The Squirrel and the Fox: Jesse Eisenberg and the Cult of the Powerfully Nerdy Movie Star

There’s a scene in the 2002 drama Roger Dodger where a 17-year-old in a Manhattan cocktail bar enchants two beautiful women twice his age. The kid, awkward and unfortunate Nick, does so by tearing away at the artifice of seduction, describing what’s really sensual about women, on the inside — “she’s been hiding it because she thinks that’s the part that’s gonna blow it or make you leave or get bored … but you get to that part, and you’re still there,” Nick says. “And you’re even more in love.” After this guileless virgin boy finishes his half-cocked speech, the room goes silent, the women (played by Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals) go moon-eyed, and the boy’s sociopathic uncle beams at his nephew. And like that, in his first movie, a star was born.

That star, stammering and glassy-eyed, is not a cast-from-the-head-shot movie star. Jesse Eisenberg, the 30-year-old Queens-born actor, is not classically handsome or elegantly mannered. But he might be the most successful, feted, and sought-after actor of his generation. He’s Oscar-nominated, deft in comedy and devastating in drama, tasteful in his choices but unafraid of mistakes. Auteurs love him. He was Mark Zuckerberg, and he will be Lex Luthor. He’s romanced the biggest actresses of an era onscreen and slaughtered zombies with brio. He’s a lover and a fighter and a black-eyed nebbish and an affectless avatar. With those brown sproings on his head, like bent antennae transmitting from an alien satellite, he looks like an attentive but untrusting agent. Jesse Eisenberg’s never less than interesting in his movies, but even better, he is uniquely watchable. He’s an ideal leading man. Have you ever thought of him as such? Has he?

“I used to do interviews, and they would say, ‘Why do you play the same nice guy in every movie?’” Eisenberg told me by phone this week. “I’d say, ‘I don’t know. I didn’t know I was doing that.’ And now I often get asked, ‘Why do you play these assholes?’ ‘I don’t know, I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing.’ So sometimes, in an attempt to sum up — which is understandable, I would do the same thing if I was a journalist — the trajectory of an actor, which is not such an important thing to sum up in the first place, you make these reductive mistakes. So I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m really perceived by people. I don’t know how people see me.”

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Eisenberg talks like this a lot, all ginned-up self-awareness and radiant uncertainty. But reductive or not, it’s true that for a long time he was the same nice guy. A simp. An insecure pushover in forgotten movies like The Emperor’s Club and The Education of Charlie Banks. (Eisenberg has starred in an inordinate number of movies that begin with “The.”) He was the wayward teen, pent up but shut down, his hooded eyes masking some cerebral coil. He had the twitching nervousness of a flying squirrel. In Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, he was a stand-in for the filmmaker, a striving but clueless faux aesthete trying to live up to his failure father’s intellectual expectations. His character, Walt Berkman, is a selfish kid, but we never hate him. You pity him a little, maybe, while wondering why he rips off Pink Floyd, of all bands.

The Squid and the Whale is Eisenberg’s first true starring role — tellingly, he is almost always the lead in his movies. The peak of Nice Jesse came four years later, in 2009’s Adventureland, Greg Mottola’s sweet nostalgia piece about working in a theme park during a lazy summer before college. Once again, Eisenberg is a stand-in for the filmmaker, a geek with an inch of swagger, at least enough to fumble his way into Kristen Stewart’s bedroom. Directors and writers like Woody Allen, Baumbach, Aaron Sorkin, James Ponsoldt — almost always white men — have identified something in Eisenberg. It’s an accessibility and an intelligence lacking in his peers; but there’s also a halting means of communication and a simmering anger, that feeling of being passed over or misunderstood — by the boss, by the girl, by the institution. Eisenberg is Dustin Hoffman and Anthony Perkins and Burgess Meredith — unlikely movie actors with a boiling presence who are both always themselves and also chameleons. He’s Elvis Costello or Jonathan Franzen or Sergey Brin. Cool but powerful nerdery is a difficult thing to parse, but Eisenberg is it.

