Jesse Eisenberg has had a stellar run since netting an Oscar nomination for his work on David Fincher’s “The Social Network” in 2010. This year arguably marks the actor’s biggest one yet following that career milestone.
He kicked it off by appearing in James Ponsoldt’s acclaimed Sundance drama “The End of the Tour,” earning awards buzz for his performance in the indie drama. This week saw his latest film, “Louder Than Bombs,” premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival in the main competition. Weeks before the event got underway, the first photo of Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder’s 2016 blockbuster “Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” surfaced online, amping up anticipation for his performance as the film’s chief villain. In “Louder Than Bombs, directed by Joachim Trier (“Oslo, August 31st”), Eisenberg plays one of two siblings dealing in self-destructive ways with the recent death of their mother (Isabelle Huppert), a former war photographer with a mysterious past. Eisenberg wasn’t in Cannes for the film’s premiere, so Indiewire spoke with the actor over the phone.
What are you filming right now that’s keeping you away from the festival?
I’m doing a play in New York. Every year-and-a-half, I write and perform in a play. So my play is in previews right now, which means I’m re-writing during the day and performing at night. We do eight shows a week. It is like the most exhausting, all-consuming job I’ve ever had. It’s got a regular schedule in New York, so it’s just totally, totally consuming. If you’re filming a movie, it’s usual that you have stuff like this and they’ll change the schedule around. With a play, it’s just impossible.
When is it opening?
We open in two weeks. So the preview period is where the writer is supposed to still be making changes, because then the play gets published and moves on.
Were you aware of who Joachim was before coming across the screenplay for “Louder Than Bombs,” or did you learn about him after the fact?
It’s a totally weird set of coincidences: One of the producers of this movie — a guy named Josh Astrachan — was producing my previous play as a movie, about seven years ago. His producing partner at the time gave me some European films to watch to look for a possible European director because the movie takes place in Northern Poland, right across the Baltic Sea from Norway. They gave me his movie to watch, and I really liked “Reprise.” Then my movie just became a play. I didn’t actually pursue [working with him], but I watched his movie and I really liked him. Then I read this script. I liked the script and I really liked my character because, if you see the play I’m doing, my character is, like in the play, stuck in a lie that he created out of his own personal fears and anxieties. Obviously, when you’re stuck in a lie, things tend to get worse. I liked what the character was dealing with, and I liked the kind of ambiguity and characterization. It felt like there would be room for an actor to explore; that there was flexibility within the script for an actor to add something. I think we all felt that way. And then Joachim, the director, was very open to exploring the characters with us rather than shaping it into a preconceived idea of what it should be.
Your character in “Louder” — and in your play, for that matter — is hard to empathize with. He lies to those he loves. How did you go about defending his actions in order to play him?
All the guys in the movie are struggling to reconcile their own feelings about the loss of their mother or wife. I think my character has a kind of dormant anxiety about growing up, and about becoming a parent based on the loss of his mother. That anxiety awakens for him and he abandons his family. To me, it’s a very understandable, psychological dynamic. In terms of the audience sympathizing with the character, that seems like an irrelevant prospect — I don’t know how to predict what people think, but the more sophisticated and complicated goal is to create something that seems real and compelling for whatever set of creative reasons. And hope that it provides some entertainment or thoughtfulness.
Now, you shot “Louder” on a brief break from making “Batman vs. Superman,” correct?
“Batman” was shot over nine months. I ended up having a month off, so that’s why they were able to very sweetly fit this in. The producers of that movie and of this movie were so generous. I never would have thought a movie like that would re-arrange my schedule for a movie like this. And not because of any kind of qualitative reason — you just wouldn’t think it’d be on their radar. But it says a lot about the movie industry that a movie like that and a movie like this can be related in such an integral way. That a movie like a “Batman” movie can change their schedule to allow something like this to accommodate my schedule.
What was it like for you as a performer, to switch back between the two projects? They’re obviously so different in scope and scale.
It’s the best possible thing. I think the most important thing for actors, or I can speak for myself, is just to act. The unfortunate thing about acting is that it’s like playing the drums; it’s hard to do it on your own. I love to just be able to do anything. When I’m not acting in a movie, I’m usually performing in one of my plays or writing my plays, in which case I’m usually sitting in my bedroom performing it for myself. Or in my head. That’s the way you stay fit, like any other kind of exercise. So it was great to be able to do both, and it made them both better. In fact, I was so happy. I knew I had a month off of the “Batman” movie, and the first fear is that you’re going to come back after a month and not feel fresh. That it’s going to take a day or two to get back into the swing of it, and it’s not a luxury that I wanted. I didn’t want to have to take a day or two — you want to feel like you can jump right into it. And vice versa: you want to feel like when I’m jumping into this movie, I’m fresh. It was a great scheduling conflict.
