Jesse Eisenberg was practically born to play Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the prickly antihero of “The Social Network.”
Like his character, Eisenberg is 26, Jewish, fiercely bright, hails from a middle-class New York home and is testament to the idea that smart nerds will inherit the earth. He speaks rapidly to convey the multiple ideas that crash and jumble in his brain, and he can find public appearances (not to mention interviews) excruciating. The film about Zuckerberg, an intensely private young man who shot to the top of a very public field, also resonates with Eisenberg, who has earned accolades playing adorably awkward nerds in films such as “Zombieland” but who seems poised to become a veritable star, given the Oscar buzz surrounding “Social Network.”
“I really do feel a great kind of connection to my character,” he said in a phone interview from Austin, Texas, where he was making press appearances.
And though Zuckerberg has denounced the film — calling “fiction” its portrayal of how he founded Facebook and his schism with the company’s co-founder and his former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) — Eisenberg nevertheless empathizes with the genius billionaire. “I can only imagine what it would be like to watch a movie about something you did when you were 19 and lawsuits you were involved in when you were 24,” he said in a voice reminiscent of a young Woody Allen. “I don’t even like to watch movies I’ve been in.” Indeed, Eisenberg is so private, he had never even been on Facebook before reading Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay some two years ago.
That was just months after Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) was hooked four pages into reading the book proposal for Ben Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal.” Director David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) soon signed on, and while numerous actors auditioned for the leading role, Eisenberg was the shoo-in. Fincher actually pulled Sorkin aside to view the actor’s videotaped audition of the film’s opening scene, in which Zuckerberg’s rapid-fire, obnoxiously condescending patter — and social cluelessness — revolts his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. In the movie, she silences him by stating that women won’t avoid him because he’s a nerd but because he is an “a———.”
Even though reviews so far have applauded the film, some critics have described the fictional Zuckerberg as off-putting; Eisenberg, however, professes “great affection” for his character. When he first read the screenplay, he said he saw that Zuckerberg “can appear detached or enigmatic, but by the end of the script, I had the sense that I understood all of his behavior — even though it was sometimes hurtful or hard to decipher.
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“Mark Zuckerberg comes off as a very lonely person who feels alienated from society and traditional interpersonal interactions. The dramatic irony of the movie is that he creates a network that unites everyone except himself.”
Zuckerberg’s Jewish background is one of the elements that marginalize him from the blue-blood culture at Harvard, along with the elite all-male clubs there that decline to admit him. This exclusivity is perhaps personified in the characters of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the broad-shouldered WASP rowing champions who are members of the choicest club — and who allege that Zuckerberg stole their Internet idea after he agreed to work with them. The movie’s Zuckerberg resents their athletic prowess, their sense of entitlement, their easy admission into the highest echelons at Harvard. “I’m not going back to Caribbean night at AEPi [the Jewish fraternity],” the budding CEO says at one point in the movie.
Yet Eisenberg doesn’t believe his character frames these frustrations “as a Jewish person. His motivation and ambition is derived from feeling excluded by the established guard.”
The actor has been candid about his own social unease in previous interviews with The Jewish Journal, beginning when he was 22 and had just portrayed the pompous son of literati parents in “The Squid and the Whale.”
“I was depressed when I was really young,” Eisenberg said during a 2009 interview about “Adventureland,” in which he played a sweet but self-aggrandizing writer. “I had emotional issues, but a lot of actors do — that’s why we’re emotionally accessible,” he said. “My parents were great, but I just had a problem with separation anxiety. I remember I could never go to birthday parties because I would cry hysterically, so I just stopped getting invited.”
Eisenberg was especially traumatized when he enrolled at a big new school in sixth grade, and — according to The New Yorker — he spent a brief stint in a mental hospital. “I had great difficulty connecting with other people,” Eisenberg said. “To cope, I started acting, because it was in a prescribed setting where the roles were designated. But within those roles, you could be creative.” This personal history proved useful in understanding his “Social Network” character who, he said, “feels the best way he can connect is in this other prescribed setting, which is online.”
Eisenberg had already portrayed a series of complex young men in films, such as the Chasidic thriller “Holy Rollers,” when his agents called about “The Social Network.” Because the actor hadn’t then heard of Zuckerberg, he read about him and watched every videotaped appearance he could find of the Facebook CEO. He repeatedly listened to those speeches on his iPod even as filming began.
Eisenberg knew he would not be able to meet the famously private Zuckerberg, even though — ironically — Eisenberg’s own cousin, Eric, works for Facebook and interacts with the CEO every day. “Mark was really generous with my cousin,” Eisenberg said. “The first thing he said to Eric was, ‘I hear your cousin is playing me in a movie — that’s really cool.’ That’s as gracious as one can be in a presumably uncomfortable situation.”
Eisenberg said he would feel bad if he were ever to learn that his performance personally hurt the entrepreneur.
So how does the actor morally justify portraying a real-life person who feels offended by the film? “That’s a good question, and one I’ve thought about,” said Eisenberg, whose father is a sociology professor who teaches ethics. Moral issues have been a topic of discussion in his family, albeit in a secular, rather than a specifically Jewish, framework. “I wish I knew more about old-school Jewish values,” the actor said. He didn’t have his bar mitzvah until he was researching his Chasidic role for “Holy Rollers” last year.
Eisenberg views ethics as “relative”: “My character values the creation, maintenance and expansion of Facebook above all else, so his moral compass prioritizes that,” he said. “[The character] Eduardo prioritizes his friendship with Zuckerberg, but if you look at it from my character’s perspective, Facebook is so much more important than a college relationship. Then you view Mark’s actions as not only morally on the level, but necessary for the company.”
Eisenberg also points out that “I did not generate this movie. I’m not passing the buck, but there was a book written, a screenplay done, a director who is one of the greatest directors of all time and four of the greatest producers in Hollywood. I came in later.
“In terms of personal responsibility ... I understand that there have been a variety of reactions to the character, but my only job was to defend his behavior and his actions and of course, to sympathize with him.”
While on his press tour, Eisenberg has at times found himself trying to quell his persisting anxiety: “It can be mortifying,” he said. He’s also missing his weekly sessions with his therapist.
“I don’t like phone sessions,” he explained. “I feel so strange divulging, or emoting over [a technology like a phone], which is ironic because of the movie.”
“The Social Network” opens Oct. 1.