Jesse Eisenberg is used to being the smartest guy in the room. The 30-year-old actor specializes in dominant geeks, geniuses who lord their power over the generous (The Social Network), the gullible (the magician heist flick Now You See Me), and — as arch-villain Lex Luthor in summer 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — the entire globe. Eisenberg himself keeps his ego in check; when asked about being the first person in history to shoot a superhero movie while writing comedy pieces for The New Yorker, his reponse is, “A stranger thing would be being an electrician on the movie and writing for The New Yorker.” But his typical anti-hero talks and thinks with a fast confidence, as though if he paused to catch his breath, people could mistake him for a 143-pound pushover.
But in director Kelly Reichardt’s hushed thriller Night Moves, which opens in theaters May 30th, Eisenberg is forced to clam up. He plays a small-scale terrorist named Josh, an angry environmental activist who is done arguing. Instead of trying to convince the masses of his ethical superiority, he’d rather stay quiet and blow up a dam. “When you look at Jesse you can sort of see his brain working,” Reichardt says. “He’s very observant and questioning — you can just see the wheels at work in his eyes even when he’s not speaking. That was good for Josh.”
“He’s living outside of mainstream society,” says Eisenberg. “They don’t see the world that way that he sees the world, so he cannot relate to them, he can’t talk to these people.” He can’t even speak to his co-conspirators, a rich girl who works at a posh day spa (Dakota Fanning) and a nihilistic war veteran (Peter Sarsgaard) who just wants to destroy everything. “They’re dilettantes,” explains Eisenberg, wheras the self-righteous Josh “thinks of himself as a soldier.” The problem is this time, the character might not be as smart as he believes.
Dwarfed by the imposing Oregon landscapes and the larger futility of trying to save the planet, Reichardt’s misfit trio silently assembles their bomb, and then deals with the moral fall-out. The tension among the group is as combustible as their 500 pounds of explosive fertilizer. On set, Eisenberg refused to look Fanning and Sarsgaard in the eyes. It was awkward but necessary, he insists.
“When you’re playing a character that’s disgusted by somebody, you just instinctively stop looking at them,” he justifies without apology. “I guess that ends up creating a tension, but it’s not totally my responsibility. My responsibility is to play my role in an authentic way.”
And authenticity is something that remarkably important to Eisenberg. For The Social Network, he trained himself to fence — Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite hobby — even though he never fenced on film. During the shoot for Now You See Me, the actor never put down a deck of cards. As a vegetarian and foster parent to stray cats, Eisenberg was already semi-prepared to embrace his inner nature-loving hippie. Still, he suspected he could dig deeper — literally — and so the 30-year-old Manhattanite turned off his cellphone and spent two weeks in living in a yurt tilling cabbage. He was bored. But that was the point.
“You end up learning pretty quickly that things move differently,” Eisenberg says. “To go to the bathroom is a 10-minute walk.” Driving around the Oregon countryside, he saw firsthand what would drive his character to violence: tractor trailers laden with lumber, mountains with huge swaths of missing trees. For a city boy born and raised in Manhattan, he understood why men like Josh would risk everything to protect the forests.
When he and Reichardt returned to the Northwest shoot Night Moves, she filmed long takes of Eisenberg harvesting vegetables to make us feel his frustration that living a personally responsible life off the grid isn’t enough. “The slower pace helps you engage with him,” says Eisenberg. “He feels like the pace of the farm isn’t accomplishing his goals as fast as setting a bomb would.”
Reichardt fills the margins of the film with extras inspired by the real people Eisenberg met on the farm: rural conservatives, anti-establishment leftists, posh bohemians, and even a towering dude with dreadlocks and a kitten perched on his shoulder. “Kelly likes to really capture the context and the world that the characters live in,” says Eisenberg.”It’s a unique mix of people.” In fact, Reichardt’s films can sometimes feel like art-house anthropological studies — which helps make Eisenberg, who majored in anthropology in college, the perfect actor for her exacting worldview.
“It was great to study anthropology because it gives you a unique insight that I don’t see a lot in entertainment,” the actor says. Like Reichardt, he’s fascinated by culture clashes and misperceptions. For McSweeney’s, he wrote a satire of well-groomed New Yorkers called “Body Rituals Among the Lauxesortem” — “metrosexuals” backwards — that snarked about their ritualistic gyrations at the Equinox gym, “a temple apparently named for the phenomenon of the sun crossing the celestial equator.”
“I don’t see a lot of stories about Americans interacting with other cultures,” says Eisenberg. If he wanted to act in one, he have to write it himself. And so he did. He’s written three plays: one about two roommates suddenly living with a girl from the Philippines, another set in Poland, and a third about a guy from Nepal. Last year, he performed his Polish play, The Revisionist, on Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave. It was a hit, which meant that ten weeks into its run, Eisenberg’s $250-a-week salary was bumped up an extra $60. Jokes Eisenberg, “In New York, that’s something like four sandwiches.”
“Unfortunately, I do it through theater, so it’s not like massively seen like mainstream movies,” says Eisenberg. “And probably wouldn’t be massively seen like mainstream movies because it’s not such a popular topic.”