Jesse Eisenberg interview: Holy Rollers, Zombieland 2, and working with Wes Craven

We caught up for a chat with Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg to talk about Holy Rollers, out this week, and much, much more...

Back in February, on the day before the BAFTAs, we had the chance to speak with Best Actor nominee, Jesse Eisenberg. He’d been nominated for his stunning performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, but the interview was in anticipation of Eisenberg’s starring role in another, much smaller film, which is out this week. Produced on a shoestring budget, Holy Rollers retells the real-life story of a group of Hassidic Jews, who operate a drug smuggling operation in late-90s New York.

We spoke with Eisenberg (who’s every bit as hyperactive, nervously energetic, and smart as his on-screen turns would have you believe) about Holy Rollers, working with directors from Wes Craven to Fred Durst, and whether we should expect Zombieland 2 anytime soon…

When I spoke with Greg Mottola and we were talking about Adventureland, he said that Paul was a much bigger film, and he had a much bigger budget for that. And he realised that it’s more fun, and much more challenging, to make big budget, mainstream films. You’ve worked on both sides of that indie-mainstream divide. Is that a conflict, or a thought process that you can empathise with?

For me, it’s a bit different, because I’m just focusing on my role, whereas he’s focusing on everything in the movie. And a role can be really interesting in a big movie. Like The Social Network is such an interesting role that you don’t often see in big Hollywood movies. And by contrast, a role can be very uninteresting in a small indie.

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So, for me, I just focus on what the character is, and good characters can transcend any budget level. For example, when I read Holy Rollers, I assumed that it would be a $25 million movie, the premise seemed to me so intriguing. I didn’t realise that the intention was to make it in a very New York, authentic, indie way, because it seemed to me that the premise lent itself to a major Hollywood movie. So, maybe I just don’t have a good sense for that thing.

What attracted you to the film? Hearing the title and the set-up, it sounds like it could be a knockabout comedy, but it’s actually quite a tragic crime drama. Is that what interested you?

Yeah, I thought the premise was really intriguing. And the fact that it was based on a true story was a great surprise. But what I liked about it most was this character who I felt was very real, and also something I wanted to explore over an extended period of time.

I was interested in Hassidic Jewish lifestyle, because I’m Jewish, but I’m secular, but I would ride the subway every day with Hassidic Jews, and pass them in the street. I always felt both a simultaneous connection to them as well as a real distance. A connection, because I’m Jewish, and we probably have the same ancestry; but at the same time a great disconnect, because our lives are so different. So, I was interested in that, but also in the journey that he takes throughout the movie, of falling into this underworld of drug dealing, and how do you, as an actor, maintain that initial character in this very new world. The initial character’s naive, and innocent, and wants to do good in these very different circumstances.

You’ve appeared in a handful of films which are either set in a distinct time period, or are based on real characters. The Social Network was set in the early 2000s, based on true events, while Adventureland and Squid And The Whale were placed in very particular 1980s contexts. Do you find having a focus on period, community or person helps you build the role?

Yeah. My sense with those movies that you mentioned, because they take place in such a defined period of time, is that the movie has a greater personal quality to it, and I think the movies are better for it.

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Greg didn’t have to set his movie in 1987, but he did, because it was real to him, and the movie is better for it. The movie has a very personal quality to it.

I think there was pressure with that movie to set it in the modern day, because it has the potential to be a very commercial comedy, but the more he resisted that, and kept it true to his experience, I think the better the movie is.

Holy Rollers takes place in the late 90s, and it’s very important that it takes place at that time, a) because it’s a true story, but b) for the fundamental reason of airport security being different. This smuggling took place at the last time it could have taken place. It was before September 11th, before security was heightened. And these Hassidic Jews smuggled in over one million pills.

It’s also important to note that airport security weren’t looking in Hassidic Jews’ prayer books for ecstasy pills. Not that they would do that now, but I guess it was probably easier to do it then.

It’s interesting that this film is coming out now, because did you make it inbetween Zombieland and The Social Network?

Actually, right before Zombieland. This was made two years ago. And Zombieland we filmed right after that, and Social Network was filmed last year.

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So, your career must have changed quite a lot in that period, with the popular success of Zombieland and the huge amount of attention lavished on The Social Network. Is that something you’ve noticed in the roles you’re being offered?

