If you wanted to cast a socially awkward, super-smart youth in the past movie decade, chances are you considered – or signed up – Jesse Eisenberg. From Adventureland to Zombieland, The Squid and the Whale to his Oscar-nominated turn as Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, the 30-year-old New Yorker cornered the market. But such turns sidelined much of Eisenberg’s own sharp wit and confidence, captured perhaps for the first time in Richard Ayoade’s Dostoyevsky-inspired, doppelganger dystopia The Double, where he plays dual – and dueling – lead roles. Next up: Lex Luthor in the Superman-Batman franchise (sadly only announced after we’d talked). Still, not bad for an actor often cast as a maladjusted smartypants – or is it, in fact, the obvious next step?
DD: There’s so much going on in The Double that it feels like I need to see it again.
Jesse Eisenberg: Richard [Ayoade] says that his favourite movies are not the movies that you can watch one time and be totally satisfied.
DD: Playing two characters who appear in almost every scene – presumably this is the biggest part you’ve had on any project?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah, to play two completely different roles in the same scene, I can’t imagine I’ll ever get such a wonderful opportunity again. But the truth really is that every actor in this movie – and in Richard’s first movie – felt that working with him was the most interesting acting experience they’d ever had.
DD: In what way?
Jesse Eisenberg: I think it’s because he loves actors so much, their imaginations. A lot of times people are really creative but it manifests itself in getting an actor to just do the thing that they’ve predetermined. And nothing he does is clichéd. You go on set with certain expectations and the scene you’re doing at the beginning of the day is different to the [same] scene at the end. Not in obvious ways but in ways which actors consider huge emotional shifts.
DD: Your two characters, James and Simon, are complex because it’s not like, say, when Armie Hammer played both Winklevoss twins opposite you in The Social Network. So how did you approach the roles?
Jesse Eisenberg: They really represent a bifurcated psyche. Simon is paralyzed by self-doubt and insecurity; and James is egoless and has no conscience. They really couldn’t exist on their own. James would end up in a motorcycle accident because he wouldn’t comply with any safety regulations and Simon would wind up under a motorcycle—
DD: —or taking the rap for the accident…
Jesse Eisenberg: Exactly!
“Every actor in this movie – and in Richard’s first movie – felt that working with him was the most interesting acting experience they’d ever had”
DD: Was it more fun to play one of them than the other or is that a stupid question?
Jesse Eisenberg: No it’s a great question and absolutely, it’s fun to play a character who likes himself and who others like. The days that I played James were my most enjoyable days on set, to the point that I thought I was doing my best work. So if we were doing a take as James I would think after the first take, ‘That was perfect, let’s move on.’ And if I was doing a take as Simon, I’d be like ‘I didn’t get it yet, can we please go again?’
DD: That sounds like seriously “getting into character”…
Jesse Eisenberg: That happens to me all the time. Any time I play a very confident character in a movie, I always think I did great and conversely when I play a depressed character I always think I must have been awful. And it never coincides with other people’s reactions to me, which makes me realize it’s just a very personal and weird feeling… Did you enjoy the film, even though you say you have to see it again?
DD: “Enjoy” is tricky. It’s very claustrophobic and oppressive. But in a very interesting way.
Jesse Eisenberg: But doesn’t that appeal to you, as someone who sees a lot of movies?
DD: Sure. I appreciate its dark comedy, but not everyone shares my twisted sense of humour.
Jesse Eisenberg: But that’s like my humour as well – don’t you think there’s enough people like us?
DD: People who like challenging movies, or your or Richard’s work should like it. Speaking of which, is it true you don’t watch your own films?
Jesse Eisenberg: No… With this I’m very curious just because I think Richard’s the most interesting director.
DD: So you might watch this one?
Jesse Eisenberg: No. Just because I’m in it so much it just makes me nervous.
“If you get to the point where you’re screaming ‘I exist’, you’ve already lost that game!”
DD: So, for example, as a big Woody Allen fan the only film of his you won’t watch is From Rome With Love, which you’re in?
Jesse Eisenberg: (sighs) Correct.
DD: Although that’s more a vignette-style film so maybe you could ‘watch around’ your sections?
Jesse Eisenberg: My father suggested that to me – I asked my parents to go see it and report back to me, just to see if I was OK [in it]. And he told me there’s a version where I could see, like, two-thirds of the movie.
