As his Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice villain Lex Luthor continues to wreak havoc in multiplexes all over the world, Jesse Eisenberg rings The Daily Beast in the middle of a hectic week that has nothing to do with superheroes, aliens, or intergalactic plots to take over humanity.
The Oscar-nominated actor is two hours away from hopping a cross-country flight from New York to L.A., where he’ll be doing press for his next big studio release, Now You See Me 2, pop in on the latest play of his, and oversee auditions for the television pilot he’s directing from his own book.
Eisenberg has barely had a moment to catch his breath, let alone check in on how critics and audiences are receiving Batman v. Superman. Not that he wants to know.
“I don’t watch anything I’m in,” Eisenberg explains, speaking in quick-fire bursts of manic energy. “I don’t read anything about what I’ve been in. I do the thing and I go home and I don’t think about it again. How can you appreciate something objectively when your face is in there and you’re thinking, ‘My god, why do I look that way from the side?’”
Perhaps antithetical to the profession he’s chosen is the fact that Eisenberg seems to recoil at the idea of other people watching him. “That is the part that terrifies me!” he laughs. “It’s so unnerving, that this thing you do that is personal where you’re using your own emotional experience and personal private feelings is being scrutinized by the world.”
“I’m not stupid, I understand that’s what I’ve gotten myself into,” he concedes. “But it means I should try to protect myself from engaging with something that doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
That means Eisenberg has no idea how good or bad Zack Snyder’s DC superhero flick is, or how viral Sad Affleck went, or that Warner Bros. released a deleted scene immediately after opening weekend revealing Eisenberg’s tech-nerd mogul take on Lex Luthor communing with an intergalactic horned creature.
I inquire after said scene, which sent fanboys and girls into a frenzy of canonical theorizing over the implications of seeing Lex and a demon with a bunch of magical boxes. He doesn’t recall the creature having a name. Then again, there never was any creature when he shot it.
“I think I know the scene to which you are referring,” he muses. “And I think there was nothing there when I was filming it. I remember being in a cold pool of dyed water, but anything that was put in along those lines was done way after my involvement.”
He pauses, a glint of humor in his voice. “All of it makes sense.”
Eisenberg may not watch his own movies, but those who do have watched his 15-year career evolve into a taxonomy of variations on a theme: hyper-intellectual, fast-talking, often high-strung, outwardly introverted, a bundle of boyish neuroses, the millennial Woody Allen. In his eyes, this Jesse Eisenberg multiverse reflects fifty shades of his real self—all the more reason why he’s reluctant to watch himself or read reviews.
“For me, the acting that I like, not only to do but to watch, is the kind where the character is filtered through a real person and where the emotional experience of the character seems authentic,” he says. “That seems to come when somebody is using their own emotional experiences to portray a character under different circumstances.”
That applies to his most recent run of wildly divergent characters: the stoner action hero of American Ultra, the shrewd Lex Luthor of Batman v Superman, and Jonah, the young professor he plays in Joachim Trier’s new drama Louder Than Bombs.
“Even playing a villain in a superhero movie I’m trying to use my own feelings of powerlessness, of injustice, righteousness, dogmatism—all these feelings I have, I impose them on this character who obviously looks very different and behaves very different but is in some way connected to my personal experience,” said Eisenberg.
His Lex Luthor, for example, thinks he’s doing humanity a favor. “He thinks of himself as a humanitarian and as the last hope to save his race,” he says. “In my mind as an actor, only doing my scenes, only saying my lines, he’s a hero. And that’s the way to play a character like that. Of course, you can certainly play it as just evil… but that’s less interesting, and I don’t know how to do that.”
Add to that the undercurrent of post-9/11 anxiety seeded into BvS back in Man of Steel, and Luthor—who ends up behind bars, his head shaved, having pledged allegiance to a dark new evil—takes on added dimension.
“Lex Luthor is a classic xenophobe,” he says. “He is the most powerful man, both nominally and financially, in Metropolis. Then comes this interloper, this alien from this other planet, and Lex feels like he’s a threat to his race.”
