Jesse Eisenberg. Photography by Jill Greenberg, jillgreenberg.com. Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at alreadymade.org.

Jesse Eisenberg opens up: "I think of myself as a basic, unremarkable person"

Salon talks to "The Hummingbird Project" star about OCD, "Zombieland" and why we're due for a mime revival


Mary Elizabeth Williams
March 14, 2019 7:00PM (UTC)

Jesse Eisenberg is aware that he is a Jesse Eisenberg type. The 35-year-old Oscar-nominated actor has built a career as a nervous guy with a mile-a-minute mind, whether that guy is Mark Zuckerberg or Lex Luthor. Yet he is also a prolific author and playwright, an activist and family man. And for writer-director Kim Nguyen's new movie "The Hummingbird Project," he seemed at first the right guy for the role of Anton, a bespectacled coding genius who can break a transaction down to a fraction of a second. Instead, he opted for the role of Anton's cousin Vincent, a character he's described as the film's "dumber hustler.” (Anton, meanwhile, is played by an unrecognizable Alexander Skarskard.)

Set in the world of high frequency trading, the movie is a thriller, a family drama and a pitch black comedy.  Eisenberg joined us recently to talk about Wall Street, mental health and . . . mime.

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I did not know about high frequency trading. I did not know that was a real thing. It sounds like it's out of science fiction. Not only that, but this movie takes place in about 2012. This is not futuristic, this is the past.

It's just the strangest thing. Like most people, I don't think you know anything about it, which makes it that much scarier once you realize that people are doing this crazy stuff to beat the stock market by a millisecond.

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The characters in this movie are digging a tunnel from Kansas to New Jersey to pass information on the stock market quicker than anybody else. It sounds like this complicated thing, but actually it is really just literally digging a hole across the country. People actually did this. It cost about a half a billion dollars to do this real thing. They dug through mountains, they dug under people's houses, to just pass a cable underneath to beat the stock market by a millisecond. Then, of course, if you're quicker than everybody on Wall Street, you can make billions of dollars. That's the idea and that's what they did. It's crazy to think of the absurd lengths people go to in the name of avarice.

A character in the movie describes it by saying, "Oh, so you're like the scalpers who jump ahead of the queue on Ticketmaster."

Exactly. It's like that. And very successful. They've made a lot of money doing this. The people that did this, after they built this line — which they did in secret, of course, because you don't want to let anyone know that you're doing this — then they kind of end up extorting companies. Because if you don't use our line, then you're going to be a half a millisecond behind us. It's brilliant in a way. But also, at the end of the day, what are you actually doing or providing? There's no service that you're providing except competing for money.

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All of this effort, all of this work, all of this time. And that's where the title of the film comes from, as well.

That's right, because they call the project of digging this line the Hummingbird Project because they're trying to pass the information at the speed of a hummingbird's wing flap. If you've seen hummingbirds, they flap like 1,000 times a minute. They're trying to pass this information that quickly, so that's what they call their project. Of course there's an added irony to it because they're destroying nature in the process of doing this. They're digging through mountains, they're destroying people's houses. It's just crazy. Then you think, "God, people do this stuff all the time and no one knows about it."

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It was really reminding me, in a strange way, of "The Handmaid's Tale," because Margaret Atwood has said that everything in "The Handmaid's Tale" is real, is something that has already happened. Then you put it together and you have a dystopia. It's the same with this movie. It's all real, and then you put the elements together into this fictional story, and it beggars belief.

The characters are second generation Russian immigrants. I think they feel a little bit like outsiders, and they feel like the establishment is against them. They're heroes in a way because they're fighting against the establishment, but the thing that they're doing is this meaningless, greedy project, and they're lying to people. But they're heroes in the sense that they're kind of going against the establishment. Salma Hayek works at this ruthless company, and this big conglomerate, and they're trying to sidestep it.

She seems like she's having the time of her life.

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I think she loved playing the role. She plays this cutthroat trader and CEO. She just had a great time. Also, she's one of these people that transcends acting, and is this iconic figure in society. That's to the movie's advantage because there's a presence that she brings that is helpful to establish that character.

You're sticking it to the man. And she's the man. I read an interview you did in the Irish press where you said that you had been sent both the role that you took, which is Vincent, and his cousin, Anton, who is now played in this film by Alexander Skarsgard. What made you choose Vincent?

I thought there was something really sweet about him because he's aggressive and he's a cheat and he's a liar. If given the opportunity any time I'd like to play characters like that. You challenge yourself to kind of figure out how to understand and sympathize with these people that are maybe not honorable in society. This is an interesting acting challenge. But, also, halfway through the movie you realize he's actually dealing with something far more existentially threatening to him than just this project. So it just felt like such an exciting character.

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He and I come from the same place in the world, Russian Jewish immigrants. I don't really feel comfortable in certain country club, so to speak, culture. In a way it makes you work harder. I guess you get more desperate and it inspires you to be creative.

