TORONTO — Jesse Eisenberg may be one of the few stars that has to take the intensity down a notch when the cameras start rolling.
I met up with the 29-year-old actor for an interview in Toronto earlier this week (he's got two movies at the Toronto International Film Festival), but from the second I walked into the hotel conference room, it was Eisenberg who took control of the situation.
He wasted no time in cutting to the personal, asking me point-blank with his quick-twitch nervous energy, "Where do you live?" Once I answered, "New York City," he inquired as to my neighborhood, then street coordinates.
The conversation was more like a tennis volley or practice interrogation, considering he almost automatically returned every answer I offered into another question post-haste.
Our chat quickly escalated to talk about a nearby Italian restaurant, which became a discussion of my ethnicity (we're both Jewish) and when my ancestors came to America. Then, he shared a bit of his genealogy.
But I actually knew a little bit more about Eisenberg's family than he may have realized: His mom once performed at my brother's birthday party when I was 4 years old. She was a children's entertainer and clown in New Jersey, and she did her thing in my living room for a day. I had written something about it a few years ago, which he said his mom had seen. I felt a little bit bad about it, I told him, but he assured me that "she thought it was fair game," adding, "She stopped doing it, like, 19 years ago. She's getting her Ph.D. now and she's going to teach at college. She's in a different life."
Still, it turned out, his mom was a clear source of inspiration.
"It taught me maybe more about the discipline about performance," Eisenberg said of her early career. "When you start acting, I think a lot of people don't realize the discipline it takes, but every morning she had a party, she would wake up very early and tune her guitar and warm up her voice, and it taught me that you could take performance seriously. I think a lot of actors have trouble taking things seriously, because it's fictional or it's silly; you're playing a role and it's not business or dentistry, but it's really like anything else in the world. If you want to take anything seriously, you could find a way to do that. So it gave me the confidence to take it seriously and not make me feel silly for indulging in a role."
Eisenberg clearly takes his two movies in Toronto, The Double and Night Moves, very seriously. The first, written and directed by Richard Ayoade and based on the Dostoyevsky story of the same name, is an idiosyncratic look at a fearful man stuck in a life as a faceless cog at a Kinkos-like company in a bureaucratic nightmare state. It looks like the grim Soviet-era cities of Eastern Europe, accented with the grinding terror of capitalism. Eisenberg plays both the timid paper pusher and, soon, the charismatic gad who swoops into his office to steal his job, his crush (played by Mia Wasikowska), and any small light of hope he has in a dark, miserable existence.
In a way, it required a similar effort to what Armie Hammer did when he played both Winklevoss twins in another Eisenberg-fronted movie, The Social Network, though some technology called Motion Control made it possible for him to eschew a body double and play both parts in any given scene. In The Double, Eisenberg jumps back and forth between the charmer and the nerve-wracked loser who descends further and further into paranoia and ill repute as the movie pushes forward.
"It's fun, and if anything, it's easier because you're kind of building up a momentum of being open to things," Eisenberg said of playing two roles at once. "The really difficult thing as an actor is to wait in the trailer for three hours and then come out and say a line. So the fun thing is to kind of be able to remain open and fresh and nothing's more conducive to doing that than playing two roles, because you're never stale, you're never stuck in a mode."
In director Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves, Eisenberg plays just one character: a committed organic farmer who turns to militant eco-terrorism, blows up a dam, and then loses his grip on any moral compass as he begins to feel the heat of an investigation. The actor once again found himself in a meaty role that offered him the opportunity to channel his boundless energy.
Neither The Double nor Night Moves — which were both well-reviewed — is the sort of film that usually breaks out to wide audiences, like The Social Network, which earned Eisenberg an Oscar nomination, and this past summer's hit, Now You See Me, which has a sequel in the works.
While Eisenberg is hopeful that The Double will find its niche, he said he tries not to think about the business side of these festivals and later box office projections.
"If your goal is to impact a lot of people, you'll probably fail at the goal," he said. "Whereas if the goal is more immediately doable, you'll probably be able to do it. The same thing with making some kind of art project. If you set out to make something that everybody loves, not a lot of people would like it; if you make something you love, then also other people would be attracted to it for the same reasons you were. I don't know what my impact is, but I guess I don't really consider it ever."
Case in point: his theater work. Eisenberg has become more and more active on the stage, even as his movie career continues to grow. His first play, Asuncion was staged in 2011, and earlier this year, he co-starred with Vanessa Redgrave in The Revisionist, which he also wrote. Starring in blockbusters helps get his scripts to the top of the pile, which is a bit of a double-edged sword.
"There's kind of a danger; I was most fruitful when no one was reading my stuff," he said, lamenting the irony. "And now that people are, you have a different sense when writing something. It affects you in a bad way because you're not thinking entirely about what the characters are doing; you're thinking, Where is this going to play? Am I putting too many people in this? And how are we going to find a guy to play this Napolese character?"
For Eisenberg, on both stage and screen, it's all about honest intensity, with as few distractions as possible.
"It's great to play a character that has intense feelings about something. That's kind of hard to find, frankly," the actor said. "These two movies are great because they offer me acting opportunities that are really interesting, but they don't come along that much. If I could choose to do movies like this all year round, I would, but it's really hard because it's rare to find characters that are so intense. You study Tennessee Williams in acting school, you graduate acting school, and the next day, if you're lucky, you get an audition for a Gatorade ad where you're running by the camera and the sweat is neon. So these offer the opportunities you study for, it's just hard to find."