In the black comedy “30 Minutes or Less,” Jesse Eisenberg plays a slacker named Nick, a comfortably numb 20-something who delivers pizzas in the low-rent suburbs.
It’s a job even the walking dead could do — which Nick is figuratively soon turned into, when a couple of crazed criminals strap a time bomb to his chest and demand he rob a bank.
“Most scripts are for movies that require characters,” Eisenberg says. “This one features a character who required this movie. He needs this insane thing happening to him to wake him up. Honestly, he needs this movie more than it needs him.”
But Eisenberg needs this movie, too.
And the Woody Allen movie he’s about to shoot in Italy, and the off-Broadway play he’s going to do in the fall, and all the other projects he’s involved in.
He needs to act — and not just to keep busy, or keep paying his bills. He needs to act to keep his balance.
“I have a lot of personal anxieties,” he says, sitting in a New York hotel room. “And I’ve realized that playing a character stuck in a life-or-death situation like this allows me to release those anxieties in a very healthful, cathartic way.”
Since his first movie, the dark indie “Roger Dodger,” Eisenberg has played a variety of parts, from the bitter child of divorce in “The Squid and the Whale” to the kick-butt avenger in “Zombieland.” He even got an Oscar nomination last year, at 27, playing the emotionally stunted antihero of “The Social Network.”
But his characters usually have a few things in common. They’re extremely bright. They’re extremely verbal. And yet they often seem more than a little confused about what people around them expect, emotionally — and exactly how they’re supposed to supply it.
They are characters, in other words, not unlike Jesse Eisenberg, who admits he finds playing people like that “gives me some direction for my erratic inner life.”
Eisenberg grew up in East Brunswick, where he says, “I had a really tough time. But that’s not New Jersey’s fault. That’s my own psyche’s fault. Now as an adult living in New York City, I miss the suburbs. But growing up, in the kind of homogenous community I did, if you didn’t fit in the role that was sort of prepared for you, it could be very, very difficult.”
It got more difficult when school began.
“I really, really struggled,” he says. “I would cry every day. I went nuts, ended up missing a whole year. I just can’t — I can’t exist in normal group situations. A classroom, where you have to sort of jockey for position, compete for attention — I would just withdraw. I literally didn’t know how to function.”
Luckily Eisenberg’s parents were open-minded enough — his father teaches sociology, his mother was a birthday-party clown — that they were willing to try unconventional ways to draw the boy out. As performing was already a family interest — his kid sister is the former child star Hallie Kate Eisenberg — he began to go to acting classes. And that “erratic inner life” began to find some order.
“Performing gives you a very clear set of directives,” he says. “You have this role that’s written out for you, the person you’re talking to has a role that’s written out for them and — at least as long as you’re on stage or the cameras are rolling — everything has this structure and this set of rules. You know your place. You don’t have to account for your own personality. And it creates this entirely fake social environment which can be very, very comforting.”
Because Eisenberg can speak so unguardedly, he makes you want to be a little on guard for him and the neurotic image he can project. So I should point out that Eisenberg does have a girlfriend, who works in public-school arts programs, and a tight group of friends.
“He’s the smartest, funniest human being,” gushes Emma Stone, who co-starred with him in “Zombieland.” “Really, my favorite person on the planet.”
Indeed, far from some sort of social misfit, Eisenberg’s an engaged listener who empathetically responds to what you’re saying — an attentiveness that helps make him the good actor he is. But clearly acting helped rescue him from the child he was — prone to tears and pure social panic.
When it became obvious that performing was not just going to be therapy but a career, his parents raised no objections.
“Well my mom’s a professional clown, so she didn’t exactly have a leg to stand on,” he says with a laugh. “I mean, to say I’m making an untenable life choice? When she was doing something even more ridiculous? So no, actually, my parents were very supportive.”
He got other encouragement early on. At 16, he landed a role on “Get Real,” a short-lived Fox show; in 2002 he co-starred opposite Campbell Scott in “Roger Dodger,” an arthouse favorite about a manipulative Manhattan lothario. Eisenberg was soon working steadily, doing plays and as many as four movies a year.