Your character has an observation late in the film where he talks about time. This is a film that is very much about time, and about our perception of it.

That's something that your character is really exploring throughout it, and his relationship with time changes. These microseconds. And then there are these characters who are Amish, so they're living in the present, but they're also living in the past. It feels like it all comes together into this interesting meditation.

One of the realizations my character has is if you only had a millisecond to live, would you still experience it like a full life? In the same way that we now live to 80 years old in this country, which we're lucky for. Previous generations lived a lot less. But would they consider themselves not having a full life because they lived half as long as people in the future?

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My character, who's dealing with his own existential crisis, has this revelation about time. It's just so beautiful, especially because the movie is about Wall Street and it's a fast paced, kind of thriller. But it's really this meditation on what is important and about how we spend our time.

It seems you tend to be drawn to these characters who are a little morally ambiguous. In your real life you're really socially aware, you really care about social justice. Is there something where you maybe get to play out a little other side of the world that you're curious about? Because this is a film about terribly greedy people doing morally objectionable things.

That's probably very true. You get to act out the things that you would never want to do in real life. But I think there's probably another element to it, which is that if you kind of present characters in a morality tale, that are immoral, it signals to an audience a set of values that maybe they should live by.

For example, if my character, who is very greedy in this movie, succeeds, then what the audience would be taking away is that, well, greed is a positive thing and we should try to make as much money as possible. What happens in this movie is that these characters don't succeed, and I don't want to give away why. These characters don't exactly succeed and so the message of the movie is more nuanced, and I would say it's a good morality tale.

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When I write plays, I normally play characters that are bigoted and selfish, but the message of the plays are never that, of course. The message of these plays is these people are in society. What is driving them, and how can society function with the people that are horrible? How can we deal with them, and what is driving those people? So we can better understand what's driving somebody who, on the surface, appears like a horrible person.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the whole "cancel culture" and these superficial readings of characters. Debate is going on now about the objectionable presence of characters who are morally ambiguous. This is a story as old as fairytales and fables.

If you have a morality play — which in a way "The Hummingbird Project" is, as the characters are dealing with major themes and making big life decisions — the context that surrounds these immoral characters leads to a moral message, of course.

It's also very funny. It's a really funny, absurd, over the top, physical comedy.

You have these Wall Street guys basically trekking through swamps, blasting through mountains, so it's just naturally a fish out of water, funny scenario. My character grew up in Brooklyn, and then he's in the Midwest talking to these people that he feels totally foreign to. Then physically digging through stuff with tractors. These are people from Wall Street. It shows that the tentacles of Wall Street extend far beyond downtown Manhattan.

I know you said that you chose the role of Vincent because it was a little more out of the box for you, and yet, I read a review of a film recently and it described one of the characters as "a Jesse Eisenberg type."

What would a Jesse Eisenberg type mean? Now you have this long body of work, you have a really varied career, you played so many different characters. Yet if somebody says, “Well, that's a Jesse Eisenberg type character . . .” You must hear that in Hollywood.

It's interesting. I don't think anybody can possibly perceive themselves in the way that they're perceived by others. You'd have to have some amazing objectivity to think of yourself the way that other people think of you. I think of myself as a basic, unremarkable person, but other people view me through the context of whatever they grew up with. Maybe they think I speak in a fast way, for example. I've heard that. But the family I come from, I'm one of the slow ones. In my context, I'm an unremarkable person, but I guess to other people, or maybe to a large group of people, I seem unusual in some ways. No one feels like they're an unusual person unless they're actively trying to be eccentric, which people do, but I don't.

If you live in New York, we're all trying to be eccentric here.

Yeah, I know, but that's why I moved to the Midwest.

Speaking of prototypical Jesse Eisenberg characters, we've got a big movie coming out later this year. Ten years later, we're going back to "Zombieland." This is the little movie that could.

I don't think anyone would've thought, when it came out in 2009, that we would be here now. This is really exciting. How did this all come together, and what is it like now a decade later? You are in your 30s, you are a dad, you are a different guy in a lot of ways, I assume.

Yes. Strange to see everybody back. It's the same cast, of course.The biggest change is Abigail Breslin, who was a 12-year-old girl in the first "Zombieland," is now a 22-year-old woman, and still obviously an amazing actress but just a different person. That was very unusual, and she's still wonderful.

The movie was a cult hit, as well as a popular movie. It was beloved by people. So they wanted to do a sequel, but the actors never thought the script was right, and the director never thought they got it exactly right. There must have been ten scripts. Finally, they wrote one that we all thought was great.

And then you have to line up the schedules of all of these in-demand, Oscar-winning, Oscar-nominated, very successful, busy actors.

The truth is, everybody loved it. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick wrote "Deadpool" as well. They're really clever, fresh writers. Fresh ideas and everything, and original scenarios, but they write with real heart. It was an unusual movie in that it was a zombie comedy, but it felt like my mother would love it too. It's about these sweet themes that the characters are trying to build a family, and their sensitivity to it. I think it was an unusual way to tell that kind of story.

