LONDON — Jesse Eisenberg is one of the most successful artists of his generation: an actor, playwright, author and humorist, his credits include Hollywood blockbusters, a book of short stories, pieces in The New Yorker and now a play in London’s West End.
And yet, he often seems so uncomfortable.
He became a household name after starring as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, where his intense, introspective, whip-smart character crackled with nervous energy as well as a powerful streak of ambition.
Many of those traits have resurfaced in subsequent roles ranging from supervillan Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman to a narcissistic Manhattan millennial called Ben in his latest play The Spoils, which opens in London next week after a successful run Off-Broadway.
It’s become the conventional wisdom that Eisenberg is playing a sort of exaggerated, amped-up version of himself in all of these parts, but when you spend time with him in person you soon see that it’s the other way around.
On screen or stage, he seems to be toning down the nervous tics, the scattergun self-deprecating thoughts and the unparalleled talking speed.
“Oh, interesting. Yes, I mean, I don’t drink coffee because I think if I did, any acting I would do would be totally inaccessible and any movie I was in would be 20 minutes long because I speak quickly. Yes, I guess so,” he told The Daily Beast.
As he’s speaking, his fingers adjust buttons and tug at his jeans, his eyes dart around the room. Mostly they’re cast down and to his left, flicking up every now and again to catch your eye and make sure you’re following his stream of thoughts.
It’s like Woody Allen on speed.
We’re sitting in a grand room at the Savoy hotel in Central London to discuss The Spoils, a play that he wrote and stars in alongside Kunal Nayyar (Rajesh Koothrappali, The Big Bang Theory) and Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy, Game of Thrones).
When we meet the show is due to open in a matter of days, and the cast is deep in rehearsals and then previews. It doesn’t sound as though Eisenberg is entirely enjoying the process.
“We rehearse all day and then I go home and, you know, panic,” he said. “We did, let’s say, 80 shows in New York and the 80th show was as nerve-wracking and difficult as the first show—in some ways even more because you thought, well the other shoe hasn’t dropped yet, so to speak, so it’s obviously going to happen here.”
“This is just the nature of my mind mixed with live theatre. But that’s also what makes it really exciting; you know, I discovered that I do my best when I’m worried about something. This is not a very healthy way to live necessarily, but it’s a nice rubric for me to know when I’m doing something that’s worthwhile; that means I get worried about it, it means I’m scared, it means I don’t feel like I’ve perfected it yet.”
It also means it must be hard to relax.
Eisenberg suffered from anxiety as a child, struggling to get through elementary school until he discovered acting, which gave him a more structured way to interact with other children.
He’d moved to New Jersey from Queens with his dad, a college professor, and his mom, who was a clown at children’s birthday parties. One of his two sisters was a child star who appeared in a series of TV movies and Pepsi commercials in the 1990s.
The intense anxiety has relented to some extent although he still suffers from OCD, and occasionally insomnia, which can’t help the grueling regime of filming, writing, and publicity tours.
So, is he happy?
“Well, that’s, like, a weird kind of momentary abstract idea,” he said, pulling at the sleeves of his plaid shirt. “But that’s not my goal. I mean, you know, I don’t know, that doesn’t seem like the goal. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know… No, probably not, I guess.”
He seemed surprised by where that sentence had ended up.
“I come from a family of kind of brooding thinkers, not swimmers… my parents are great parents and good people but the goal was not to be the happiest person; the goal was to be kind of productive and to think and to consider and to be empathetic to others and to try to make the world better in some small way, to give back. It was never to just be happy. I guess my family would view happiness as somehow hedonistic,” he said. “Yes, I don’t think we are able to make the distinction between hedonism and happiness like healthy people are allowed to make.”
Eisenberg’s character, Ben, in his third play The Spoils isn’t very healthy either. Just like the parts he wrote for himself in two previous scripts, he’s a narcissist, whose anxiety and lack of confidence leads him to lash out at weaker characters.
In an early scene, Ben is seen asserting his superiority over his roommate, Kalyan (Nayyar), who has recently moved to the country. “The world is not fair,” he says. “Oh, you know that you’re from Nepal.”
When Kalyan looks crestfallen, Ben tries to make amends. “I can’t keep driving forward if I think I’ve hit an animal,” he says.
Nayyar explained that his character was being bullied because of Ben’s insecurities. “It’s a guy who likes to mess with people because he’s angry, he’s depressed and he’s manipulative. And that’s how he likes to lord his control over the character that I play,” he told The Daily Beast.
The sitcom star, and one of the highest paid actors on TV, wasn’t buying the oft-cited theory that Eisenberg is giving audiences a glimpse of his true character in these roles. “Jesse is a wonderful smart and kind person. All the good qualities of Ben come from Jesse and all the bad qualities are made up in his head,” he said.
Eisenberg himself gave a more nuanced explanation. “My character is the part of me that maybe I feel most ashamed of, which is the part that I never express; it’s the recessive part of me, the kind of angry, you know, bullying bigot. I don’t actually have any of these feelings, but I can kind of induce them or imagine what it must be like to have them,” he said.
He’s not always so serious. “He’s a good laugh to work with, he’s good fun,” said another cast member, Kate Brayben, who won the best actress in a musical award at the Olivier awards last year. “And he’s a giggler as well—am I allowed to say that?”
The giggling never takes place on stage, she assures us.
He's also warm and sincere while sitting down to talk to us. Plenty of actors hate, or at least resent, the promotional interview tours that go hand-in-hand with their huge pay packets. Not Eisenberg.
"It’s the easiest part. Are you kidding? I mean, listen, we just did the run-through of the play and every time I do this play truthfully it feels like I’m getting an organ harvested. It’s just the most taxing, you know, emotionally draining experience," he said. "And then to come and just talk about the play? This is like asking the guy who breaks rocks if he can describe to you what breaking rocks is like and then asking him if that description was tough."
From Lex Luther to Ben and maybe even Zuckerberg, Eisenberg admits that he does prefer playing bad guys. He says he can see the good—or at least the struggle in anyone—even Donald Trump.
“I’m not really in a position in my life where people are really horrible to me. I’m a kind of recognizable movie actor so just by virtue of that people seem to be kind of nicer to me,” he said. “Maybe because I don’t have that feeling of being oppressed in some way, maybe that’s why I don’t see people who are seen as oppressors as pure evil, because—I’m not a victim.”
Not anymore. Eisenberg is a long way from a timid school kid in New Jersey, but you still don’t have to spend too long in his company to see flashes of that lost little boy.