You’ve managed to find a great balance between the smaller independent projects and the bigger studio stuff. Do you have a preference? Do you even see projects in those terms?
I don’t see it as that; I get sent the different things. I feel like I’m more of a recipient of those different kind of projects, rather than trying to do it myself. Whenever I try to do something myself, it’s a play or theater. I don’t have the foresight or ambition to pursue the big thing, maybe, just because it doesn’t occur to me. But I feel so lucky because it’s the best way to sustain an acting career. As much as people in the arthouse theaters may put down the bigger movies, in a lot of ways they’re very helpful in getting the movies that those people like made. This is a really good example because the “Batman” movie really changed their schedule around to allow me to be in it, and then because I’m in the big movie, “Louder Than Bombs” may get — well, it wasn’t the case with “Louder Than Bombs.” Joachim is such a prized filmmaker that I don’t think he needed the financing based on the actors, but a lot of times that is what happens.
Gabriel Byrne, during the press conference for “Louder,” expressed how it’s been a lifelong goal of his to work alongside Isabelle Huppert, whom he considers his favorite actress. What was it like to share the screen with her? If you had told me years ago that you’d be sharing the screen with her, I’d have laughed it off.
She’s phenomenal. She speaks French first, so I didn’t picture myself with her, either [laughs]. I kept telling Joachim while we were filming, “God, I wish we had more scenes together,” because she’s passed away at the beginning of the film. We only have scenes in flashbacks. There’s a really unusual quality to her that transcends language. It’s hard to describe, but she has this kind of quality that you see in some women — you just want to get their attention. She has that kind of quality. It was good for the dynamic between us because my character is eager for her approval. My character is dismissive of his father and, by contrast, enamored with his mother. The fact that she has this unusually seductive quality, while also being a little bit aloof to my character, was perfect for the relationship.
Are you a big fan of European film? Do you follow certain filmmakers?
No, I watch nothing ever. It was such a coincidence that I had seen “Reprise.” I watch nothing; I’ve only watched his movie because his producer gave it to me. It was great luck. But even if I hadn’t seen it, I still would have done the movie because I liked the director. So no, I really don’t see anything.
You struck me as a cinephile, so that surprises me.
No, nothing. I saw like one movie this year, by accident.
What was it?
I don’t even know. Something on an airplane.
You’re a playwright; any interest to write for film?
I did when I was younger, like 18, 19, 20. I had written some movies that some companies in Los Angeles optioned — broad screenplays. I struggled with it because I would do rewriting for a year for some actor’s manager that gave me notes. I just hated it. I’m also very young, so I was also more idealistic than I am now. I found the process infuriating. I was also friends with this guy, Bob Odenkirk, who I had met when I was 20 or 21. Bob has no filter, so he told me that what I was doing was terrible and I should write personal things. I got that immediate reaction, so now I have plays that are done around the world. It’s a much more fulfilling process.
So you don’t see yourself writing a movie one day?
I could, but it feels like such an unsatisfying project. I’m friends with movie writers who are phenomenal writers, and yet their movies get changed by actors on set, by directors on a whim, by somebody on the set who comes up with a joke that they think is really funny because it relates to something that they were saying earlier on the set and that gets in the movie…. To me, it seems like the most unfulfilling project. There are exceptions, obviously, but the plays have been so much more fulfilling for me.
Because you are a writer, is the script the first thing that has to hook you in for you to sign onto a project?
Well yeah, but the main thing is that if I’m acting in the thing, that’s all I care about it. I just want to think that I can have some real, lasting experience — there’s some room for exploration as an actor. Even in my plays, I write them, but I explore my character every night and the other actors do as well. You want to feel like that. Most actors in movies are functionary, so you want to play roles that are not functionary. The emotional inner-life of the character is the important thing. It’s very rare. Most people are playing a doctor giving a diagnosis or a policeman giving a ticket. You want to play characters that have some kind of an emotional inner-life that seems to be one of the priorities of the story. Those are rare to find.