The last time Jesse Eisenberg punched a guy was in Grade 2.
“It was around that age, yeah,” recalls the Social Network Oscar nominee during a call to the Georgia Straight from Montreal. “And then I have avoided conflict ever since.”
Comporting with the image you probably carry in your head, Eisenberg further explains that it all began with a gentlemen’s agreement to simply experience the mano a mano violence of a good schoolyard scrap.
“Because everybody else was fighting, I think we just decided to try it but in a more controlled setting. That’s why people probably take karate in the first place: you have a controlled setting, a controlled version of aggression.”
It’s also why, arguably, people take up acting. In any case, Eisenberg brings both kinds of chops to the big screen—karate and comic—when The Art of Self-Defense opens in Vancouver next Friday (July 19).
It’s hard to imagine a better fit for the 36-year-old actor’s neurotic intelligence. He plays Casey, a painfully timid office accountant so traumatized by a gang beating that he enrolls in a martial-arts studio run by a fascistic guru known as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).
After telling him to learn German and acquire a manlier dog than his toy dachshund, Sensei fast-tracks Casey into his forebodingly mysterious night school, whereupon the film doubles down on its deadpan weirdness—and its prescience.
“We filmed it in 2017 when the news stories about Harvey Weinstein came out,” Eisenberg says. “And it was very interesting to read about somebody in our field and go to work and be making a movie about this kind of secretive, cultlike karate class that is misogynistic and violent and aggressive and promotes strange and dangerous forms of masculinity. So the movie has since become an accidental commentary on an important conversation that people are having now. But I don’t think it was intended that way. Certainly when [director Riley Stearns] was writing it in 2015, it wasn’t part of the dialogue.”
It’s tempting to wonder, had he sat on the idea for another couple of years, if Stearns would have brought such an enthusiastically surreal edge to the screenplay. The Art of Self-Defense is unyielding in its arch comic tone, with Nivola, in particular, forced to keep a straight face through some uproariously demented dialogue. The whole unhinged project was catnip to Eisenberg.
“There’s one scene where I punch my boss in the throat and tell him that I’m going to go home and think about his wife in her bikini,” he says, “It’s just such an absurd monologue that I couldn’t get through it. We did it, like, 25 times. And this is not a big-budget movie where you have time to give up and do it another day. Twenty-five takes in a movie like this is half the budget. It was just impossible, it was so funny.”
Does he prefer this kind of heightened approach to drama?
“Oh, I would do this forever,” Eisenberg answers. “It’s so funny to me. It feels like a more progressive style of performance, in the sense that it doesn’t in every moment try to ingratiate itself with the audience.”
As the actor preps for his third whack at Lex Luthor in Justice League Part Two, it’s probably reasonable to assume that the more ingratiating, big-budget gigs allow for the riskier choices. Like his Adventureland costar Kristen Stewart, Eisenberg has curated a thoughtful list of credits over the years, with projects like Kelly Reichardt’s superb Night Moves and Richard Ayoade’s The Double both making for a particularly good 2013.
It’s clear where his own heart lies.
“I’ve occasionally had work experiences that rubbed me the wrong way, and it’s really hard to do them, and then it’s really hard to talk about them in interviews,” Eisenberg admits, with a sigh. “So this is very easy, and such a relief.”