Jesse Eisenberg surged into the public consciousness in his role as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network—cementing his status as a bookish, eccentric indie actor. Next year, Eisenberg will emerge again in a different sort of role—Superman v. Batman’s Lex Luthor. The actor, playwright, author, and humorist joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to chat and read excerpts from his new book, a collection of short stories entitled Bream Gives Me Hiccups.
MARGERY: I was reading this and I was thinking of Woody Allen’s Kugelmass Episode. Do you mind that comparison? I know you were in one of his movies.
No, I mean, he might mind, but I could not be more honored. I think he’s the greatest comedic voice in history...not only specific to my culture and my interests and my geography but also just generally.
JIM: Are you a New York City kid or a Jersey Kid?
Both. I was born in Queens and raised in New Jersey.
JIM: When you met Woody Allen, before you did the film, To Rome With Love, what was that like?
Oh, it’s odd, because he’s not only my favorite talent, but he’s also iconic in this way that transcends just being a person, so it’s really just a cool experience to see somebody who you grew up idolizing and who is embedded in the public consciousness.
MARGERY: You had a little bit of a run-in with Woody Allen’s lawyers when you were in your teens?
The first script I wrote, I was 16 and it was about Woody Allen at 16, but took place in modern times. Somebody had sent it to his agents, I was very excited to hear that… and they had sent it to his lawyers, even more exciting! And then less exciting was the cease and desist letter they sent me, telling me that if I did do anything, they would prosecute me within in an inch of the law.
JIM: What was the thinking behind Bream Gives Me Hiccups?
I guess I see absurdities in the world, and I feel a need to express them. So there are many different characters in the book, and they’re all kind of dealing with internal problems with the way they express themselves.
JIM: Your story about the kid who goes to summer camp and the “succession of opportunities to call you mom” was so much me I was almost embarrassed to read it, much less talk about it. How much of this was you in this book?
That’s me. I went to camp for six hours. It was about five hours too long for me. I just can’t exist in that world. I thought it would be funny to write about a sleep-away camp that’s for kids with separation anxiety—that’s all me. It’s all this stuff that as a child, was traumatic, but now I can use it to be funny.
MARGERY: The next story is about your mother explaining the ballet to you, and that’s pretty funny too. What does mom think of all this?
Luckily, my mom is very normal, and she thinks it’s very funny. The downside of having a normal funny mom is that it would usually not be funny to put into a story, so I have to create this exaggerated, absurd mother.
JIM: Wait! Didn’t I read she was a clown?
She was the coolest clown. She came out of the hippie movement. She was a birthday party clown, she sang folk songs, she played games, but everybody won the games… she was a kind of Marxist clown.
MARGERY: Will you read a little bit?
“Separation Anxiety Sleepaway Camp” (From Jesse Eisenberg’s Bream Makes Me Hiccup)
8 A.M.—Campers begin the day with an early call to Mom. Those campers who have wet the bed will have an opportunity to change clothes, or, if they prefer, they can remain in their soiled pajamas, as this may be comforting and remind them of home.
9 A.M.—Breakfast is served in the main dining hall, though most campers will choose not to eat, because the orange juice here is not fresh-squeezed like Mom makes and this will freak them out. Those campers who boldly choose to eat will be given pancakes shaped like the first letters of their names, which will remind them of home and likely cause indigestion.
10:30 A.M.—Swim time. Campers will swim for seven minutes in a shallow wading pool, with two lifeguards per camper. Campers will wear pre-inflated floaties on their arms and legs and around their necks. After swimming, each camper will have an opportunity to call his mom to let her know that he has not drowned. If the camper has drowned, his mother will be notified by one of the camp’s Counsellors in Training, or C.I.T.s. The C.I.T.s will then have an opportunity to call their own mothers.
Noon—Lunchtime. Campers dig into the lunches that their mothers have meticulously prepared and FedExed overnight. Campers are encouraged not to read the enclosed notes until after their food is digested, which will be difficult, as the thought of the unread note just sitting there in the bag will be unsettling.
