And just like that Jesse Eisenberg has become the spirit animal of cubicle-dwellers everywhere.
In his new film, The Art of Self-Defense, Eisenberg goes from friendless office lackey to a man with the ability to kill his opponent with an index finger to the head. Accountants everywhere are signing up for karate classes as we speak.
Eisenberg plays Casey Davies (“that’s a very feminine-sounding name”), a solitary man who is victim of a violent mugging. His life changes when he wanders into a karate studio and meets the charismatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who promises to make him more of a man, starting with the “mental component;” Casey must abandon adult contemporary music; only metal from now on. And no more coddling his decidedly un-masculine dachshund with human contact.
“When I first read it I thought it was unbelievably hysterical, possibly the best comedy dialogue I’d ever read,” Eisenberg says via phone from Montreal, where he is promoting the film. It wasn’t until filming got underway that the actor appreciated how dark Riley Stearns’ script actually was.
Then something else happened: the #MeToo movement gained strength, along with the accusations against industry heavyweights like Harvey Weinstein. “Halfway through shooting we’d read these horrific accusations against men and all these stories of bravery from women, so the movie took on this strange other life,” he says. “It became kind of a commentary on the dangers of toxic masculinity and the way that it affects women and our society.
“I love the movie and its part in bringing these issues to life.”
Anna (Imogen Poots) is the only female in the class and seems forever destined to be a brown belt. “Her being a woman will always prevent her from becoming a man,” says Sensei. Anna can draw blood quicker than any man in the dojo but apologizes for her inferiority nonetheless. It’s anti-feminism at work and mirrors a lot of the backlash in our culture today.
Sensei is the alpha who keeps Anna down. His character is ludicrously deadpan, and Nivola plays it perfectly. Eisenberg acknowledges that it was nearly impossible to get through a scene without breaking character. “His dialogue is incredibly funny and so absurd, and the goal is to deliver it with a straight face,” he says. “We would make each other laugh especially because we were characters who would never laugh, who had no self-awareness, and because of that it’s extra funny and extra hard to maintain self-control.”
The Art of Self-Defense is destined to do for karate what Fight Club did for white-knuckle brawling. It’s also a nice companion piece to Office Space, although the only thing to take a beating in that film was a perpetually uncooperative photocopier.
A large part of Eisenberg’s performance in the film is his body language, which screams meek and mild before Casey even speaks a line of dialogue. The actor says that he channeled “a 10-year-old version of myself” to communicate the sense of a man who is all but invisible to the people around him. “I put my hands at my sides, I tried to embody being like I was as a kid … The way the face moves, as if he’s always in awe of new things...” He says he tried not to over-think it too much: “The less I analyze myself the more I succeed.”
Eisenberg is currently enjoying success as a playwright, too. He has penned Asuncion, The Revisionist, The Spoils, and most recently Happy Talk, the off-Broadway play starring Susan Sarandon. His writing has definitely informed the way he evaluates the scripts he is offered, he says. “I like to, if possible, immerse myself in something that I never would’ve written myself. And in this film the way the characters speak, their bluntness, the way my character acts like a child, is something I never would’ve thought about.”
The actor has played an eco-warrior in Night Moves, a sleight-of-hand expert in Now You See Me, a zombie-killer in Zombieland, and – most famously – Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (for which he was nominated for an Oscar). He has co-starred with Kristen Stewart three times (in Café Society, American Ultra and Adventureland), been in two Woody Allen films, and starred in one movie directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst.
He would love to collaborate with Kristen Stewart again. “We’re talking about this movie we did – Adventureland,” he says. “We all had friends working on it, and [director] Greg Mottola, he’s just brilliant and he holds that movie in a special place ... So we’ve been talking about maybe making it into a series on Amazon…”
He’s open to a reprisal of his role in Superman Vs Batman as Lex Luthor, a turn that drew a lot of attention, and some criticism from devout DC Comics fans. “I’d love to do that part again because I really enjoyed it. But I’m not dying to play any other comic book characters because I don’t really know much about that world,” he says honestly.
Zombieland 2 is another story: Eisenberg is thrilled to be returning to the role of Columbus a decade after the original. “It was fantastic!” he says of filming the sequel with co-stars Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. He says the cast wanted to jump into a sequel right after the original was made but they couldn’t find a story they were happy with. “It became such a beloved cult movie we felt it had to be really worthy for fans of the original. It took many drafts and writers to get it just right.”
What has changed and what hasn’t for Columbus? “My character in the first movie is very worried about everything and only survives because of a strict set of rules,” Eisenberg says. “Now he’s very confident, very comfortable being a family man, set up in the White House. But then things take a turn for the worst, as they must.”
In between shooting films and writing plays, Eisenberg is father to a two-year-old son with his partner Anna Strout. In terms of what he will he teach his son about what it means to be a man, Eisenberg quickly responds: “I’m outsourcing all of that to my wife, who has a much better sense of how men should behave.” He notes that Strout’s late mother ran one of the most important women’s domestic violence shelters in America, and his wife “has been marching since she was a baby.”
“She has taught me more about male behaviour and how men should behave, so I’m letting her handle everything with the baby.”
The toddler went to all Eisenberg’s classes during shooting, so “he’s taken more karate than most two-year-olds,” he laughs.
The actor is circumspect about the prospect of his son following in dad’s footsteps. “When you get criticized for this thing that you love – as we frequently do – it can take the joy out of it. So you really have to love it, need it and want it to pursue it. That’s what I will tell him.” It’s a message Eisenberg delivers when he goes to schools in New York with his wife and chats to students. “I try to be realistic with them: it’s an unstable industry, and even if you’re successful at it you can spend half the year looking for work. You need to really love what you do.”
But how about that all-important question: adult contemporary, or heavy metal? “Adult contemporary. Only because I have a baby now and if it were metal, he’d get no sleep.”