If you charted the film career of Jesse Eisenberg in box-office terms, it would look like an electrocardiogram of a heart attack, with thudding lows followed by soaring highs. He may be the only actor ever to follow a best actor Oscar nomination (as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network”) with a film grossing almost $150 million (the animated “Rio”) and then a feature earning just $2,000 (the comedy misfire “Why Stop Now?”).
“I’m happy to do anything,” he said by phone from New York earlier this week. “I’m not really in the film industry ’cause I’m not living in Los Angeles. When I read a script, I’m not so aware of the business model behind it. I don’t always know if it’s a big movie or small movie.”
Which explains why he’s gone from hits such as “Zombieland” to flubs like “Holy Rollers,” where he played an Orthodox drug dealer. “At the time I thought, ‘God, this is going to be the biggest movie.’ The script was compelling, and the character was great. Then I realized that outside of New York, a Hasidic Ecstasy dealer is something that doesn’t exist. Then I showed up at the set, and it was this tiny production. My finger’s not maybe as close to the pulse as it should be.”
He’ll soon be back in the major leagues, playing Lex Luthor in 2016’s “Batman vs. Superman.” Presently, however, Eisenberg is appearing in “The Double,” a small indie comedy based on a Dostoevski short story, opening locally on Friday.
He plays Simon James, a shy, anonymous clerk, and his lookalike, James Simon, a dynamic, universally popular creep who arrives in the same office and becomes an instant VIP. While Eisenberg, 30, sometimes is mistaken for other actors — if Michael Cera and Andy Samberg had a baby, it would be his twin — his new film pushes the issue of confused identity to dark, tragicomic extremes.
Eisenberg feels more often like the tentative nebbish, he said. “Probably most people, unless they’re psychotic, would feel like Simon. He’s timid and feels as though no one remembers him, and if they do, they don’t like him. He feels alone and lonely and alienated from the rest of the world. James, on the other hand, is a conscience-less, dangerous person who everybody seems to like. James represents a manifestation of everything Simon lacks. He’s brash and confident and ultimately cruel.”
Those are two personality types that Hollywood, with its capricious tides of obscurity and celebrity, is perfectly designed to create, he added. “I don’t put too much emphasis on [fame], but I imagine the silences are pretty loud” when the crowd turns its attention elsewhere. “It’s almost a dystopian nightmare universe.”
Between acting gigs, Eisenberg is a writer and playwright. He regularly contributes humor pieces to the New Yorker. “A Short Story Written With Thought-To-Text Technology” goes off the rails when the neurotic writer becomes distracted by the coffee shop’s pumpkin loaf and the sexy barista. The helpful comments in “My Mother Explains the Ballet to Me” include “Do you know anything about this ballet? It was a hundred and twenty-five dollars, you should know what you’re seeing. It was written by Wagner, which is pronounced ‘Vagner’ and who was a Nazi, but before Hitler.”
“I wish I could say that’s based on truth, but my mother will deny it,” he said.
Next year Grove Press will publish a collection of his stories, whose characters include a preadolescent restaurant reviewer and a college freshman badgering her high-school guidance counselor. Two of Eisenberg’s plays have been produced in New York City, most recently 2013’s “The Revisionist,” in which he acted opposite Vanessa Redgrave.
Despite his résumé and the recent experience of playing the cocksure James, Eisenberg said he has no tips on how to project an attitude of confidence. He says he doesn’t feel it.
“I don’t do that in my personal life, so I don’t really know. I don’t really project a false self-assurance. Or a real self-assurance. The things I can do as an actor, I don’t necessarily do in my personal life.”