Jesse Eisenberg

Jesse Eisenberg Will Be Your Friend. Just Not on Facebook

The 'Hummingbird Project' star tells Playboy about revisiting 'Zombieland' and (maybe?) Zuckerberg

Courtesy: The Orchard

I've interviewed hundreds of people over the course of my career, and I can tell you, there’s no greater gut punch than hopping off a call only to realize that the phone conversation you just had with [insert famous person here] didn’t record. It’s an awful, hollow feeling, one that I experienced last week after I connected with Jesse Eisenberg to discuss his new movie The Hummingbird Project, an offbeat comedy in which he plays Vincent, a narcissistic tech bro who tries to get the jump on Wall St. by running a fiber-optic cable cross-country.

Our initial conversation was sprawling and varied, much like Eisenberg’s career, which began in 2002 when he starred in a small movie called Roger Dodger. In it, Eisenberg played a precocious New York City teenager bursting with his trademark manic energy that he would go on to perfect in films like The Social Network and Batman v Superman. Eisenberg is nervous in real life, too, having battled anxiety, depression and OCD his entire life. It makes you wonder how—and perhaps more importantly, why—he became a movie star in the first place.
But Eisenberg isn’t your typical movie star. While most celebrities who’ve achieved his level of success operate with a coterie of publicists and handlers whose sole job it is to shield their clients from civilians, Eisenberg prefers a more efficient approach. He called me before our first interview and left a frantic, Eisenbergian voicemail asking if we could reschedule. Then, when he found out that the first one didn’t take, he texted me personally to organize a follow-up. It was an unorthodox, albeit refreshing approach for someone of his stature, and the clearest sign that he’s uncomfortable with the many trappings of celebrity.

When we spoke a second time, Eisenberg was in Atlanta, where he was taking a break from filming the 10-years-in-the-making sequel to Zombieland, the beloved cult splatterfest that first introduced him as a bona fide leading man. Here’s Eisenberg to Playboy on why he never watches his own movies, The Social Network’s constantly evolving legacy and why, if you see him in the street, don’t be afraid to say hi.

I had so much anxiety when our first call didn’t record, and it made me wonder what it’s like for you when you make a mistake on set, in an environment that’s comparatively much higher-stakes, given the amount of time and money invested in it.
The things I tend to work on are collaborative, so a lot of the time, a personal mistake might be corrected by a colleague. So mistakes don’t feel as big, but I like working with people who worry about their work.
Even though I played Mark Zuckerberg, I actually have probably less of a vested interest and curiosity than the average person, worrying about their privacy.
Are you most comfortable on set?
I suppose so, but it depends on the project. We’re about two weeks away from finishing this movie here in Atlanta, and it just now starts to feel like there’s a nice rhythm and a good understanding of the tone and the comedy, even though it is a sequel. And then it ends, and you do a play, and you do 200 shows, and by the last show, you’re just starting to feel like you know exactly the best way to do it, so that’s the downside to doing something temporarily.

I assume you’re talking about the Zombieland sequel. You’re known for your aversion to your own films and how they fit into the cultural imagination. But you must be aware that Zombieland has become a beloved cult classic since its release.
I can’t avoid it because I am approached multiple times a day for that movie, but so is Emma Stone and Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin—people who have been in a hundred movies since that movie came out. There’s something about that movie. I can’t understand it because I’m not on the outside of it, but there’s something about it that’s beloved. It’s just one of these movies that’s both beloved and popular. Sometimes, there’s a cult movie that not many people have seen, but this is a movie that for some reason feels like a personal cult movie that’s also mainstream.

When you say you’re constantly approached about Zombieland, does that mean people just come up to you while you’re having dinner to tell you how much they loved it?
Yeah, that’s exactly it. You just described a significant portion of my life.

You seem like a relatively private person. Do you ever wonder how or why you got into such a public profession, where some people may think that they have a kind of ownership over you?
Almost never. The benefit of people being nice to you because they saw you in a movie so far outweighs the slight inconvenience of shaking a person’s hand, that I can’t think of the last time I was anything but flattered.
You were much younger when the first Zombieland came out. Does being back on that set with those actors playing those characters feel like something of a high school reunion?
For the first week, I was worried if I would be able to get into the spirit of it, being 10 years older. We all had that talk—if we could get back into the silliness of it. And within half a day, you’re hysterically laughing and enjoying it again. It’s the nature of the movie. It’s so well-crafted, and these writers are so great. [Screenwriters] Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese created such a great dynamic with the characters that you can almost put them in any scenario, and it will be interesting.

