“I don’t engage with the public and they don’t engage with me, which is perfect.” For an actor who made his name playing Mark Zuckerberg in a biopic about Facebook, Jesse Eisenberg is remarkably antisocial online.
“If I was on the Internet, I would say something on the first day and spend the other 364 days of the year apologising for the thing I said on the first day,” says The Social Network star, sat cross-legged on the very edge of an armchair in his hotel suite in Soho, London. He’s here to promote Vivarium, the newly prescient domestic confinement thriller that’s streaming online early due to COVID-19. Less than a foot away, Eisenberg’s bed is unmade. Shoes lie everywhere and clothes are strewn about the place. It’s not the bedroom of someone who cares what other people think of them.
“I don’t understand the appeal of [social media] with strangers who seem to delight in criticising you. I have no desire to get approval from them and I have no interest in fighting with them,” he says. “I’m not on it and I’ll never be on it. It’s not worth it to me. If it means I’m lesser-known, then that’s a trade-off I’m more than happy to make.”
Rarely seen in public and with a digital anti-presence that would make most publicists cry themselves to sleep at night, Eisenberg has spent more than a decade trying to avoid notoriety. That’s in spite of an ascendant career that’s involved lead parts in late 2000s indie fare like Zombieland, an Oscar nomination for 2010 biopic The Social Network and parts in blockbusters like Justice League, in which he plays big baddie Lex Luthor. He even hosted Saturday Night Live and made a cameo on hit sitcom Modern Family. The success he can handle, says Eisenberg, but being under a media spotlight indefinitely never gets easy.
“I don’t engage with the public and they don’t engage with me”
“I grew up assuming that everybody was talking about me behind my back,” he says. “I am a slightly paranoid person in general, so I just assume it’s happening. Now, in fact, it probably is happening and my assumptions have been proved correct!”
Eisenberg is, by his own admission, not a people person – which makes Vivarium, his latest project, even more suitable. Set in a quasi-futuristic version of modern society, a young couple – that’s schoolteacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and handyman Tom (Eisenberg) – look to step onto the property ladder. During one house viewing, they find themselves trapped in a mysterious, labyrinthine neighbourhood of identical houses. There’s no exit, no other tenants, and their slimy estate agent has scarpered. From what Jesse’s said so far, it sounds like his ideal world.
“There is a slightly bright side to the movie,” he says. “My life is so erratic, which is the nature of a lot people in international entertainment. You wind up in a different place every week and yeah, there is something slightly appealing about what the characters are dealing with in Vivarium.” By the time you read this, half the world will have been forced into a coronavirus-induced lockdown. You wonder what Eisenberg’s take on solitary confinement is now, after two weeks of anxiously checking the family loo roll supplies.
Born in Queens, New York, Eisenberg spent much of his youth in the New Jersey suburbs, far from the hustle and bustle of The Big Apple as we think of it. Dad was a sociology professor and mum worked as a birthday party clown, but both had high-brow tastes which they inflicted on their kids. “I’ve never seen a superhero movie or a James Bond movie or a Star Trek or Star Wars movie,” says Jesse. “My parents would play me Frederick Wiseman sociology documentaries instead.”
Isolated from popular culture and struggling to make friends due to an anxiety disorder, Eisenberg turned to the stage. Acting made him feel comfortable around other people – and by the age of 16, he’d starred in three plays on Broadway and pissed off Woody Allen’s team so much with his constant spec scripts that they’d sent him not one but two cease-and-desist letters. The budding thespian eventually studied anthropology at a private university in Greenwich, New York, but a career in show business always seemed certain. Even if he still doesn’t feel secure.
“Bill Murray is in his own world of humour”
“It’s a terrifying profession,” he says. ”Could you imagine that every job you did ended two months later? Maybe I should have gone down the other track [into academia], which is more stable.”
Luckily for us, he didn’t. First, there were supporting roles in arthouse flicks like The Living Wake and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. But it wasn’t until cult Z-horror Zombieland that Eisenberg made a breakthrough. Released in 2009, when Jesse was 27, the gore-filled comedy focuses on a wacky group of apocalypse survivors as they travel across a country populated by the undead. Columbus, played by Eisenberg, is the kind of shy introvert that its portrayer has since been typecast as. But off-set, the cast – which included Emma Stone, Amber Heard and Bill Murray – were far more gregarious.
“We played cards at Amber’s house the night before [Bill Murray’s cameo scene],” remembers Jesse. “Bill has this enigmatic quality – and [those types of people] are good players at things where you’re supposed to keep a secret. He’s still an accessible kind of person, but he’s just in his own world of humour.”
Gambling at a bonafide A-lister’s pad with a comedy legend sounds awfully Hollywood, but for the most part, Eisenberg tries to avoid attention. “I don’t live in Los Angeles and I don’t maintain a lot of industry relationships to the point where you wind up doing two days on a buddy’s movie,” he says. “It’s not the kind of lifestyle I want. I much prefer spending time alone. I write during the day. I don’t like signing on to [loads of] things. And if that means doing far fewer movies, then that’s fine.”
Quality control is a big part of Eisenberg’s ethos, which is why he only ever does about two to three projects per year. Not even in 2010, the whirlwind year in which he played Facebook founder Mark Zuckerbeg in The Social Network, has he bent to industry pressure and overworked himself. That part – another awkward, socially inept control freak – changed Eisenberg’s life. Naturally, he’s spent the 10 years since trying not to think about it.
“I don’t have a Facebook account,” he says. “Even though I played him [Mark Zuckerberg], I have less to do with it than most people because none of my data is on it.”
