The first thing Jesse Eisenberg asked, upon learning that I attended Syracuse University, is whether I crossed paths with Carmelo Anthony. Unfortunately for me, Anthony led the Orangemen to their only title and then left for the NBA shortly before I matriculated, but Eisenberg wasn’t looking for the connection of a mutual friend; actually, he’s working on a short story that involves the Knicks’ All-Star, and perhaps wanted some insight.
Though technically sitting down to talk about his new movie, the Richard Ayoade-directed dystopian dramedy “The Double,” Eisenberg is very happy and eager to chat about his side career. Over the past several years, he has spent much of his free time writing short stories and plays; the former have been published in outlets like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the New Yorker, while he’s had two plays performed off-Broadway.
It should be exhausting, toggling between short-fiction writer, playwright and movie star, but Eisenberg seems to operate with limitless (nervous) energy; it’s not that he’s vibrant so much as that he’s constantly buzzing, speaking at length and at warp speed. It made for a lively conversation.
Have you written for most of your life?
No, I started writing later. I found McSweeney’s when I was like 24 years old or something and now I’m 30, and when I found it, it blew my mind. I didn’t know people could write short humor pieces. It was so cool.
Was it a challenge to learn to write like that?
I submitted for a while and got rejected, and in retrospect, I’m really glad I got rejected because the stuff was bad. I’m also really glad it was semi-anonymous. I wouldn’t have wanted to get accepted based on being in a movie, because the stuff was bad. And then finally, I was accepted for good things. But it’s a hard kind of format to get, because it’s pretty specific length. It’s under 1,000 words and you want to create some kind of voice and character and then, ideally, create some kind of link between the pieces, so there’s some kind of voice to your writing, even though your pieces are different.
There’s a sadness to your writing; where does that come from?
As an actor I like being in dramatic things but I like to try to find the humor in them, and when I’m in something that;s funny I like to make it as dramatic as possible. The movie I’m doing now, “American Ultra,” that Max Landis wrote, it’s funny, but every scene is turning into very real emotion. I think it’s mine and Kristen Stewart‘s attempts to find the real weight. And when I’m in something really dramatic, I do as much as I can to make it funny.
This movie is funnier than it should be.
It’s based on this Dostoyevsky novella that is funny in a very strange way. I think in the novella, I think it’s intended to be a commentary on Russian cities at the time, and Russian bureaucracy at the time, where you can feel faceless even though you’re surrounded, even though you’re in a crowded room, nobody remembers you … It’s like being in New York. You’re on the subway with somebody and they’re an inch away from your face but you make no eye contact, and in fact you make less eye contact than you make in another city that has fewer people that you’re less physically close to.
Is he afraid to do something else?
I think the way Richard envisioned this world is that you didn’t have other opportunities. You had a company-issued apartment, a company-issued suit. It didn’t seem like there were other options, except when James, the doppelganger arrives, he’s able to navigate the bureaucracy in a successful way, he moves up the vague corporate ladder. But for Simon, nothing’s more bleak than not having options, so even though his world is kind of depressing, he doesn’t try to break out of it.
People in the real world have options, but they still go along with the bleak, everyday existence. They can escape via the internet or taking a vacation, but they still sort of going along with the same thing every single day. Why do you think that is?
Well maybe there’s a few reasons. One is maybe, I don’t really know, it’s not my place, my dad is a sociology professor so he teaches this stuff, but you could have a different perception for what your options are. To an outsider, somebody may have options, but in their life they aren’t conscious of the options. But I think another part of it is there’s a security in that bleak monotony of Simon’s life, there is some security, and not until James appears does he feel like… we’re always thinking of the movie as though, it was not a kind of typical protagonist that you meet who’s kind of depressed in his life and trying to fix things but it’s just not happening. This is not a kind of typical movie protagonist who is trying to break out of his life, and it takes this one crazy thing to bring him over the edge. It’s really a character who is resigned to his own station.
Do you ever feel like acting gets monotonous? Doing the movie, going to festivals, doing promo. Is that a cycle?
Yeah, I like making the movies. I do theater too, and when you do a play, the amount of promotion compared to the amount of performance is so low. Whereas in a movie, it almost feels in some ways equal, the amount of promotion sometimes takes a similar amount of time — and usually more effort for some movies. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, that’s appealing to a wider audience. You get paid more, it’s a different kind of job, so I can understand it. I’m not dumb, I don’t resent doing press. There are actors who resent doing press, but I just don’t feel that way.
I didn’t get to see “The Revisionist” when it was playing in New York, because I am uncultured. Are you working on writing other plays?
I have other plays coming on either this year or next year, they’re working on the dates. I like doing that. It’s really nice, I write well because that’s why I do it, but also the experience of acting in a play is so different. If you really like the acting experience rather than the being the person who’s in movies experience, then plays are really great.
And writing is a creative outlet, too. Do you have any specific goals as a playwright?
No, I only have the goal when I’m writing is that hopefully they’ll get on [stage] if they’re good. But there’s nothing more thrilling than having a play on. Movies, they’re really great and everything to be in, but there’s so much surrounding them that it ends up diluting the feeling that you have about it.
There’s so much in regards to, there’s a whole economic element surrounding it that has nothing to do with what the actors do, which is a little disconcerting. And then there’s all these strange byproducts, like people recognize you on the street. All these kind of strange other elements that come from being in movies, and when you’re in a play it’s really just the thing itself. The downside of course is that it pays $250 a week, so the last play I did, I was in it with Vanessa Redgrave and we both made $250 a week for five months, and you can’t make a living in New York on that salary. So that’s the downside.
You talk about all the things that surround a movie and what happens after you act in it. So how do you look back on “The Social Network” now? It must have been such a weird experience.
Well the acting experience in that was no different than any other acting experience — except for the bad ones, since that was a good acting experience. It was an interesting character and it was a comfortable shoot. But I guess one of the frustrating parts of all of the elements that surround the movie that don’t have to do with my job is that you can get a lot of kind of attention for certain movies, and it’s disconcerting because your job doesn’t really change, based on what the movie is.
It’s disconcerting because it never feels like in accordance with how you feel about something. You could work really hard for years on something and no one notices. And I don’t really care because I don’t do it so that people notice, otherwise I wouldn’t want to do off-Broadway theater, because not a lot of people notice, but it’s just strange to get certain attention for things, because it just doesn’t feel in accordance with the amount of effort you put in or how you necessarily feel about it.