrible, going over how I could improve upon it. So when I got off the plane I called my agent and told her not to send it. But it turned out they they had already received it, seen it and wanted to seen me.
When I met him [Fincher] we just had a four-hour conversation. It was a relaxed process given what I expected due to the quality of the material. You'd expect it to be this intense casting process with the people working on it there in the room. But the way Fincher works, he's very confident in his producers. He's an evolved and self-realized filmmaker.
Thoughts on the 'real' Mark Zuckerberg versus the one in Aaron Sorkin's script...
In interviews he's a much better interviewer that participant. I relate to that, though I do something that's more immediately public. If he was a participant I don't know if you'd have the same insight on how people would want to interact with each other, and he probably wouldn't have been able to build the thing he built. The site had to be built by someone who used socialization in this sort of macro, outside way.
I don't want to diagnose the person, because I've never met the real person. But I will say that when I read the script I thought there was kind of a very unique emotional experience he was having. More specifically, the limited way he's able to emotionally engage. That is kind of in accordance with some of the symptoms of Asperger syndrome. But I read about stuff like that. The character is most comfortable with his computer, he's a very introverted person, and has great difficulty gauging the way he affects other people emotionally.
He's not sadistic, malicious, greedy or even overly ambitious. He's just wired a different way. I feel great sympathy for him.
Eisenberg tackles the central debate at the heart of the film: who invented Facebook?
My impression from thinking about it as an actor playing the role is that my character is an artist who painted the Mona Lisa, and the twins suggested that he paint a woman. No one would ever attribute the Mona Lisa to anybody but DaVinci, and that's how I see Mark's creation. At least in terms of how my character is concerned. I think he strung them along, but no one else could have run it.
Fincher is known for long shoots with lots of takes. How did "The Social Network" set compare?
It was the longest shoot. 75 days. Which is not a lot for an "Avatar." But for a movie like this that is dialogue driven, it could have been done in 40 days. Fincher wanted to experiment with us. He gave us a lot of time. That opening scene, on a small budget could have been shot in half-a-day. We shot it over the course of two nights. It gave me the opportunity to try different things with the character. It was just an exhilarating and totally unique process.
[Having a theater background] does a few things that are really helpful. It makes you take movies very seriously. You know I did a movie last year that's a silly zombie comedy. It forces you to think about acting in a very serious way. So even in a movie like that I can find something nuances to bring to it. When you do a movie like this with scenes that run for nine pages, it doesn't make it an overwhelming prospect. It can help you prepare for a movie like this, which probably asks a little more out of you in terms of dialogue, and in terms of emotional shifts within a scene.
What separates this biopic from the countless others that have preceded it?
Well this movie is not a traditional bio film that details the backstory of a character's life. I think that's a great asset of the movie. It doesn't give Mark the dead dog story, that comes two thirds into most bio plays, where a character reveals that his dog died as a teenager and that accounts for all of his emotional behavior.
That's a testament to Aaron Sorkin's great sophistication as a writer, that he's able to craft a story that you don't feel confused by, but that creates a character that is enigmatic enough to start a great debate after the movie.
I think also the movie is so resonant because people want to discuss social networking. It makes that discussion possible in a way that's safe and accessible. In countries where Facebook has competition this movie has kind of made Facebook more popular. It's established Facebook as the brand to beat in a way. In America it's already there. In Spain, Japan, the movie is popular but Facebook is in competition with their local social networking sites. I think Facebook is going to come out thinking good about the movie.
Is a Sorkin script sacred, or is there room to switch things around?
Aaron writes in a very specific way. I've always loved his writing. I don't know if that's because I've always felt some kind of kinship with it. I used to watch "Sports Night," and videotape the episodes in my bedroom and watch them over and over again, because the dialogue was so interesting to hear. And actually if Aaron was here he'd tell you he liked dialogue when he was younger because it was like music to him. Just to give an indication of what that means as actors in his movie - you don't miss a word or a letter. So much so that if there's an ellipsis, he tells you.
One of the great things Fincher did in the casting process was cast people of different backgrounds. Andrew who plays Eduardo, is an English actor, and then Justin has his own way of speaking, since he's from Tennsesee. What Fincher wanted in casting people from all over, was to have us all come at with our own biographical way of communicating. All the characters do sound different.
And how about those Disney kids?
I only know this story from Fincher. I remember him saying, "Don't bring me any Disney kids," and then the Disney kids started infiltrating the audition process, and they were better prepared than the Julliard kids. And then he said, "Alright just bring me the Disney kids." Brenda Song is on a Disney show ["The Suite Life on Deck"], and Justin used to be on "The Mouse Club."
Selfishly I was so glad when Justin was cast. One of the strange things you do as an actor, is that you try and forget the person, the actor, and try and focus on who they're playing. With Justin, being aware of him since I was a teenager was very helpful. The way Mark views Sean Parker is like a rock star, even before he meets him. Everything that Justin brought just personally actually helped.
Previous Honor Roll 2010 Entries:
December 20: "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" Directors Stern & Sundberg
December 19: "Winter's Bone" Actress Jennifer Lawrence
December 18: "Everyone Else" Actress Birgit Minichmayr
December 17: "Marwencol" Director Jeff Malmberg
December 16: "The Social Network" Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
December 15: "The Tillman Story" Director Amir Bar-Lev
December 14: "The Kids Are All Right" Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko
December 13: "Rabbit Hole" Director John Cameron Mitchell
December 12: "Last Train Home" director Lixin Fan
December 11: "Carlos" Actor Edgar Ramirez
December 10: "The Oath" Director Laura Poitras
December 9: "White Material" Actress Isabelle Huppert
December 8: "Blue Valentine" Director Derek Cianfrance
December 7: "The Social Network" and "Never Let Me Go" Actor Andrew Garfield
December 6: "I Am Love"'s Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino
December 5: "Waste Land" Director Lucy Walker
December 4: "Restrepo" Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
December 3: "Another Year" Actress Lesley Manville
December 2: "Please Give" Director Nicole Holofcener
December 1: "Winter's Bone" Director Debra Granik