At one point in “The Social Network,” Facebook founder-to-be Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) insists, “I’m not going back to ‘Caribbean Night’ at AEPi (the Jewish fraternity).” Here’s Eisenberg’s take on that line –as well as his own Jewish background – as told to Journal Arts & Entertainment Naomi Pfefferman Magid.
Naomi Pfefferman Magid: When your character says he’s not going back to “Caribbean Night” at AEPi, it seems he is saying, he doesn’t want to be relegated to just his own specific subset at Harvard, but wants access to the Harvard elite.
Jesse Eisenberg: I would hesitate to read that subtext into that line. Certainly he’s not denying being a Jewish person; but I think he’s more interested in creating a level playing field and I don’t think he liked that club because it was boring, not because it had any religious affiliation. It’s certainly not a denunciation of his background.
NPM: What did you do for the high holidays?
JE: On Yom Kippur I fasted but I was in Los Angeles; unfortunately I wasn’t with my family.
NPM: You’ve mentioned that your girlfriend’s family is more observant than your own –her stepmother is from Uzbekistan so she has more of a tie to the traditions. Do you visit her relatives on the holidays?
JE: We occasionally go there or we go to a temple in New York called CBST (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah), which is a lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender temple.
NPM: Why there?
JE: It’s really the most amazing thing: I mean they hold the holidays at the Javitz Center because 20,000 people come. It’s really an incredible place, and it’s run by this incredible woman now named Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. Her sermons are just so remarkable, regardless of how religious you are or in the case of that temple, what your sexual orientation is. She has the most inspiring speeches.
NPM: In “The Social Network,” you play a very complicated person who does things that could be described as unethical or at the very least, morally ambiguous. What old-school Jewish values could have saved your character from himself?
JE: That’s a nice question. I wish I knew more about old-school Jewish values. I was raised in a family where we became increasingly secular. My dad is a sociologist who teaches a class in ethics, and ethics are often framed in a religious setting. But for my family and me we kind of framed ethical questions in a secular way, so it’s hard for me to point to what would be attributed to Jewish culture.
NPM: How do you justify your character’s behavior, in your own mind?
JE: Ethics are so relative. I mean my character prioritizes the maintenance and expansion of his creation, Facebook, above all else, so his moral compass prioritizes Facebook….We might have an uncomfortable reaction to Mark’s relationship with Eduardo Saverin (his Facebook co-founder and former best friend) 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.
NPM: You have a long-term Jewish girlfriend. In the movie, one of Zuckerberg’s friends remarks that he prefers Asian-American women because “they’re hot, they’re smart, they’re not Jewish.” Is there the myth of the non-Jewish goddess even at Harvard?
JE: I’m not in that scene – I come in right after [the other character] says that. I don’t think my character would say that. I don’t think he looks at it that way. I wouldn’t have known how to parse that [dramatically], because I didn’t feel that was natural for my character nor did the writer because he didn’t put me in the scene, so I was kind of happy it wasn’t my line.
FROM MY PREVIOUS INTERVIEWS WITH JESSE EISENBERG
NPM (from an interview earlier this year about “Holy Rollers,” in which Eisenberg plays a troubled Chasidic Jew): You dropped out of Hebrew school at 11 and declined to have a bar mitzvah because you didn’t feel connected to the kind of suburban Judaism where the party was more important than the ritual. You finally did have a bar mitzvah at Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights while researching your part in “Holy Rollers.” What was that like?
JE: I didn’t realize what a bar mitzvah is, because where I grew up it was about getting checks and having this big party. I didn’t realize that a bar mitzvah is actually a potentially quick and simple process – the actual bar mitzvah, not the hoopla surrounding it. So yes, actually having a bar mitzvah was maybe a 15-minute procedure; it was wrapping tefillin, reading the prayers.
NPM: Did you feel more like a man afterwards?
JE: (laughs) Not immediately but maybe an hour or two later.
NPM (from a 2009 interview about “Adventureland,” in which Eisenberg plays a sweet but self-aggrandizing writer): How did it come about that you visited your Jewish family’s ancestral home in Poland several years ago?
JE: In New York City I see my [Polish-born] aunt every week, which I’ve done for six years. She’s 97 now.
NPM: What a nice Jewish boy.
JE: It sounds like it, doesn’t it? (laughs). My aunt was born in Poland actually and we talk about it all the time. I’m fascinated with genealogy so I said to her, if I do this movie, “The Hunting Party (2007),” in Bosnia, I promise you I will go to your house where you were born in Poland, which is in this tiny village. Because she’s 97 I thought she would appreciate a picture of this house she hadn’t’ seen since she was 8. She came here in 1912.
NPM: As a result of World War I?
JE: Yes, her father was sent here to avoid the draft; and a few years later the family came. So I thought she would be over the moon, but it seemed like she didn’t really care when I showed her the pictures; she said, ‘Oh, it looks the same.’ The house was in this tiny town, and it took like three days to get to and I got into a car accident and had to pay the Polish [authorities] in cash.
NPM: It sounds like a road trip out of Jonathan Safran Foer’s [Jewish-boy-searches-for-his-roots] novel, “Everything Is Illuminated.”
JE: Right. I didn’t see the movie, but I read the book.
NPM: You’ve played so many characters who happen to be Jewish. Do you ever worry about being typecast?
JE: No. Every actor in the world is kind of trapped by their own bodies and mannerisms and you could look at that as a positive thing—that that’s what you bring to a character—or as a limiting thing, as though that’s all you can bring to a role. But it’s still better to look at it as a positive thing.
NPM: In “Zombieland,” you play a rather nervous slayer of the undead. What was the most unusual zombie your character encountered?
JE: It was a Chasidic Jewish zombie. I think you can see him briefly in the movie.
More on “The Social Network” at Hollywood Jew:
The Social Network’s Other Jewish Star: Andrew Garfield
Mark Zuckerberg can’t handle his own spotlight
Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook to get girls (just not Jewish girls)