Jesse Eisenberg has been acting for over a decade, already has one Oscar nomination under his belt and has worked with some of the industry’s most accomplished directors, but it wasn’t until 2013’s “Now You See Me” that he found his favorite character to play, the uber-confident magician and illusionist J. Daniel Atlas.
Now back in Atlas’ (magic, maybe) shoes for Jon M. Chu’s “Now You See Me 2,” Eisenberg is just as excited about the character (and the booming franchise he’s a part of) than ever. And excitement doesn’t come easy to Eisenberg, who makes no bones about his default setting (worried) and why exactly playing such a self-assured character makes him feel better about himself and his own talents. For a performer whose career also includes writing (plays, books, short stories) and now directing (with a TV adaptation of one of his own short stories), Eisenberg remains a creature of concern, and one who does best when he’s actually making things (and not just worrying about them). That plan, however, might not extend to a future directing films, surprisingly enough.
IndieWire recently hopped on the phone with a very busy (and, admittedly, very homesick) Eisenberg to talk about his latest franchise offering, why he feels better when he’s busy and why directing a TV show might not be the gateway to feature film directing most people would expect.
Do you read reviews?
No, no no no no. Of course not. Never.
Did you ever read reviews?
No, no, never.
You’ve never been much of a franchise guy, but this year, you’ve got roles in both “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Now You See Me 2.” Was moving more into franchise films a conscious decision on your part?
I have no opinion on them at all. My only opinion is that I’d rather be in a good movie that’s a sequel than a less-good movie that’s original. With a movie like “Now You See Me,” it seemed like a good opportunity to make another one. There is a great ensemble of actors, it’s a storyline that doesn’t feel finite, it’s a world that feels worthy of extension and a topic that seems fresh enough to continue, so this seems like a good one. The decision is probably based on the demand for it rather than our Machiavellian intentions.
The movie was so popular and not only was it popular, it took on a life of its own after its release, which is the way they gauge popularity – after theaters, when it’s on DVD and you can see its ongoing life, they see it’s worthy for them to do another.
This films are starting to feel like a new spin on the “Ocean’s 11” movies. Do you feel that way?
I think maybe that’s their goal? I don’t know. It seems like the kind of movie that can continue to exist because it really celebrates something a bit unusual – cleverness, rather than brute force, effort as opposed to strength, teamwork as opposed to individual work. In that way, I think it’ an unusual story in the current climate. I don’t know about culture in the same way you do, but it seems like these movies have a quality for people to live vicariously through it and be impressed by it.
Were you surprised by how successful the first film was?
I was surprised. When we were making it, we weren’t exactly sure of the tone – it seemed at once very funny and then the next minute very sincere and slick, and we just didn’t know if that would meld. It’s a group of actors who are wonderful, but coming from different worlds and styles. When it was embraced, we felt that maybe that kind of mix of these usually disparate elements is something that can work well. With the second one, because we knew what we were doing a little more, I think we probably succeeded that much more.
More than that, this is the most enjoyable character for me I can play. He’s a performer, like me, but also a guy who’s very competent and feels that his hard work allows him to feel good about himself. This is something I struggle with as a performer. I work hard, I prepare, I give my life to it and I still get nervous about it. It’s fun to play a character who feels confidence in performing. I feel better [when I play him]. I really like playing this character and I wish they would do more [films], because it just allows me to get outside of myself.
I read a recent interview you did, and in it, you said that you’re pretty much always worried and that’s sort of your default creative setting. Does playing someone like J. Daniel Atlas get you out of that mindset?
There’s the old and probably not psychologically astute adage that, if you force yourself to smile, you unconsciously trick your brain into thinking that you’re happier. If there is any truth to that it’s that this character imbues me with the confidence I never get to feel. I spend 12-14 hours a day playing this role over the course of a few months, it just inevitably seeps into my brain – I got to trick myself into feeling that way, and it’s just a real relief.
That’s sort of Method acting, but in reverse.
Do you feel better when you’re busy?
I wouldn’t say better, but I would say distracted. Distracted for me is the height of happiness, because the alternative for me is concern. I don’t mean to complain – I’m not worthy of pity. I just need to stay busy, and beyond staying busy, I have things I want to do. I have things I want to do, and when you like what you do, you don’t consider it difficult. There’s a perception that we associate work with some kind of difficulty, but I really like what I do.
I’m doing a play now and we’re onstage eight times a week. I’m onstage the whole time and it’s the most emotionally and physically exhausting I do. When I do things like this I can’t wait for a movie like “Now You See Me” to come along. It’s fun, it’s a great group of people and it takes very long to film, so you end up having a lot of downtime.
Then conversely, when I do a movie like that I long to get back onstage, or write something. So I like diversity. It keeps things interesting. Frankly, it makes me better at each individual thing.
Does that mean you’re especially conscious of making sure there is variety in your work? You have always seemed able to mix up your film work with larger films and much smaller indie pictures.
I’m really not aware when they send me a script. My finger is so far off the cultural pulse, so I can’t tell what’s going to be the big popular thing and what’s going to be at the film festival in the middle of Stockholm.
I did a movie a few years ago called “Holy Rollers” about a Hasidic Jewish guy who becomes a drug dealer. When I read that, it seemed like a huge commercial hit – it has drug dealing, religion, all that stuff that seems in the zeitgeist. When I got to set, it was a tiny movie where we were begging for favors to shoot in places. And people liked it, but it wasn’t the movie I thought it was.
Then I read for bigger movies that I think no one will see. I don’t have a good sense about it, but if I feel I can do something with the role, or I can bring myself to the role in some way and add something to it, that I could think about a character that doesn’t necessarily fit into the confines of the movie script. If I could improvise it, I could think about it beyond the narrow world of the film, then I’d be interested in it.
You’re also in the process of turning one of your short stories from your short story book, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups,” into a television show, which you’re writing and directing. How has that process been for you?
It’s great! We’re doing the final music mix today, so I’m in London finishing the edit, then New York. We’re deciding on songs now, it’s going well, Parker Posey is in it and she’s phenomenal, and the other actors, Elliot Smith and Victor Rasuk, are great.
I enjoyed doing it – when I write a play, it’s 150 pages, and a TV show is only 25 pages. It’s quick, it’s wonderful, it’s fun,and it’s just a blast. I love the medium and I’d love to keep doing it.
Would you want to direct a feature-length film after your experience directing the show?
I don’t know. I love doing this TV pilot and I’d love doing more episodes. I guess in a time perspective it might add up to the same time as doing a movie. But I’m really happy doing this.
The movie industry is changing, and the stuff that I would make is probably not something many people would see. It’s probably better to be onstage with my stuff, or on TV, I don’t know. That’s what I see.
“Now You See Me 2” opens on Friday, June 10.