DD: I don’t mean this facetiously, but if you don’t watch your movies, when you promote them, do you ever feel you don’t actually ‘know’ the movie? Your memories of making the film don’t necessarily correspond to what audiences see onscreen.
Jesse Eisenberg: That’s exactly it. I’m embarrassed because I’ll start referencing things in an interview that have been cut out of the movie. It’s not a responsible way to do it. That said, I feel happy to be an ambassador or representative for the movie because I think it’s wonderful. I’m an expert in my experience of making it; I’m not an expert in the final product of it. This experience was the greatest in my life and I felt disappointed that I was at the height of feeling that I couldn’t look at [my own] things…
DD: So to be clear, it’s not the entire process of filmmaking you find difficult?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah. Once I decided that I don’t have to watch the movies, then I felt a lot more comfortable on set. There wasn’t this nagging feeling that at some point you’re going to have to finally see what you’re currently doing. I also assume I’ll at some point get comfortable watching it – I think it’s a common thing because you can become self-conscious and as an actor you want to relinquish that self-consciousness.
DD: It’s a shame because The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, Zombieland, The Social Network – you’ve made a lot of really good movies that you can’t watch. A lot of actors make a lot of not-so-great movies.
Jesse Eisenberg: Oh, I’m sure I will too… Well, if I have grandchildren or something at some point, I could show them…
DD: You say you’re happy to be an ambassador for your films, but how do you deal with all the awards hoopla?
Jesse Eisenberg: Movies are hugely expensive to make, so I can understand why it requires so much surrounding it. I do plays in New York City that take me a year to write and then you act in it for five months. But it costs so much less to do and it only requires the more, you could say, purely creative parts. I spend most of my time writing it or acting in it, and far less time going to dinners for it or promoting it. That’s really appealing but you don’t make the same living.
DD: You don’t mind the discrepancy of the hoopla between the two?
Jesse Eisenberg: I feel – like a lot of other actors – that all the attention they get is never in accordance with the efforts they’ve put in. A lot of actors can spend a year or two researching and rehearsing a stage role that they’ve played for two months, but then won awards for other roles that they didn’t give a second thought to. So the feeling is more than if you continue to work and enjoy what you do, at some point you might get noticed for it, but that notice is not necessarily for that particular thing.
DD: Do you see writing and maybe even directing as the extension of acting?
Jesse Eisenberg: No, I like doing both. I also get bored pretty quickly. I’ve just been writing a play in New York for six months and got bored with it so I started writing other stuff, humour essays [for McSweeneys,The New Yorker] and such.
DD: The Double has this very timeless dystopian ambience, the technology isn’t futuristic, it’s all buzzers and rotary dials.
Jesse Eisenberg: The rubric for the aesthetic was kind of what the people in the 1950s might imagine what the 1980s would look like. So, a machine that electronically makes coffee – but that machine is the size of this table. Or, everybody has their own machine that prints out words – but they will be so loud and—
DD: —and just make one copy.
Jesse Eisenberg: Yes! So that was the aesthetic.
DD: And yet the idea of a fragmented identity or loss of identity seems very modern. Simon keeps getting told—
Jesse Eisenberg: “You don’t exist…” Yeah, at the end he’s screaming, ‘I am a person and I exist!’ And Richard said a funny thing – if you get to the point where you’re screaming ‘I exist’, you’ve already lost that game! Something’s already gone horribly wrong. So yeah, I can imagine people might relate to that today, but I also imagine that if this film were made 50 years ago they would also feel something. Anybody who’s grown up in any kind of urban environment has had that feeling where you can walk outside your house and feel completely anonymous.
DD: You’re still based in New York?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yes, although I’m in a weird position because people sometimes recognize me from movies.
DD: Is that getting harder as you get more recognized?
Jesse Eisenberg: There’s more people per square foot in New York City, but they’re also walking very quickly so there’s a disadvantage too. But it’s easy to feel kind of forgotten and anonymous there because the city will go on without you; whereas if you disappear in a small town one day, people will be looking for you.
DD: So do you take any measures to avoid attention when you go out – sunglasses, hats?
Jesse Eisenberg: I wear things like that. But mostly for things like vision and weather.
The Double is released on April 4th