Jesse Eisenberg Talks Alt Rock, Twitter and His Directorial Debut
His punchy dramedy "When You Finish Saving the World" hits theaters this Friday
The star of The Social Network, Zombieland and Fleishman Is in Trouble is now on the other side of the lens.
Jesse Eisenberg makes his directorial debut this month with a new film called When You Finish Saving The World, out in theaters on January 20th. The film stars Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard as a mother-and-son duo (Evelyn and Ziggy Katz) and spends 88 minutes unpacking generational differences, social media narcissism and the behemoth we know as political art.
Ziggy is a social media rock star who plays guitar in his bedroom (part of his music is informed by the influential alternative rock band Ween, who were asked to score the film) and slightly echoes Eisenberg’s own breakthrough role as an angsty teen in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, from 2005. Meanwhile, Evelyn runs a shelter for domestic abuse survivors, with Eisenberg paying homage to his late mother-in-law, who founded and ran a domestic violence shelter in Bloomington, Indiana, called the Middle Way House. He wonders how she would have responded to a narcissistic child, who would’ve been at odds with her own selfless efforts.
“The bigger question I wanted to look at is how do we get along with loved ones who have completely different values?” says Eisenberg in the film’s press notes. “I started contemplating the mindset of a woman who in every moment of her day tries to put others first, only to see her son becoming the kind of person she always considered to be, frankly, shallow.”
The project started out as an audio drama about the Katz family, which Eisenberg created for Audible, but was picked up by A24 for film production in the summer of 2020. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival last winter. The film is co-produced by Emma Stone and her husband, Dave McCary, as well as Ali Herting, who works at Stone and McCarty’s production company, Fruit Tree.
We sat down with Eisenberg to discuss his experience directing the film, his favorite band Ween and why he will never join social media.
InsideHook: Let’s talk about you as a storyteller, a writer and how you wrote this script. You’ve been a writer for quite some time, correct?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yes. The first script I wrote when I was 16 was about Woody Allen. It was set in modern times, but it was about him changing his name. I had sent it to anyone I could find an address for — this was before the internet. I heard back from his lawyer, who asked me to cease and desist all my activity in and around this particular project. I didn’t have an auspicious beginning as a writer, at least legally. Ever since, I’ve written everything within the bounds of the law.
And you ended up working with Woody Allen on two films later on, Café Society and To Rome With Love.
Yes, it was only when we were doing a press conference that somebody mentioned ‘Did you know you were suing him [Jesse Eisenberg] 10 years ago?’ and he didn’t know, remember or care.
Would you write another book?
This film started as an audio book, because I wanted to write a book from the perspective of a dad who was having trouble emotionally connecting with his newborn son. I wrote it first as a novel, but then I met these amazing people at Audible who had seen my plays and asked if I could do anything that worked for them, and I said ‘Yes, I’m struggling through the beginning of this book, it would be something better in audio form, because it’s essentially a monologue of this guy.’ I put out a book of my short stories five years ago [Bream Gives Me Hiccups: And Other Stories]. I try to do work in many mediums because I don’t excel in any one of them. I’m not trying to be humble; I just stay fresh and interested.
This is your directorial debut, what did you learn about being on this side of the camera?
The biggest revelations I had were just about acting. When I’ve been on movie sets for 20 years, I’m in a real bubble. I’m thinking about my role, the emotional state my character is supposed to be in, I’m trying to keep myself from being isolated from the process, from thinking about the movie in a macro way. I’m trying to just focus on my character. But with this movie, I just saw Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard doing that all day. My heart opened to them. I became so grateful to the emotional sacrifice you make when you put yourself in a publicly vulnerable position. It made me appreciate what I do as an actor in a different way. It takes a lot of effort and bravery to put yourself out in a publicly emotional way. Without being an exhibitionist. It gave me a newfound comfort with my own work as an actor.
Is this film partly a tribute to your late mother-in-law who founded the Middle Way House in Bloomington, Indiana?
For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been volunteering with my mother-in-law’s shelter. It gave me insight into the vital work these places do. I was trying to conceive a character who has such a strong, strict sense of ethics. Having a son who is a shallow musician is her worst nightmare. When I think about people who work in social services and give themselves over to a cause I drew a lot around the work she and her colleagues did at this shelter in Indiana. It was a jumping off point. My goal as a writer is to write about the thing I know the most. Ideally, things not many people know about, so it feels unique and personal.
