Jesse Eisenberg and Richard Ayoade talk doubles and doppelgangers

Will Perkins

While Benedict Cumberbatch and “Based on a True Story” certainly seem to be the major themes at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, there’s also a festival trend involving movies about double lives, doubles, and doppelgangers.

One such film is director Denis Villeneuve’s TIFF offering “Enemy," starring Jake Gyllenhaal (and Jake Gyllenhaal). Another is actor/director Richard Ayoade’s dystopian black comedy “The Double," starring Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”), Jesse Eisenberg (“Zombieland”), and Mia Wasikowska.

“The Double” follows a meek office drone named Simon James whose personal and professional life are thrown into chaos when his exact double – the extroverted James Simon – starts working in the same office. Simon and James (who are both played by Eisenberg in the film) are essentially the yin and yang of one person. Eisenberg displays an impressive range playing both roles, but said that the latter character was much more of a challenge to play.

“Getting into James was initially difficult,” Eisenberg admitted to a small group of reporters at TIFF. “The first few scenes we did with James, I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing because I didn’t feel the essence of him. Whereas with Simon I always felt the essence – he’s real and he’s a sad person.”

Eisenberg, who seemed to be inhabiting his shy and awkward “Double” character for most of the interview, said that things soon began to fall in place the more he played both characters.

“I started to realize that [James] could exist in whatever way was most inconvenient for the other character. That even means he could be effeminate in one scene if that’s charming to the people that Simon is trying to charm, or an alpha male in another scene where Simon is trying to accomplish something that would be best accomplished by an alpha male. That became the rule and that worked well.”

Added director Richard Ayoade: “It was like the worst thing that could happen to Simon always would and James would embody it. In one sense all the characters in a story – whether it’s ‘Star Wars’ or anything – are all just various aspects of one person competing and then they’re united in some way.”

Ayoade said he thinks the appeal of movies about doppelgangers lies in our own desire to relive our past and do things differently.

“All I do in my life is replay situations in my head – how could I have been less charming or whatever?” the “I.T. Crowd” star joked. “I think it’s very human to imagine different sides to yourself.”

Imagining different sides to yourself is one thing, but, as both Eisenberg and Ayoade found out, actually conveying that on film in an effective way is something else entirely.

“The technical aspects of it were relatively simple,” Ayoade said. “On a traditional level, split-screen technology has been around since Laurel & Hardy and Georges Méliès. Now, motion control is very sophisticated, if slightly laborious.”

Unsurprisingly, the difficult part turned out to be forcing Eisenberg to act opposite himself.

“It’s extremely hard for an actor to do well,” the filmmaker said. “The hardest thing is the audio side of it, to actually make it sound as though someone is speaking to someone else -- you often have this weird millisecond gap between the two people speaking that gives it an oddness.”

Thankfully, Eisenberg (and Eisenberg) was the right guy (or guys?) for the job.

“It takes an alarming amount of skill to do it well and do it naturally. There aren’t many actors who are technically as good and also emotionally realistic at the same time,” Ayoade said of his lead actor(s). “We asked Jesse and there was really no one else.”

The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival runs until Sept. 15.

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