Jesse Eisenberg on the “aspirational and also absurd” manliness in his new movie

Jesse Eisenberg stars in <em>The Art of Self-Defense.</em>

In The Art of Self-Defense, Eisenberg plays a sad-sack accountant who starts studying karate.

When you meet him in person, Jesse Eisenberg is not unlike the characters he’s played in movies like Zombieland and The Social Network. The through lines to Eisenberg’s nerdy, phobic zombie-killer Columbus and his Oscar-nominated portrayal of driven, bitter Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are clearly visible: He’s smart. He talks fast. And he has a lot of ideas he’s eager to discuss.

These traits aren’t very surprising. In addition to being a celebrated actor, Eisenberg is a playwright and a humorist who’s written for the New Yorker and McSweeney’s. When I met him in Manhattan recently to talk about his new movie, The Art of Self-Defense, he told me that he once submitted a headline to the Onion about Vox founder Ezra Klein’s podcast. Eisenberg likes to think, and he likes to process the world through humor and satire.

So he’s a good fit for The Art of Self-Defense, a very dark comedy about toxic masculinity, for lack of a better term. Director and writer Riley Stearns has crafted a layered and unpredictable story about a nondescript office drone named Casey (Eisenberg), who is seemingly randomly assaulted one night by a gang of motorcyclists. The experience leaves him cowering in fear from the world, leading him to tentatively enroll in karate classes at a dojo run by the man he learns to call Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Casey falls under Sensei’s spell, finding purpose and meaning in his previously sad-sack life. But soon, he discovers that there’s a lot more to this dojo than meets the eye.

Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola in The Art of Self-Defense.Bleecker Street
Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola in The Art of Self-Defense.

The film is stylized, set in a beige town that could be anywhere, in an unspecified time period — it’s more fable than realism. The characters don’t think or sound like you’d expect: They’re extremely literal, and they don’t speak casually or use contractions.

The result is a film that’s almost sci-fi adjacent, and which clearly has a lot on its mind about how brainless, macho characterizations of manhood hurt everyone, and how violence perpetuates violence. The Art of Self-Defense is a fascinating work that feels at times like live theater, with dramatic tension ratcheted up to 11. So I was excited to talk to Eisenberg about his role as Casey, who grows from shrinking violet to something much more explosive over the course of the film.

Our conversation — about the movie and his job as an actor, about realism and satire, and about whether Hollywood harms both men and women via the roles it allows people like Eisenberg to play — is below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

So how did you get involved with this movie?

Jesse Eisenberg

Riley [Stearns] sent me this script, and I just thought it was one of the most interesting scripts I’ve ever read. I love the dialogue. I mean, if it was just a sketch comedy, I thought it was incredibly successful, just as a kind of example of funny dialogue.

The fact that there were all these other ideas under it — about the way men think of each other, the way men think of women, the way the men try to behave in an attempt to be successfully masculine — was also very appealing, because it’s stuff I’ve been forced to think about based on my physique. That kind of masculinity is both aspirational and also absurd to me. And I thought the movie presented [traditional ideas about masculinity] in a really sly way, because the movie was not didactic or judging it; it was just kind of presenting it in the clothes of a satire, and therefore you’re watching it and laughing at it. But if it was presented differently, you might just think this is a kind of successful way to be a man.

Alissa Wilkinson

And you don’t know at the beginning of the movie that it is satirical. You can’t really tell where it’s going immediately.

Jesse Eisenberg

That’s right. My character is not the kind of protagonist who rolls their eyes when somebody does something weird. So in mainstream comedies, you usually cut back to the character you like, and he’ll be rolling his eyes, and it will indicate to the audience that the thing he’s rolling his eyes at is pretty weird.

But that’s not what this movie is. This movie doesn’t ever give the audience that backdoor to accessibility. And so in a way it’s more sophisticated comedically, because it asks the audience to understand the tone without having to explain it to them.

Alissa Wilkinson

What makes for good satire?

