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Exclusive Interview: Jesse Eisenberg for "Zombieland"

By Paul Fischer Monday September 28th 2009 09:50AM
Jesse Eisenberg for "Zombieland"

One of Hollywood’s most interesting young actors, New York native Jesse Eisenberg has appeared in some of the most diverse films of recent years. Eisenberg was born in Bayside, Queens, at the edge of New York City. His parents moved their family to New Jersey when Eisenberg was 16. It was there around this time that Eisenberg won a spot as a member of the popular youth singing group, The Broadway Kids.

For Eisenberg, 1999 proved an important year professionally, as it was then that he appeared in the Fox dramedy "Get Real" (1999-2000). Eisenberg's next professional breakthrough came with his starring role in "Roger Dodger" (2002), an independent comedy about a teenager who turns to his "ladies' man" uncle in New York City for help chatting up women and losing his virginity.

Following "Roger Dodger," Eisenberg moved into roles in larger studio films, with the trade-off being, smaller, supporting roles. Eisenberg took another professional step with his work in both "The Emperor's Club" (2002) and the M. Night Shyamalan feature, "The Village" (2004). However, it was Eisenberg's return to a New York-based, dark indie comedy that became his biggest role to date. Though Eisenberg eventually received good reviews and much attention for his role in "The Squid and the Whale" (2005), his earlier success in "Roger Dodger" nearly prevented his casting in the latter film.

Writer-Director Noah Baumbach (on whom Eisenberg's Walt Berkman character was loosely based) sought a less popular actor for the role, but during the many years it took to find funding for the film, Eisenberg won over Baumbach during numerous casting sessions. The film also afforded the young up-and-comer the chance to work opposite accomplished actors Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, as well as advise his child co-star Owen Kline, son of actor Kevin Kline, who had also starred in "The Emperor's Club." Eisenberg went on to make his usual dark comedy stamp in "The Living Wake" and Bob Odenkirk's "The F*ck Up," in 2006.

In the zombie comedy "Zombieland", Eisenberg stars opposite Woody Harrelson playing a survivor in zombie ravaged America whose ordered and rule-obsessed life is challenged on a road trip he shares with Harrelson’s more trigger happy character. The actor spoke to PAUL FISCHER in this exclusive interview.

Question: When you read this script for Zombieland, how surprised were you by the comedy?

Eisenberg: I was surprised by the whole thing. I think Woody Harrelson and I have, like, a serious experience in that. We saw the title, and – you know, didn't crack it open for about two weeks, because as an actor, you don’t think, like, a zombie movie – you know, just judging from the title, is going to have characters as rich as the film did and comedy that’s as clever as it is in the movie, not pandering. And so when I read it, I was shocked, really from page one, that the comedy was as clever and as witty as it was. And that – you know, even more significantly for me, that the characters were as well-rounded as they were, and that even the dramatic moments felt authentic, and not forced, because that’s rare in any kind of movie. But I think especially in a movie which is like – you know, a zombie comedy.

Question: You clearly have some of the best lines – they’ve given you some of the best lines in this. And I’m just wondering, how much was on the page, and how much did you improvise?

Eisenberg: The director, Ruben, let us improvise a lot. And – you know, having said that, the script was fantastic, and it kind of established the characters, as well as create dialogue. And then when we were there, because we were filming on digital video camera as opposed to film that lets you improvise a lot, because you’re not kind of wasting film. So, he let us improvise a lot. And I was really thrilled to. I’m not – you know, I’m watching a movie. It’s kind of almost hard to remember what was rewritten on the day, and what was made up on the spot, and what was written from the original script, because we did so much – they filmed so much, because of the nature of the video. But Woody’s, like, an amazing improviser, and the director was really encouraging of it.

Question: Did you and Woody establish some kind of a rapport before you started filming because the entire movie is based and built upon the on-screen relationship. So, do you design any kind of relationship before you begin filming, or is it just, bang, off you go?

Eisenberg: Not really, but he was cast before me, obviously. I mean, he didn't have to audition. I auditioned several times. But when – my final audition was with him. So I think less kind of working to establish something – I think they just wanted the – tried to cast the actor that felt like the most – had the best, maybe, chemistry with him, or something. Because it is, you know, integral to the movie. So my final audition was with him, and I kind of knew that if it didn't go well, then I would not get into the movie. So, you know, the ball is really in his court.

