Life & Culture

Interview: Jesse Eisenberg

"I wish I was a more devout Jew"


Jesse Eisenberg is still feeling the effects of his Oscar-nominated performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, and it is making him uncomfortable.

Up until that film, the 27-year-old was quietly garnering critical kudos for playing intelligent, sometimes naïve, frequently stubborn, nearly always socially-awkward misfits, in low-budget films such as his 2002 debut feature, Roger Dodger, or the action comedy, Zombieland.

Now, thanks to The Social Network, the intensely private New Yorker is having to deal with a level of scrutiny he never really expected, and certainly never pursued. For someone who has had problems with anxiety and an obsessive-compulsive disorder for much of his life, it has not been easy.

"The Social Network has, almost inadvertently, provided a more public platform than I would have wanted," he says down the phone line from New York, in a stop-start rhythm reminiscent of Woody Allen. "It's great to be in something that's received well. But, on the other hand, there's only so much attention one person should get before it's overwhelming."

If this means he does not really like talking to the press, it does not actually show as he discusses his unusual new release, Holy Rollers. A small-scale project that he helped shepherd to the screen over a number of years, the film, directed by Kevin Asch, is based on the true story of Chasidic Jews who became involved in an ecstasy-smuggling operation, with a gang connected to an Israeli cartel. Eisenberg stars as an intelligent but naïve young Chasid called Sam Gold from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who, unhappy with his life, gets drawn into crime by his wayward neighbour.

The film presented Eisenberg, who studied anthropology at university alongside his acting career, with an opportunity to explore the lives of Chasidic Jews. Raised in a secular Jewish home by his college professor father, and a mother who uses "a drama-based platform to teach cultural sensitivity to young doctors", he says his own family had become increasingly distanced from religion the further they "got away from my grandparents' generation that came over from Poland. I went to Hebrew school, but dropped out before I had a barmitzvah". It was, however, partly a fascination with the Chasidim, and the similarities and differences between them and himself, that drew him to Holy Rollers.

"On the one hand you think you can probably relate to them because you come from the same background," he says. "And then there's the added strange part of being associated with them by virtue of having the same religion. But I don't feel any kinship with their day-to-day experience. So I was really interested in learning about that."

He attempted to gain access to the kind of closed community portrayed in the film, but found himself "trying to infiltrate a world that I was not welcome to". His way in eventually came via a sect that "seeks out secular Jews in order to encourage them to be more religious. They stand on the street in New York and if you're Jewish, try to bring you into their mitzvah trucks to pray with them."

Far from rejecting him, they were "almost aggressive" in the way they embraced Eisenberg. They took him to their schools, synagogues, and the kosher restaurant where they ate. "They'd call me all the time to see if I would go to their events, because their goal is to bring you into the fold. So not only were they not suspicious or irritated by me, but they were actually eager for me to join in."

Eisenberg had assumed that the group would be "monolithic in its attitude towards religion, and be a 100 per cent devout and non-questioning". In fact he discovered conflicting attitudes, and "people who felt certain practices were too extreme, or not extreme enough". It was a significant insight, he says: "It meant that the character I was playing could realistically feel that even as a Chasidic Jew raised entirely in that world, that maybe religion is not right for him."

It was important to the film-makers that Holy Rollers should feel grounded in reality and be sympathetic to the culture. Because too often, says Eisenberg, "Chasidic Jews in movies are used as a sight gag or caricatures, a joke in some way, and that was never our intention."

Asked if being with the group made him feel like he had missed out on anything as a secular Jew, Eisenberg admits there were moments when he "regretted not being more devout". But then he would come up against things which conflicted with some of his "feelings about gender roles and acceptance of other cultures", he says. "So even when I felt I was missing out on stuff, there would often be times where some of their comments would rub me the wrong way."

What also rubs him up the wrong way is being perceived as a fixture of popular culture. Though part of the movie business, he consciously avoids reading film magazines or stories about the industry, having realised early on that their treatment of film as a product made it harder for him to buy into the artifice of acting.

For him, the profession is more than just a job, it is a way of coping with life. He now sees that during childhood, "it was probably a way to focus whatever personal anxieties I had," he says candidly. "It was a way for me to direct it in a productive way rather than to just live with it and suppress it. That's certainly what it provides now. I have a catharsis every day in a safe and creative way, and that's a lot easier than holding something in."

As we finish, he reveals that he is about to work with Woody Allen in Rome on the veteran film-maker's next film. "I don't know anything about it as of yet, but I'm really interested in seeing him work."

One can only imagine the anxiety levels on that set.

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