Jesse Eisenberg

Probably having something sincere to say.

Riley has something sincere to say, and it’s not that men are bad, because that’s not real satire. That’s just criticism.

What he has to say is, I’m scared of my place in the world as a man, and so I started taking jiu jitsu. (Stearns studied jiu jitsu; in the movie, Eisenberg’s character Casey practices karate.) This is what Riley was saying. I’m scared of men, but I also admire them. When I say the word “men,” different forms of men come to mind, including the kind of alpha male who would beat me up.

That’s what he has to say. And it’s not coming from a place of cynicism or snark or condescension. It’s coming from an earnest place of self-questioning. To me, that’s great satire, because there’s an emotion and earnestness to it.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Art of Self-Defense.Bleecker Street
Jesse Eisenberg in The Art of Self-Defense.

Alissa Wilkinson

It almost feels like satire is the only way to tell that kind of story today, about masculinity.

Jesse Eisenberg

Yeah. Except this kind of story gets told all the time through sports movie tropes. You know: the character who is weak and hapless and finds their strength through sports, and then runs the mile in the aspirational time.

That’s not what this movie is. When my character would be, let’s say, running up the steps to the Philadelphia Art Museum, you know, with the Rocky soundtrack, instead he is buying groceries that are the same color as his karate belt, or listening to heavy metal music, because he thinks that’s what men should listen to, or punching his boss in the face.

Alissa Wilkinson

Or telling his dog he won’t pet him anymore.

Jesse Eisenberg

Right, exactly. So the movie takes these movie tropes of a character “bettering himself” but uses them in an absurd way. It’s also a sincere way — the character’s earnestly doing all this stuff, but the movie is using funny elements rather than the elements we normally see. So it becomes a satire.

Alissa Wilkinson

I thought a lot about other movies while watching this one. That’s a good thing: It’s clear there are lots of ways in which The Art of Self-Defense references others, and even leans on them; it presents tropes with a straight face while trying to subvert them.

Jesse Eisenberg

That’s right.

Alissa Wilkinson

And in this case, we don’t know whether we’re supposed to be on Casey’s side. We just are, at first, because the movie presents him to us initially as the protagonist. We have expectations about protagonists in sports movies.

Jesse Eisenberg

Exactly. But those expectations are undercut several times in this movie, because you’re on the side of this guy, and then he punches his boss in the face. You’re kind of torn, because on the one hand you think that’s an incorrect thing to do, but then on the other hand you’re rooting for him to not be such a non-person, not such a hollowed-out individual in this world.

Alissa Wilkinson

Those scenes made me think of Office Space. And obviously there are pieces of Fight Club floating around in here as well.

Jesse Eisenberg

Yeah. Yes. And I’m sorry, this is really reductive and not a just question to ask you, but I ask it because I haven’t met many women who’ve seen the movie: Did you have any other perspective on it than that?

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, I thought a lot about the female character in this film. She’s shoved into these sort of metaphorical spaces — a really small room to change in that doesn’t have any windows, for instance. And she also is forced to act in certain ways to “fit in” with all of the men at the dojo, which made me think about recent films and TV shows, like The Bold Type or Mindy Kaling’s movie Late Night, that deal with internalized misogyny. Women who have to adopt certain behaviors in order to work with men who think they’re very macho.

Imogen Poots in The Art of Self-Defense.Bleecker Street
Imogen Poots plays the dojo’s sole upper-level female student in The Art of Self-Defense.

Jesse Eisenberg

That’s interesting.

Alissa Wilkinson

I also thought quite a bit about the violence in this movie, and whether it’s critiquing violence in film generally as a masculine affectation. The moments of intense violence in this movie are surprising in such a high-concept film with such stylized dialogue.

Jesse Eisenberg

Exactly, yes, yes. In my opinion, the movie doesn’t really shy away from the things it talks about. And when a movie addresses masculinity, and using violence to assert one’s masculinity, I think we have to see that stuff. The movie is commenting on it.

