Jesse Eisenberg is panicked. He probably shouldn’t be.
It’s been two years since the industrious polymath wrote his most recent play, The Spoils, and he’s worried he won’t be able to write another one. Never mind that he published his first collection of neuroses-riddled short fiction last fall, or that he’s currently adapting it into a TV series. His latest film, Now You See Me 2—think Oceans 11 with magicians—isn’t out yet, and he’s already afraid of his acting career drying up if the studio passes on Now You See Me 3. It’s as though nobody told him he’s been in multiple movies pretty much each of the past 14 years.
Eisenberg is a study in dualities—and not just because he once played a twofold role in Richard Ayoade’s bleak parable, The Double. He stars in movies although he prefers not to watch any. He feels uncomfortable talking about himself, yet his job often all but requires him to shout autobiographically through the loudest loudspeaker possible. He tells me none of the actors or filmmakers he works with know that he writes—did you?—but with a bit more prodding, he admits that Woody Allen has seen his plays and is a fan. There's no tension, however, between Eisenberg's career as an actor and his career as a writer. Rather, these two talents work together symbiotically in a way that seems to suggest the opposite of panic.
The characters in Eisenberg's debut story collection, Bream Gives Me Hiccups, are sketched with the incisive detail and idiosyncrasy that come with years of slipping into other people's skin for a living. Similarly, the roles he portrays on film have their interiority imprinted all over eyes that can be intense, vacant, or haunted, depending on the part. When I met with Eisenberg recently, he elaborated further on exactly how acting has affected his writing and vice versa.
"Now I really like playing characters that can exist off the page," Eisenberg says. "If I can think about a character in a way that is not specifically just related to the confines of the movie or the play, then I want to play it, and my litmus test for that is if I can improvise in the voice of that character. If I can, it means that character does in fact have a real voice outside the narrow confines of the story. It sounds kind of simple or petty or obvious, but actually it's very rare. Especially in a movie like Now You See Me that's a kind of big, suspenseful movie, to play a character that's different from myself enough that I feel like I can improvise with this character's voice, and I know everything he'd say in every situation and how he'd react. I know where his arrogance comes from. I know where his stubbornness comes from. That's what makes me excited about playing a character."
"As an actor, you're trying a lot of times to fill in the gaps of the text," Eisenberg says. "If the text says the character is going to buy tomatoes, and you as an actor have to think, ‘Why is he buying tomatoes? Did his mother never buy him tomatoes when he was a young boy?’ Sometimes that's not very helpful, if you're sitting there weeping over the tomatoes when you should just be paying for them. But as a writer, I'm really trying to imbue as much of that as possible because of my training as an actor. So when I'm thinking about writing for actors or about writing prose or fiction or something, I'm trying to imbue these characters with as much of a reality and a past and a characterization that I can because my training as an actor tells me that you have to figure all this stuff out. If the writer hasn't done that, it's your job."
"If you can think of the worst person you know and completely empathize with them and try to understand where they're coming from, and not just understand them but actually feel for them—that's what I do as an actor," Eisenberg says. "I'm trying to actually feel for these people that I play. You're literally putting your own emotions onto people who are oftentimes doing despicable things, especially in the case of playing a villain in a superhero movie. I'm trying to put my own emotions onto that guy, and so I do that in my personal life. I've done that since I was young. It's just what I'm interested in or what I'm wired to do. I don't know where that comes from. So if I can put myself in that person's feelings then I feel very free to write from that perspective."
"The play of mine that I'm currently working on, the roommates are a young Nepalese upstart, who is honest and ambitious and unapologetic, and the character I play, who is this kind of misanthropic, angry, and entitled guy. And so these world perspectives are being juxtaposed in a way that creates drama, irony, humor, pathos. So it's not just about creating poppy dialogue that flows, but actually creating two world perspectives that the audience can see some kind of, at best, a kind of dichotomy of ideas and at worst, but also interesting, a polemic from the writer. But I believe it starts with empathy."
"When I'm acting in something, I have no feeling," Eisenberg says. "I have a strong feeling about what I want to do with the character but because I'm not watching it, I don't know how I appear. So I love direction, I thrive with it. In fact, I love being micromanaged. I did a movie with the director David Fincher who is notorious for doing like 100 takes of the same line. And to me, I would do 1,000. I don't know how I'm being perceived. I don't know what my face looks like. So I love direction because they're perceiving me and telling me what to do. As a writer, I know what I want to say. I think I have an ear for humor more so than maybe some people who are fixing it. So in that way, I have stronger conviction about what I'm writing. Luckily with plays, there's a history or tradition that you don't change what the playwright has written. Producers don't change it. There's not a feeling like there is in movies where they're putting $100 million into it and they want to make sure someone in every state can appreciate every joke."
"The great thing about being able to write and act is that oftentimes I will have access to someone else's words that will seep into mine and affect me in a way that I otherwise wouldn't have been influenced," Eisenberg says. "For example, I was doing this movie called The Double, in England. It's kind of a Jungian story based on a Dostoyevsky novella. The idea is that one guy is all ego and the other guy is all id. One guy is this tortured, meek, overly cerebral guy and the other is just purely brash physicality. So I was playing both characters, and that's when I started writing these restaurant reviews from a little boy. In the Bream Gives Me Hiccups stories, this little boy is the ego—he's contemplative—and his mother is this brash, angry woman who is totally id—she says whatever's on her mind. Working on that movie and writing allowed me to kind of think in that dichotomy for those characters in a way that were I not acting in that movie, I might not have."