The actor stars in Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium, a painfully timely sci-fi thriller about being trapped inside a house
If you were to do an impression of Jesse Eisenberg, it would involve speaking quickly. The 36-year-old American first gained notoriety as angsty, chatty teens in comedy-dramas like The Squid and the Whale, Roger Dodger, and Adventureland. As he grew older, the actor went on to play garrulous motormouths in The Social Network, The Double, and the hugely underrated Louder Than Bombs. All in all, Eisenberg has done 39 films, and he delivers rapid dialogue in 37 of them. “Sometimes a director will ask me to slow down,” Eisenberg tells me, speedily. “Or my wife. Or my child. Or my friends. Or strangers I meet if I’m getting a taxi.”
The two exceptions in Eisenberg’s filmography are when he quietly broods throughout Kelly Reichardt’s ecothriller Night Moves and his lead role in Lorcan Finnegan’s existential sci-fi Vivarium. Finnegan’s suburban satire begins with Eisenberg and Imogen Poots as Tom and Gemma, a house-hunting couple whose visit to an estate agent leads them to a pristine neighbourhood called Yonder. Like a Monopoly game come to life, Yonder is a soulless landscape with plain, identical houses lined up in a row. And, also like a Monopoly game, Yonder is a catalyst for in-family screaming and fighting.
Abandoned by the estate agent, Tom and Gemma are unable to leave Yonder. They drive down the roads, turning left and right, twisting their way through repetitive, unpopulated surroundings – but they always end up outside the same house, with a number nine on the front door. When it turns dark, there’s little option but to spend the night in this fully furnished prison. They’re trapped in this idyllic house, possibly forever. As the bleak narrative unfolds, Tom grows weaker and weaker, until he can barely utter a word – it’s Eisenberg drained of his superpower.
When I meet Eisenberg in late February, he loquaciously greets me in a hotel lobby in Soho and takes me up to his room. Or tries to. Like the protagonists of Vivarium, we get lost amidst a maze of samey corridors and have to take the lift twice as Eisenberg, who studies his room key, is flummoxed by the building. “This is unnerving,” he mutters. “Isn’t this unnerving?” That, I learn, is a Jesse Eisenberg-ism: the actor loves to interview the interviewee. Before we reach his room, he asks me about 20 questions. Where do I live in London? Do I listen to audiobooks? Was the coffee stain on my shirt already there when I bought it?
Another Jesse Eisenberg-ism is that he speaks so quickly, he tends to edit himself mid-sentence, as if correcting himself before anyone can interrupt. “I was a new parent when I made the movie,” he explains. “Not that I’m an old parent now, but I was a new parent. A very new parent. If you have anxiety about children, or anxiety about having had children, you could view this movie as a worst-case scenario. The child can not only manifest this horrific Oedipal complex where he tries to kill the dad and marry the mother, but the kid can be this parasitic, demonic leach.”
Though neither of us realise it at the time of the interview, Vivarium is frighteningly prescient about life under a coronavirus-enforced lockdown: Tom and Gemma can walk up and down empty roads for fresh air, but there’s nothing to do and nowhere to visit; due to the absence of any neighbours, it’s social distancing of the highest magnitude. As the couple crumble amidst their self-isolation, it raises a depressing question: how long could anyone survive under these antisocial conditions? Why get dressed, or even wake up in the morning? At least, in their dystopia, there’s no evidence that Boris Johnson actually exists.
Outside of its accidental topicality, Vivarium is enigmatic and essentially a Rorschach test. A baby turns up on the doorstep with a written note: if they raise the child, they can escape Yonder. But the boy turns out to be a monster, like a glitchy Tamagotchi that’s cute one moment, then distorting its skull in the next. Gemma’s response is to nurse and nurture this possibly non-human kid, while Tom suggests starving it to death.
“Essentially, I’m playing the masculine presence in Vivarium. He’s not an eccentric protagonist, which is the part I’m usually interested in playing. It’s not the kind of thing I want to do a lot, but it was interesting” – Jesse Eisenberg
“I view the film as a fever dream of the anxieties we have of making commitments. You buy a house, and the fear is that you’re going to be tied down to this house forever because of debt, or because you succumb to the convenience of the suburbs. This movie is a nightmare version of all those fears we have of growing up and doing ‘traditional’ things.”