“Xenophobic people often feel that the burden of protecting their race is on them,” he adds. “And it’s not just bigotry; he feels like it’s his responsibility to quell the threat of this interloper. It was an extreme version of all those feelings that we feel. Powerlessness, insecurity—he’s just feeling that to the extreme.”
Arriving in theaters just two weeks after BvS is Louder Than Bombs, which highlights a new side of Eisenberg. He stars in Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s lyrically observed drama about a family of grieving men—father Gene (Gabriel Byrne), isolated teenager Conrad (Devin Druid), and young husband and new dad Jonah (Eisenberg) struggling to come to terms with the death of their war photographer wife and mother (Isabelle Huppert).
“He’s suffering from a lack of closure about the death of his mother, and instead of weeping in the corner and having some kind of breakdown he actually abandons his wife and newborn baby,” says Eisenberg. “What’s interesting about that to me as an actor is it’s not logical behavior, but it’s emotionally authentic.”
“As an actor you’re always playing characters who carry out logical behavior that the audience can relate to, but oftentimes it feels like you’re forcing fake emotions into a situation on behalf of a plot,” he continues. “Normally you find something like that in theater, where the audience can be a little more giving because they’re not able to walk out.”
Last year, Eisenberg ruffled a few feathers with a fiction piece in the New Yorker entitled “An Honest Film Review,” told from the perspective of the world’s douchiest film critic. He insists, however, that he has love for the critics of the world—well, the good ones.
“I love film critics,” he says. “For a career like mine, starting in independent film, I’ve been the great beneficiary of what really good film critics can do for movies that would otherwise go under the radar. I have only the greatest respect and appreciation for what film critics have done for some of the films I’ve been fortunate enough to be in.”
The fact that plenty of critics took it as a personal affront didn’t escape his notice. “I know people misread it, and for that I feel mortified,” he says. “It’s humiliating. It is. I’m the beneficiary of that group, and if I’ve hurt anybody’s feelings I feel humiliated. Nothing I write is intended to upset anybody. There’s no joke in the world that’s worth making if it hurts somebody’s feelings. The fact that it was taken that way, which I consider to be a misread of the situation, makes me feel absolutely horrible.”
“It’s not just about film critics! It’s a joke about how it’s possible to use a certain kind of platform to express personal interest even when it’s not appropriate. I do that as an actor all the time,” he laughs. “You do interviews, and of course the thing evolves into you complaining about your life. It’s the same thing.”
In spite of his best efforts to avoid the laser-sharp gaze of critics, Eisenberg’s work as a writer inadvertently invites even more scrutiny into the depths of his soul. He’s now written three plays, the second of which, The Revisionist, is about a self-involved writer and opens in L.A. this month.
“The sort of thematic throughline is American interactions with somebody from a different place,” he explains of his work as a playwright in Asuncion, which opened off-Broadway in 2011, The Revisionist, first staged in 2013, and The Spoils, which debuted last year in New York and will enjoy a summer run in London this year.
“My first play is about a Filipino girl, my second play is about a Polish woman, and I have a character in each one who is kind of based on various horrible versions of myself—usually condescending, paternalistic, pitying American characters,” he says. “I find those interactions to be funny, dramatic, and also I think worthy of discussion.”
Like his childhood idol Woody Allen, whose new film Café Society he’ll next be seen in, his scripted work has the personal bent of an introspective, self-analytical New Yorker.
“It’s something I think about all the time. I live in New York, which is such a diverse place, so I feel like I come into contact with people from everywhere,” he notes. He pauses. “I had a conversation with a guy from Burkina Faso on the street last night for half an hour.”
“I feel so fortunate to be able to be let in on other parts of the world without having to leave my city, and I’m very interested in writing about that stuff,” Eisenberg continues. “The plays are really about everything I’m interested in at the time that I’m writing them. I only hope that the Venn diagram of interests other people share is enough to be able to enjoy them as well.”