July 15-- Jesse Eisenberg calls "The Art of Self-Defense" one of the most unusual experiences he's ever had with an acting project. That's coming from someone who has appeared in a long list of TV and film projects playing everything from a social media mastermind in "The Social Network" to the most notable villain in the DC Comics universe, Lex Luthor in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." He's earned an Oscar nomination and written three plays for the New York stage.
None of that touched him the same way creatively as "The Art of Self-Defense."
"Normally, when you read a script, you know within five pages if it is something you are interested in doing," Eisenberg says. "You know if the character is interesting or the theme of the movie is interesting. If the tone of the humor is appealing, you have a sense of that right away.
"This movie completely subverts the sports genre movie. So in the first 10 or 15 pages, I thought I was reading something that was cliche. The story of a weak man who gains his confidence through athletics."
Eisenberg ignored his initial reaction to the script and was enticed to continue reading because the dialogue was so clever. He's glad he kept turning the pages because Eisenberg found the script by Riley Stearns to be one of the most brilliant satires he had ever read. The movie's themes – such as the toxic world of masculinity – told in a dark comedic style were enough to get Eisenberg on board.
What attracted him was the tale of Casey, a bookkeeper (Eisenberg) who is so timid that even wallflowers make fun of him. His mousy composure makes him an easy target for a roving motorcycle gang who brutally attack him. Casey's first impulse is to buy a gun but he settles on taking classes at a neighborhood karate school.
He slowly develops skills to defend himself but the price he has to pay socially, spiritually, physically and emotionally begins to make him rethink his decision. It is only the strong-arm tactics of his sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and the concern of a hardcore brown belt (Imogen Poots) that helps Casey that he forges ahead.
Eisenberg says the script "provided a really clever commentary on masculinity and violence, but it was written in a way that's sweet, subversive, and complicated. On top of that, there was a real emotional core to the character of Casey."
Streams was delighted when he got an email from Eisenberg saying he loved the script and that he was honored to be considered for the part. Getting Eisenberg to agree to be in the movie was a huge moment for the director-writer.
The fact Eisenberg was impressed by the writing is a big deal because the native New York has an extensive background with the written world. Along with pieces he's written for The New Yorker, Eisenberg penned the plays "Asuncion," "The Revisionist" and "The Spoils." His first book of short stories, "Bream Gives Me Hiccups: And Other Stories," hit shelves in September 2015.
All that writing experience would suggest that Eisenberg would be extremely uncomfortable when making a movie that features a poorly written script. It's actually been an opposite reaction for him.
"I used to be critical of scripts that I read but once I started having my own plays produced and having the actors come in and give notes, I started realizing there is a bigger picture than what one actor playing one character might see," Eisenberg says. "So, I got completely relaxed and happy to immerse myself in somebody else's work.
"As an actor now on set, I don't feel a need to change things or give notes. I am happier to serve the story through my role and try to focus on doing the best in my role rather correcting some bigger thing. That makes me happier on set and a better actor."
He's had plenty of opportunities to step into roles since starring in the short-lived TV series "Get Real" in 1999, with roles in "The Emperor's Club," "The Education of Charlie Banks," "The Village," "Adventureland" and both "Now You See Me" and the sequel. He's just wrapped work on a sequel to his 2009 feature "Zombieland."
The extra concentration Eisenberg has for working on his acting gives him more time to make each character come across as real and accessible as possible. He laughs and suggests that is most a byproduct of his "physique."
His more serious answer is that "the trick of it is to imbue each character with an emotional honesty. If the character is a villain in a superhero movie, you play the emotional aspect of it. By contrast with a movie like 'The Art of Self-Defense," where this character is such an absurdly timid guy, you imbue him with the kind of rage a person like that might have under the surface."
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