Jesse Eisenberg appears flummoxed by his heartthrob status with fans who love adorably awkward actors reminiscent of a young Dustin Hoffman. The modest young thespian tends to eschew Hollywood parties and isn’t completely comfortable being recognized on the street.
But lately he seems to be everywhere, having emerged as one of the most sensitive performers of his generation. The 26-year-old anxiously slew the undead in last year’s smart horror-comedy hit “Zombieland” and has no less than three movies out this month: the absurdist black comedy “The Living Wake”; “Solitary Man,” opposite Michael Douglas; and “Holy Rollers,” inspired by the true story of Chasids-turned-drug smugglers in the 1990s, opening in theaters May 21. And fans are watching to see whether he will ratchet up his career to full-fledged stardom with his turn as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s highly anticipated “The Social Network.”
But Eisenberg — who speaks rapidly and is both droll and self-effacing — apparently doesn’t view himself as the “hot nerd” that Rolling Stone has proclaimed him to be. In fact, initially he wasn’t even sure he could pull off his leading role in “Holy Rollers”: “I didn’t think I would seem authentic,” said Eisenberg, who was raised Reform in Queens and New Jersey. “I thought the character should be played by a real Chasidic Jew, not an actor from other movies like me,” he said in a phone interview from his Manhattan home. “It takes place in a very insular Jewish community, and it would be somewhat distracting to watch an actor you’ve previously seen shooting up zombies in an amusement park.”
Eisenberg’s concerns were assuaged when he hit the streets of Borough Park, Brooklyn, to meet some actual Chasidic Jews. “I realized there weren’t any monolithic sets of character traits that defined these people,” he said. “And that a lot of them did sound and look like me — except with more facial hair.”
Eisenberg donned payot to portray Sam Gold, a Chasid frustrated by his poor marriage prospects and dead-end job in his family’s modest garment business. Sam’s escalating dissatisfaction makes him easy prey for his debauched neighbor, Yosef (Justin Bartha), who offers him good money to transport “medicine” from Amsterdam back to New York. All Sam has to do at the airport, Yosef says, is “act Jewish.” But when the “medicine” turns out to be ecstasy, Sam recoils, yet doesn’t run from the drug cartel. Instead, he discovers he has a kopf for the business, run by a secular Israeli (Danny Abeckaser), and a curiosity about its hedonistic fringe benefits.
Eisenberg concedes that the concept of Chasidic drug mules may elicit snickers or seem offensive to some members of the tribe. He is eager to convey that it is not. “There is nothing exploitative or silly in its portrayal of Chasidic Jews or Jews in general,” he insisted. “Every character in the movie is Jewish, so you are going to have protagonists as well as antagonists.”
Even so, Eisenberg views “Holy Rollers” not so much as a Jewish story as one about a misguided youth trying to find his place in the world and to integrate contradictory aspects of himself.
The actor can relate. He respects his Jewish background, but said he refused to become bar mitzvah because “in my community, kids did it for the checks.” Eisenberg suffered from “terrible separation anxiety as a child,” yet took so well to the stage that by high school he had landed the role of a virgin seeking seduction advice in 2002’s “Roger Dodger.” While he said he never, ever goes to the movies — “I don’t even know what is out,” he said — he has become a go-to actor for filmmakers making coming-of-age stories about themselves in dramas such as Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” and Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland.”
“Holy Rollers” draws on director Kevin Tyler Asch’s memories of the New York rave culture of the 1990s (see sidebar); Eisenberg is perfect as the fictional Chasid, he said, “because he exudes the kind of innocence Sam has coming from such an insular culture. I was so impressed by Jesse’s nuanced performance as he builds the transformation in the character — which is even more impressive given that we shot the whole movie in 18 days in the dead of winter.”
Eisenberg has just wrapped the lead in a David Fincher film, yet he said he equally aspires to become a downtown New York playwright. “It’s disconcerting at times,” he admits. “I was in a zombie movie that that community probably shunned, but because it was a success in the popular culture, they’re now more likely to read my little plays.”
Eisenberg also sees a contradiction in his participation in “Holy Rollers”: “Chasidic Jews don’t see secular movies, and I act in them,” he said. To create a realistic and respectful portrait, Eisenberg spent two years reading and watching movies about the community, learning to wrap tefillin, to chant prayers, and interviewing Chasidim sometimes on tape — about marriage, faith and blind faith.
There were some unexpected perks to the job: Eisenberg finally had his bar mitzvah. “It was just a 15-minute ceremony at the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, without all the hoopla that had surrounded bar mitzvahs when I was a child,” he said.
“I didn’t feel like a man immediately afterwards,” he added with a laugh. “But maybe after a day or two.”
“Holy Rollers” opens in Los Angeles on May 21 at The Landmark, 10850 West Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, and on May 28 at various Laemmle Theatres. For information, visit landmarktheatres.com and laemmle.com.