Some were compelling dramas like “The Squid and the Whale.” Others were horrors like “Cursed,” “The Village” and the completely forgotten “Camp Hell.” Eisenberg makes no apologies for them. He likes to work, and he likes to pay his bills. But when he has “the luxury of making a choice, which I haven’t had, always,” he can be pretty demanding.
“The first question for me is always, can the character exist off the page or is he just there to serve the plot?” he says. “The second question is, can I do something with this character? And the last is: Is the movie itself any good, or is it just an interesting role in a bad film? A lot of so-called serious movies can be really self-indulgent and kind of pretentious. And I don’t like things that seem elitist. I don’t want to be involved in something that’s only appealing to a narrow group of people.”
Still, it’s hard to know. Sometimes films find a much broader audience than anyone could have predicted. Sometimes what seems like a smart, popular hit — “Adventureland,” for example, with Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as a couple of suburban kids working at a down-at-the-heels amusement park — never finds its audience at all.
“I really liked that script because there was a reason for her to like him,” Eisenberg says. “So many scripts I get, it’s ‘average guy gets the girl’ and I think, well, why should he? He hasn’t done anything nice or remarkable at all. It’s just there because it’s the convention. But in ‘Adventureland,’ the relationships made sense.”
The movie had a good supporting cast and was well directed by Greg Mottola. Unfortunately, the advertising focused on the fact that Mottola had also directed the raunchy hit “Superbad.” The film was promoted as being more of the same.
“They really did a bad job of marketing,” Eisenberg says frankly. “The scariest people to turn a movie over to are always the people who are drawing up the poster, because that’s the first impression it’s going to make. And very often it’s portraying a very different film from the one the actors actually did.”
“Zombieland” — an apocalyptic black comedy — was the opposite experience. From its title and cast — which included Bill Murray and Woody Harrelson — it sounded like dumb fun. But it was actually pretty smart dumb fun, with a clever visual style and a lot of sharp jokes.
“That’s Ruben Fleischer,” says Eisenberg, mentioning the filmmaker who also directed “30 Minutes or Less.” “A lot of times there’s the pressure to just go for the jokes, but he always grounds things in a greater sense of reality, which is the way I like to work. It’s still a comedy, but it’s never at the expense of the characters’ authenticity.”
Fleischer runs a loose set and encourages improvisation, Eisenberg says. Which was not the case with “The Social Network.” Based on the hot-button story of Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook, it had a densely literate script by Aaron Sorkin; directed with almost Kubrickian control by David Fincher, the actors were sometimes put through dozens of takes to get everything absolutely right.
“David Fincher has this remarkable aesthetic of creating something that’s both personally unique and hugely appealing,” Eisenberg says. “There could be a lot of takes, yeah, but my background is in theater, where sometimes you’re only really figuring out the character by the end of the run. ‘Oh, wait, so that’s what this moment is about!’ So as an actor, on a big movie like this, sometimes you actually have more freedom. On the smaller pictures, a lot of times you only get two or three shots at it and if you don’t nail it by then, sorry, you have to move on.”
Eisenberg’s own career is in a constant state of motion. There’s “The Bop Decameron,” the Woody Allen film, which he soon leaves to shoot. There’s the play he wrote, “Asuncion,” which opens in October at the Cherry Lane Theatre. There are a few other projects too, like a stage musical he’s been working on, and a rumored movie reunion with Noah Baumbach, who directed “The Squid and the Whale.”
It’s not as if Eisenberg’s work is his life. Not quite. But the constant work certainly helps his life — even though the business itself can be pretty cold and callous.
“I sort of pretend I’m not even in the industry,” he says. “I don’t own a television. I never go to Los Angeles. I even trick myself into being surprised when I’m sent a script. I try to ignore everything except the actual experience of acting. Which in itself is kind of silly. I mean, sometimes I take a step back and I think, being an actor — it’s ridiculous, really, you’re not adding anything to the world. Why would anyone do this? But then other times I think, my God — how can anyone do anything else?”