No. I mean, it really hasn’t. The next movie I’m doing is the same size as Holy Rollers. It’s taken the same amount of time to raise the money, two years. It’s nice to be in things that people like, but it hasn’t really changed for me. My career, I guess, hasn’t changed.

I’m attracted to a very certain type of movie that doesn’t get made based on prior success. I like personal stories, and I like smaller movies, in general. The movies that are really big, at least in my experience, oftentimes don’t have characters that I feel as personally connected to. Even a movie like Zombieland, I liked the humour of it. But even the humour of it feels very personal to me, even though the movie is so big in scope.

Zombieland was quite a hit for a movie of its type, and it managed to find quite an audience, who are already highly anticipating a sequel. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

No, unfortunately. I haven’t read the script, if there is one. I’m not sure. I hope it gets made. Everybody who worked on it had such an affection for it. But I’m concerned that the longer it takes to make, the less chance it will have, because you get farther away from the thing that people liked, and maybe they won’t want to see it anymore.

It seemed that when The Social Network was coming out, people were surprised to see you in such a serious role. I find that a little odd, because the first film I saw you in was The Squid And The Whale. And, looking back at your career so far, you’ve been in horror films, thrillers, and so on. Do you consciously go for different genres or kinds of films?

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I just auditioned for all these movies and have received different parts, but I haven’t really been in control of it. Zombieland, I had auditioned for many times. The Social Network, I had auditioned for many times. The Squid And The Whale, I had to audition for, like, seven times. So, that I’ve wound up in movies that look different is not by virtue of me choosing them. It’s by virtue of them choosing me.

In the process, you’ve worked with such an amazing span of directors. Quite a list. And I’d like to ask you about Cursed, the Wes Craven movie. A lot of people I know saw you for the first time in that movie. And that was such a hugely anticipated film, because it was the same creative team as Scream. What was it like working with Wes Craven?

It was good. I liked him very much. We filmed the movie two times, because we shot the movie and then they scrapped the whole thing. So, it was a terribly disappointing experience. I don’t know what happened, but we were forced to reshoot the thing. And Kevin Williamson is a wonderful writer, and I thought he wrote a great script, the initial script. And he was asked to change the whole thing.

But Wes Craven was a great director. He has a great sense. He’s good with actors. He’s got a good sense of what’s scary, which is what he’s mastered. And I liked doing it.

Ultimately, it’s an unfortunate experience, because they spent a lot of money on it, and I think they didn’t wind up with the product everybody was happy with.

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Another director you’ve worked with is Fred Durst, on his debut movie The Education Of Charlie Banks. That’s a real spectrum, from seasoned pros to artists moving from one medium to another. How did he compare?

Fred did an incredible job. In fact, this movie was set in 1986 as well. He made just a classic, beautiful story. A lovely looking movie, and the acting is incredible. Jason Ritter is phenomenal. Fred did a wonderful job. And I hope he continues to direct.

We were all surprised to see what he made, based on what people have known him for. But in his music, he built this great empire, and he did that from nothing. So, it’s ultimately not surprising that he’s able to move into another genre and succeed as well.

Is there much difference as an actor when you’re working with a first time director, as to when you’re working with someone who’s made many films?

Not really. Fred Durst was very confident in the style that he wanted to shoot it in. And we were made aware right away that this was somebody who was in charge of the thing. And it didn’t seem to me different from David Fincher, who’s assured as well.

Kevin Asch, who directed Holy Rollers and did a wonderful job, he was more collaborative. We would discuss the look of the movie. This is not typically a discussion I would have with the director. He was very sweet. He had his own vision for it, but also brought everybody into the conversation.

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Finally, an awards season question. I’m always surprised when talking to people from the film industry, to hear that they’re too busy to watch the films that they’re going up against at the box office or in award nominations. Is that true in your case? Have you seen the films that were nominated alongside The Social Network?

I haven’t been able to see everything, unfortunately. But what you said was exactly right. The scheduling oftentimes doesn’t allow you to see them. And it’s strange, because there’s so much happening, and in such a concentrated period of time.

Whereas every other year I would watch everything that was up for awards, and be so excited to be an actor in the industry and be involved in some tertiary way, now I’m involved in a direct way, I don’t have the same opportunity to watch everything.

Which have you seen?

I’d feel bad saying, because then it highlights the ones I haven’t. I’m embarrassed to say!

Jesse Eisenberg, thank you very much!

Holy Rollers is released this week.

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