The nervous, nerdy world of Jesse Eisenberg

Jesse Eisenberg as Josh in Night Moves
Jesse Eisenberg as Josh in Night Moves
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You want shy, nervous, nerdy or weird? Jesse Eisenberg’s career is scattered with interpretations of anguished young men. 
He spoke to Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.

Jesse Eisenberg was 27 when he bagged an Academy Award nomination as Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network. It was a perfect role – the plum role – for an actor who is in the vanguard of those thesps who make awkwardness their forte.

Eco-warrior Josh in Night Moves is a million miles from the fast-talking Zuckerberg. He abhors big business and the corporate monsters that stalk the corridors of American industry. Yet he’s cut from the same cloth: driven, self-defined and utterly committed.

“The character I play is really a mystery, even to himself,” muses Eisenberg. “I think he’s driven by a lot of conflicting feelings that he doesn’t fully understand.

“He feels that the way the world is set up is totally wrong and so he views his actions as righteous. And because he has so much rage he has trouble interacting with anybody who feels at all differently than him.”

Night Moves is the story of three environmental activists who plot to destroy a dam. Dena is a rich kid from Connecticut who surreptitiously uses her father’s money to bankroll the mission. Harmon is an Iraq War veteran with the knowledge to create a bomb using fertiliser. Then there is Josh.

“Even though they share a similar sentiment to Josh he thinks they’re not as serious as him for a variety of reasons,” explains Eisenberg. Dena is a rich girl and the vet is this irresponsible, lazy guy who’s in it for the ride. My character views his co-conspirators as really despicable.”

Night Moves was a film that almost crashed at the first hurdle. Scripted by rising indie writer/director Kelly Reichardt it was a hotly anticipated project that attracted the talents of Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning (as Dena) and Peter Sarsgaard (as Harmon).

It ran into problems when the producers of another movie claimed the story mirrored theirs rather too closely.

The Monkey Wrench Gang, in production by the same team that had made American Psycho, also focused on eco-terrorists. The 1975 book, by Edward Abbey, told of a band of misfits attempting to destroy a dam with home-made explosives.

The two rival projects went head-to-head in the autumn of 2012. As of 2014 only Night Moves has emerged; The Monkey Wrench Gang is said to be “in development”.

Reichardt’s film brought together three fine actors and presented Eisenberg with an opportunity to watch contemporaries up close and to bounce off them.

This, after all, is a young man who has rubbed shoulders with the disparate talents of Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. But he blew it.

“I really like the other two actors but I had a really strange experience of not looking at them at all in the movie because my character doesn’t look at them,” recalls Eisenberg.

“He can’t even make eye contact because he’s so disgusted with them. So I had the opportunity to work with these great actors and part of that is getting to watch them but I didn’t have that with this. At the end of the day I realised I had not seen them at all.

“It’s not the kind of thing you plan on doing as an actor but it kind of manifests naturally when you’re interacting.

“You know who your character is [and] when you’re immersed in it you do things like not making eye contact with your fellow actors. It was right for the scene but unfortunate for my own entertainment.”

The film industry is rife with stories of lowly crew members being ordered not to stray into a star’s sightline. Perhaps the most infamous of the lot is Christian Bale’s meltdown – caught and recorded – when the film’s director of photography strayed into his vision during an intense scene on Terminator: Salvation. Eisenberg did it in reverse.

He denies it’s a Method thing or that he spent time cooking up a character tic that would mark him out from his fellows.

“I never really think about how something is looking because often you’re just wrong. If you try to act backwards – thinking about how something appears – it would not be a successful venture.

“So the only safe way to do anything like that is to try to experience what the character is experiencing, not in a psychopathic way where you actually think you’re there in this field planning an attack on a dam but experiencing the loneliness of the anger.

“Kelly Reichardt, the director, allows the actors to have a lot of time to do every scene. It doesn’t feel like a lot of movies where you’re running to a green screen and pointing at something green. This was a more authentic experience.”

Authentic or not Eisenberg will soon be seen as the young Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams.

He’s an interesting, edgy young man who will bring that aspect to Lex Luthor. 
But one wonders what 
drew him to a comic-strip movie.

Then again, everyone is at it. Something like Night Moves had its own attractions.

“When I first read the script for Night Moves I was really intrigued by this guy. He’s led by a rage and dogmatism that leads him to do some pretty extreme things.

“It’s a political and social issue that I was not fully aware of, so it was interesting to learn about environmental activism in the world and how people view different actions as options.

“Some people like to work on a farm because that’s the slower, harmless way to be an environmental activist.

“Maybe other people choose actions like my character does, which is to bomb a 
dam.

“Obviously it’s not harmless but it sends a bigger message.”

Night Moves is on nationwide release.