When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, actor-playwright Jesse Eisenberg was in Los Angeles for work. Rather than usher his family — wife, Anna Strout, and their 3½ year-old son Banner — towards the nearest airport, they rented an RV and drove to Indiana. “We live half the year in southern Indiana,” Eisenberg explains, when he calls me from a peaceful-sounding park in Bloomington in late May.
For the 36 -year-old, famed for his Oscar-nominated role as the Machiavellian Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, the motorhome was the ideal mode of transport to help isolate himself and his family. But ever since he arrived in Indiana, he hasn’t been hunkering down in his house to avoid the virus. Instead, he’s been spending four hours a day working at a domestic violence shelter, where his mother-in-law was an executive.
A shelter for women and children fleeing violence at home, an issue that’s become even more prevalent in lockdown, Middle Way House was losing volunteers during the pandemic and Eisenberg wanted to help. It’s typical of his socially conscious side, putting something back at a time when the coronavirus hasn’t drastically affected his work. “For me, oftentimes, I will find myself with months off at a time —it’s just the nature of my job.”
The only major issue is his upcoming directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, which has been put on hold. Starring Julianne Moore —and produced by the Oscar-winning actress Emma Stone, a friend and frequent co-star — the script is based on an audiobook that Eisenberg has written, about three differently-aged characters, that’s due out this month. He seems sanguine about the delays. “We’ll just start up anytime we’re allowed.”
Certainly, Indiana feels like a safe haven compared to New York, where he lives for the other half of every year. Back there, his best friend’s father died of coronavirus during the lockdown, making it all seem very real. “It’s not really abstract for us.” Eisenberg had also been sick with a fever that lasted three days after returning from a trip to France. “I assumed I had it,” he says. “When a test for antibodies opened up, I took it and I tested negative.”
In the past, Eisenberg has endured illnesses of a very different kind. Growing up in New York, he struggled with anxiety disorder. He’s also been in therapy to combat other mental health issues — Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, separation anxiety and depression among them. Becoming a father provided a welcome distraction, he says. “Because I spent the first 30 years worrying about things that were invisible, and now I get to worry about something that’s visible.”
Children are also at the heart of his latest film, Resistance. Eisenberg plays Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime artist who, during World War Two, was at the beginning of a career that saw him perform for sixty years. What is less known is that Marceau — whose father died in Auschwitz — joined the French Jewish Resistance, helping to save hundreds of youngsters from the Nazis.
When Eisenberg discovered that Marceau was similarly Jewish and had family from the same part of southeast Poland as he did, he was hooked. “There were so many aspects of it that were so relevant to me,” he says. Like Marceau, Eisenberg’s extended family suffered, although some were lucky. “My cousin who survived, who still lives in Poland, she was taken in by a teacher who was Catholic and was hidden in a basement for years.”
All the way through the shoot, Eisenberg was hearing remarkable stories of everyday heroism. “I had this bodyguard, Jan, who was six foot seven — a humungous man. He told me over lunch one day that his grandfather ended up saving all these Jewish people because he ran the power station in town. And he knew that the Nazis would never arrest him because they had to keep the power running. So he knew that he had the opportunity to save people.”
With a father who went from driving a cab to teaching sociology, Eisenberg was raised in a secular Jewish household in East Brunswick, New York. But, I wonder, when did he first become aware of the atrocities of World War Two? “It was probably through the Jewish school that I went to,” he says. “At some point, they mentioned the Holocaust, and probably half the kids in class didn’t know what it was.”
He remembers getting the Holocaust confused in his mind with the Ku Klux Klan. “I thought they were the same thing. And I remember just ducking under the windows at the front of the house for months, worried that somebody would be burning a cross on our lawn. It’s funny the way kids’ minds work…you conflate your fears and then put yourself at the centre of the world. I thought I was going to be targeted.”
Even so, these childish fears took on a more ominous edge when Eisenberg was making Resistance back in October 2018. Coincidentally, “there were multiple acts of antisemitism,” he notes, notably the horrifying massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, when 11 people were killed and six wounded. His wife’s temple in Indianapolis was also defaced with swastikas and a bomb was planted, that, thankfully, didn’t go off. It’s a stark reminder that such hatred isn’t confined to the Nazi era.
“It doesn’t linger in the past as much as kind of occasionally seep out in the present,” Eisenberg says. But does he have any idea why antisemitism has been rearing its ugly head in the US? “It’s like anything else...when antisemitism is present so are other kind of tribal hatreds. It doesn’t usually rise up exclusively, especially in a country as diverse as America. So obviously everybody in our country — but around the world too — is experiencing a kind of tribal suspicion and so that’s never been good for Jews.”
It’s not the first time Eisenberg has tackled his Jewish roots. His debut off-Broadway play The Revisionist saw him co-star with Vanessa Redgrave, who played a character inspired by his aforementioned cousin. “Like any person who’s in the arts, your imagination runs out and you have to start mining your own past for stories,” he says. “But the history of Jewish people is just so endlessly fascinating. If you don’t end up exploring it, it would be a surprise.”
He’s less enamoured by Holy Rollers, the 2010 movie based on a true story in which he played an Orthodox Jew who gets involved in a drug-smuggling operation. “I don’t know if I’d be as comfortable doing that movie now, because at the time, there was really not a feeling of antisemitism in the air, or that it was part of like public discourse. And now it does feel that way. And so that movie was quite critical of this sect of Jews and kind of showed this in a way uglier side, in terms of what they were doing.”
In Eisenberg’s eyes, a film like Resistance “seems far more suited to the moment, a celebration of this heroic act”. It also gave him a chance to pay tribute to his mother, Amy, who worked as a clown at children’s parties when Eisenberg was growing up — yet another oddly personal connection he had to Marceau’s life. “I’m the son of a birthday party clown,” he shrugs. “My mother used to wake up early and paint her face like Marceau and go out and perform for children for a living.”
To become Marceau, Eisenberg “lucked out”, spending months working with Lorin Eric Salm, a former student of Marceau’s in Paris who had also devoted time to chronicle the man’s life. “I just had this incredible two-pronged education of the practical application of mine and learning the movements as well as this kind of academic approach to learning about Marceau’s life and the history of mime.” He also worked with an improvisational mime artist from Prague.
I ask if Eisenberg’s mother’s time as a clown inspired his move into acting, which began professionally with 2002’s sublime Roger Dodger. At least in an “unconscious way”, he replies, it helped him take a job seriously that can be seen as frivolous. “That’s really quite helpful, especially for somebody like me — quite an analytical person who would [try to] second-guess myself.” It’s perhaps why some of Eisenberg’s more charming turns — including Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love and Café Society — have come in the comic arena.
For all his introspective qualities, Eisenberg can play the supremely confident type too — the Man of Steel’s nemesis Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the slick David Copperfield-like illusionist in Now You See Me and its sequel. “I would love to go back,” he says, when I tell him there’s talk of a third in that series. “I loved the character I got to play. I mean he’s the world’s most confident magician so as a nervous performer like me it was the most ideal experience.” Somehow, those nerves don’t seem so apparent now.
Resistance is available to download from June 19.