Jesse Eisenberg Delivers in '30 Minutes or Less'
On Tipping, the Loneliness of the Delivery Man and Method Sweating
Strapped to a bomb vest and commanded to rob a bank by low-rent crooks Danny McBride and Nick Swardson, Jesse Eisenberg's drifting, aimless delivery man is suddenly forced to stop and smell the roses, turning his life around even while it's at its most endangered. Directed by "Zombieland" helmer Ruben Fleischer, '30 Minutes or Less" is a psychotic crime comedy with a need for speed; we spoke with Eisenberg by phone.
This character is not sure where they're going, not sure what they're doing, whereas you have been pursuing an acting career for quite some time, unceasingly, unstoppingly. Is it problematic Or difficult to get into that apathetic, indifferent, drifting lifestyle, even for the purposes of comedic acting?
Eisenberg: I'd say unfortunately it's not. The way my job works, it appears that I'm very busy because any time I do something it's very public, because they put posters all over town of the work I've done -- but when that job is done, you're not working for six months, eight months. It's possible to have a lot of time off -- not by choice. During that time, it's easy for me to become apathetic, to become dismissive of the world, to become bitter. That's what the character in the movie is experiencing. He is probably a lot of people, not doing the job you want to do, doing a job he's overqualified for. You develop bitterness about the world. Because he's a pizza guy, he spends a lot of time in his car alone, and he's isolated and he lives a life of solitude and naturally develops that righteousness that accompanies that isolation.
You're saying the righteousness that accompanies that isolation, he's this cross between Thoreau and De Niro's 'Taxi Driver?'
Eisenberg: Yeah, certainly not to take it to a hilltop, but the character that I play in the movie thinks of himself as a righteous ascetic, but actually he's just a guy with no friends. I haven't seen the movie, but the improvisations that I would do in character were things like putting down the Beatles, putting down anything that's establishment. The Beatles are obviously a great band not needing to be criticized; my character thinks the Beatles are ridiculous because they're part of the establishment. I don't know if that particular thing made it in the movie, but it always stuck out to me as something this character would hate: Anything that's achieved success or popularity. That's why the character needs this so much, because in the movie he's put through an insane day, having to rob a bank, and it lights a fire underneath him to tell a girl he loves her, to reconcile with his best friend, to quit his job. It's the perfect marriage of character and situation.
There is that great line from Samuel Johnson that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being hung in the morning.
Eisenberg: Yeah, exactly.
How much of the stuff was on the page? You've got a strong script here, you've got stuff really well put together by Michael Diliberti, but you also have people like Danny McBride and Aziz Ansari wher you can metaphorically stick the key in their back, wind them up, and let them go. How often did Mr. Fleischer say, 'This take, you have to get from point A to point B, but I don't care how you get there?'
Eisenberg: What we would do usually is do a few of the scripted takes and then we would be allowed -- if we had an idea -- to do something. The script was really great, and improvisation works very well when there's already a good script as opposed to improvising because there's not enough there. This script was really great. What the script had, which was very unique to comedies like this, is have characters that were real and in directions that seemed real so that the characters were not just a pawn for a joke but that they actually had back stories that were very specific and interactions that seemed authentic and unique and consistent throughout the movie. That made improvising easy, because the parameters were already there. For example, because my character's written as a guy who is not just depressed but actually righteous, it allows me to open up creatively and think about what this character would not like and what this character would dismiss: Things like the Beatles, things like basketball players who are physically adept. It's because the script was so well-drawn that it allowed us to improvise.
What did you learn about the Zen of delivery? I was on the set visit where you explained you had gone out in Grand Rapids and somebody gave you an extra $5 tip because they really liked 'Adventureland.' What did you learn about the Zen of delivery? What did you learn about delivery as a task?
Eisenberg: (In the past in New York,) if I wasn't acting, I was a bike messenger for a not-for-profit organization. I was a bike messenger for a few days for them. To me, that would be the job I would do if I wasn't an actor, because I like moving and being alone and being active. I could understand why doing a job like my character does in the movie might be really enjoyable. You're alone, you're with your music, you're with your thoughts, you're a part of a hierarchy but you're not surrounded by your direct superiors so you don't have to put on a face for them, you don't really have to appeal to your customers because the interaction with them is so brief. I could understand why it's really appealing. Again, it's like the perfect marriage between character and situation, because my character in this movie is so alone and he has no need or reason to integrate. This movie forces him to.