Would you ever be interested in making a sequel to The Social Network? That movie is so beloved, and so much has happened in that world that could be mined for a new movie.
Yeah. My background is in theater, so my favorite thing to do is play a role multiple times. The last play I did 200 times in two different countries. When a movie ends, it always feels abrupt. I love that kind of thing if it’s a good project. Zombieland took 10 years to get a good script and a good story, and we’re all so happy to be here. That’s the only criteria, is if it’s good.

Looking back on it 10 years later, do you think The Social Network was prescient at all in the way it examined some privacy concerns that Facebook could pose down the line?
I read casually about it, but I’m not on Facebook, so I don’t have anything invested in terms of the discussion about privacy because I don’t have a page. So even though I played Mark Zuckerberg, I actually have probably less of a vested interest and curiosity than the average person, who most likely has a Facebook page and reads the news, worrying about their privacy. I’m ironically in this very strange position of not having as much interest in it as most people, despite my association with it.

What is your relationship with technology? I know you abstain from social media.
Maybe I should be on it. I’m sure it would be helpful to promote things better, but otherwise it would be uninteresting to most of the public. I like crossword puzzles, I watch NBA League Pass and read the New York Times. That’s what I use my phone for, and I’m more than satisfied. I think if I went down the rabbit hole of social media, it would be so consuming.

You’ve said in the past that you never watch your own movies. Does that mean you haven’t seen The Social Network, which is, in my opinion, one of the most rewatchable films ever made?
The Social Network was the last movie I saw which I didn’t even really watch. I was dragged to a public screening, and I had to just sit there, and it was painful. I don’t know if you like watching yourself, or if you’re going to listen back to this tape and hate the sound of your voice. But just multiply whatever queasiness you have about yourself times a million. But I do like making the movie. I’m aware that it exists, but to sit there is just painful for me. I discovered that if I don’t watch the movie, then I don’t ever have to worry about them. I just feel a lot better acting, and not self-conscious in any way.

It must be hard to do something that’s extremely visible, like Batman v Superman.
Yeah, exactly. I was on a Dr. Pepper can. It’s such a strange experience, obviously, to be on a can of soda. The only thing I can compare it to is if you look at a picture of yourself, chances are you have all of these strange feelings. Just multiply those feelings. Whatever part of your face you don’t like, just multiply that.
Were you familiar with the world of high-frequency trading before you signed on to The Hummingbird Project?
No, I’d never heard of it. When I read the script I thought that it was fictional that someone would think to do something like this. But a quick check revealed that not only did somebody try and do this but that they succeeded for a while. It cost them $400 million, and then, of course, they were outmoded by more updated technology. The comedy and the drama in the movie comes from the absurdity of the project and the extravagant length that people go to, to gain a second on the market and make a huge amount of money for a few amount of people.

As a native New Yorker, what was your perception of Wall St. growing up?
Wall St. seemed like a totally foreign place to me. No one I know has any reason to go down to that part of New York City. There’s nothing down there that I have anything to do with. New York is the center for so many different things. It’s the center for theatre in the country; it’s the center for finance, fashion, art and culture. So to me, Wall St. couldn’t have been further away from my life, and I guess if I had to describe my feeling towards it, it would probably be a mix of cynicism and confusion. Certainly, through doing this movie and seeing the absurdity of these characters’ plights, increases both my confusion and my cynicism.

Do you think there’s value to these kinds of pursuits, where someone becomes so obsessive that they sacrifice other elements in their life that may be deemed essential to the human experience?
One hundred percent. Obviously, in my world, you think that the best kind of art is made by people who are going through some kind of traumatic situation, so the cathartic manifestation of their pain is a book or a song. So obviously, there’s great value to being myopically focused on some singular pursuit. But when the singular pursuit is to make a small group of people very, very rich, it proves that focus on myopia don’t always lead to something valuable.