There is a stark contrast between this selfless mom Evelyn and her selfish son, Ziggy. I hate to pigeonhole everyone on social media as a narcissist because some people are there to help others. But you’re an outsider because you’re not on social media. What’s your perspective as an outsider?
Just that I was fascinated by this strange, ironic modern phenomenon where you can be very popular with people you’ll never meet. You have Ziggy with over 20,000 fans everywhere from Belarus to Bangladesh, and he’ll never meet them. It gives him a sense of importance and value, his fanbase adores him. On the other hand, it makes him feel empty. He walks out of his bedroom recording studio, and nobody appreciates him. He goes to school; nobody thinks he’s cool—they think he’s an obnoxious braggart. His parents think his music is shallow. It’s a strange dichotomy that can only exist now. You can be popular online and never meet the people that love you.
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How do you feel about Instagram in general? As you’re not on it.
I feel uncomfortable with social media, exclusively because my life has been invaded by my own public pursuits. I’ve chosen to be in the public eye. Every time I step onto a set, I’m making a choice to put my face out there. I’m not blaming anyone but myself but the strange byproduct of doing what I do is that my privacy is further limited. I’m not on those social media platforms, it feels like a furthering extension of what I try to avoid. If I wasn’t a known actor, I would probably enjoy posting jokes on Twitter.
You say in the press notes of the film: “It’s really the battle of art versus social justice, which I see as an unresolvable conflict in my own life.” Why?
It’s probably the thing I think about more than anything. My wife is an activist, my parents are teachers, and so is my best friend. The people around me do work that’s more socially beneficial. I think about that all the time. Oftentimes art that wears its politics on its sleeves can often turn people away because it feels preachy and creates a backlash. How do you create something that doesn’t make people feel they’re being condescended to, that’s sanctimonious? I was basically trying to personify a debate that’s in my mind. I walk with my wife down the street to where she’s created a disability justice program in New York City and people stop me on the street and want to take pictures with me. It feels strange. I’m so envious of her and the work she does. And yet, I’m the one who gets the outside attention. I’m a self-conscious person and it churns in my mind often in a way that’s uncomfortable. It’s my version of a debate whirling in my head.
Are you still a fan of Ween?
Yes, of course. Are you a fan of Ween?
Yeah, I always end up dating guys who love Ween, so there’s always pressure to research the band so I can get on their good side [laughs].
That’s so funny. There’s a certain type of person you are. Did you discover that by chance?
They’ve been around since high school, so yeah.
Want to know something funny? My wife’s previous long-term partner before me is the other Ween-obsessive fan I know, and he made a music video of her in college to the Ween song, Buenas Tardes Amigo. It’s just my wife walking around Indiana. When she met me , she was like ‘oh God.’
Not another Ween fan!
With Ziggy, I’m already thinking of Ziggy Stardust, but was there any kind of Ween influence in creating Ziggy?
To be honest, before I had this genius composer, Emile Mosseri, who is one of the greatest composers (he has only done five films but they’re all astounding soundtracks). The only other person I asked to do the music for the movie is Ween. They couldn’t do it for a series of reasons. So, not only did I want some of their style, I wanted them to do it. To answer your very specific and astute question, yes, there’s all these homemade instruments we use in the movie and the majority of the score is from this footlong Casio keyboard from the 1990s. It’s because of Ween — they use such unusual instrumentation and such grating instruments that are work to hear and enjoy. I love that stuff.
What makes you a typical New Yorker?
Probably my posture, the speed at which I talk, well I don’t know…my dad is a typical New Yorker, and he speaks slowly and stands up straight. I don’t know. I guess because I live here.
How do you feel about turning 40 this year?
I’ve been 80 since I was 12. It’s a meaningless turning point. When I’m 80, I’ll be happy because it will match the personality I’ve been cultivating since I’ve been really young.
Who is your favorite writer?
Goodness gracious. In terms of all time greats, probably Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth. They have expansive minds and prolific careers, and unusual approaches during the times they were writing. The book I just finished was about the Rwandan Genocide, by Philip Gourevitch. I’m into historical stuff.
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