After lunch, campers have a twenty-minute reading period, in which they may read their notes from Mom. If a camper has not received a note from Mom, one of the Counsellors in Training, or C.I.T.s, will forge a note and pretend that it was lost in the refrigerator where the campers’ lunches were stored. C.I.T.s will make sincere attempts to match Mom’s handwriting, although complete accuracy cannot be guaranteed.
2-3 P.M.—Campers will be given a free period of one hour to explore the campgrounds, kayak on nearby Lake Winooski, build a campfire, or write postcards to their moms. Telephone calls to Mom are also possible during this time.
4 P.M.—We follow free period with an afternoon call to Mom. At this point, campers may also ask to speak to their fathers, but this is strictly optional. Most likely, Dad will not have time for the camper, or, if he does, he will probably just talk about how stressful work is or how well the camper’s sister is doing at her sports camp. If Dad does get on the phone during this period, the camper will be allotted twenty additional minutes to debrief with Mom. Tissues provided.
5:30 P.M.—Campers may choose from a variety of electives, including Show and Tell, where they can present a relic from home to their fellow-campers, who probably will not be able to focus on something from someone else’s life, since this requires a level of interest in others that campers do not possess during periods of great agitation.
We are featuring a new elective this year, called Lamentation Period, in which campers may reflect privately on their relationship with their mothers and ponder the futility of life away from home. Fears about college can also be contemplated during this time.
7 P.M.—Dinner is served in the main dining hall. Though it is optional, campers may enjoy themselves briefly and, if desired, experience the slightest amount of relief that they are a few hours closer to going home than they were at breakfast.
9 P.M.—Lights-out—unless a camper would like to stay up all night and call his mom. If the camper chooses to sleep, but then has a nightmare, a call to Mom is allowed and even encouraged. If the camper chooses to sleep, but wakes up before his bunkmates, the camper may call his mother. If the camper chooses to sleep and makes it through the whole night without a call to Mom, he will be escorted home by one of the Counsellors in Training, or C.I.T.s, to apologize to his mom for being aloof.
Note: Counsellors in Training are drawn from a pool of campers’ moms.
JIM: You don’t watch your own movies, you don’t like seeing yourself… but you appear to be so comfortable reading what you wrote. Why is that?
I would be uncomfortable hearing this interview, for example, because you criticize your own voice, and I don’t know what my voice sounds like… but I love being in the character. You’re a character who is reading the itinerary, and that’s comfortable because I can hide inside of that idea. But watching yourself, you’re suddenly exposed.
JIM: Is your OCD exaggerated for humor, or is it real?
I probably have similar amounts of obsessions than other people.
JIM: We know you as an actor, primarily. We read this book, you’ve written plays, how do you do all this? How do you get through the day and accomplish all this?
Thanks a lot. Sometimes those are the things that are the easiest to get through the day. For example, performing on stage is a nerve-wracking experience but I always think, it’s probably the second-most scary experience. The first most-scary experience would be staying home at eight o’clock and not doing the show. Those things are distracting in a way that’s a relief.
MARGERY: You don’t step on cracks, that’s not totally unusual… but you said if you’re stepping on a new surface; “carpet to concrete, or concrete to wood, or wood to concrete, any new surface, I have to make sure all parts of my feet touch equally the ground before I touch that new thing.”
Well when you put it that way, I sound crazy. Most of the time I’m distracted from those kinds of things. That’s why I stay so busy. Once you slow down, then you start noticing that there’s so many different surfaces on the ground that need to be accounted for.
JIM: What was your process during The Social Network? Everyone who saw the movie said you did a great Mark Zuckerberg. What did you do to get there, if you didn’t know him?