Do you see yourself in Vincent at all?
One hundred percent. Two weeks before one of my plays starts, and I’m rewriting and rehearsing. I become dismissive of my health concerns, I become dismissive of my family and friends and I become so focused and worried about one particular thing that everything else becomes irrelevant.

Are you attracted to playing men who are obsessive?
I really like playing people who are intense and creating something. If you’re playing a character who’s in the throes of creating something special and meaningful, it’s more of an intense character and a more intense time in their life.

Do you have a preference when it comes to working on something huge like Batman v Superman as opposed to something small like The Hummingbird Project, which may not be seen by a lot of people?
I don’t really care one way or another because I’m not an investor in the movie. My favorite thing to do is just be involved with the movie when it’s being made and then have nothing to do with it except publicity. I don’t watch the movie, I don’t look at the box office, so I’m not really concerned.
I was on a Dr. Pepper can. It’s such a strange experience, obviously, to be on a can of soda. Whatever part of your face you don’t like, just multiply that.

Now that you have a family, are you pickier with selecting roles because of how much time certain projects demand?

No. With acting, you naturally wind up with time off. It’s a wonderful profession. If you’re lucky, you’re working six to nine months out of the year. What other profession besides teaching can say something like that?

If things aren’t great at home or in your personal life, how much does that stuff seep into your work when you're playing someone else? Do you have an ability to totally disconnect from real life when you're performing, or do you rely on it to inform your performance?
It’s increasingly difficult to be shut off from the world just by virtue of technology. When I first started acting, I would go home at the end of the day and check my email. Now it’s a little more difficult. I have an acting teacher, and the best advice she’s given me with regards to that is you bring whatever it is that you’re dealing with into the experience, even if it doesn’t necessarily align with the part or with the emotion that the character’s feeling. People are complex psychologically, and therefore you could have some personal experience that is the opposite of what your character is feeling, and maybe that’s part of it in some way, as opposed to trying to deny it or forget about it, which is impossible to do. You kind of embrace it and incorporate it in some way. If you’re a good and experienced actor, you can figure out a way to that that doesn’t distract from the story line.

I also have to know why you chose to contact me directly in scheduling this interview, which is so unorthodox for most actors. Do you have a need to be self-sufficient in that way, or does having people do things for you make you feel uncomfortable?
My wife works in non-profit, and she plans these massive events to raise money for various organizations that she works for, and so she’s dealing with actors. So I see the other side of how people deal with actors, and a lot of the time, they have such an apparatus around them. It wouldn’t be healthy for me, nor do I really warrant one because I don’t have that much going on.

You’ve written a handful of successful plays over the years. Are you as intimidated by the blank page as most writers I know?
I have the same experience as anyone else. The only advantage I have that a lot of writers don’t is that a big part of my job is performing other writers’ work, and so it ends up having a great effect on me because I become inspired by other people, or I’m forced to think in a different way by virtue of taking on another character that somebody else wrote, and it’s inspiring.

What motivates you to write, especially in light of all your success as an actor?
I guess, like everybody else, when you’re creating something that no one’s asked you to do, it’s difficult because you have to not only find the motivation, but you also have to think that it’s really good or worthwhile or valuable in some way—otherwise, you wouldn’t do it. And if you’re a sane person, you realize that the world might not need this thing, that it’s not the most important thing in the world, so you have to reconcile those feelings into thinking it’s worthwhile and worth pursuing and at the same time, if you’re sane, fighting against the reality that no one’s really asking for it.

Do people ever ask you for advice on how to get into show business?
Yeah, people ask me how to get into acting. Ninety percent of the advice people want is how to get an agent, the kind of practical process of getting jobs. But there’s no good advice because every actor I know has found their way on a different path. To me, the only solution is that you have to be able to like it enough to do it for free or really struggle, whether it be financially or professionally or emotionally, and if you don’t like it enough to do all that stuff, then you probably shouldn’t pursue it. Because most people, even if they’re very successful, go through periods of tons of rejection or inactivity. But if you like it enough, then you can find different avenues. My favorite thing to do is to write a play and to read it around a table at a friend’s house after I finish it. This is the most exhilarating experience that I can have in the arts. It tells me that I like the thing for itself, rather than the thing for the more extravagant benefits.

Are you receptive to negative criticism?
I’m happy to hear other people’s criticism because it typically will align with my own. The harshest critic of anything that I do is myself.

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