As the only contact I have with children is telling them to stop standing on the wrong side of escalators, I didn’t quite share his interpretation. In fact, I initially thought that Finnegan, who cowrote the script with Garret Shanley, was commenting on whiteness and privilege. I later read in the director’s statement that Finnegan was motivated by the housing crisis in Ireland. Surely Eisenberg, a New Yorker, would not have guessed that from the script?
“Of course not. But it’s funny you filtered it through not being white. I filter everything through: ‘What is it saying about Jewishness?’ Because that’s my thing. I don’t think about the whiteness of the movie as much as I think about my family coming to America, and this great need to assimilate into American culture.” Eisenberg’s parents, both academics, chased what they considered to be the perfect American life. “These aspirations came back to haunt them, because they hated living in the suburbs, because, you know, having children is stressful.
“We’re all stuck in our own gazes. You’re looking at it through the gaze of race and economic advantage. I look at it as – it’s equally valid, the way I see it – the anxieties we have to assimilate into aspirational suburban culture.”
Eisenberg has been consistently acting since the age of 16 when he co-starred in 22 episodes of a Fox sitcom called Get Real with Anne Hathaway. During an unfair period of comparisons to Michael Cera, his best-known roles were often for playing younger versions of the filmmaker. The protagonists of The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland were thinly disguised depictions of their writer-directors, Noah Baumbach and Greg Mottola. But with his last two movies, Vivarium and The Art of Self-Defence, he’s embodied more abstract figures.
“When I started doing movies, I kept getting sweet, virginal characters,” Eisenberg says. “And I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I started only taking parts that were confident, nasty people. I would write naturalistic plays about my life, and versions of me – usually bigots, but versions of the worst, ignorant parts of myself. It would take six months to write them, and then I’d perform them for five months. Then I started getting interested in surreal movies like The Double.”
In 2013’s The Double, Eisenberg plays the two main roles alongside Mia Wasikowska. One Eisenberg is a timid pushover, the other Eisenberg is womanising bully. “The Double was the most exhilarating experience I’d ever had, because I was so free. Nothing about my acting was natural, and I was therefore not self-conscious or critical of myself, because there was no rubric to which I had to apply my behaviour.”
“It’s endlessly interesting to bring sensitivity to a person with no logical construction as a human being” – Jesse Eisenberg
I ask Eisenberg to find a polite way to tell its writer-director, Richard Ayoade, to stop doing terrible panel shows and return to filmmaking. “I’m going to his house tomorrow. I’ll get the scoop! Richard’s the smartest, funniest person I’ve met in my life. But you’re British, and you have a British accent, so maybe you’re not swayed by the sophistication.”
The Art of Self-Defence, which came out a few months ago, continues in The Double’s deadpan vein. Eisenberg, again co-starring with Imogen Poots, takes up karate and is sucked into an absurd, ultraviolent cult. “He’s this strange kind of id,” Eisenberg explains. “It’s endlessly interesting to bring sensitivity to a person with no logical construction as a human being. Those things are student film-ish if not done well.” After the shoot, Poots emailed the Vivarium script to Eisenberg. “Essentially, I’m playing the masculine presence in Vivarium. He’s not an eccentric protagonist, which is the part I’m usually interested in playing. It’s not the kind of thing I want to do a lot, but it was interesting.”
Eisenberg made similar comments about his foray into the DC Universe as Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman. Not so much describing Comic-Con as like “some kind of genocide” – a remark he apologised for profusely at the time – but his eagerness to step into an alternate universe. Still, with whatever money a superhero franchise offers, the actor isn’t exactly struggling financially. So is it important to stay grounded to ensure the themes of a movie like Vivarium can still resonate with him?
“No, I try to stay grounded so that I can have a normal human experience,” he says. “I live in a tiny apartment in New York. I own nothing. I’m terrified of buying anything. I don’t own a car. I live as modest a life as one can live, given the means I have. We give money to charity. I’m doing an event next week for my wife’s mother’s domestic violence shelter. My best friend is a teacher for kids who were formerly incarcerated, and I go to his school. I stay, let’s say, engaged with people who are struggling more than I am.
