Jesse Eisenberg has cultivated such a distinct onscreen persona over the years — across films as diverse as “Roger Dodger,” “Adventureland,” and “The Squid and the Whale” — that it’s tempting to view each film as the latest entry in a franchise. Yes, the young actor (who, despite often getting cast as a teen, is now 26 years old) might be playing a Hasidic Jew who gets duped into becoming a drug mule for an Israeli drug dealer in Kevin Asch’s “Holy Rollers,” but the character is still distinctly Eisenberg-ian, his intense gaze mixed with halting speech, his self-seriousness tempered by an odd gullibility. And, when you think about it, that’s basically the same character he played in last year’s “Zombieland,” too, sans the payots. Still, it comes as a bit of a surprise when the young actor confesses that the uniformity of these parts may have as much to do with his own anxiety-ridden nature as it does with the scripts he’s given. It’ll be curious to see if he brings that same demeanor to noted taskmaster David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” in which Eisenberg plays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, just one of the things the young actor talked about when he sat down recently to discuss “Holy Rollers” and the challenges of playing real-life characters.
Were you wary of playing another anxiety-ridden young man yet again in “Holy Rollers”?
No. The characters that I play aren’t really written that way. I think I just have a lot of anxiety on movie sets, so my performances come out that way. It’s so nerve-wracking to be on a set. They’re the most stressful place in the world, because you’re making something permanent, and there are so many people relying on you in a lot of ways. That’s maybe a little facetious, I guess. But what is a character without inner turmoil? My character in “Holy Rollers,” for example — I don’t see how he could not have anxiety. The story just wouldn’t be interesting without that. I like playing that because it’s a clear emotional way into the character.
Is it fair to say that the anxiety in these characters is often coming directly from you?
You can’t not do that. As an actor, you try to bring as much of yourself to a part to try and create a feeling of authenticity and emotional truth and resonance. With “Holy Rollers,” the shoot was actually very similar to “Roger Dodger.” We were shooting in New York over about 20 days. I like those types of shoots because you’re constantly in an emotional place that you can access easily, as opposed to a six-month shoot where you’re sitting around in a Winnebago half the time.
Which creates more anxiety for you — the huge six-month studio production, or the small, intense four-week indie?
The bigger movies produce what I would call “unnecessary anxiety,” because there are so many people, and so much money — so many producers, so many people who have a lot invested in it. With the smaller films, it’s a kind of productive anxiety: You have so few people and so few resources to get something done. And it’s always a big deal — making a feature film takes a lot. But that’s a more positive feeling — I feel like I can feed off that in a good way and use it for the movie. Especially with a film like “Roger Dodger,” where it all takes place over one night, you want to sustain that same kind of energy. “Holy Rollers,” too, because it’s about this very turbulent period in this guy’s life, so you try to stay there.
The film is based on a true story. Did you meet with the real people involved?
We fictionalized all the characters, so it was only very loosely based on real people. I did meet with some people who knew some of these guys, and they were involved with the movie. But I never met the actual guys. Basically, there were a few bad apples in this community, who were able for a brief period of time able to take control of some of these innocent kids — like my character Sam, who was duped into thinking he was smuggling medicine but was actually smuggling Ecstasy into the U.S. I have no idea what the actual people involved in this story think of the film. I’m very interested to know, though.