There’s certainly no shortage of video clips of him, and the people who did research for the movie found incredible things, like his application to college, and I read that and I saw that he had taken fencing lessons, so I took fencing lessons to see what that would feel like. It made me stand up in a more unusual posture, and so I used that… when you’re playing a real person, it’s fun to kind of steal as much as you can from their life.
JIM: Were you nervous to hear what his reaction was to your portrayal?
Yes, but only because I didn’t want him to be upset. I can imagine it’s the most uncomfortable thing, especially for a guy in his mid-twenties, they make a movie about your life and it’s not necessarily a 100 percent flattering perspective, it’s more of a real take on a situation. I can imagine that must be really uncomfortable. I was nervous only insofar as I didn’t want him to be upset, but I wasn’t nervous to think if he thought my acting was great.
MARGERY: How did he like that breakup scene at the beginning of the movie where Zuckerberg was a complete jerk?
As an actor, all I could say is that I’m sitting there thinking, I’m right. You’re entirely defending your character, there’s no way to see a role from the outside and objectively say that this guy is doing the wrong thing. You’re inside of it, as an actor, and defending him.
JIM: You’re in the new Batman and Superman movie, as Lex Luthor. Kevin Spacey and Gene Hackman have both played that role—do you see them doing what you did?
It can be kind of distracting to watch other actors do it, because the thing about acting is that you’re yourself. If I were to watch them and try to mirror it, I think it would be probably look odd, coming from myself.
JIM: How did you prepare for this? Reading the comic books?
I read the comic books but I think the main and most valuable preparation is to think about all of the feelings that I have that overlap with that character’s feelings. My character in the movie feels that one person (Superman) has too much power, and is a threat to society because of it. I try to think of experiences where I’ve felt that way. If I’ve had a boss that I feel has too much power and exploits his workers, or if I feel there an injustice in the world… you read about political dictatorships and you feel that way… I try to use all of those feelings and my own kind of personal rage, and then channel it to that character. That’s the way the character will be most authentic, and I think most interesting.
MARGERY: What’s the source of your own personal rage?
That’s for a different time and fewer microphones.
MARGERY: I just want to read a couple of these titles from the book.
“A Post Gender-Normative Man Tries to Pick Up a Woman at a Bar.”
“Marv Albert is My Therapist.”
...How do you feel about Marv Albert?
Oh, I love him. He’s one of my favorite media icons, since I grew up a big basketball fan. I was listening to him during a game once, and I thought it would be funny if his utterances were appropriated for a therapy session, something that should be very sensitive, but here he’s screaming, like “TWO SECONDS LEFT!” ...I thought that would be a funny appropriation. He read it and called me and asked if we could do a recording together, so we recorded it. He’s just been really friendly and now a friend.
MARGERY: How did you get into acting?
I did children’s musical theatre when I was younger, and then when I was about 15 I started going into New York City and auditioning for plays. I started really liking theatre and I started finding what I liked about it as an adult. Now, as an adult, I still am figuring that out. You’re figuring out what you like about it, what you can excel in, I like writing plays and performing in theatre. There are so many avenues in the arts, and I find that I’m constantly finding new avenues that I never explored.
MARGERY: How arduous was it to get the Social Network role?
It’s always the really great roles that seem to come easily, and then conversely a role that you might think would be good to do, you have to go in for one thousand times. [For Zuckerberg], I made a five-minute tape in my apartment with my sister, and they called me the next day saying that they wanted me to come out to California and do the movie. Similarly in the Batman/Superman movie, it’s such an honor to be able to be in this movie, and they just called me and said that they wanted me to have this part.
MARGERY: You seem very busy, that might be because you’re fostering all these cats?
I grew up with animals, I fostered cats… I did, I fostered cats for awhile...I was like a revolving apartment for cats, they would come in briefly until they would get adopted.
MARGERY: And you’re not doing that anymore.
Well, no, because now I have permanent cats.
Jesse Eisenberg is an American actor, playwright, author, and humorist. To hear more from his interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.