Jesse Eisenberg on His New Movies, Resistance and Vivarium [Exclusive]

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Jesse Eisenberg, best known for his roles in movies such as Zombieland and The Social Network, is staying quite busy these days. Much of the time, in recent years, that is spent on slightly smaller indie movies, which vary greatly in scope and genre. Case in point, Eisenberg is starring in not one, but two movies that are coming out on the same day this week in Resistance and Vivarium.

In the case of Resistance, directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, Jesse Eisenberg portrays real-life mime Marcel Marceau who went on to become something of an unlikely hero during World War II, becoming a member of the French Resistance, which helped to save the lives of thousands of children. On the other side of the fence, we have Vivarium. Directed by Lorcan Finnegan, this contained sci-fi flick reteams him with his Art of Self-Defense co-star Imogen Poots and sees them as a couple looking to buy a house and they become trapped in the labyrinth of a development, forcing them to live in a suburban nightmare.

RELATED: Resistance Review: Jesse Eisenberg’s Career Best Performance

I recently had the good fortune of speaking with Jesse Eisenberg on behalf of both movies. It’s actually the third time in a year I’ve spoken with the actor, a tradition I hope to see continue. We discussed their commonalities, what sets them apart, how the current coronavirus pandemic is influencing the way in which they will be viewed and much more.

Hey man, are you doing alright?

Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah! We’re about to drive cross country in an RV.

Oh man. That’s wild.

Jesse Eisenberg: It’s pretty weird, yeah. So unbelievably surreal.

I don’t know if you remember but I got to interview you twice in the last year. I got to talk to you for The Art of Self-Defense and Zombieland 2, so I guess we’re making this something of a tradition when you have a new movie coming out.

Jesse Eisenberg: [laughs] That would be great! And hopefully this won’t end, given the current pandemic.

Touching on that a little bit, we’re here to talk about Resistance and Vivarium. You have two movies coming out on the same day at a time when people could really use a break from life. How does that feel for you? You mentioned the word surreal.

Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah. Also, you make these movies with a certain kind of intention and they end up coming out at a time that will necessarily affect the way they are viewed. Vivarium is this kind of claustrophobic fever dream of a movie about characters that are totally isolated who literally have no interaction with anybody besides themselves and their increasingly stir-crazy child. I think it will be filtered through the gaze of being stuck at home and quarantined now. And Resistance is this really beautiful, uplifting movie about a guy who is keeping these children entertained and distracted through a war. Again, I think it will be filtered through the lens of parents keeping their children occupied when they are not allowed to go outside or play with other kids, which is exactly what I’m dealing with now. So it’s really strange, in that, you think a movie will be perceived a certain way and they always end up being perceived the way that the culture decides based on the circumstances in which they’re coming out.

With Resistance specifically, World War II is perhaps one of the most well-trotted genres in all of film. What sets Resistance apart, in your mind, from other movies people might be familiar with from that subgenre of filmmaking?

Jesse Eisenberg: You hit it in on the head, in terms of what I was thinking about it, in terms of, how is this different? I lost family in World War II and wanted to write something about it at some point. What I ended up writing about it was a play where this brash young man visits his Holocaust surviving cousin based on my life and my experience with my cousin. The play was kind of an unusual take on that story. In terms of this movie, I thought of it as the story of an artist who is coming to terms with, A, not being able to do his work because he’s Jewish and in Europe in the late 30s, then reluctantly becoming a hero and using his art for the benefit of others. It’s something I think about all the time. I think a lot of what I do is very self-indulgent, and self-serving, and navel-gazing. And yet, I married a woman who grew up volunteering at her mother’s domestic violence shelter, and who works with the poorest schools in New York City. So I’m constantly trying to reconcile, how do you have a life in the arts but also try to help people more explicitly? So that’s kind of what I like about this movie, and what I think it touched upon so beautifully, rather than just a typical story of the wary.

Switching to Vivarium, which is a very different kind of movie. I think it’s a little difficult to distill, but at the core of it is this “be careful what you wish for” idea. You play a character named Tom. How do you think that theme affected the character? Without getting into spoilers.

Jesse Eisenberg: The movie was written in response to this housing crisis in Ireland where there was a shortage of housing in Dublin and people were increasingly desperate to find a house, and they moved further and further outside the city to do so. So I was thinking of it in those terms and how we, in an eager need to have some kind of normal life, and to respond to social pressure of growing up, getting married and having a child, and finding a house, you may make these kinds of compromises or sacrifices. I think of this movie as the kind of fever dream you would have the night before you get married or buy a house. All of these unconscious fears you have of commitment manifesting in the scariest of ways. In a way, it kind of speaks to what you said, of be careful what you wish for. But also, I think what makes the movie so great, is that it’s this kind of abstracted version of a nightmare, rather than a literal commentary on how bad the suburbs are, or how bad marriage can be. It really is this abstracted version of that stuff in a way that I thought was just really terrifying, rather than a more literal commentary.

Both of these movies, while very different, I think the similarity that they share is that they’re very intense. For you, was one of them more intense to film than the other?

Jesse Eisenberg: I mean, doing a World War II movie and playing a Jewish guy at a time when there was antisemitic attacks happening in America was particularly because, oftentimes you do a movie, most of the time it’s fiction so you’re no longer encountering it in anyway. But doing a movie like this where the temple in Pittsburgh, where I have a lot of friends, was attacked after rehearsal for a Holocaust movie was particularly unnerving, especially when I have survivors in my family. You have the sense, at least the Holocaust is over and becoming an increasingly distant memory, and there there is attacks on a temple that you’ve been to in Pittsburgh. Or my wife’s temple, where she grew up, there was an attempted bombing there, and a defacement of it. Particularly strange, especially doing the movie in Munich, about 20 minutes away from Dachau. That was, I would say, unusually difficult to remove myself. On the other hand, it has this really wonderful feeling, because the beautiful theme of the movie is, the character says, “The best way to resist is to survive.” It’s not to kill the Nazis, but to survive and live past them. In a way, doing the movie, it felt like we were doing just that.

You mentioned the whole idea of responsibility vs. entertainment. I’ve always felt entertainment is a good thing for people. An escape. The Social Network felt like a movie that, at the time when it came out, was shining a light on things people didn’t realize. But so much has happened with Facebook in the time since that movie came out. Do you think there could be some sort of social responsibility in doing a sequel that shines a light on what happens since we last saw Mark Zuckerberg?

Jesse Eisenberg: There’s a great movie that I just saw at the Boulder [International] Film Festival called The Social Dilemma which, in a way, serves as exactly that. I mean, it’s a really unnerving documentary about the dangers of social media. I don’t have any social media accounts, so it was kind of an education for me, as well as a warning. Or maybe for many of the other people in the audience who have social media, it was just kind of a shock to the system. I would recommend people see it, because it’s really great and terrifying.

Would you be interested in playing Zuckerberg again if the opportunity came up?

Jesse Eisenberg: My background is in theater where you play a character 200 times and it still doesn’t feel like enough. So when I do a movie it always feels like it ended far too quickly. I love doing anything like that. That’s why I’ve done a few sequels. It’s exciting. I like that kind of thing. That last play I did, I did like 200 times in two different countries, and to me it felt like I still wanted to do it again. So I don’t ever feel bored, or exhausted, or uninterested in characters.

Vivarium is available on March 27 on both VOD and Digital HD from Saban Films, with Resistance also available on that date on both VOD and Digital HD from IFC Films.

Ryan Scott at Movieweb