The Hot Seat: Jesse Eisenberg

The 30 Minutes or Less star acts, writes and slings pizzas.

Illustration: Dan Park

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I just read your most recent piece for McSweeney's, "A Post Gender Normative Man Tries to Pick Up a Woman at a Bar." It was funny.
Oh, thanks a lot. Yeah, that offsets the gender-specific jokes in the movie.

Was it inspired by anything in particular?
Well, I guess I'm interested in political correctness. It's fun to think about somebody who's overly politically correct, but in a situation that really can't warrant it. That's what I mostly write about. I'm doing a play in [October, and] that's kind of the basis of the play, too.

You wrote and are starring in Asuncion. Do you see yourself doing more theater work?
If it goes well. If no one likes it, and I don't like it, then I probably won't ever step foot on stage again. But, I mean, you saw the movie—and I thought the character I got to play was really good—but you know, the movie requires some kind of commercial appeal. And a play is just on very different economic terms, so there's something a bit freeing about not worrying that it has to appeal to such a wide group of people.

Is the play based on your own experiences?
No, but my degree is in anthropology, so it's funny to think about the juxtaposition between the purity of somebody's motive [and] actual circumstance, which often doesn't lend itself to being pure. When you're idealistic, at some point you just discover that your ideals are impractical.

So is the play a bit truer to your personal ideals?
Well, you just don't have to have the concern in the back of your mind that it has to be appealing to somebody other than, frankly, yourself. I mean myself. You know, in 30 Minutes or Less, I mean, maybe it sounds weird to say, but to me, that kind of role in that kind of movie is rare. Even though the movie is commercial and fast-paced funny, to me a role like [Nick, Eisenberg's character in the film] is actually rare. There's actually a back story, [and] the character had a distinct voice that seemed consistent throughout.

30 Minutes or Less is a crime caper, but your character, Nick, has a melancholy personality that's unusual for that type of film.
Yeah, exactly. He starts the movie and he's depressed, and he's lazy. He's living a boring life that he's stuck in, which is not an uncommon thing. I don't really [see] that in a lot of movies. The depressed characters tend to be overly depressed and the movie opens with them trying to kill themselves or something like that.

He reminds me of people I know in their twenties, who wake up one day and realize their life sucks but don't know how to fix it.
Exactly. So instead, he develops this kind of bitterness and persnicketiness for the rest of the world. He thinks of himself as kind of, like, a rogue aesthetic, when the truth is he just doesn't have friends.

He does have one friend in the film—Chet, played by Aziz Ansari. Did you guys hit it off right away?
He's so naturally funny and charming and sweet. That was helpful because our characters get into an argument in the beginning of the movie, and I spend the movie kind of hating him—well, I spend the movie resenting him. But because he has this quality that makes it impossible to not feel affection for him, that helped me with that second part of the relationship, which is that I love him even though I resent all of his character's life choices.

Your costars also include Danny McBride and Nick Swardson. It's a funny cast; were you guys encouraged to improvise?
Yeah, the director really encourages improvisation. But for me, my character was in such a tight situation that I was in kind of a tense mode throughout the movie, even though the overall tone of it is probably funny. For me, the experience was focused on the mortal fear that my character is carrying around.

Your director, Ruben Fleischer, compared the movie to darker comedies like Fargo or The Big Lebowski. Do you think that's apt?
I think this movie is probably more explicitly funny, and more clear when it is funny. But I think it shares some elements of a regular guy getting into that same situation with small-time criminals. And kind of dumb, very specific plots—the criminals, that is, have kind of dumb, specific plots. In this movie [Danny McBride's character] is trying to figure out how to get money to pay an assassin to kill his dad to get inheritance money, whereas he could just kind of go straight to the money. So part of the joke is the ridiculousness of [McBride's] character's grand dream. That, I guess, maybe mirrors those movies a bit.

You and Aziz have been promoting the movie by handing out pizza at parlors around the country—but not in New York City. What gives?
Why? I don't know, maybe it's kind of redundant to have us serve pizza in New York. But I live in New York, so, you know, if you're real lucky you can find me eating pizza.

30 Minutes or Less opens Fri 12.

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