I’ve admired Jesse Eisenberg since his fantastic turn in Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, but it’s admittedly been tough to think of him as anyone other than Mark Zuckerberg since he brilliantly embodied the Facebook founder in David Fincher’s The Social Network. Which is why it’s so refreshing to see him play Jack, a romantic intellectual stuck in a love triangle between Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page, in Woody Allen’s latest, To Rome with Love.
I caught up with Eisenberg, currently on location in London, to talk about working with a man he’s idolized most of his life, and learned fast the he couldn’t be less Zuckerbergian – early on in our conversation, he inquired as to my cell phone’s upstate New York area code, and we discovered that both of our parents work at the same college. To boot, after abruptly hanging up at the end of our interview, he called back moments later to apologize for hitting the wrong button on his Skype and properly say goodbye.
So, while it’s clear that Eisenberg is solid both in front of and behind the camera, it was also great fun to hear him talk about Allen’s directing style, his on-screen bromance with Alec Baldwin, the intimidation factor of improvising for his idol and the ways he avoids Allen-coined “ozymandius melancholia.”
Movies.com: So you’re in London shooting The Double with Mia Wasikowska and Wallace Shawn – have you and Wallace shared any Woody Allen anecdotes, since he was in Melinda and Melinda?
Jesse Eisenberg: Oh, that's right! I knew he's in Manhattan. I know him actually, but he hasn't been here…he comes in a week.
Movies.com: You guys will have to swap stories! I think if I ever met Wallace I'd have to resist the urge to make him say, "Inconceivable!” ad nauseum. I'm sure he's really sick of that request.
Eisenberg: Yeah, I imagine. [laughs] I won't risk it!
Movies.com: I don't blame you! And where To Rome with Love is concerned, how long were you on location?
Eisenberg: Brief – I was there maybe three weeks. They shot the four different storylines at separate times, so all the actors were only there for a brief period of time.
Movies.com: Was it your first time in Rome?
Eisenberg: I had been there a few months before, just two days to do publicity, and then I stayed for an extra few days and I took my mother there, so we got to see the city. But getting to film there is just a whole different thing because…I think, just by virtue of being a Woody Allen movie, they close things that no one would have access to otherwise, for the filming. So we were in buildings and parks and squares that would be otherwise kind of impossible to get into. It was a pretty special experience, and then – my character is an architect – so I got to go to all these amazing buildings, modern and old, and it was a really unique way to see the city.
Movies.com: That sounds so charmed! Do you feel like you can ever visit Rome again now that you've had an all-access pass?
Eisenberg: [laughs] Right?! It's really strange…when you're filming a movie…there's police escorts and you just feel totally invincible, and then you go home and are balled into the same laws and rules and restrictions as the rest of the world. It's disconcerting.
Movies.com: Did Woody approach you for this role or did you audition for it?
Eisenberg: I guess he had seen a movie I was in, Adventureland, a few years ago – because he sent an email to the director, who he's friends with, saying something nice about me, and then the director sent me that email. And it was so thrilling to get an email from Woody Allen, and I guess I maybe secretly hoped to work with him at some point. Then he asked me to come in and meet him, and I had to read the script in his office and then agree to do it there. And it was obviously…I didn't hesitate or question. It was thrilling to be able to meet him and be asked to do it.
Movies.com: I read somewhere that Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of your favorite movies, so I'd imagine that meeting Woody must've been either exhilarating or totally nerve-wracking.
Eisenberg: Oh, it was really strange - I mean, I had idolized him since I was very young. When I was 16, I wrote a script about him and it got sent to his lawyers, who sent me cease and desist letters every few weeks. I had just loved him since I was very young, so it was a really kind of an odd thing to meet somebody who you know so much about and are so enthralled with. My friend put it in a funny way, he said it's like going to a live show of your favorite band. Just to be in the same room to hear them is the exciting thing. So just to be in the same room as him and hear his very iconic voice and presence and timing is such an exciting thing, but totally unrelated to the actual filming and acting in the movie. It was very exciting to meet him, but more than anything I just wanted to make sure I could do the role well and that I could feel like I'm acting in a responsible way.
Movies.com: Your character is really well-read – there are a lot of literary references in the film. Did Woody give you anything to watch or read to study up for the part, or did you bring some of that to the table on your own?
Eisenberg: Well, my character is interested in architecture and philosophy and I'd taken architecture and philosophy in college, so I went through my old books and papers and studied up a little bit. And there was some improvisation about architecture, and I was glad I had taken that class and still had those books, because I was able to speak about architecture in a way that sounded credible. But ultimately it was for the purpose of making this character that's kind of pretentious and speaking beyond his means. He knows less than he lets on. So that, unfortunately, is not much of a stretch.
Movies.com: You and Alec in this are delightful. You have a pretty epic bromance going on. I'm now more convinced than ever that everyone needs an Alec Baldwin angel on his shoulder, so to speak.
Eisenberg: [laughs] Right?! Yeah! He's really funny, obviously…his humor and timing is so specific that it's kind of a little surreal. Because he has this iconic presence…to act with him and be funny with him is a little jarring. He’s so entertaining, you just want to watch him, but you have to participate.
Movies.com: You mentioned earlier that there was improvisation involved with the architecture stuff – I had always been under the impression that Woody stuck closely to his scripts while filming.
