Jesse Eisenberg is a successful playwright, published author and Oscar-nominated actor, but he admits stepping onto a Woody Allen set triggered bouts of nerves. He tells Susan Griffin why he’s grown to love the 80-year-old film-makers unique methods
Cafe Society marks Jesse Eisenberg’s second collaboration with Woody Allen, but the nerves were no less prevalent.
“No, I have a general level of nerves that’s pretty consistent,” says the 32-year-old, in his trademark fast-talking patter.
But at least this time, the New Yorker knew to expect the 80-year-old director’s less conventional film-making process.
“That first movie I did with him [2012’s To Rome With Love], and the first scene, I didn’t even see him until later in the day,” reveals Eisenberg, who is casually dressed in jeans, a grey T-shirt beneath a purple checked shirt, and looking somewhat tired behind his round wire glasses.
Instead, the assistant director told him where to stand and when to deliver dialogue, he explains.
“We finished the scene, went to the next one, and I still hadn’t seen Woody Allen, which is a very unusual experience for an actor. Normally actors - at least I,” he clarifies, “can be very indulgent about things.
“So I knew what I was getting into and enjoyed it a lot more [this time], knowing it wasn’t going to be this wonderfully self-indulgent, celebratory, vain experience.
“Not only did I enjoy it more, but I really like it now in contrast to the more typical film-making styles of constantly labouring over everything,” he adds.
David Fincher, the director of 2010’s award-winning The Social Network, which saw Eisenberg Oscar-nominated for his role as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is one of those renowned for multiple takes.
“Woody Allen is just so efficient and clever that he’s able to make these wonderful movies in a way which no one else is working. He shoots efficiently, and yet the acting is wonderful and the film looks beautiful,” continues the actor, whose mother used to work as a clown at children’s parties, while his dad’s a sociology college professor.
Cafe Society revolves around the glamorous movers and shakers who’d congregate in fashionable cafes, which became particularly popular in New York during the Thirties, the period in which the movie’s set.
Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a boy from the Bronx who’s looking for more out of life than his father’s jewellery store.
He travels to Hollywood, then celebrating its Golden Age, in the hope of working for his high-powered uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a high-powered agent.
“Bobby starts the movie as an almost blank state, a kind of naive dreamer, who thinks he can go to Hollywood and will be swept up by a welcoming industry,” explains Eisenberg, whose own career started when he landed a role in the TV series Get Real at the age of 16, which was also when he began working on screenplays.
“Of course, that’s not what happens. But he thinks he wants something more exciting, and he is part of a generation and culture that made that dream feel like it was possible, especially because he had an uncle who did it.
“As he is exposed to the real world, both the beauty of it and the struggle, he self-actualises in a sweet and flawed way.”
While in Hollywood, Bobby falls in love with Phil’s assistant Vonnie, portrayed by Kristen Stewart. It’s the third time Eisenberg’s acted alongside the Twilight star, following 2009’s Adventureland and last year’s American Ultra.
“I think both characters are constantly attracted to and resisting the allure of the glitzier side of the city of entertainment. But Vonnie provides a wonderful antidote for Bobby. She is cynical, funny, and seems to have a real-world perspective.”
But this isn’t a simple love story; Vonnie’s ex-boyfriend, and the arrival of socialite Veronica (Blake Lively) who Bobby meets on his return to New York, complicate matters.
“I looked at this movie as a sweet, if not bitter-sweet story about two people who just can’t connect, for whatever series of unfortunate circumstances, and are left lamenting what could have been in their lives,” muses Eisenberg.
“So there’s this sweet, nostalgic, maybe heart-breaking theme, and yet my sense is that Woody Allen sees this story more cynically.
“That this kind of pure romance is not possible, that people are too, at least in the case of this movie, self-interested rather than ‘other-interested’, so to speak.”
When we meet, Eisenberg is embarking on the final few performances of The Spoils at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios, after it transferred from New York.
It’s the third play he’s written and starred in, following The Revisionist and Asuncion. Next up, he’s set to reprise the role of super-villain Lex Luther in DC Comic’s Justice League, and has plans to adapt and direct Bream Gives Me Hiccups, the collection of short stories he published last year.
“I like the variety of what I do. I’m doing a play now in a 400-seat theatre, so it’s a much more intimate experience. I’ve done over 200 performances of the show and I like that,” remarks the actor, who in recent years has also played a man driven to breakpoint by his doppelganger in The Double, an extreme environmentalist in Night Moves, and a hustling illusionist in Now You See Me and its recent sequel.
“When I was writing this play, I was sitting in my bedroom for four months, talking to no one, so I like the variety of these experiences because they make me better at each thing,” Eisenberg adds.
“Understanding how things are made from different perspectives makes me better at each one.”
:: Cafe Society is released on Friday, September 2