Jesse Eisenberg on Awards Season, Narcissism and His Feelings About an Oscar Nomination
Last week I met actor Jesse Eisenberg for a lengthy discussion of subjects ranging from his coming-of-age in the New York theater to his beloved Zombieland and his awards-season prospects for The Social Network. We covered a lot of ground, which I'll be retracing this week in a five-part series here at Movieline.
Let it be said, once and for all: Jesse Eisenberg is not shy. The young actor the media so often describes as nerdy or awkward in fact hinted at an endearing unpredictability last Thursday afternoon: Mere minutes after learning his Social Network performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg nabbed him the National Board of Review award for Best Actor, Eisenberg phoned to ask if we could ditch our original diner meeting spot -- and ditch his publicist, as it turned out -- to meet early, just us, wherever I happened to be at the time.
That place was a bar in Hell's Kitchen named, appropriately enough, "Social" -- a location from which Eisenberg could see his former high school, as he very eagerly pointed out, through the window above our booth. It was a long way from Harvard -- where Zuckerberg's genius (and, some would argue, ruthlessness) led to the creation of the biggest social-media site on the planet -- but an ideal backdrop to discuss the role of his life (to date), awards-season pressures, and why he much prefers discussing topics that have no substance.
Congratulations on the National Board of Review award. When did you find out?
Just on the way over. Yeah, they told me. But I'm not supposed to know -- for somebody else to tell me who I'm supposed to be surprised by.
They sent out a press release.
Oh, did they? I purposefully isolate myself from anything that has to do with any press. I don't read any press about myself. Oh, that sounds pretensious. I just mean it always ends up making me feel bad. They'll put like, "Oh, he was great as the nerd in the movie" and I don't sleep for a night. You know what I mean? Even though they said great things, anyway, it just makes me feel bad. It's distracting from what I want to do.
It's interesting that you say that, I'll read profiles on you that say you're shy or awkward, but that's not my impression of you. At the press conference for The Social Network a couple of months ago, you owned the room when you wanted to -- like a joke about "taking Mark Zuckerberg to Johnny Rockets for shakes."
Oh, yeah, I'm not shy. I'm aware of things in those situations [a profile]; the only appropriate behavior seems to be uncomfortable. Like if you're comfortable with something like that you're a narcissist. Right? And so they end up putting that. I understand that, but how could you not be uncomfortable if people are taking your picture and asking you about your personal life? If you're not uncomfortable, you're a narcissist. They actually just took out the mental diagnosis, it was just removed -- narcissism. So now it can be used colloquially. It was just taken off the list as a mental disorder. So that's why I think they write that. And people need to frame a narrative, or whatever. But it ends up hurting my feelings, of course. Because you go through high school avoiding those exact epithets.
We've spoken before; I complimented you on a scene from Zombieland, and you dismissed the scene as "cliché." That's not a lack of confidence.
[Laughs] You can tell them and tell the girls from my school.
I'll pass that along.
That's very sweet. Do you feel you're this way at all? Do people refer to you this way and you feel disgusted by that? I don't know, because you and I seem similar.
I've been told, in social situations, that I can be extremely outgoing just as easily as I could go an entire evening and not say a word to anybody.
Yeah, yeah. Of course. That's how I am as well. And if you're able to turn it on, why would you always want to be that way?
Some people do.
And I think, also, they are also probably miserable people. I'm referring to the people who always have a facade of comfortability and affability -- they're probably miserable. I know comedians who are like this and they're miserable in private, 24 hours a day.
You seem comfortable right now. Why is that?
Well, I just did something that made me feel good: I just did a play reading. I'm feeling good; I haven't acted in four months so I'm feeling better than I felt in a long time. This morning I was miserable... The last several days... Yeah, yeah, it's just been a strange few months, I guess. I mean the last two months I've been traveling and I just constantly feel like I don't know what I'm doing and like I'm shilling myself for... not shilling myself. Let me rephrase: The last two months it feels stranger to talk about yourself than to be yourself.
The Social Network came out two months ago. Is that what's strange? That you're still talking about it? I assume that you weren't talking about Zombieland two months after its release.
[Laughs] Yeah, we weren't doing interviews for Zombieland a week later. [The music volume increases in the bar; Eisenberg addresses the bartender] Is it possible to keep it down, we're trying to do an interview? [The music is lowered]. Thank you.
Thanks for saving me from having to write from this point forward, "And then Jesse and I listened to music, the end."
