Eisenberg’s movie magic
First Posted: 5/28/2013
If Jesse Eisenberg’s career as an actor ever fizzles out, he could always moonlight as a magician. Eisenberg spent months learning sleight of hand tricks in preparation for “Now You See Me,” his new movie opening May 31 in area theaters. Thanks to magic consultant David Kwong, the actor can manipulate coins and cards with the best of them.
“I stopped doing [magic tricks] when I left to go make another movie, but I didn’t lose the skills,” says Eisenberg proudly. “Now that I’ve been promoting ‘Now You See Me,’ I’ve been asked to do tricks like making a coin go suddenly from the top of my hand to [inside my fist]. It’s been fun because I still have the muscle memory.” Directed by action maestro Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter”), “Now You See Me” centers on a quartet of magicians called The Four Horsemen (Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) who are led by the charismatic illusionist Atlas (Eisenberg).
Over the course of the movie, the super-group of conjurers perform high-tech, high-profile magic shows that wind up funneling millions into audience members’ bank accounts. Needless to say, The Four Horsemen draw the attention of law enforcement, including an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and an Interpol detective (Melanie Laurent). Also playing a part in the action are a magician-turned-magic debunker (Morgan Freeman) and a billionaire (Michael Caine) who funds The Four Horsemen.
Eisenberg didn’t have much of an interest in magic when he joined the movie, but he was fascinated by the character of Atlas, an illusionist who uses the role of magician to navigate tricky social situations. Eisenberg is the first to admit that he sometimes uses acting in much the same way. “Acting is so cathartic for me,” he says. “It’s healthy, I think, to deal with [emotions] within the context of a story.” If Eisenberg has a specialty, its playing very bright characters like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” or the confused teenager in “The Squid and the Whale,” who are continually tripping over their own neuroses.
While Atlas has his hang-ups, he’s also overflowing with charisma and self-assurance. “I couldn’t believe they asked me to play the most confident stage performer in the world,” says Eisenberg with a laugh. “At the time, I was doing a play, and I was having a lot of stage fright and anxiety, so when I read the script, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the perfect opportunity for me to play someone who loves performing, and I can live out the fantasy of enjoying that.’”
Finding the courage
Born in New York City, Eisenberg grew up in East Brunswick, N.J., in a family with at least two other performers. His mother worked for years as a birthday party clown, and his sister, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, enjoyed some success in commercials and movies when she was a youngster. (Jesse’s father worked at a hospital before becoming a college professor.)
Jesse initially got into acting thanks to his sister. “My sister was shy growing up, and my parents thought the local theater would be a good place for her to come out of her shell,” recalls the actor, 29. “So, I started performing in children’s theater with her.”
When he started elementary school, Jesse struggled to fit in with his classmates. He’d cry every day and once locked his mom in a closet at his school so she wouldn’t leave without him.
Acting turned out to be Eisenberg’s salvation. “Luckily, I have a job that allows me to emote, but not in a way that gets you kicked out of school. So I have a great job for someone who is overly emotional.”
Once he decided to go professional, he found success almost instantly, getting cast at 16 opposite Campbell Scott in “Roger Dodger,” a movie which found the actor receiving his first kiss from actress Jennifer Beals.
“Before I did ‘Roger Dodger,’ I was auditioning for commercials I never wanted to be in – or that they wanted me in,” admits Eisenberg. “But after I did the movie, I got sent good scripts and [acting] felt like a whole different experience. If it hadn’t been for ‘Roger Dodger,’ I don’t know if I would have pursued acting because it’s so competitive and unpredictable.”
Another turning point for Eisenberg was “The Squid and the Whale,” Noah Baumbach’s bittersweet look at the divorce of two academics (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney) from the perspective of their sons. “I loved ‘Squid and the Whale’ because it gave me such a great acting opportunity,” says Eisenberg. “In ‘Squid and the Whale,’ the character is different from the guy I played in ‘Roger Dodger,’ much more self-assured and a little arrogant. That allowed me to exercise a different part of myself. And the most varied characters I can do, the more interesting it is for me.”
Other career peaks for Eisenberg included “Zombieland” for Ruben Fleischer and “To Rome With Love” for Woody Allen (who directed Eisenberg’s favorite movie, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”).
In 2010, Eisenberg earned a Best Actor nomination for portraying Facebook gazillionaire Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.” The two didn’t meet until Zuckerberg climbed onstage with Eisenberg while the actor was hosting “Saturday Night Live.”
“We didn’t really talk afterwards,” says the actor. “It must have been a really strange thing for him to have a movie made about him and then meet the actor who played him, especially since the portrayal of him was not 100 percent flattering. I’m sure it was terribly uncomfortable for him. It was uncomfortable for me, and the movie wasn’t about me.”
The Oscars were another squirm-inducing experience for Eisenberg. “It’s all a bit terrifying,” he says. “And, essentially, you wait three hours to lose something… It’s not an exciting time. It was an honor, I guess, but very stressful.”
Keeping busy and finding rewards
With roles in upcoming movies like “The Double,” “Night Moves,” and “Rio 2,” it would seem as if Eisenberg has a full plate. But he always finds time to exercise his passion for writing. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and McSweeney’s, where he scribbles the column “Bream Gives Me Hiccups.” His humor essays have appeared in The New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar, and he created the wordplay website oneupme.com.
Eisenberg has also authored a pair of plays, both of which he starred in. “The Revisionist” with Vanessa Redgrave and “Asuncion” were produced at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
While Eisenberg expects to continue penning plays, he’s given up on writing for the movies.
“When I was 19 and 20, I had movie scripts optioned by companies in California, and then I’d fly out to have meetings and they’d ask me to make the characters more likeable,” he recalls. “Then I’d fly home and spend the next six months tailoring the script to a celebrity who’d wind up never reading it. “But when I started writing plays, I had the exact opposite reaction. When I’d meet with theater producers, they’d ask me to make the play more what it was instead of trying to appeal to a mass audience.
“[Playwriting and acting onstage] offer more rewards creatively, and by rewards I mean the personal experience you have feels better than doing a movie, which is usually [filmed] out of order, and comes out as something different a year or so later.”