“I can’t understand the appeal of social media”
Criticised by Zuckerberg for embellishing certain aspects of his private life, The Social Network was cast in a new light recently thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Breaking in early 2018, the investigation revealed that the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles had been harvested for political purposes without their consent. Zuck was hauled in front of Congress and his reputation dragged through the mud. Now, Eisenberg’s portrayal of a ruthless businessman without morals seems more accurate. Does he feel vindicated?
“The truth is, I didn’t follow that stuff for probably two reasons,” he says. “When people were reading about [Cambridge Analytica] because they were scared it might affect their data, I didn’t have those fears. But the other reason is, because i was involved with it in some way, I have an aversion to staying abreast of the new information. I can’t even conceive of this crisis.”
It’s a typically evasive response from a man determined not to give too much away. He’s right to be cautious, though. Today’s ‘cancel culture’ means celebs are only ever one misguided tweet from public ruination. Eisenberg’s own experience of this took place during the 2013 press tour for Now You See Me.
The interview in question, with LA-based journalist Romina Puga, is excruciating to watch. Eisenberg appears irritable and at one point tells Puga to “cry after the interview is over”. The clip went viral, with Internet users labelling him rude and obnoxious.
“Finn Wolfhard was born cool”
“I remember she was laughing,” says Eisenberg. “Even after she left, I said to the people in the room, ‘what a relief’. Like, that was the most funny, interesting interview I’d had all day. Then, a week later, I was called by my publicist saying ‘MSNBC and Fox News want a statement from you on an interview’. And I said, ‘what interview?!’
“I watched the thing and she had written an editorial [saying] I had made her upset,” adds Eisenberg, referring to a blog post Puga published in which she claimed the actor had “humiliated” her. “It was, like, the exact opposite of what my experience was, and I didn’t know the appropriate way to handle something that’s completely mischaracterised. Everyone that’s seen it tells me they thought it was a funny thing. Listen, I would never wanna upset somebody, and if I did upset her, obviously I would have acknowledged that.” Clearly, Puga was upset, but the actor says he couldn’t get in touch to apologise. As is the way with web-based scandals, the outcry didn’t last long. Eisenberg appears to have emerged unscathed.
Latest project Vivarium was initially slated for a theatrical release, but hit the Internet last week after coronavirus forced cinemas to close. Remarkably relevant, given its concept of home imprisonment, the film felt relatable to Eisenberg for other reasons too.
In the movie, a small box appears containing supplies and a cooing baby. Without question, Gemma and Tom take in the child, but when its unnatural growth accelerates and the cute behaviour switches to maniacal screaming, they soon lose patience.
“I liked that the movie evoked this anxiety about making commitments and big life choices like buying a house, getting married or having a baby,” says Eisenberg, who became a parent for the first time just a few years ago (he and actress-wife Anna Strout’s son, Banner, was born in December 2016). “That’s what made it great. And the fact that it had this overlap with my life.”
Used to looking after his own child, Eisenberg had a great time goofing off with Senan Jennings. He played the ultra-creepy kid in Vivarium, playing the toddler like a villainous version of Alec Baldwin’s Boss Baby – all slicked-back hair and overly adult dress sense.
“[Senan] was the one-out-of-a-hundred child actors who is sane, great and likes being there,” says Jesse. “In one scene, I had to throw him in a car and slam the door in his face and he said, ‘uh, feel free to slam it harder. I’ll make sure I’m on the other side.’ I mean, who does that? You don’t even meet adults who do that. We just got really lucky. And his acting is also perfect.”
Post-Vivarium, Jesse says he’ll continue to plod along at his own pace, choosing jobs by the quality of their scripts. He’s reluctant to tease much and hasn’t heard anything about a Justice League sequel: “The first movie was not such a big success – isn’t that the only gauge of making another one?” But reprising his “dream movie villain” of Lex Luthor isn’t the only exciting thing on his radar.
“I’m creating a sterile narrative [in interviews]”
“I’m putting out a book through Audible,” he says. “I wrote some music that Finn Wolfhard – who’s playing a character in the audiobook – sings and plays [in the story]. We were just recording him last week.” Wolfhard, best known as mop-haired teen Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things, has toured in several bands over the years. But Eisenberg knows his shit too, and has played drums from the age of eight – even if he’s reluctant to talk about it. “That’s not really relevant,” he says, when we ask about his percussive past. “Finn is a great musician. He’s just born cool. I don’t know if you’ve ever been intimidated by someone 18 years younger than you, but that was what meeting Finn was like.”
At this point, NME has been with Jesse for a good hour and it’s nearly time to leave. But before we go, the actor flips the script and starts interrogating us. “One more thing,” he says. “Do readers in your magazine actually want to hear about my life? Truth be told, I don’t want anyone to know about my family because I find it a little embarrassing. So what do you suggest I do – am I supposed to parry all of your questions because I don’t want my family in the press? Or do you think it benefits me to talk about myself because it makes me more popular with readers?”
Journalism, we say in response, exists to find out things people want to know. But if Jesse doesn’t want to answer a question, he could just say that and most writers won’t press further. Another tactic, most common in video interviews, sees film stars adopt a persona to act their way through tougher questions. Does Eisenberg do something similar? “I think I take on a characteristic I don’t usually have, some kind of humorous [quality],” he says. “Can you tell?”
It’s a clever technique – deflecting attention onto the interviewer – but it’s hard to know what Eisenberg’s motive is. To flatter the journalist into a positive write-up? Or does he generally want to know how to keep his family out of the spotlight? Surely, a talent as experienced as he knows that the more compelling his personal story, the more people will want to read about him. “But I’m lying about 90 percent of what I’m talking about,” he says. “Not lying, creating a sterile narrative.” Well, if fabricating his life story is Jesse Eisenberg’s hidden talent, then there’s something else he should try. It’s called Facebook. Maybe he’s heard of it.
‘Vivarium’ is out now on digital download