Hearing you talk about it, in many ways this makes a really interesting character secondary piece to 'Zombieland' because a big part of your character's journey in that was opening up to other people and recognizing the ways in which other people matter. Is that overthinking it?
Eisenberg: No, it's a very generous analysis, except that with 'Zombieland,' it was actually in the post-production they put that into the character's back story, so when we were playing the character, I had none of this feeling of being isolated and trying to avoid others. That was really not in there. When they were editing the movie, there's voiceover in the movie, so they were able to manipulate the characters and re-edit it to make me look sadder than I actually probably was on set because the character was not on set. I guess it also speaks to what movies tend to be about, which is people like watching movies where characters who are alone integrate into society.
There's the great throwaway line in this when Aziz Ansari's character asks you about your Facebook status and you're like, 'No, I don't check that s**t, I stay off the networks.' When you were making this, 'The Social Network' hadn't quite come out yet. Did you know how big 'The Social Network' was going to be in terms of it being a film that people talked about, that garnered nominations? Was there a sense while you were waiting for it to come out, or was it just, 'I don't know, we're in a movie about a Web site by the guy who made "Se7en," let's see what happens?'
Eisenberg: No, when I read the script I thought it was phenomenal, so you have some sense of it being really good. All that other stuff of people nominating it for awards and acknowledging it for different lists and stuff like that, all stuff that seems to me really nebular. It's hard to predict that stuff, and harder to control. That stuff never occurs to me. Every time you work on a movie, you think there's always a point at which during the shooting you think, 'This is the greatest thing in the world.' Then what inevitably happens is it comes out and the audience tells you it's not the greatest thing in the world -- in fact, a lot of us don't like it at all. With 'The Social Network,' it was the opposite. We all thought it was really good, but then it came out and the reviews and the reactions were even beyond what we could have hoped for.
Going from the higher to the lower level, your character in this film spends a lot of the time very sweaty. Do they do that prosthetically?
Eisenberg: Unfortunately no. We were shooting the movie in Michigan, and I assumed -- having never been to Michigan -- it was always cold. It turns out that Michigan experiences summer as well. It was so hot. In the movie my character's wearing a bomb vest on his body pretty much the whole movie. You naturally sweat so much. The upside of that is that acting, you're using your imagination for 90 percent of the story. With this, because I had the vest on and because it was so hot and tight, it allowed me to -- at least sensor-ally -- get into that part of the character.
A little bit of method clamminess?
Eisenberg: Yeah, because when you're using your imagination to picture something around your body, the little details are all the things you'd miss, like that it pinches in this part or it itches in the back part. Actually how they (built the vest) and seeing where it pinched and seeing where it itched actually made that a little bit easier.
What do they have you smoking instead of actual marijuana? What is your faux-ijuana of choice?
Eisenberg: Crack cocaine. I don't know where they got it, but they said it would make me less tired for the scenes during the day.
It still produces that nice, cinematic, exhalable smoke?
Eisenberg: Actually when they make it rain in movies, they have to use the water machine to make the drops bigger than they actually would be to show up on camera. Similarly, in order to make the exhalation look more like marijuana, they have to use crack cocaine.
You're working right now on (Woody Allen's next film,) 'The Bop Decameron' -- I'm not sure if you're filming right now. How is that? We all read about the fact that when you work with Woody Allen, you get only the pages you're involved in, that there's maybe one or two takes, you're just watching him stitch this whole thing together in his head. How was that experience for you?
Eisenberg: That all sounds pretty accurate. We just finished yesterday, and that was great. It was great to watch him work. He's my favorite director of all time, obviously. It's incredible to watch him work, especially somebody who's made so many movies -- so many great movies -- to watch them move with such ease. I've done a lot of movies that have been directed by first-time directors and I've been very lucky that they've done a really great job overall. To watch somebody who's made 40 movies work with such confidence and such a clear sense of how an audience is going to react to every single thing that we're doing is really interesting. It's interesting to watch somebody work; the fact that I got to act in it and be a part of it in that other way is almost icing.
Has shooting '30 Minutes or Less' made you a better tipper when you order delivery?
Eisenberg: Yes, absolutely. My father, before I was born, was a taxi driver, and before that was a food delivery guy for a diner. He always instilled in us good tipping values. Right after doing that, you become very sensitive to the plight of the guy delivering your food.
("30 Minutes or Less" opens wide this Friday.)