Adventureland

As Eisenberg grew older, his characters grew darker and more forthright. The wearied, undead-bashing Columbus of Zombieland begat Sam Gold, the Orthodox Jewish ecstasy dealer in Holy Rollers, and then, most famously, Zuckerberg in The Social Network. There’s not an ounce of stammer in David Fincher’s protagonist. It’s not just Sorkin’s synapse-corrupting verbal patter, either — Zuckerberg is confident and aggrieved; a loser who won. It’s still an amazing performance, delicately calibrated but unmistakably big. “There’s that great quote that ‘We are as many people as we know,’” Eisenberg said, shading a little darkness into his repertoire.

As Eisenberg expands the kinds of roles he can play, he finds himself knowing more and more people. This month, he is the star of two movies and inhabiting three roles, in Richard Ayoade’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double and in Kelly Reichardt’s ecoterrorism quasi thriller Night Moves. The Double chronicles just that, an anonymous drone working in a Brazil-esque retro-futurist environment who suddenly comes upon a more confident and sadistic man who looks and talks just like him. Ayoade’s movie operates in a haze, dreamlike in its logic and steampunk visual cues. Eisenberg is there for every scene, either melting down or playing the cad with equal verve. He’s still the squirrel, but he’s also a fox.

“It was not so much just figuring out these two different people. It’s figuring out this one person in full, and then breaking them down,” he said of the role. “So it’s like if one guy is 20 percent confident on the subway, the other guy is 80 percent confident on the subway.” This isn’t Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or Meg Ryan in Joe Versus the Volcano. There are no jokey, “oh, him again” sight gags in The Double — it’s about the two poles of masculinity, both abhorrent.

The Social Network

Eisenberg approaches another complex and difficult-to-empathize-with character in Reichardt’s Night Moves. He plays Josh Stamos, an increasingly dogmatic back-to-the-earth ecological warrior who takes his beliefs to extremes when he plots the exploding of a dam in the Pacific Northwest as the ultimate ideological message. Josh grows paranoid and interior as the movie progresses, a tense manifestation of belief gone to mortal extremes. It’s a riveting movie, with Eisenberg’s tightly wound performance in the center. These two films come between his biggest hit to date — the somewhat terrible ta-da! blockbuster Now You See Me — and a pair of huge mainstream movies to come.

“The great irony in all of this is that a movie like Night Moves, which has such wonderful characters and a real platform for good acting performances, only shoots in 20 days, so you get one or two takes of a scene,” he said. “And then a movie [Now You See Me] I did right before Night Moves, about magicians that rob banks, made hundreds of millions of dollars and doesn’t seem like a real showcase for acting in the same way, [but] you get 40 takes of a scene. Because it shoots for 75 days. So you get to do scenes over and over again and actually get to experiment with your character in a way that Night Moves just can’t afford.”

Eisenberg often speaks in the coded and carefully composed actor’s speak that many years of interviews and handling will pummel into a young person. (“I don’t have to be, let’s say, an environmental activist to understand the pain that this guy feels walking through some kind of environmental destruction,” he said to me. “I can maybe say I feel certain pain because my sister hasn’t called me back.”) He told me about living on a farm in the Pacific Northwest, sleeping in a yurt every night to prepare for Night Moves, to better understand Josh’s point of view. He says he does this for every movie, adding one experiential tick to the process, a not atypical actorly device for immersion. For his next film, the David Foster Wallace biopic-of-sorts The End of the Tour, costarring Jason Segel as Wallace and Eisenberg as the journalist David Lipsky, he learned a new trick.

“I play the journalist, so I interviewed people,” he said. “I started recording people, with their permission, of course, but I started recording people to understand what it’s like to sit in a room with somebody and have a casual conversation. But there’s this recording device in the middle of you, and it just changes the dynamic, and it puts me as the recorder — so I guess what you’re doing now, in a way — in a position of power. You know you’re going to shape the interview however you want, even though I’m kind of in control of what I’m saying now. That becomes less and less relevant as you take more and more control.”

These are tried-and-true methods, and dependable conversation fodder. But Eisenberg is awfully smart in conversation, too, anticipatory about an awkward question and able to salvage the broken thought. Sometimes this has worked against him. But as we discussed interviewing and Wallace, he was particularly lucid and disarming.