But I also think people think there’s more violence in the movie than there actually is. People have come up to me and Riley after the movie and said, I was so shocked by this particular scene. We say, Oh, that was off camera — that was in your imagination.

Alissa Wilkinson

Imagining someone’s head getting crushed in is almost more terrible than seeing it happen on screen.

Jesse Eisenberg

Yeah, of course. But also, the movie is not like a light comedy. It’s trying for something — in my opinion, something better — which is to be a commentary with a sociopolitical element, from a creative perspective.

Alissa Wilkinson

I love a good high-concept or stylized film. The Art of Self-Defense tries to be non-specific as part of its style — it has, for instance, this generic “dude” magazine, with generic stuff men are supposed to be into: ranking women’s breasts, shooting guns, pet wolves. Or there’s the bar, which appears to just be named BAR.

The dialogue, too, feels very deadpan and literal. As an actor, what do you bring to a character who has to deliver lines like that, in an environment like this one?

Jesse Eisenberg

Casey’s behavior is not the behavior of anyone I know, unless they are unusual in some way. But his emotions are. So if my emotions are real — and as an actor, that’s my goal — then the stilted, strange dialogue will seem real, too. But if, as an actor, I was leaning into the oddity of the dialogue, that would not be a sustainable character to watch for an hour and a half. It would be more like sketch comedy. So the key is to experience all the emotions in extreme ways, in the way the character is experiencing them, and deliver the dialogue as written.

Alissa Wilkinson

He seems like almost an emotionless character at the beginning, when we meet him.

Jesse Eisenberg

Exactly. You know, people who no one looks at have no reason to cry in public, because no one’s going to do anything or console them. And he’s a character that no one ever acknowledges. He can’t even muster up a word for his colleagues. Somebody like that does not show their emotions on their face, because they’re meaningless in society.

The reason we present our emotions is for some social utility, but he doesn’t have that tool. So he doesn’t show anything. At the beginning of the movie, characters are talking about him in French. He speaks French, and then they’re insulting him! And yes, a normal person would roll their eyes and look over, because there’s some social value to doing that — to make them stop, or to make them ashamed. But for Casey to do that would be meaningless, because no one would ever notice.

Alessandro Nivola in The Art of Self-Defense.Bleecker Street
Alessandro Nivola in The Art of Self-Defense.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s a kind of character we often encounter in stories about boring offices. The character who nobody even remembers they worked with.

Jesse Eisenberg

Is Office Space — I haven’t seen it in a long time — is it ever as stylized as this movie? Or is it more like, I don’t know, an Adam Sandler movie.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’d say it’s just very Mike Judge [whose work is broadly and acerbically comedic] …

Jesse Eisenberg

It doesn’t try to necessarily ingratiate itself to the audience?

Alissa Wilkinson

No, but it’s also thoroughly relatable. Sitting in traffic. Getting mad at the broken [printer].

Jesse Eisenberg

So, what would you say the difference is between a style like The Art of Self-Defense and those?

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, to me, Office Space is much more clear to its audience about what it is. It’s a comedy. It doesn’t really have a lot to say — it’s just about how we’re all wallowing in this corporate hell. Whereas The Art of Self-Defense is really interested in how violence breeds violence, abuse breeds abuse, and how ideas about what “masculinity” is perpetuate one another.

Jesse Eisenberg

Do you think it’s possible to make a movie like [Office Space] and have something to say?

Alissa Wilkinson

It probably is, but I also think it’s harder to build that kind of meaning in a straightforwardly comedic, lightly satirical feature film, rather than, say, in a television show with the same characteristics. Like, Silicon Valley has a lot in common with Office Space, but because there are so many episodes and so much character development, it takes on a richer meaning.

Jesse Eisenberg

Is there an overriding theme in that show?

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s sort of just about how everybody’s bluffing their way through everything.

Jesse Eisenberg

Oh I get it, I get it. So there’s a feeling like, there’s a thesis.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah. And if you trust Silicon Valley types and then you watch it, you pretty much stop.

