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DL fave Jesse Eisenberg is now a playwright
Jesse Eisenberg Recasts Himself As a Playwright in The Revisionist
Cowboy Pizza anchors Clinton Street’s southernmost cluster of gentrification, about a block away from the La Guardia Houses. Its distressed picnic tables, soundtrack by Bon Iver, and framed photos of the bad old Lower East Side might recall the set of your typical Jesse Eisenberg vehicle, and in fact it’s one of the actor’s favorite lunch spots. Nervously cradling a slice on a recent frigid Sunday, he’s wearing the same navy cap, two-tone hoodie, and maroon New Balances his character dons in The Revisionist, Eisenberg’s second outing as a playwright. Co-starring with him is a more uptown class of celebrity, Vanessa Redgrave.
Eisenberg and I had our first, wide-ranging chat two days earlier in a Cherry Lane Theater dressing room—maybe too wide-ranging, because this time he’s brought along a chaperone. His close friend Lee, 43 to Eisenberg’s 29*, shakes hands and ebulliently offers his last name: “G as in gorgeous, A as in amazing, B as in booyah, A as in … amazing, Y as in yes!”
Eisenberg and Gabay met through their mutual friend, the actor Paul Dano. They spend most of their time together watching basketball, talking about basketball, and playing basketball. “Jesse has a good offensive game, but his defense could be fixed,” says Gabay, who’s taken to calling me “Bo.” “His rebounding skills are terrible.” Judging by his performance in interviews, Gabay seems best at blocking and running out the clock.
“I’m trying to protect the instrument,” Eisenberg parries, in the blinky, rapid-fire patter so familiar to fans of the archetypal Eisenberg role. He’s made his career as the younger alter ego of a parade of geek auteurs—The Squid and the Whale’s Noah Baumbach, Adventureland’s Greg Mottola, Woody Allen in To Rome With Love—culminating in the Oscar-nominated part of a real-life geek, Mark Zuckerberg, in The Social Network. Now, as a playwright, he’s written two avatars of his own, both of whom he’s played himself: pathetic, sycophantic Edgar in 2011’s Asuncion and pathetic, selfish David in The Revisionist.
Gabay paints a picture of the real Eisenberg as a brainy Everyman, more confident than his characters but no cockier than the average urban creative. “One thing that really says who he is: I remember on Oscar Night, when the other dude won, he sent me a text—”
“Wait, wait, what did I say?” Eisenberg interjects. Gabay whispers into his ear. “Oh, okay.” Eisenberg gives the go-ahead.
“He said, ‘I just want to remind you to feed my cat.’ And then he said—can I say the rest?” More whispering. “Then he said, ‘I was gonna remind you in a speech, but I was denied.’ That was cute.”
Gabay is clearly here to run interference, even at risk to his own “instrument.” When I bring up a big no-no—the older woman with whom Eisenberg lives in Chelsea—both of their eyes widen. When I ask if Eisenberg wants a family, he says, “Yeah, sure, yeah—and you?” seeming almost genuinely curious.
“If she’s mentioned, she gets mad at him—or me,” Gabay says, cutting us both off. “But that’s my problem with Angelica,” he adds—of his girlfriend, a pianist and yogi. “I want a family, and she doesn’t.”
After Gabay leaves, Eisenberg fiddles absently with a pen I’ve left on the table. Eventually, he brings up our earlier interview. “I don’t know what I’m doing here really,” he says. “I felt bad the other day after we left. I felt really guilty all night. Why did I say that stuff? Why did I talk about myself and my life? No one wants to know—maybe they do want to know, but I don’t want them to know … I wish I didn’t have to—I’m sorry. Yeah. And I shouldn’t have this kind of—yeah, it’s embarrassing, even now. Yeah, right.” He sniffs his artisanal pizza. He studies the pen. “I’m wondering whether I can extricate myself.” He runs out of words.
It says a lot about Eisenberg—his extreme decency and his extreme neurosis—that the avatars he’s created for the stage are sadder and less admirable than the sly, nebbishy parts he’s played in movies. But that’s always been the fascinating paradox of
paradox of Eisenberg’s life, the source of his strange charisma. He got into acting because it gave him a script at a time when he never knew what to say. Now his growing success only leaves him more exposed, his skin as thin as ever. It’s a paradox he should probably explore further, especially now that he’s writing scripts of his own.
Eisenberg hardly ever watches movies, especially those in which he stars. Though he grew up idolizing Woody Allen, his first love was musical theater. Born in Queens and raised in New Jersey, he could easily write an indie quirkfest about his upbringing. His father drove taxis before eventually becoming a sociology professor. His mother worked children’s parties as what he calls “an unintimidating clown”—no scary red noses or floppy shoes. Big sister Kerri wrote musicals; baby sister Hallie Kate did a famous Pepsi ad campaign. Jesse began acting at 9 and spent his teenage Saturdays in midtown, soaking up such Broadway classics as Titanic, Footloose, and The Civil War. He’s recently finished his own musical, Me Time, which he describes as a parody of bridge-and-tunnel nineties fare like I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.
Offstage, though, he was hardly a showman. Acting was his escape from a painfully awkward existence. He dealt with the transition to middle school “a little more histrionically than other kids,” he says, “and let it get out of control.” He had to skip part of the sixth grade for a home-school tutor, which “inadvertently perpetuated unhealthy behavior.” The only way to fight social anxiety, he realized, was to leave the house—and, eventually, New Jersey. He wound up transferring to Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts. “I feel apprehensive to change,” he says now. “But if you can persevere and get over the uncomfortable hump, you’ll inevitably find something a little more satisfying than had you stayed home.”
Eisenberg vaulted his first great hump—a defining debut—at age 18, playing Campbell Scott’s endearing virgin nephew in the breakout indie film Roger Dodger. Three years later, in The Squid and the Whale, he embodied a Park Slope fraud-in-training, awkward but sharp-elbowed and just slightly smarmy. With nerd culture ascendant, the aughts were ripe for actors who could walk the line between stuttering and wit, passivity and aggression.
The next major hump came in 2009 with an odd pair of films. Adventureland, Greg Mottola’s follow-up to Superbad, was a perfect fit—which was the problem: “I became very self-conscious. It just felt very close.” With Zombieland, an apocalyptic farce, he had the opposite problem: the dread of anchoring a potential blockbuster. “It seemed like it could be a popular thing,” he says, “and I was just overwhelmed.”
He considered quitting acting, but decided instead to adjust his attitude. “I do something different now,” he says. “I don’t concern myself with thinking ahead to the finished product. I focus more specifically on what the character is experiencing. Once you relieve yourself of the very arbitrary and always punishing pressure of what an audience is expecting you to do, acting becomes a lot more fun and pure.”
Back at Cowboy Pizza, I asked Gabay how close Eisenberg is to his twitchy roles. “Jesse’s a lot more confident in real life—he has a vision, he’s strong,” said Gabay. “And unfortunately, whatever the powers that be, who put people in movies …”
“No,” Eisenberg interrupted. “Don’t say it—no. I don’t know.” Eisenberg later asks me to leave out Gabay’s aborted rant on typecasting, because “I don’t watch the movies, so I don’t know how I’m perceived in them.” Never mind that he’s written two of his own socially stunted characters. Any attempt to group them together will box Eisenberg in—as an actor and a person. “It’s gonna be reductive in a way that is not in line with how I see myself.”
Eisenberg concedes that his part in the forthcoming film Now You See Me feels refreshing: a magician-showman in a dystopian Las Vegas, clad in shiny suits, a sleek goatee, and some very grown-up cheekbones.
- So Lee Gabay is his older boyfriend?