But now it's in the context of this story that has really become a part of pop culture, that is so beloved. You're probably hearing a lot from people over the past decade about how much this movie means.

Even yesterday somebody said, “My dad bought the movie. He got the movie pirated, but we loved it so much that we went out as a family and bought it for real.”

That is the ultimate compliment as an actor, right? "I paid for your work."

Exactly, when I didn't have to.

I did like three movies that year, and you don't know what's going to be popular. You put the same effort into it. It's strange when something kind of becomes a cult. It's nice.

You're doing three movies this year. You've got this, you have "The Art of Self-Defense" coming out. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

It's really strange. It's brilliant. I mean, this guy who made this movie is just really brilliant. It's about a timid guy who decides to take karate to defend himself and then gets like lured into this cult of this karate world. The dialogue is brilliant. Just really funny. And in kind of a more macro way, it's really about absurd notions of masculinity and aspirations for masculinity and why we pursue forms of masculinity that are a lot of times not healthy. [The character] realizes actually there's far more danger in becoming the Alpha than there would be remaining a Beta.

Then you have this other film that you were working on in the fall. This is your first biopic since "The Social Network." You're playing Marcel Marceau, the very famous mime. But I did not know this side of his life at all. I grew up knowing who he was, and I have never heard this story.

He's probably the world's greatest mime. He's the mime we think of when you think of a mime. The white face, the striped shirt, this comes from him, or he's popularized it at least.

He popularized that kind of style and what we think of. But during World War II, he was living in France, and ended up saving about two hundred kids, taking them across the border into Switzerland, hiding from the Nazis. He didn't talk about it a lot.

Towards the end of his life he talked a little more about it. He took his art very seriously and he was doing an art that is on the fringes of mainstream culture. I think he probably wanted to be known for that more than some heroic story. Or maybe he was just a humble guy. It's hard to say exactly why he didn't talk about it that much.

It's a really special story, because through helping these kids and saving these kids, he discovered what he liked about his art. He really developed this mime through saving these kids. It's just an amazing story about how we can kind of use our creativity in the service of others.

Mime is such an easy sort of thing to take potshots at. To see him now and see his work in that context I think will give it a completely different sort of interpretation for a whole new generation.

I hope you're right. I think that's true. I think in the '80s and early '90s, mime became a punchline. I don't know exactly why. I've talked to my mime friends, and everybody kind of has a different origin story of what happened to their craft, of why it became kind of thought of as silly. I think it became a street mime culture, and I think that that maybe became annoying to people on the streets or something. This movie, it shows mime in this really beautiful way, and it shows how it helped these kids survive the war.

You have been so honest and transparent in your own experiences of mental health and talking about mental health awareness. I have written a lot about my own mental health issues, and my anxieties, and I have a very close family member who has OCD. You did a video about two years ago that really moved me so profoundly, where you had a conversation with your younger self about OCD.

Can you just talk a little bit about what moved you to do that and what your message is, because there are so many people out there who are living with OCD who don't even know it yet, who don't have a diagnosis, that's really, really so misunderstood.

I will say, though, it feels far less stigmatized than when I was a kid. I had terrible anxiety when I was a kid. I go to schools now and talk to kids, and it does seem there's a sensitivity around it that I didn't necessarily see when I was younger. What I said in the video, is that I would've told myself to try to find the value in that. That actually anxiety often times is associated with a sensitivity, it's associated with some kind of social insight. The problem a lot of times with it is you have these feelings, and then you blame yourself and punish yourself for feelings that are quite normal, and oftentimes can be useful in your life.

I read  something just today that said, "Anxiety disorders are when you have conspiracy theories about yourself."

Right, exactly, and then you punish yourself for having this conspiracy theory, so it ends up kind of like this cyclical pattern of torment.  

Emma Stone, who's in the "Zombieland" movies with me, she has worked with that organization you saw that video from. She's also very open about it. I think it's probably helpful for younger people to hear. It would've been helpful for me to hear that, too, from somebody older, who seems like me, but seems to also be kind of like functioning in society and doing well in a certain area. I guess that would be inspiring, so I'm glad I would do that.

I talk to people all the time. I write and act in plays, and I play characters with anxiety a lot of time. And people come after the show and tell me, “You've inspired me because I have anxiety and I read about it.” It never occurred when I say anything about it or writing these plays or anything that it's meaningful to people. But I think just kind of discussing it and maybe destigmatizing it in a way.

My friend wrote a beautiful piece about mental health after he lost his girlfriend to a suicide called "Sign My Cast," trying to describe the difference between if you break your arm, everybody signs your cast at school but if you have some kind of mental health issue, it's a private embarrassing thing. So he wrote this beautiful piece about trying to destigmatize mental health and have it be seen in the way that if a kid breaks his arm and he's a hero in school, he's dealing with something difficult. And we should look at somebody who's maybe dealing with anxiety in the same way. They're going through something, we should help them.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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