Last week, Asuncion, a new play by Social Network star Jesse Eisenberg, opened at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village. Justin Bartha, an actor remarkably adept at playing the straight man with a secretly wicked wit in films like The Hangover, goes against type as Vinnie, the pseudo-intellectual pothead on whose dingy couch Eisenberg's character crashes. Bartha was unfailingly polite and thorough in an interview conducted while the play was still in previews, but requested that we wait to post it until after the play had opened due to superstition. We discussed his superstitious nature as well as his longtime friendship with Eisenberg, and the "spectacle" of filmmaking.
How did this all begin?
Jesse started writing this a long time ago and we’ve been developing it for many years. We did a reading at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, like, five years ago. We would kind of just hang out in my apartment and improv and try to refine the play.
One of the things you hear from actors who have the opportunity to do theater in addition to film work is, ‘theater is so immediate.’ The trajectory you just described sounds like what it takes to get a film made.
It wasn’t like a movie. Jesse and I made a movie called Holy Rollers that was a similar kind of thing, but a lot of that was waiting to see if the money would come in, and seeing if it was ever going to get made. We’re both such huge fans of theater and the theater community, and Jesse’s written another play that’s brilliant, and a musical. Obviously, because of his recent success it was easier to mount the play, but I know — not to speak for him, but no one wanted the play to be mounted just because of the name, or some kind of stature; there was a deliberate choice. The entire thing is so fulfilling, and also being able to do it with one of my close friends, and seeing his dream come true with a play produced, there are just so many beautiful things that are attached to it.
How did you guys become friends?
We met about nine years ago at an audition for a movie that we both didn’t get. I remember it wasn’t a very good movie, and they were doing this screen test where they mix and match different people together. We were sitting in this huge room with all these actors and we just immediately made each other laugh, and that kind of thing. A year went by. We were shooting different movies and we randomly sat next to each other on an airplane back to New York. We’ve been close since.
Tell me about your character, Vinnie. The play opens with him wearing a very colorful robe
He has a masters in Black studies and he’s obsessed with Africa. He has a few little artifacts, these kind of African accents that he loves. The robe is this African robe that he wears when he hangs out and smokes weed and plays his music, and he probably thinks he’s a lot better at than he is.
Do you consider Edgar and Vinnie’s relationship to be homoerotic? Do they have crushes on each other?
There’s a very specific scene in the play that pulls towards that discussion, and I would be lying if I said that in the rehearsal process it wasn’t something that we were aware of. We knew that the question would come up. We didn’t want it to be an off-Broadway show with the token latent sexuality. We didn’t want it to seem too commonplace. We wanted it to be handled in a way that’s exemplary of how issues are brought up in this play: It is extremely subtle at most parts, and extremely over the top at other parts. That’s not just how these characters actually live but it also describes Jesse’s and my viewpoint of life: [life] is extremely subtle at some points, and just hits you over the head at others. You can’t help but look at some people and see a caricature, but obviously under that impression, there are complicated shades of every color. To put it simply, no, they’re not gay, but there is every color in their relationship.
You recently did Zach Braff’s play All New People. Do you feel like young-ish New Hollywood is reaching out to theater lately?
I don’t know if it’s a young Hollywood thing. For me, I’ve always wanted to do theater, so I gravitate toward it. I think for someone like Jesse or Zach, who have always been involved in theater, there is a true love for what theater is, and what the community is. For me personally, it’s the most exhilarating form, especially as films and other mediums get to be more about spectacle and technology. I’ve been very fortunate that I get to be in movies, but it’s very hard to find a great character and do what I love in a movie sometimes. I’ve been able to find great characters that have saved my life, in a sense — which is how I look at theater, literally, as a life saver — and it is the opposite of the trend that is happening in the other mediums, which I’m not saying anything against, but there has to be a balance in that spectrum, and I think that theater is that balance. I think that you’re going to start seeing better and more interesting plays than you have in years because of that push and pull with the other mediums — they’re going more towards technology and away from the seventies. Everyone loves the seventies because that’s when movies were character-based, and you saw great characters and you saw very interesting filmmaking. There are interesting movies being made now, but it’s harder and harder to make them. When you’re talking about pure form, theater is a wonderful outlet.
What do you do before you go onstage? Do you have rituals?
I do have rituals. I’m a fairly superstitious person. I will say that it depends on the character. Every character has a different energy, so you have to get into that energy before you go on stage. I know that sounds a little arty.