Exactly. It sounded like some sort of pop -- early '90s. With Zombieland there wasn't the biggest international release. This has a huge international release. It's almost bigger than the states, so that means traveling to every country and talking to all of the outlets in all of these different places. Yeah, and I guess the strange thing about it is, the Zombieland interviews, I did them all, or most of them, with Woody Harrelson. We were able to be kind of self-effacing and funny. And I almost thought that doing interviews like this, for a movie like The Social Network, would be such a relief because you can talk about something of more substance. But what I've found is that it was much more fun to talk about something where you don't have to be so serious. But the main reason is that I don't want to have to account for these huge cultural shifts that Facebook has created. I don't have a good answer for that. I don't know enough about it. I feel like I'm kind of a mouthpiece for something that I don't have the body for.
The National Board of Review award, does it mean something for you? This is really your first go-around with awards season -- is it an interesting experience?
The first movie I was in was called Roger Dodger. And the main actor in that [Campbell Scott], he won this award, the National Board of Review award. And it was the first time I ever considered... Because I had acted since I was young -- 8 years old -- doing children's theater, and I was doing plays in New York. When he won that award, I remember that day where I was because I had never heard of that award nor did I pay attention to any awards. And then I was kind of exposed, very briefly, because the movie was a $1 million movie. After he won that award, the movie people and the distribution company got a little bit confident about what that could be, at least for him.
And I was immediately kind of turned off to the seemingly very kind of complicated process. And lengthy process. I just loved working with those people that I was working with, so I was happy to get to see them at these dinners and stuff. And luckily I didn't have to deal with any of the pressure because the pressure was not on me personally. This is a bit more intense because the movie is big, the expectations are higher. And so it's a lot of pressure, and it's something you can't do anything about. Like I can't go and react if you don't get acknowledged for something. And the other part of it, which is possibly more frustrating, is that I just did a play reading all day. And I felt like I was so much more effective in this reading that I just did all day -- there were 10 people in the audience -- than I was in The Social Network or other films. So it's a bit frustrating that you feel it's not really... The acknowledgments don't necessarily coincide with how you feel about things.
Having said that, is an Oscar nomination something that would make you happy or stressful?
[Long pause] Um, let me think... I don't know... I don't know. I can only think back to that guy, Campbell Scott. When we thought he was going to be up for an award, it's great because we all love the movie but very few people saw it. So we thought, "This is great." Even in the speeches that he would make, they were always focused on what a great acknowledgment this is for the movie. And maybe people will see a movie that cost $1 million dollars and is such a great movie. And we just don't have the same kind of feelings with The Social Network, I feel it's such a bigger machine that has so little to do with me. It's hard to think of myself in it. I don't know... I don't know.
I've heard you say that before. And, yes, everyone does a great job in the film, but you are front and center. If it's a machine, you're the face of it.
Right, right. That more has to do with the marketing. I don't know, it's hard to say. When I do theater and feel a bit more in control of what I'm doing... In a movie, I don't know. It's hard to kind of attribute any kind of personal success to [it]. I just feel that I've been better in other things, so the fact that there's so much attention on this movie in some ways is a bit jarring to me. Because I wonder what will happen if I'm not involved in something as great as this. Then I'll never be personally thought of again, because I felt like I performed better in other things. So the reception is not in accordance with what I felt I produced.
Has this perception changed over the last two months since the release? There were almost two entities: The buzz surrounding the film and the film itself.
[Laughs] Right. You don't want the cultural implications that the movie raises to overshadow the movie. You want the movie to be about anything. That fact the movie is about Facebook is kind of a comfortable "in" that it makes it accessible in a different way. But you want the movie to stand on its own; not have to rely on the cultural shifts or rely on its place in the zeitgeist, so to speak. When people see the movie, they realize that it's a great movie on its own. And it caused a lot of discussion because people are eager to talk about the Internet. When we do these question-and-answer sessions, we do them in older communities, you can just hear people getting ready to chuckle when we say, "We don't use Facebook." You'll just hear people chuckling in commiseration. It's very nice, and it's fun to be part of those discussions, but that's not what I do for a living. It's not what I'm really interested in. I just acted in a room with 10 people -- that's where I feel more in my element.
Check back tomorrow for more of Movieline's chat with Eisenberg, including his impressions of social media itself, reaching out to Mark Zuckerberg, and his next project -- which just may involve you.