So did you learn how to be a better interviewee by interviewing?

Oh, maybe a little more careful.

Did anybody say anything to you that you weren’t expecting?

The journalist presents him or herself as a good journalist, like what you’re doing. You present yourself with a camaraderie, and it makes the subject feel a little more comfortable. But that’s not actually what’s happening. The thing that’s actually happening is you’re recording based on your own agenda. I don’t think you have any bad, ulterior motives, because I’m not such an important person that you’re going to want to tear me down for any reason, but —

I won’t. That’s not my plan.

Oh, thanks. Nor would it be any benefit to you. But I’ve become more aware of the fact that this is not just a casual conversation. I’ve also become aware that it’s my job in today’s venue to just promote the new movie that I’ve done, and the movie company paid for all of this to happen. It doesn’t really want me to talk about this, they’d rather I just say how great the movie was, which it was, and which I mentioned. But [with] all that stuff, it’s interesting to do the movie about David Foster Wallace, because he was so hyperaware of the artifice of the interview, and the threat he felt about doing press, and the risk he thought he was taking doing press and being famous.

After his two indies this month and The End of the Tour, a potentially divisive if small movie, Eisenberg becomes a major motion picture star again, first in the Max Landis–scripted American Ultra, which Eisenberg said is about “a stoner who has been brainwashed by the CIA and activated to become a fighter,” and then as Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman. He described American Ultra as an action-comedy, and, well, Snyder’s movie is a cultural Megalon, already spring-loaded with teasers two years ahead of release. Eisenberg can’t say much about either, but he is doing his typical prep work.

“The movie I’m currently doing, I have been training for a few months, fight training, because it allows me to — acting can be a really emotionally private thing to do,” he said. “But if you give over your emotions to it by doing something that’s concrete, it makes it feels a lot more comfortable, so that when you’re on a set with 30 people standing around, you feel like you can take it as seriously as you need to, to be able to have a real emotional experience.”

NOW YOU SEE ME

Eisenberg’s name rarely comes up when Hollywood’s Movie Star Factory is questioned. But that panic is overrated; grist for the think-piece mill. For every wavering Hemsworth, there is a Jonah Hill; for every Taylor Kitsch, an Andrew Garfield, Eisenberg’s Social Network costar. Garfield got to superheroes first, the lodestar of American movie fame. Who picked the better vehicle — Marc Webb’s flagging Spider-Man universe or Snyder’s sullen Murder Superman series — is still undetermined. But their trajectories, up from Fincher’s adult drama about petulant genius kids, are instructive — both Eisenberg and Garfield scale up and down in equal measure. (Garfield will appear in Ramin Bahrani’s indie 99 Homes next.) Eisenberg is not as vexed about the problems of a career, or fame, but still they follow him.

“If the movie is well put-together and well drawn, then all that stuff doesn’t matter,” he said. “If the movie is really obsequiously a commercial product, then all that stuff is very important, because you’re just trying to make an audience feel as comfortable and familiar as possible. But if the movie doesn’t have that agenda, then all that stuff is not relevant. You can just play the thing honestly. I’ve been in certain situations where that stuff is relevant, and it is nerve-racking because you feel like it’s a binary. You either feel like you’re successful at being that familiar, likable thing, or you’re unsuccessful and there’s very little room for deviation.”

Lex Luthor is not exactly a likable figure, but his villainy will be the centrifugal force in what will likely be Hollywood’s most important commercial movie of 2016. That is an uncommon burden for a thoughtful actor.

“The most nerve-racking thing in the world for an actor, at least for me, is to do these more commercial things where you feel like you have to be … I understand what this character is, and I can either succeed or fail at it,” Eisenberg said. “I can’t bring my own kind of imagination to it. As an actor you end up winding up in those things, occasionally, just by virtue of wanting to stay employed — and they’re hard to do.”

Filed Under: Movies, Jesse Eisenberg, movie stars, the double, Night Moves, Adventureland, batman vs. superman, American Ultra, The Social Network, Zombieland, Roger Dodger

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Sean Fennessey is the deputy editor of Grantland.

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