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Jesse Eisenberg on His New Play Asuncion, Avoiding All Culture, and Screenwriters Who Brainstorm With Post-its

Photo: Andrew H. Walker Images/Getty
Jesse Eisenberg. Photo: Andrew H. Walker Images/Getty

Five years ago, Jesse Eisenberg, the 28-year-old actor best known for playing arrogant but oddly endearing nerds like Walt in The Squid and the Whale and, most famously, Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, started writing a play about the ironic insensitivity of political correctness. Then Barack Obama was elected president. “I put it away because I thought, Oh, the play has no relevance anymore because we live in a post-racial society,” the actor remembers, laughing. Luckily, such illusions were short-lived. After a week or so of preview performances, this evening the play, Asuncion, officially opens at the historic Cherry Lane Theater. Eisenberg plays Edgar, a navel-gazing college kid consumed by white guilt, and Justin Bartha (The Hangover) plays his multiculturalism-obsessed pothead mentor and roommate. Their relationship is complicated by the sudden arrival of Edgar’s new sister-in-law of Filipino descent. Eisenberg took a few minutes to chat with us about his fear of pop culture, racism, and why only poseur screenwriters use Post-its.

I saw the play last week and I was pretty blown away. Congratulations. It’s really astounding.
Good, good. Thank you very much for coming. You didn’t see it on Thursday, did you?

No, I saw it on Wednesday. Why, was Thursday bad news?
Yeah, Thursday was really weird, and I’m doing an informal poll to see why it was so weird. I think I’ve figured it out. I think there was some technical problem and there was a buzzing for the first 45 minutes. Not like a hearing aid, but similar. And it was so jarring for us; we’re used to playing to an audience that is experiencing a comedy and laughing at a lot of things.

What is your personal connection to the themes of the play?
I started traveling a lot a few years ago, and went to countries like Cambodia, which my character discusses. I went to Venezuela for a while; I went to countries that are not often visited by American tourists. And my initial reaction was to imbue the people who lived there with great wisdom and victimhood. And I thought, How strange that I would instinctively imbue them with victimhood? It’s so condescending. In fact, it’s more condescending to view them as victims than as oppressors in some cases. That was such an awful quality I noticed in myself. The character is really exploring that.

In the opening scene of the play, he comes home beaten up, and the first thing he does is defend the kid who attacked him. And as an outsider, I feel that’s more condescending than to be angry. And then somebody from the outside world comes into the house, and he immediately imbues her with victim status because he can only see the world in such black-and-white ways, where you’re either a victim or an oppressor, and if she comes from the Philippines she must be the victim, and of course then he’s the oppressor. And he doesn’t know how to act here. So he patronizes her, and he condescends her, and ultimately he exploits her. And that’s kind of my attitude, on a smaller scale. That’s how I kind of treated people from other places.

There is a line in the play that talks about how depression can really be a cover for selfishness. Where did that idea come from?
I often think if you have time to sit around the house feeling bad for yourself, you have time to tutor a child. I’m guilty of that exact thing. I will spend more time sitting around feeling bad for myself than actually helping somebody. And because I’m feeling bad about myself, it still seems like a noble hour spent because I didn’t enjoy it. So it’s masking selfishness by calling it depression. Depression, if it’s an unconsciously elected experience, is a luxury.

In the second act of the play, your character is working on a big piece of writing, and part of his creative process involves sticking Post-its all over the walls. Is that a writer tic that you have?
No, it’s a writer tic that I’ve noticed other people have. I had seen that kind of thing for screenwriters who are not produced. So instead of being produced and working, they had these very kind of visible and ostentatious systems in their house, like colored Post-its for when the bomb blows up and pink Post-its for the romance. To me, it seems like kind of an ostentatious way to show other people that you’re working if your movies are not being made. I thought this is something the character would do: create this elaborate system of Post-its because this is the first serious job he’s ever had to do.

The characters you are best known for tend to have a few things in common — they’re neurotic, they speak in brainy, rapid-fire dialogue. What is your against-type fantasy role? Do you have one?
No, because that’s looking from the outside in and that’s not how I think of performance. I like thinking of the minutia behind a character’s motivation. So to me, one character to another is totally different. It may appear cosmetically similar, but I don’t watch the movies I’m in so that’s not something that affects me. If they appear similar, that’s for the audience to figure out and maybe for someone to write about and comment on. I don’t have this kind of fantasy to play the marine core guy.

The script is rife with cultural signifiers and references — Martin Luther King quotes, I spotted The Cornel West Reader onstage. What are you reading right now? What are you watching?
I don’t have a television. I don’t ever see movies, either, on DVD or at the theater. I have an iPad and I watch three things: The Daily Show, 60 Minutes, and Meet the Press. And I read the New York Times. Sorry, I would read your magazine but I’m so scared of reading about culture that I can’t. But I used to love New York Magazine.

Why are you afraid of culture?
I just don’t want to feel part of it. It’s hard to articulate why, because I don’t really understand it. I guess because, like, it pains me to think about the play we do every night — not to inflate the play to something so special, because it’s really not that special, it’s just another play — but I think of it so personally that it kind of pains me to see it listed. I mean, I’m honored to be listed. I don’t know. I don’t want to feel like I’m part of an industry, because it hurts me somehow to think of it that way.

There is an assembly line element …
Yeah, exactly. Or they’ll put a star near something or a dot near something. It’s reductive in a way that makes me uncomfortable to realize I’m part of that in some way, and it could just be viewed by a mass audience and dismissed or accepted.

Okay, that’s one issue. But in general, you don’t want to read a profile about your favorite actor and you don’t want to see a movie with your favorite actor in it?

I guess for similar reasons. It comes from a place of insecurity about my own creative stuff. I’m also just not that interested in the arts. In the play, what the characters are interested in, that’s what I’m interested in. The only time the characters ever reference something in the arts is when the girl says to me she likes Mariah Carey and I say I don’t even know who Mariah Carey is. It’s a half-joke because he probably does know who she is, but he wants to see himself as part of a cultural elite who wouldn’t know who she is. I’m interested in all the things the characters are interested in: politics and all this other stuff. My degree in school was — well is, I haven’t finished yet — anthropology. That’s the stuff I’m interested in and I surround myself with people who are interested that stuff.

Your script reading process must be pretty interesting, with these restrictions in place …
Well, if you want to be a working actor and have a career and an apartment, you can’t do movies about Cornel West.

Jesse Eisenberg on His New Play Asuncion, Avoiding All Culture, and Screenwriters Who Brainstorm With Post-its