The “American Ultra” Interview
with Kam Williams
Born in New York City on October 5, 1983, Jesse Adam Eisenberg and his two siblings were raised in East Brunswick, New Jersey by their parents, Amy, a clown, and Barry, a professor. His sister Hallie Kate Eisenberg was a child star best remembered as the adorable pitch girl in a string of popular Pepsi Cola commercials.
Jesse is an actor/playwright who recently appeared in his play, The Spoils. He previously wrote and co-starred opposite Vanessa Redgrave in the stage production, The Revisionist. And in 2011, he wrote and starred in the play
His big screen credits include Zombieland, Adventureland, The Squid and the Whale, Roger Dodger, The Double, Night Moves, Why Stop Now, The Education of Charlie Banks and The Social Network where he landed an Academy Award nomination for his riveting portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
He's in The End of the Tour which is currently in theaters, and he's currently shooting a movie with Woody Allen. Among his other upcoming releases are Louder Than Bombs, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice where he assumes the iconic role of Lex Luthor.
Jesse is also a frequent contributor to The New Yorker magazine and is the author of the new collection of short stories called “Bream Gives Me Hiccups,”
published by Grove Press. Here, he talks about his latest outing opposite Kristen Stewart in American Ultra, an action comedy where he plays a stoner/sleeper espionage agent.
Kam Williams: Hi Jesse, thanks for the interview.
Jesse Eisenberg: Where in New Jersey are you?
KW: Princeton. I noticed you're from East Brunswick.
JE: Yeah, do you know it?
KW: Very well. In fact, a good friend of mine, Jeanie Bryson, Dizzy Gillespie's only child, lives there.
JE: Really? Oh my God! That's so strange. The last thing I'd associate East Brunswick with is bebop or any kind of interesting jazz music.
KW: In fact, we went with Jeanie to her father's induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame at Convention Hall last year.
JE: How nice!
KW: Let me start by telling you how much I loved The Social Network. It was #1 on my Top 100 List for 2010.
JE: You put out a Top 100 List? Oh my goodness!
KW: It's so hard to limit the list to just the 10 best.
JE: How many movies do you watch in a year?
KW: 500 or so. I really loved this new one, American Ultra. I walked away feeling the same way I did after seeing Kick-Ass, like I'd just witnessed the creation of an exciting new sub-genre of action films.
JE: Wow! That means a lot. Especially coming from someone who sees so many films. That's very nice.
KW: It helped that you were surrounded by a terrific supporting cast, including Topher Grace, Connie Britton and John Leguizamo to name a few.
JE: Yeah, they were great.
KW: I loved how laid-back your character was, too, and the cozy chemistry cultivated between you and your co-star, Kristen Stewart. She really was afforded an opportunity to exhibit her range here, I guess since she wasn't acting opposite a vampire or a werewolf like in the Twilight series. You two were very convincing as a couple.
JE: Thanks a lot. And we're doing another movie together right now with Woody Allen. Today was the first day of shooting.
KW: How was it?
KW: Well, I'm sorry to be extending your workday. But good luck with it, and break a leg! I told my readers I'd be interviewing you. So, I'll be mixing my questions in with theirs. Kate Newell asks: Did you do a lot of research for your role in The End of the Tour?
JE: Yes. Not only did I have to learn a lot about the man I was playing, but I had to learn a lot about the man my character was interviewing, David Foster Wallace. I also had to learn what it was like to be a journalist, especially one who had that much access to his subject. David Lipsky stayed with Wallace's house for multiple days, and ended up writing the book on which the movie is based.
KW: Did you read “Infinite Jest“ or any of Wallace's other work before agreeing to do The End of the Tour?
JE: Yeah, I read a lot of David Foster Wallace while I was in college. And then, when I was preparing to do the movie, I started Infinite Jest, his biggest book, and I'm still in it.
KW: I started reading it, and found it intriguing, but at over 1,000 pages, it's...
JE: A commitment.
KW: Well put, a commitment. You know, I've enjoyed many of your other movies, like Adventureland, Zombieland, The Squid and the Whale, and even Why Stop Now.
JE: Gee, you really do see a lot of movies.
KW: That co-starred Tracy Morgan, who is still recovering from that accident on the New Jersey Turnpike.
JE: I was so happy to hear that he's doing much better.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: I thought you were great in The Social Network, portraying Mark Zuckerberg. What do you look for in a script , and what interested you in playing Mike Howell in American Ultra?
JE: I look for a few things. One is to see whether the character can exist outside of the movie context, if the character's a real person outside of the very specific needs of the movie. I also look to see if I can bring something to it, meaning if I can use a part of myself that I think would be effective for the role. In the case of American Ultra, I felt that each of those elements were very strong. Mike was a real person who could exist anywhere, and he had a great back story which was illustrated in the movie via his drawings and the characters he created. And I felt that I could bring an aloof and relaxed side part of myself to it that I don't usually get to access that much.
