Jesse Eisenberg Knows That Acting’s A Little Absurd — But He Loves It, Anyway
Speaking by phone with Jesse Eisenberg, it quickly becomes apparent that the young actor will probably never make the gossip rags for causing a ruckus or a scandal at a Hollywood party or club. That’s not why the 21-year-old co-star of the upcoming film, “The Squid and the Whale,” is in the game.
Eisenberg’s seriousness and dedication are apparent not only in his voice and demeanor, but in the roles he’s chosen to play — a menagerie of sweet and earnest, if slightly off-kilter, young characters. He was awkward and wide-eyed as the nephew of Campbell Scott’s smooth-talking Lothario in “Roger Dodger.” He is awkward and eager in “The Squid and the Whale” as the eldest son of a pair of divorcing Brooklyn writers (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney). And in the forthcoming film, “The F— Up,” he plays a struggling writer who makes ends meet as an usher in a porno theater.
MTV News’ Benjamin Wagner spoke with Eisenberg as he was wrapping up an eight-week run of the play, “Orphans,” at Los Angeles’ Greenway Court Theatre, in which he co-starred with another seriously dedicated student of the actor’s craft — Mr. Al Pacino.
MTV: “The Squid and the Whale” is such an odd contrast between levity — sometimes pitch-black, but levity — and tragedy. Did that manifest itself on the set? I would imagine you all tried to keep things kind of light.
Jesse Eisenberg: A lot of times the script was really bleak because a lot of it is really brave, and certainly you can’t really make fun of a lot of the director’s [Noah Baumbach’s] experiences — not that I would make fun of it, but maybe someone who’s on the set who’s more detached from it might. So we had to be respectful, because everyone kind of knew it was Noah’s experience. The way Noah was feeling set the tone, because we were really trying to make his movie. But the movie is also very funny, and the comedy is great. Those scenes were a nice departure from the gravity of the rest of the shoot.
MTV: You grew up in Bayside, Queens, and in New Jersey. To what degree did your growing up [in and around New York City] contribute to your sense of who this family was?
Eisenberg: A little. I wish it contributed more, because I like the lifestyle. It’s kind of romantic, that sort of urban sophistication. I’ve always romanticized that life. So when I read the script it really hit something for me, something I always wish I’d had. Even though the story’s kind of tragic and the characters are having a very difficult time, it’s still kind of romantic.
MTV: The timing among the four of you [Eisenberg, Daniels, Linney and Owen Kline, who plays the family’s younger brother] — the nuclear family, as it were — was quick, smart, comedic timing. Did that develop through rehearsals?
Eisenberg: That’s just how it was written. The best way to do it is just to blow through it and underplay it. It’s sort of dry — certainly Jeff is as dry as they come — but it’s also a serious movie. It’s not a broad comedy, so the drier you play it the more dramatic the impact.
MTV: As a 21-year-old actor playing a 16-year-old character, dealing with dysfunctional parents, a younger brother who’s acting out and all these strange adult dynamics — how do you embody that?
Eisenberg: Well, the script is written so well that the burden doesn’t fall on us for that stuff. Most scripts telegraph what the actors are feeling. The more sophisticated screenplay conveys those feelings without writing it. And [Noah’s screenplay] does that. He took out some of the more broad descriptions, and the script was elevated in some way. It becomes abstract in almost a specific way. That sounds esoteric, but it lets you create the emotions [as an actor], and that’s inevitably much stronger.
MTV: How do you approach walking onto a set with Laura Linney or Jeff Daniels? Or Pacino? Those are brave, substantive actors.
Eisenberg: Yeah, it’s a little intimidating. It makes you want to work hard. I want to take myself seriously, so working with those people makes me take myself seriously. You want to feel like what you’re doing has some kind of value even though it’s kind of a little absurd in a way. I mean, acting’s a little absurd. I can’t quite articulate exactly what the value is. But when you work with people like that who are so good at it, you stop doubting yourself. These people have made acting so valuable, so it’s really encouraging.
This article first appeared on MTVNews.com.