“I don’t do it to get into the mind-set of an average person for doing a movie. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a rich guy who was an amazingly generous president. There are other ways to relate to the human experience than being poor or, let’s say, not rich.”
Eisenberg’s parents, he notes, bought parrots and other exotic animals to avoid the trap of a convenient suburban lifestyle. “For all of civilisation, Jews have either been a minority or alienated from their culture or kicked out of their culture, except for brief snippets of time where they were assimilated and engaged in local culture, including the 1920s in Germany, which obviously proved to be a ruse. But in the last 50 years, Jews in America have been able to assimilate and make money and have power and be mainstreamed into society – there’s this feeling, not for all Jews, but certainly for my family, that they missed the struggle.”
“My parents are in their 60s, but they still have to get up and walk the dog, and the bird is screaming at night, and the cat has some disease so it pisses on the couch and they can’t sit there anymore. They unconsciously make their lives hard so that they can feel the struggles that are part of their cellular memory. I think I do the same thing. I have anxieties about my career, but only while I’m doing movies. When things go well, I punish myself for it.”
“I have anxieties about my career, but only while I’m doing movies. When things go well, I punish myself for it” – Jesse Eisenberg
Eisenberg has been outspoken about his mental health struggles before. He skipped a year of school due to anxiety and depression. Art, particularly writing, proved to be his saviour. In his teens and early 20s, he sold screenplays to major studios. “Films are an outlet to express yourself.” He pauses. “And a source of all your misery.” So is his anxiety like how musicians turn sadness into songs? “It’s not so Machiavellian. If I have this anxiety or depression, then it manifests in whatever it is I’m performing or writing. It’s unconscious. I don’t know any artist who manufactures depression to capitalise on it in some industrial way.”
I mention the anxiety I get over journalism – and that it’s a fraction of the scrutiny and feedback he receives. “It’s exactly the same feeling,” he says. “But instead of your words, it’s about my face.” He describes the discomfort people experience when hearing their voice played back to them. “Magnetise that feeling, and that’s how it feels like to watch myself. So I just don’t do it.”
As Eisenberg speaks so quickly, 30 minutes with him is like an hour with another interviewee. The wide-ranging topics include his idea for a travel series called The Nervous Traveller (“I backpacked through Asia for three months… I’m always too much in my own mind”), the onetime planned Adventureland spinoff series (“usually comedy is derived from cynicism and nihilism, but Greg Motolla comes at it from a feeling of innocence”), our mutual love of comedian Todd Barry (“I speak to him all the time – his Crowd Work Tour special is incredible”), and the last time he auditioned (the producers of 30 Minutes or Less wanted to know if he and Aziz Ansari had chemistry “like the romantic people in Gone With the Wind”).
Alongside Vivarium, Eisenberg’s upcoming movies range from the crime-thriller Wild Indian to playing Marcelle Marceau in Resistance, but he mentions a number of unannounced projects. These include a reunion with Motolla (his first original script since Adventureland), a secretive noir he’s days away from shooting, and an audiobook he’s written for Audible. “It’s a novel set over 30 years. I play a father who’s struggling to connect to his son. We recorded yesterday with Finn Wolfhard, who plays my son at 15 in 2032 – it goes into the future – and Kaitlyn Dever plays my wife, but at 18 years old in 2002.”
As we escape Eisenberg’s Vivarium-y hotel room, the conversation returns to Todd Barry. Eisenberg wrote the foreword to Barry’s travelogue Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg, a hilarious book in which the stand-up admits that he only remembers bad gigs – if Barry can forget a tour, that means it was a success. Is it the same for Eisenberg with interviews?
“Yeah,” he says, laughing. “That probably says a lot about my personality. I have certain expectations for myself, and I hold onto things that are painful.” Will he be reading any reviews of Vivarium? “Film reviews aren’t meant to be read by the people who made them. There’s this great actress, Laura Linney, who said – well, I mean, she’s still alive. Which is great. But she said, ‘I don’t want somebody else to tell me how to do my job.’ I like that feeling.”
Vivarium is out on VOD and Curzon Home Cinema from March 27