KW: Patricia also asks: Are you interested in doing another biopic? If so, who'd you like to portray?
JE: [Chuckles] No, it's been my experience that those movies are kind of hard to do. The End of the Tour is a good example of how to do it well by taking a very brief slice of someone's life as opposed to tackling the full breadth of it where you often end up losing the essence of the person.
KW: Patricia's last question is: What was your first job?
JE: The first time I ever got paid for something was by default when I was 10 for doing children's theater. I did a one-night performance of The King and I somewhere in New Jersey where they had to pay you a modest stipend. I framed the check.
KW: David Roth asks: As an actor who obviously isn't a stereotypical, hunky uberman type who went into the gym for three months to prep for his ab reveal shot, how did it feel to have to dredge up a deeply-buried ultra-violent streak?
JE: [Chuckles] Well, if you're stuck in a body like mine, it's probably easy to have a lot of resentment. So, I don't think those two things are in conflict.
KW: David has a follow-up: What did you draw on for this role to get to that murderous mindset needed to keep going all medieval on people?
JE: [Laughs some more] In any fictional setting, you're kind of using the reality of the story, as an actor. In this case, my character's really a pacifist whether he's trying to defend himself or save his girlfriend. So, any aggressiveness or violence kind of manifests from those noble intentions.
KW: David was also wondering whether there are any plans for a sequel?
JE: I think the creator [Max Landis] has already written dozens of storylines for these characters. But whether or not a studio makes one into a movie is another story.
KW: Environmental activist Grace Sinden says: My sharpest impression of you was your role as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook in which you were terrific. You've done a variety of film types. Is there any role that was most difficult for you?
JE: They're all kind of difficult for various reasons. For instance, I'm doing this Woody Allen movie right now. He has such a distinct shooting style with very long takes. That presents it's own challenges because everything has to be perfect for it to work. Whereas, a movie where I might be playing a very unusual character, something that wasn't necessarily working on set could be sort of stitched together later via a lot of quick edits. So, every project has its own difficulties, depending on the intersection of the character and the way it's made.
KW: The Harriet Pakula-Teweles question: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you'd like to star in?
JE: No, because if something's really good, actors are ordinarily very hesitant to touch it, because they're nervous about the comparison. And I feel similarly.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
JE: I just finished Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I loved it. It's very powerful.
And I just started reading a biography of Elon Musk.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
JE: No, I find interviews to be daunting, because I'm always worried that something I say might be misinterpreted or quoted out of context.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
JE: I don't know. I try to avoid mirrors.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
JE: I have no idea.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
JE: I don't know. I never think about anything like that.
KW: The Viola Davis question: What’s the biggest difference between who you are at home as opposed to the Jesse we see on the red carpet?
JE: There are fewer cameras in the house.
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: Is there a key quality you believe all successful people share?
JE: I might be wrong, or projecting, but it's been my experience that they share a concern, which might not necessarily be healthy. For example, Vanessa Redgrave, who's in her late seventies, did my last play [The Revisionist]. She would come to the theater four hours early every day, panicked about her lines, her accent and more substantive things as well, like the inner life of her character. I was shocked about her degree of her concern, since we were performing in this tiny theater.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
JE: Not really. I'd just say that if you want to be an actor or a writer, the litmus test would be to make sure that you like doing it in any capacity, whether in a mainstream movie or a friend's apartment. My favorite thing to do is a reading of a play I've written without any audience, because there's no pressure, and I can really relax and enjoy the acting part of it. If you also like doing that, then I'd say
you should probably pursue doing it on a larger scale, since that means you enjoy the essence of the job rather than the accoutrements. That's the only advice I'd have.
KW: Sangeetha Subramanian says: Jesse, I want to know how you make comedy come to life.
JE: Usually, the idea with comic acting is that the actors are taking something very seriously, but if the context around them is funny, then it will work. If both the context is funny and the actors are trying to be funny, it becomes meaningless to life.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman says: How did you prepare mentally, as well as physically, for the action sequences? I understand that you trained in some forms of martial arts. Did any of that preparation include mindfulness training?
JE: [LOL] If it did, I wasn't around for those classes. The best way to prepare for that stuff is to practice it, physically. And in terms of the acting part of it, nothing is easier than to have to do something physically demanding, because it takes you out of your head which is beneficially distracting.
KW: Lastly, what’s in your wallet?
JE: My college ID, so I can still get student tickets to the theater.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Jesse, and best of luck with the film.
JE: Thank you so much. Take care, Kam.