Jesse Eisenberg

Oh really?

Alissa Wilkinson

Mhm.

Jesse Eisenberg

So does Vox consider itself to be part of Silicon Valley [with the feel of having been a web startup]?

Alissa Wilkinson

Well, more like we cover it. As a journalist you have to pull off being both an insider and an outsider so you can write with more clarity about what’s on the inside. Honestly, that’s even harder when you’re an entertainment journalist.

Jesse Eisenberg

Oh yeah, because the more you work the more you become present. When people are on Twitter and stuff [and everyone’s talking to one another], you’re no longer an innocent bystander.

Alissa Wilkinson

Right. That actually reminds me of something about The Art of Self-Defense: It’s a movie that’s talking about masculinity, and movies come from an industry that has a lot of weird hangups regarding both what it means to be a man and gender-based violence. There’s a lot of weird stuff about men floating around Hollywood. I guess I don’t have to tell you that.

Jesse Eisenberg

I’ve had the luxury of never having to worry about it. I have never been in a movie where my character is a violent sexist, because I wouldn’t get chosen to play that kind of role — the audience would not believe that I can be in a dynamic where I would have such force over a woman that she would stay with me out of fear. So I’ve not been given the opportunity to do that. I know a lot of great men who are both actors and great people, but they ended up playing that kind of stuff just because they look different than me.

My wife [Anna Strout] is an activist. Her mother ran one of the most important domestic violence shelters in the country. And so from the moment I started doing movies, I was very conscious of this stuff that is being addressed now — how women are depicted in movies and sexualized and objectified. So from the time I started doing movies, I have always been more sensitive to that kind of violence. It disgusts me when I see it.

I’ll tell you what I hate, what I don’t do: The guy who is so eager to have sex and ends up dating the model, and it’s funny to look at the nerdy guy with the model. That stuff disgusts me. Not because I don’t want to play the nerdy guy with the model, but because I don’t like the way the model is depicted as like an empty vessel for the guy’s, you know, adolescent fancy. I mean, that disgusts me so much. So I’ve avoided roles like that. But even in that dynamic, the guy’s not overpowering. He’s seen as lucky.

Alissa Wilkinson

But in real life, all kinds of men are abusive to women, not just big scary dudes.

Jesse Eisenberg

That’s true.

Alissa Wilkinson

Sometimes I wonder if our cultural ideas about who can perpetrate violence, or be guilty of perpetrating violence, are all twisted because of the way movies have sometimes depicted who’s an abuser and who’s the “safe” guy.

Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg in The Art of Self-Defense.Bleecker Street
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg in The Art of Self-Defense.

Jesse Eisenberg

That’s a really good point, actually. That’s a really good point. Yeah. I mean — God, well, I mean Harvey Weinstein was not really a shock.

Alissa Wilkinson

No.

Jesse Eisenberg

I mean, he’s not a lothario by any means, but he’s also not a shock. I kind of thought he was an asshole.

Alissa Wilkinson

But there’s been lots of guys since then, and some shockers.

Jesse Eisenberg

Guys you wouldn’t expect?

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah. I know a lot of women who have mental lists of, like, what famous guys would you be devastated to find out was abusive.

Jesse Eisenberg

Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah. I see. I guess I really have to analyze it.

I guess I just haven’t been involved with it too much. But I mean, if there was a good role about a guy who looked like me and was abusive, and it’s a film that shows it can happen in different forms — that would be an interesting story.

The last play I did, The Spoils, is a commentary on a horrible narcissist. My character is abusive. But I was trying to make a commentary on it. I mean, I wrote it. I was conscious of all the things that we’re talking about now. So it came from a place of being informed.

Alissa Wilkinson

Sometimes I think the imagination of movie producers is a lot smaller than it needs to be.

Jesse Eisenberg

For me, at least, I’m so surprised they put me in anything.

The Art of Self-Defense opens in theaters on July 12.

Author: Alissa Wilkinson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *