Jesse Eisenberg thinks fast and talks even faster, uncorking intense bursts of monologue that sound both well-considered and a little bit annoyed by the question — even though he now sympathizes more than ever with the person asking it.
The 31-year-old Oscar nominee has been giving interviews for more than a decade, his responses alternating between being somewhat contentious and open and forthcoming. Now, in director James Ponsoldt’s acclaimed biographical drama The End of the Tour (in theaters on Friday), Eisenberg is on the other end of the tape recorder, playing real-life Rolling Stone reporter and author David Lipsky.
In 1996, Lipsky spent five days on the road with acclaimed author David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel) at the tail end of the press tour for Infinite Jest, the mammoth Wallace novel immediately that was hailed a groundbreaking classic. Their time together was meant to produce a feature story for Rolling Stone — one that ultimately never ran. Instead, the transcripts sat unused, until Wallace committed suicide in 2008, at which point Lipsky and Wallace’s lengthy conversations were turned into 2009′s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. That book became the blueprint for The End of the Tour, which earned rave reviews at Sundance and gave Eisenberg a new perspective on the interview process.
“What I discovered are the kind of myriad, complicated motivations that people come into the room with,” Eisenberg told Yahoo Movies earlier this month. “My character is a writer who just had a book published. Then he goes to interview this guy who’s a writer who just had a book published. The scales are vastly different, but my character’s also thinking, ‘Why can’t this be me? What’s the difference?’ I think there’s this confluence of uncomfortable emotions: Competition, admiration, anxiety, and insecurity.”
To some degree, Eisenberg could relate with Wallace, having been catapulted to stardom by his Oscar-nominated role in The Social Network. But the actor doesn’t read stories about himself, even when he’s agreed to be participate in them.
“I did an interview before I read [The End of the Tour] script, and I immediately could tell that it was antagonistic, that I was going to be portrayed poorly,” he remembered. “I could tell right away. And I realized that no matter what I say, or how I say it, or no matter what I omit from the narrative, I would be portrayed poorly. When I called him out on it, he acknowledged it.
“A lot of times, that [journalist-subject] interaction is in conflict,” Eisenberg continued. “The interviewee is trying to protect him or herself, and the journalist is trying to get a good story. I’m not a controversial figure, so nothing I say here would be in conflict with what you want me to say. But I don’t read interviews with other people either because I’m aware of the way they’re put together and it makes me uncomfortable to read it and form an opinion that I know could be formed about me in a way that I think is not accurate. ”
In a bit of perfect (and unfortunate) timing, Eisenberg found himself caught in a small brouhaha shortly after his interview with Yahoo Movies. When discussing his visit to San Diego Comic-Con for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — in which the actor plays Lex Luthor — Eisenberg compared the experience of being screamed at by fans to “some kind of genocide,” generating the sort of minor outrage that follows any celebrity’s insensitive gaffe. He wound up apologizing for the comment soon after, stung by a ravenous internet media that was not even a threat to Wallace during that Infinite Jest press tour nearly two decades ago.
Eisenberg could also relate to Wallace as an author. While prepping for The End of the Tour, he was working on his new book, a collection of short stories called Bream Gives Me Hiccups. He says he cribbed a few of Wallace’s tendencies, including the author’s use of multi-layered footnotes, and his ability to take unexpected approaches (Eisenberg name-checked the famous story “Consider the Lobster,” a reported essay about a lobster bake that dwells on ethics and the nervous systems of the animals being boiled alive).
Eisenberg is more established as a playwright, with many of his plays being staged off Broadway; he’s starring in one right now, in fact, called The Spoils. And though he’s gaining more and more clout on the big screen — along with the DC movies, he’s the centerpiece of the growing Now You See Me series — Eisenberg would rather protect his writing by keeping it on a small scale than try to get his own movie produced.
“I wrote scripts when I was younger, like 19 or 20, that got optioned by companies, and it was the most infuriating process,” he said. “I’d spend 6 months changing it to appease some producer who had a deal at a movie studio, but no one actually wanted to make the thing better, everyone wanted to make it more accessible in some way. I don’t want to complain because I have it fine; other people have it worse. I think in writing, it wasn’t that bad for me, but it was really frustrating. And with plays, no one changes anything.”
It didn’t help that Eisenberg’s screenplays weren’t all that good.
“I wrote commercial comedies and gave them to [Mr. Show co-creator and Better Call Saul star] Bob Odenkirk, who I was friends with at 21,” Eisenberg explained, “and he told me that I should not do this for my life. He was like, ‘This is not what you want to do, you should write something personal. Don’t chase after this very difficult and illusive thing of trying to write these mainstream comedies. Write something personal. Explore yourself more.’”
So for now, Eisenberg will stick to acting in films, mixing up Oscar contenders like The End of the Tour with big-budget extravaganzas like Batman v Superman. He’s got a solid track record of taking on projects with at least some element of thoughtfulness, even the big ones, and he promises that his first superhero flick is no different.
“I read the script and it was such a wonderful character, so the decision was easy,” he said. “The danger of being in a thing like that is that the character’s not good, but that was the opposite case in this. I imagine the guy playing Superman, he’s in front of a green screen for a lot of it, doing the detailed action scenes. I just didn’t have those as much, so for me it felt like I was in a character drama, though it’s on a bigger scale, I suppose.”
One gets the sense that Eisenberg isn’t all that worried about whether the film satisfies fans’ expectations, or whether or not he becomes part of a long-running blockbuster franchise that makes him recognizable around the world. One of Wallace’s contentions is that no matter how much success one achieves, it’s hard to feel any satisfaction. With that in mind, Eisenberg says that he’s doing his best to keeping his eye on creativity, not competition.
"I imagine you could either choose to have a life where you experience jealousies and rage and insecurities,” he suggested, “or you can have a life where you appreciate the things you do, and have that kind of hopefully be the ultimate goal.”