In Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical film, “Adventureland,” Jesse Eisenberg plays an Ivy League graduate whose plans for a European holiday are quashed when his parents suffer financial woes and he is forced to work a summer job at a decrepit amusement park, circa 1987. What he assumes will be a tedious summer turns into a personal and sexual rite-of-passage when he meets Emily (Kristen Stewart of “Twilight”) and begins a complicated romance.
The 25-year-old Eisenberg has emerged as one of the most sensitive performers of his generation and the go-to actor for filmmakers making movies about themselves as insecure young intellectuals in crisis. In Noah Baumbach’s Oscar-nominated “The Squid and the Whale,” Eisenberg played a pompous son of literati parents undergoing a bitter divorce.
James, his character in “Adventureland,” is a sweet but fretful writer mortified by his descent into the job hell of Horse Derby operator at the park. “He possesses this self-aggrandizement that he is smarter than the other employees and that he should be off doing loftier things,” the actor said during an interview recently at the Four Seasons Hotel. “The flip side is that if he does have this crappy job, then perhaps he is supposed to be there, because that is all he is worthy of.”
Eisenberg — whose speech has the stop-and-start rhythm of a young Woody Allen — was surprised when Mottola cast him without an audition. “Sometimes you have to audition multiple times for roles where you just feel kind of icky about yourself, because there are only so many movies in Hollywood and most of them are not that good, which is the nature of any mass art form,” Eisenberg said. An actor has bills to pay, after all, and in his case, that includes the Manhattan home where he lives with his longtime girlfriend.
“Then something amazing like ‘Adventureland’ comes along, and I just got in,” he said. “Of course then comes the added pressure of having to prove yourself on the set.”
Mottola, best known for directing “Superbad,” said he has admired Eisenberg since seeing him play a 16-year-old virgin seeking seduction advice from an uncle in 2002’s “Roger Dodger.” Mottola said the actor reminds him of a younger version of himself, especially the summer he worked as a carnie while at Columbia University and vowed to avoid sex until he fell in love, which he saw “as a code, but was probably just a cover for massive insecurity,” he said.
“Jesse was perfect for the role, because he is an excellent actor but also very much himself: quick-witted, intelligent, perhaps too smart for his own good. He has the energy of way too many ideas happening at once in his head, which he sometimes struggles to form into a coherent sentence.”
In conversation, Eisenberg is erudite, funny, self-aware and says he identifies with James’ tendency to “overexplain things.” While he is currently signed to act in a number of films and is developing a movie inspired by a relative who is a Holocaust survivor, he mostly tries to keep a low profile as a student at Manhattan’s New School , where he studies democracy and cultural pluralism.
“I don’t tell anybody I’m an actor, because it feels kind of obnoxious and arrogant to be in movies — like you’re putting yourself out there to be seen,” he said. He describes himself as an intensely private person who is uncomfortable when strangers recognize him on the street. “I assume that if you’re in the public eye all the time, it might be easy to lose some of your inner life, because you’re living in such an outward way,” he added.
Eisenberg was raised in something of a show business family in Queens, N.Y. and East Brunswick, N.J. His younger sister, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, starred as a child in films such as “Paulie” and “The Insider,” and his mother was a professional birthday party clown.
“As a child I suffered from terrible separation anxiety,” he said. “I had emotional issues, but many actors do, which is why we are emotionally accessible.” Eisenberg attended Hebrew school, but dropped out at age 11 and declined to become bar mitzvah because, he said, “I didn’t feel a connection to it, and neither did my friends, yet they wanted to have their parties. I don’t want to sound like a martyr,” he added, hastily, “but I would have felt guilty going through with it, because it would have meant something I wasn’t able to commit to.”
Instead he pursued acting and, while still in high school, was cast in “Roger Dodger.” He has since been in “The Hunting Party” and “The Education of Charlie Banks,” now in theaters, in which he plays a college student confronted by a childhood bully.
Two months ago, Eisenberg wrapped production on “Holy Rollers,” about a Chasidic man who is lured into becoming an Ecstasy dealer by a friend with ties to an Israeli cartel; he also has a movie deal to adapt his play, “The Revisionist,” which is inspired in part by his own family’s experiences in Europe before and after World War II.
During one of his weekly visits to his 97-year-old aunt in New York, Eisenberg promised to visit her native village in Poland after wrapping production on “The Hunting Party” in Bosnia several years ago. On the road trip there — which sounds like something out of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated” — he had to pay off Polish police in cash after a car accident, managed to arrive unscathed at his aunt’s childhood home on the town square in Krasnystaw and in another city met a cousin who had survived the Holocaust by hiding with a Catholic family as a girl.
Her stories about the war and its aftermath prompted “The Revisionist”: “It is about this 25-year-old, s——y science fiction novelist who goes to Poland to visit a second cousin because he thinks if he does something dramatic in his life it will inspire him to finish this bad book. She assumes he’s there to see her, because she lives alone and no one ever comes to visit, and he just wants the free room. So it’s about the relationship that ensues,” he said.
Eisenberg hopes to play the male lead in the film adaptation of the play; in the meantime, he is dutifully making the interview rounds for “Adventureland.”
“There is a kind of intensity and pressure when one is playing a character based on the director,” he said of the film. Nevertheless, he was able to find aspects of himself in the film’s protagonist. “James has all these lofty ambitions, but at the same time he doesn’t have enough confidence to pursue them, and I feel the exact same way,” he said.
“On the one hand, I want to be in movies, and I have all these projects I want to do, but on the other hand, I have to then force myself to go contend with the world.”
“Adventureland” opens April 3.