Eisenberg: He’s so adept at directing, because he's done it so much, that if something is not working well he is immediately able to change it. And part of that is allowing the actors to alter things based on whatever is happening in the scene, that maybe differs from what the plan was. So he was so adept at changing things on the spot, and we were often asked to fill in time, because the way he shoots is with very little coverage. It's mainly long, orchestrated individual shots rather than lots of little shots making up the scene, and therefore there's a lot of space that the actors have to fill in to make the scene flow. So, with regards to that style, we were asked to fill in that space. It was a little intimidating, only because I think of him as the best movie writer of all time, and to be asked to kind of pitch my own joke or dialogue in a scene spontaneously seems a little daunting. But it was fun, and he was very generous and very sweet.
Movies.com: You get to do both at this movie, so what's more terrifying: improvising comedy or filming a romantic scene?
Eisenberg: Those, unfortunately for me, overlap in a way - in real life and movies. [laughs] I love improvisation and I've done it in a lot of movies, and I like what I've found – you know – when you're working with certain actors, when you find somebody that you have a kind of natural and fun rapport with, it can be really exhilarating and you can find things that you'd otherwise never planned on saying. And in this one…Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig and Alec Baldwin are really funny and clever people, and so it was always alive and fresh and funny and unique. We just all had the kind of burden of feeling like the smartest man in the room is watching us and could do it a million times better than us – and that was our director. So I guess it was a little intimidating.
Movies.com: There's a great line in To Rome with Love, about the fact that life is cruel whether you're a regular person or a celebrity – but it's better to be a celebrity. Do you agree with that?
Eisenberg: [laughs] When I heard that line I thought, you know, you really hit on something kind of profound. Because, as somebody who's received attention – especially recently – it can be really uncomfortable. You sometimes forget the wonderful opportunities it also affords. And that kind of very pithy and funny line really characterizes the more complicated experience of being in the limelight. There’s a series of very complicated consequences that comes with it. A lot of them are really positive, though, and it's good to keep those in mind so it's not all uncomfortable.
Movies.com: Woody gets elliptical in this movie, bringing back the "ozymandias melancholia" phrase that he used in Stardust Memories – is there anything you do to ensure you don't come down with a permanent case of that, as an artist?
Eisenberg: Yeah, it's strange – it always feels a little Faustian, going to some of these events and parties, because it feels you must be testing fate – like you're going to get into a car accident on the way home from them, or something. Because it just feels, like, creepily exciting. But it's probably best to suffer in some way, at least to compensate for the good things that occur. So I don't know if that means getting a cat that you're allergic to, or something – just to make yourself aware that there's still suffering and asphyxiation to be had.
Movies.com: You've worked now with two filmmaking masters – David Fincher, a contemporary, and Woody Allen, who’s iconic and has created a classic style. Do they have polar opposite directing styles? Or perhaps some surprising similarities?
Eisenberg: Well, people who are really good at what they do and who are really interested in what they do are pretty similar. That said, David Fincher does year-long shoots and does scenes like 200 times, and Woody Allen shoots very quickly and does very few takes of a given scene. But the styles of movie are so different that they both probably complement the final product in the right way.
Movies.com: Do you have any interest in directing, after essentially training with two of the masters?
Eisenberg: Not so much. I really like acting in movies. I like writing plays, and I have another play going up in January in New York…at Cherry Lane Theatre. It gives me the opportunity to work from the outside as opposed to, as an actor, you're kind of working from the inside in terms of being involved in the story in that way. But yeah, maybe at some point I will direct a movie or something, but I feel satisfied with what I'm doing.
Movies.com: It seems like actors make the best directors, because they have a deeper understanding of what's going on in front of the camera, which clearly applies to Woody.
Eisenberg: Yeah, he's such an entertaining actor – it's a shame that he's not in more of his recent movies. I just love hearing him. I would go to see anything he's in. And I guess because he's directing them, he's able to kind of find how he excels or where his sense of humor is, in accordance with the movie's timing. And so the confluence of those things is really powerful.
Movies.com: I totally agree, which is why To Rome With Love feels like such a fun return to form – he's back in front of the camera. What are your top three Woody Allen films?
Eisenberg: Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Husbands and Wives and Hannah and her Sisters. What about you?
Movies.com: Oh boy, on the spot! Predictably, Annie Hall. Also Manhattan, and I really loved Midnight in Paris. Manhattan Murder Mystery is up there, too. But I admittedly haven't seen all of his movies. I'm presuming you have.
Eisenberg: I think so? Yeah, I think so!
Movies.com: As far as what's next for you, you're in Why Stop Now with Melissa Leo and Tracy Morgan. You play a piano prodigy in it - did you have to learn to play piano?
Eisenberg: I've played piano since I was young…so it was fun to play, and the music is really beautiful. It's a great movie, we worked on it for like two and a half years.
Movies.com: Any news about Zombieland 2? Last I read, Ruben Fleischer said there's a script.
Eisenberg: No, I haven't heard anything except somebody mentioned that they're doing a television series maybe, I think?
Movies.com: So nothing as far as a film sequel goes?
Eisenberg: Yeah, no I haven't heard anything. The movie was originally written as a TV show so maybe they're doing the TV show version, which it would be great – it makes for a perfect television show.
Movies.com: Would you ever consider guesting or being in the TV show in some capacity?
Eisenberg: No, because for me the movie really had a conclusive ending. And it's also too much running for a television series. Physical running, actually. It would just be exhausting. But sure, it would make a great series, it was a really great premise and the characters are really entertaining. I'd be curious to see it.
Movies.com: How about the new Baumbach movie While We're Young? Are you definitely in for that?
Eisenberg: Yeah, I guess I'm just waiting to hear about it…Ben Stiller is in it, I guess they have to figure out what his schedule is. But it's an amazing script, as you could imagine. He's such an amazing writer. I mean, it's just really astounding. So I hope it happens.
Movies.com: So if it works out, you're definitely on board?
Eisenberg: Yeah, I would love to do it. Yeah!