Jesse Eisen­berg

Now you see him, now you don’t

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

IDON’T think Jesse Eisen­berg and I will be friends on Face­book. This is a shame. It would be meta to chat to the man who played Mark Zucker­berg in The So­cial Net­work on said so­cial net­work, but, well, he was tricksy. A great, wired ac­tor, one of the best of his gen­er­a­tion, but an ex­haust­ing in­ter­vie­wee, as if ev­ery ex­change is a bat­tle he has to win. Af­ter our time, I’m in the lunch­room when he bumps into a col­league of his, who asks if he is in char­ac­ter. ‘‘ I’m play­ing the char­ac­ter of my­self,’’ he replies. ‘‘ It’s a part I was born for, but it’s still sap­ping.’’ It seems he even tires him­self out, like a ham­ster on a wheel.

It’s early May in New Or­leans. Out­side, the weather is ter­ri­ble. Lo­cal kids are tweet­ing about hur­ri­canes and tourists scream with ev­ery crack of thun­der. I meet Eisen­berg in the late morn­ing, on the top floor of a chintzy ho­tel just out­side the city’s gor­geous, bustling French Quar­ter. There’s an in­de­ter­mi­nate bang. ‘‘ Whoa,’’ he yelps, be­fore sit­ting down and stick­ing a tooth­pick in his mouth. His hair is long and curly. He’s wear­ing jeans and a long-sleeved dark green T-shirt, one arm rolled up, one down.

I tell him I have flown in from Lon­don. ‘‘ Con­grat­u­la­tions.’’ I say I saw his new film, Now You See Me, that morn­ing, and am watch­ing The Great Gatsby later on. ‘‘ At least you’re en­joy­ing the city, rather than sit­ting in a movie theatre all day.’’

Talk­ing to him is like spar­ring with a man who speaks as fast and smart in life as he does on screen. Blend his Os­car-nom­i­nated turn as the awkward bil­lion­aire Zucker­berg — ‘‘ Did I ad­e­quately an­swer your con­de­scend­ing ques­tion?’’ — with the at­ti­tude he has as a ma­gi­cian in his new role — ‘‘First rule of magic: al­ways be the smartest per­son in the room’’ — and you have the ac­tual man.

His is a de­liv­ery whirring to keep up with his thoughts. ‘‘ I have a good joke, but I can’t think of an ap­pro­pri­ate ref­er­ence,’’ he says when I tell him a Louisiana cab­bie mis­took me for Daniel Rad­cliffe. There fol­lows an ex­change about ‘‘ cul­tural per­cep­tion’’, Namibia and Hulk Ho­gan, which peters out when he thinks I haven’t un­der­stood.

Now You See Me is fun. It’s the glossi­est, slick­est, big­gest movie he has been in (‘‘Sure’’), a movie for peo­ple who want to watch a su­perb cast prac­tis­ing big stage magic in a plot writ­ten with sleight of hand. The story is Robin Hood, set in post-Ka­t­rina New Or­leans. Top of the bill is Eisen­berg, as ‘‘ the great­est ma­gi­cian in the world’’, J. Daniel At­las, part of a glitzy team that also fields a mind-reader (Woody Har­rel­son), an es­capol­o­gist (Isla Fisher) and a boy who bends spoons (Dave Franco). Mark Ruf­falo, Michael Caine, Mor­gan Free­man and Me­lanie Lau­rent fill out the pack.

He says the cast at­tracted him to the film by Louis Leter­rier, di­rec­tor of the Clash of the Ti­tans re­make. They make it a suc­cess. Some­times, he says, act­ing can get lost in all the ‘‘ long days and com­pli­cated cam­era shots’’. Not here. The leads have 15 Os­car nom­i­na­tions be­tween them, and even the sup­port — such as char­ac­ter ac­tor Michael Kelly — grabs at­ten­tion. He was in House of Cards, David Fincher’s po­lit­i­cal thriller for Net­flix. Fincher di­rected The So­cial Net­work. Eisen­berg looks in­ter­ested when I men­tion this. He’s en­thu­si­as­tic. ‘‘ How’s that show?’’ he asks. Great, I re­ply, say­ing I watched it all in one week­end. ‘‘ Sounds like an ex­cit­ing few hours.’’

Eisen­berg was born in New York in Oc­to­ber 1983, a brother be­tween two sis­ters. His mother was a clown and his fa­ther be­came a pro­fes­sor. He still lives in the city with his girl­friend, Anna, whom he has been dat­ing since ‘‘ be­fore I was in any movie’’. The sur­name comes from eastern Europe, which his fam­ily left dur­ing World War I to join his great-grand­fa­ther Sam, who fled in 1915 to avoid be­ing drafted into the Pol­ish army and ended up work­ing at the Streit’s matzo fac­tory, on Man­hat­tan’s Lower East Side.

‘‘ Which is where we filmed some of this movie,’’ says the great-grand­son, of the place where they made Passover bread. ‘‘ Which was strange be­cause I felt I was get­ting paid a lot of money to be in a movie in the room where my great-grand­fa­ther was prob­a­bly work­ing for a ter­ri­ble wage to bring his fam­ily over from Poland.’’

This his­tory in­spires him. I tell him about my own Jewish grand­fa­ther, who fled Vi­enna in 1939. ‘‘ I’m sorry to hear that, Je­sus,’’ he says, and con­ver­sa­tion flows well, mov­ing to hold­ing on to your her­itage, then The Re­vi­sion­ist, the of­fBroad­way play he wrote and starred in. It’s about a young sci-fi nov­el­ist (him) who trav­els to Poland to stay with his sec­ond cousin (Vanessa Red­grave). I say my col­league saw it — ‘‘ OK, yeah’’ — that she liked it — ‘‘ That’s good’’ — and that it must have been a hit be­cause it’s trans­fer­ring to Broad­way. ‘‘ It was a good play,’’ he says, one leg now rest­ing on a spare chair. ‘‘ I knew it would be good. I wrote it six years ago and have been try­ing to get it on, and I knew when Vanessa signed on to it we would be do­ing it in the right way.’’

He thinks his writ­ing is bet­ter suited to the stage, laugh­ing at his own work on The Re­vi­sion­ist and how its char­ac­ters ‘‘ have op­pos­ing goals . . . which is good for Drama 101’’. It’s sim­ple, and he plans to do a play a year.

I ask if he has idols: Woody Allen, per­haps, for whom he played a younger ver­sion of the di­rec­tor in the vet­eran’s lat­est ef­fort, To Rome with Love. Is Allen’s act­ing-writ­ing-di­rect­ing some­thing to em­u­late? ‘‘ Maybe at some point,’’ Eisen­berg says. ‘‘ But ev­ery time I sit down to write, I write sto­ries that take place in one room, with 31/ spoons, so it’s not enough for a movie.’’ It’s cheap, though, I sug­gest. ‘‘ Un­less the spoons are gilded,’’ he replies, look­ing at the floor, ‘‘ in which case it’s the same price.’’

Eisen­berg’s great skill lies in play­ing the out­sider, an­tag­o­nised or ir­ri­tated, solemn and of­ten sub­dued. It is as if there’s his clever char­ac­ter, in a T-shirt, then there’s the big wide world try­ing to lessen him. In his ex­cel­lent, Noah Baum­bach-di­rected break­through The Squid and the Whale (2005), it was him and his par­ents’ di­vorce. Then, in the charm­ing Ad­ven­ture­land (2009), his book­ish teen bat­tled his own vir­gin­ity. In the bet­ter-than-it-sounds Zom­bieland, he fought zom­bies. It’s not that he

Jesse Eisen­berg in Now You See Me

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