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Jesse Eisenberg on His Indie Louder Than Bombs and Crafting Lex Luthor for Batman v Superman

Photo: Mike Marsland//WireImage

In 2015, Jesse Eisenberg acted in his own, well-reviewed Off-Broadway play; starred across from Jason Segel in one of the year’s best movies, The End of the Tour; and published his first book, Bream Gives Me Hiccups. With other artists you might expect a cooling-off, but that hasn’t happened to Eisenberg, one of our most talented and consistent young actors. Based on the box-office returns, there’s a good chance you were leered at by him last weekend as he played Batman v Superman’s villain, Lex Luthor. Next up, he’ll appear in Louder Than Bombs, the intimate, emotionally sophisticated English-language debut of celebrated Norwegian director Joachim Trier. In the movie, which opens April 8, Eisenberg plays Jonah, an anxious new father dealing with the impact of his mother’s death on both himself and his father and brother. Vulture caught up with the 32-year-old actor to discuss appearing in movies both big and small, how he finds his characters in emotion, and whether he’d like to add “filmmaker” to his crowded resume.

What appealed to you about Louder Than Bombs? Were you familiar with Trier’s work before you got involved?
Yeah, I’d written a play that was actually being adapted for a movie, and the producers had sent me some European films because the movie would take place in Poland. One of the movies they sent was [Trier’s] Reprise, and it was absolutely phenomenal, so when I got a script from that director and that writer, I was really interested. What I initially liked was that I thought the character’s behavior was so unusual. I loved having the opportunity to play a role that, over the course of the film, you kind of discover, as opposed to this preconceived idea of the character’s behavior presented in an accessible and clearly explicated way.

The way your character’s story unfolds over the course of the movie is really fascinating. It’s very measured-out.
Yeah, exactly.

One prominent part of the movie is your character’s fatherhood and the legacy of his father’s fatherhood. You’re 32, an age when people start to think about fatherhood. How did you bring your own experience with the dynamics and considerations of parenthood into the making this movie?
I think that this character was probably plagued by his own premature adulthood. He probably was crushed into a position that he was not ready for — and by virtue of the circumstances of the movie, in that he hasn’t had proper closure with tragedy, he reverts back to a sort of adolescent immaturity, neglecting his family, neglecting his new child. I’m sure I have an unfortunate wealth of relatable experiences by virtue of being an actor in very public things — I’m thrust into a spotlight that would probably make anyone uncomfortable. Even if the spotlight is shining brightly and seemingly with good intentions, it’s just uncomfortable. It can be easy and tempting to want to reverse back to a kind of infantilization, and that’s what the character’s going through in the movie. I really liked that it was ambiguous enough for me to impose my own personal feelings on it.

A lot of actors, they reach your level of prestige and exposure and they don’t necessarily go back to those small movies.
My absolute favorite thing to do is to write a play and then, after I finish, do the first reading of it with my friends around the table. That is the most fulfilling acting experience that I could possibly have, with no one watching, and it becomes increasingly uncomfortable as more and more people know about it. The next thing I’m doing is one of my plays in a 400-seat theater on the West End. I will be terrified every night before the play starts, even if 400 people are seeing it, or especially because 400 people are seeing it. That, to me, is what I’m driven by. It just so happens that with Batman v Superman I got to play one of the most interesting characters I assume I’ll ever get to play, in a movie that is probably bigger in scope than I’ll ever be involved with again. And I really hope to play that part again. So I don’t see that big of a difference in my job except when there’s more scrutiny.

You took the characterization of Lex Luthor in an all-new direction. How did you go about developing your version of him?
The movie’s writer, Chris Terrio, who’s absolutely brilliant, created a totally fresh take on this movie villain, writing a role that seems like somebody you might know who is troubled, who is charismatic but also disturbed, and that’s what made it so interesting for me as an actor. It was grounded with an emotional reality, with an eccentricity that seems very modern. That’s what made it really fresh. As an actor, you go into it the way you go into anything else. I was shooting Louder Than Bombs simultaneously, and those experiences were similarly fulfilling. I would wake up at 4 in the morning and contemplate grief. In Louder Than Bombs, my character is grieving over the death of his mother under mysterious circumstances, and in Batman v. Superman, my character is grieving over his bad childhood and that feeling of powerlessness in this city that he runs. My experiences were similar. Now of course, the final products couldn’t look more different, will be seen by a different amount of people, and play in different spaces, and yet my experience is the same. That’s why I think actors like doing both kinds of movies, because the experiences can be the same and you get to continue doing what it is you like to do.

As a writer, how does it compare performing other people’s scripts versus your own? Is there a give-and-take?
I’m increasingly less inclined to meddle because I know the experience of writing a document that’s not going to necessarily feature characters who are 100 percent authentic. At some point, characters and fictional stories are going to do things that are not necessarily logically linked, and the actor’s job then becomes to provide an emotional logic to tie those potential loose ends together. I know that as a writer, occasionally you’re hoping the actor ties up a loose end, and that’s how I feel working on other writers’ work as well. I love the challenge of butting up against something that doesn’t feel exactly natural and trying to use what I learned in acting school to create some reality for it.

Do you ever want to write for the screen or direct?
I’ve written screenplays when I was young, ten years ago, and it was a very frustrating process. Then my book [Bream Gives Me Hiccups] was optioned for a TV series, so I wrote the script for that. That will be the first thing that I do. And I’ll direct it, if only to make sure it maintains the style and tone that I had intended as a writer.

So you’re not dying to get out there and direct movies at this point?
No. I look at somebody like Zack Snyder, who not only draws every frame of his movies but constructs them with things that are nowhere on set, things that have to be drawn in. I don’t have a mind for that. It’s so impressive and I loved watching him work.

You said you would like to play Lex Luthor again. Is that in place yet, or is it up in the air?
I have an ankle bracelet on that’s connected to the Warner Brothers precinct, so forgive me for being evasive.

Eisenberg on Acting in Batman v Superman, Indies