Monday 19 March 2018

Eisenberg's blood, sweat and tears

The Social Network star has always suffered from anxiety but he has learnt to harness it creatively, finding solace both in his writing and acting, he tells our reporter

Jesse Eisenberg at AOL Studios in New York. Photo: by Mike Pont/WireImag
Jesse Eisenberg at AOL Studios in New York. Photo: by Mike Pont/WireImag
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

I really shouldn't feel nervous interviewing Jesse Eisenberg. The worst that can happen in any interview is that the subject is boring, which with his talents and projects - a movie riding high in the cinema charts, a book still a bestseller and a play he's rehearsing in London - seems unlikely. But he has earned something of a reputation for giving journalists a hard time. An otherwise highly flattering portrait of him in Vice recently described him as "ducking broad queries, jabbing here and there with sarcasm" while his interview with Romina Puga for Univision will forever live in the annals of car crash celebrity interviews - at the end he asked her "are you still here?". Yahoo recently piled in, wondering if he is "awkward or just mean".

Based on my experience I'd say neither, particularly. It would be tremendous fun if Eisenberg threw strops but in fact he answers questions with a twinkle of irony in his voice and he's generally self-effacing and charming. He expresses bafflement when I mention his reputation.

Journalists and reviewers are not his enemy, he says, despite his piece in The New Yorker last winter in which he assumed the narrative role of a blogger going to review a movie. "These are the main problems with Paintings of Cole," his story concludes. "It was inconveniently shown on the Upper West Side, written by a guy I envy, screened by a cute intern whose name was too confusing to remember, based on an idea that I poorly executed in grad school, and praised by the Times, which rejected me."

"That was not a criticism of critics," he explains. "It was a satire on how some people use particular forums to express personal gripes. That was why it was satire and that's why it was in the 'Shouts and Murmurs' section of The New Yorker. I obviously don't have any ill will toward critics. They've been great for my career, especially since some of the work I've been in hasn't had huge budgets and all we have to depend upon are kind words from reviewers."

They have indeed been great for his career. The panning of his latest offering, Now You See Me 2, aside, Eisenberg's career has been shot through with memorable roles and standout performances, most notably in The Squid And The Whale - his first big role - and The Social Network, which won him an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He's also maintained a career as an incredible stage actor and in recent years has revealed himself as a writer of some talent, having contributed pieces to McSweeneys. His first book, Bream Gives Me Hiccups: and Other Stories, is a series of hilarious restaurant reviews, as written by a privileged nine-year-old boy who accompanies his recently divorced mother on spectacularly awkward dates. It seems to be influenced by David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, both of whom he says he admires. In his film career, he's carved out a niche playing neurotic Jewish nerds with razor sharp intelligence and those characteristics would not seem to be too far from his own personality.

He grew up between New York and New Jersey and his mother trained people in racial sensitivity in a hospital, while his father was a college professor. He was always an anxious child, he tells me.

"My childhood was not boredom and that was part of the problem. I was worried about everything, even things that could never possibly befall me. I carried two tissues every day, one for crying, one for bleeding. I longed for boredom.

"I knew when I grew up I'd have control of my life and surround myself with people I wanted to be around and ultimately reach the nirvana of boredom."

We're told that Americans medicate such traits out of their children but Eisenberg tells me he came along too early for that. "I came of age before medication became in vogue. I'm sure if I was a child now and if my family could afford it, I'd be on a cocktail of drugs. We just had to be naturally miserable. There were no therapists either. It was generational. Therapy was more stigmatised then, my parents probably saw it as something for the elite or the eccentric and possibly a waste of money."

The family had little interest in movies "either as an art form or as casual entertainment" but Eisenberg had a passion for musical theatre and he learned early on that acting was an effective form of self-medication. "I didn't have an appropriate coping mechanism. They become a part of the fabric of my personality, writing and acting were comfortable outlets. I could immerse myself in other people's psyches. I wanted to be in musical theatre but I don't think I had the stamina to succeed in that difficult arena. So I acted in dramatic plays."

While still in his early teens he transferred to a performing arts school in New York and before he graduated had already won his breakthrough role in the independent comedy-drama Roger Dodger. That role meant he had to decline a place at New York University, but he studied anthropology at The New School in Greenwich Village.

Before making a name for himself, he wrote a play about how Woody Allen came to change his name and managed to get the play to the representatives of the famous auteur, in the hope that he would grant his approval for the project.

Instead Eisenberg got a 'cease and desist' letter. Years later the Telegraph would describe Eisenberg as "a renaissance man in the Allen mould", and his play as a "compulsive slice of American neurotica".

If there was any bad blood, it was clearly long before Allen cast Eisenberg in his 2012 ensemble comedy, To Rome with Love. In Allen's new film, Café Society, Eisenberg was promoted to playing a younger stand-in for the director himself.

Like Allen, Eisenberg has made a virtue of his tics and, while he has tried therapy as an adult, it's still art that provides the greatest help.

"Being anxious is not fun but I've found things to channel it into which makes it less uncomfortable. My book was very much about that - taking awkward situations and characters who feel anxious in them - was very much fun for me to write. The book is a coping mechanism made manifest," he says

Bream Gives Me Hiccups and Other Stories is published by Grove Press.

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