Catching Up With... Zombieland's Jesse Eisenberg
Paste: How did you first get into acting?
Jesse Eisenberg: Oh, I did children’s theater when I was younger with my older sister, and then I basically continued, I guess to avoid school mostly. And to have an excuse to not have to make friends at school, cause I’d always have to go somewhere or be somewhere, so it was mainly that. Then I got into the first movie I did in my senior year of high school. I was going to a performance arts high school in New York and decided to pursue it more professionally after that.
Paste: You mentioned how your sister helped you get into that—is acting a large part of your family?
Eisenberg: Not really. My dad is a teacher; my mom was a professional birthday-party clown, just in the local New Jersey neighborhoods and stuff. So she was a performer, but not like, in movies or theater or anything.
Paste: Adventureland came out earlier this year and now your’re starring in Zombieland. You’re also rumored to have about a dozen other projects on the way from IMDb. I’m curious why this sudden burst in production, since before you’d be in a movie and then it’d be a couple years before we saw you again.
Eisenberg: Well that’s not my choice, but I also I think the website is a bit of a liar—I dunno who controls it, but I had to do interviews yesterday for something and people were listing movies I was not involved in. I did two movies that are coming out—one is the zombie movie and I did a movie about this Hasidic Jewish ecstasy mule, and yeah, I guess some of the other movies are not happening.
Paste: Ecstasy mule?
Eisenberg: Oh, yeah, that’s my role. It’s called Holy Rollers ‘cause they’re Hasidic Jews and ecstasy. And that’s a smaller movie, I don’t know when it’ll come out.
Paste: In your past roles you’ve kinda played a similar sort of character— they’re comedic, like Adventureland, but not comedies per se. Zombieland looks like it’s more outright, broad comedy. Is that the sort of role you’re playing?
Eisenberg: The movie’s actually more dramatic than they’re presenting it. I think I have more dramatic scenes in that movie than in Adventureland. My sense is that they’ll cut the drama down because it’s a zombie comedy and I don’t think the movie can sustain that much heavy drama without boring the young kids who are seeing it. But the movie is primarily very funny and it’s a little more heightened than Adventureland, which was supposed to be much more naturalistic comedy, and subtle tone, like you don’t have to expect a laugh, and can go without something funny for ten minutes. But Zombieland is much more theatrical, I would say.
Paste: Do you have any ultimate aspirations for film that you haven’t reached yet?
Eisenberg: No, I’m so shocked that they put me in movies; every time I get a part in something I can’t believe it, and then afterwards I feel like I ruined the thing. I’m just so fortunate to be able to do the things I’ve already done. I can’t ask for more or even consider it.
Paste: You’ve also worked pretty heavily as an actor on the stage. Do you have a preference between that and film?
Eisenberg: Yeah, I ultimately want to write plays and not even act in them. I’ve written plays and a musical that’s starting to get off the ground right now. I would prefer to do that, but it’s so hard, and even when you’re successful as a playwright you don’t make any money—it’s such a hard part of the industry. I love [movie] acting, but the theater seems to produce more consistently creative works.
Paste: What’s the stuff you’ve written like?
Eisenberg: I wrote a musical that’s just starting to get to the early stages of production, which is called Me Time, about modern self-indulgence. It’s a musical satire. And then I have a play that’s actually being turned into a movie script, but that’s also in the early stages maybe I shouldn’t say anything about it because not everything is dotted, I guess.
Paste: Has working so much in the theater affected the way that you act onscreen, or vice versa? A lot of actors stop doing theater when they start working in film.
Eisenberg: I really don’t do that many plays, actually, mostly because they don’t cast me in them. But like you said, most people stop. I think it’s harder to make a living just doing off-Broadway theater in New York. I mean it really is almost impossible, things close so quickly, often. Whereas with a movie, whatever they’re paying you is guaranteed, whereas some plays could close—I have some friends who get on Broadway finally or are having a consistent paycheck finally, then the New York Times doesn’t like it and it closes in a week and they’re out of work. Happens all the time. But nothing is better practice than being in a play eight times a week for acting, so then when you’re on a movie set and you have to act for fourteen hours a day and it’s really grueling, you have some kind of basis of experience.
Paste: How selective have you been able to be with either theater or film, now that you’re a bit more well-known?
Eisenberg: I’ve been lucky to get into good movies, but I audition for really shitty movies all the time (not all the time but sometimes), and then I just got lucky to get in good ones, so then people assume you’re more selective. But really all the same people are trying for the same things and some people get in good movies, some people get in bad movies, and from an outsider it looks like those people are smarter or more selective or have higher taste, but really everybody knows what movies are really good and what movies are not so good, but you have to work, so you do both.