Question: You play a character whose life is based on dozens of rules, and has a very ordered life in order to survive this experience. Could you identify at all with that aspect of the character, in your own attitude to life?

Eisenberg: Yeah. I mean – you know, my character in the movie’s created this crazy system of rules in order to survive in a world overtaken by zombies. And – you know, of course, I don’t have the same – I don’t have the same circumstances in my life. But I – yes, I’m on medicine for all sorts of compulsive disorders.

Question: Why do you think Hollywood has become so interested in these sort of post-apocalyptic world that is inhabited by a number of movies that are coming out over the next three to six months?

Eisenberg: I don't know. I mean, luckily I’m not in a position to evaluate trends. But – it seems like – I don’t know. Maybe it’s cheaper, because you don’t have to have as many actors, because everybody else is dead. But I don't know. I mean, yeah, you’re right. But I don’t understand, really, the trend, and I don’t see any movies, so I’m not really aware of what they’re presenting.

Question: You don’t see movies? Why?

Eisenberg: I just really don’t like to go to them. I mean, I live in New York City where there’s so many other things to do. And then just being in movies, it just makes me self-conscious to go see them all the time. And then – you know, just feeling like – I don't know, the experience makes me uncomfortable, so we really never go. And – but in terms of, like, post-apocalypse – I mean, you know, like, in Zombieland, it’s such an interesting kind of environment. You know, we got to, like – the characters get to break into mansions, and go to theme parks that no one’s on. So, you know, in this post-apocalyptic world, it lets you do – it just opens up the film’s environment for such amazing possibilities.

Question: The Bill Murray sequence is possibly one of the most outrageous and funniest moments in the film.

Eisenberg: Yeah.

Question: When you were cast, did you know that they were going to do that, and that he was going to be in the movie?

Eisenberg: Wait, they told me that I’m not allowed to, like, mention –

Question: Oh, we’re not talking about that cameo? Okay. I mean, off the record, how much fun was it to work with him? Let me rephrase it. How much fun was it to work with the actor who has a surprise cameo in this movie?

Eisenberg: Did probably two days, a day and a half maybe.

Question: Was it a lot of fun? Was it a lot of fun for you to do that?

Eisenberg: Yeah, because – I mean, that actor, may he not be named, is a – yeah, is like, obviously – well, like, an amazing comedic actor. And again, with the nature of, like, the improvisation that we were able to do in this movie, like – it was just – you know, almost impossible to do the scenes, they’re so funny.

Question: I mean, I’m not gonna mention this in the article. But, when – is it you or Woody, I can't remember which one, asks him if he has any regrets, and he says, Garfield, I just completely – I cracked up.

Eisenberg: Yeah.

Question: It was just brilliant. Brilliant stuff.

Eisenberg: Yeah. That plays – that jokes plays well at the premiere last night, where it’s all industry people. And then, like –

Question: I’m sure, yeah.

Eisenberg: In some places, people are probably not gonna have any idea what that means.

Question: You are incredibly busy, for someone who doesn't like to go to the movies. So let me ask about a couple of things that you’ve finished, which sound very interesting. Holy Rollers. Now, this is about an Orthodox Jew who becomes a drug dealer?

Eisenberg: Yeah. I play a young Hasidic man who’s about to get married, and then the marriage falls apart, so he actually falls into the world of, like, being an ecstasy courier. It’s based on a true story. I mean, it’s not like – you know, aggrandized, or anything.

Question: And is that you? Are you playing that character?

Eisenberg: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Question: And how tricky was it for you to enter into the world of Hasidic Judaism?

Eisenberg: Oh, it’s great. You know, I mean living in New York, I’ve always been, like, surrounded by it, but never really been involved or infiltrated it. And then –there was a wealth of research to be done. And it was all right there on the subway.

Question: Oh, so you didn't actually go and talk to any members of the community.

Eisenberg: Oh, for months. Yeah.

Question: And were they very willing to talk to you?

Eisenberg: Oh, yeah, some people were standoffish, but there are – there was a sect of Hasidic Jews that kind of try to recruit secular Jews. And so they love talking to people like me.

Question: That movie sounds really cool.

Eisenberg: Yeah. It’s really good. Hopefully, it will come out. It’s a small movie, so hopefully it will get distribution and everything, and come out in ten years or something.

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