Actor Jesse Eisenberg: Networked In

We sit down for a Q&A with Jesse Eisenberg, the 27-year-old East Brunswick-reared actor who plays Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's new film The Social Network.

Justin Timberlake, left, and Jesse Eisenberg as the cofounders of Facebook in the new film The Social Network.
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

He’s chased the undead in Zombieland, betrayed his character’s Hasidic heritage as an ecstasy drug mule in Holy Rollers, worked in an amusement park in Adventureland, and sought seduction advice from the eponymous uncle in Roger Dodger. Jesse Eisenberg is the actor filmmakers routinely seek out when the script calls for a brainy but insecure youth in crisis. With his thick mat of curly brown hair, unimposing build, and boyish features, the 27-year-old East Brunswick-reared actor is about to get a serious career boost portraying Facebook founder/social media kingpin Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network, in theaters now.

You’ve amassed an extensive resume playing offbeat characters, but Zuckerberg is likely to generate the most widespread attention. What drew you to this role?

Mark is a very complicated person. In reality I’m a lot like Zuckerberg, but … I’m more inclined to participate and be engaged. Mark can appear so passive and emotionally detached, but on occasions he can be aggressive and stubborn. He seems uncomfortable in big social situations, and at a party he’s more inclined to stand in a corner. He’s probably one of the world’s greatest observers. I don’t often get cast as an insensitive person, so it feels very fresh and exciting.

It’s been reported that Zuckerberg had no participation in making the movie. How did you prepare for the role?

It’s true that I haven’t met Mark, but there’s a kind of intensity and pressure when one is playing such a bigger-than-life character. Here was a man that, in his Harvard dorm, started a network that now numbers 500 million people. For five months I lived and breathed him and watched endless footage of him speaking and observed his mannerisms… Even if the script hadn’t been based on a real-life person, it was already incredible and would have been more than enough to carry the movie on its own. Usually by the top half of the first script page you can pick up on the film’s tone and overall writing style.

Like Zuckerberg, you seem to follow your own path. You had what you describe as “a secret” while attending Churchill Junior High School and East Brunswick High School.

From the time I was around 8 I did children’s theater—Kids on Stage in South Brunswick, the Franklin Villagers Barn Theatre in Somerset—appearing in musicals like Secret Garden and Peter Pan. I didn’t tell anybody I was an actor, nor that I was on Broadway in the 1996 staging of Summer and Smoke. It felt kind of obnoxious and arrogant. It was like putting myself out there to be seen and, besides, they might have thought it was effeminate. Growing up in East Brunswick, I got a great education, alongside a lot of very smart kids. It was also so close to New York that it fueled my dreams of working in the Land of Oz.

What influenced you to act?

If I hadn’t gotten [cast in the film] Roger Dodger in my senior year of high school, I don’t think I would have pursued acting as a career. I wouldn’t have been brave enough to pursue something so unpredictable, but I got lucky and decided to try to capitalize on it. My mom, Amy, was a children’s party clown and my younger sister, Hallie Kate, starred in [the film] Bicentennial Man [when she was 7], but quit when she was 12. Just recently, she returned to acting, playing my sister in Holy Rollers. My dad, Barry, is a professor of sociology at the College of New Jersey. He’s always been very supportive, but I still don’t think he fully grasps what I do.

Currently, you are dashing around Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a fake bomb strapped to your chest for the comic-caper 30 Minutes or Less. And you have a trio of projects in development—The Stanford Prison Experiment, Kill Your Darlings, and Zombieland 2—plus a movie deal for an adaptation of your play, The Revisionist. Are you thinking of abandoning your Manhattan apartment and going Hollywood?

No. I’m hoping to move back to Jersey soon. My career takes me all over the world, but I’m really a homebody at heart. There’s nothing like returning to the large comfortable house where I grew up. I’m attending the New School in Manhattan and only need another eleven credits to complete a degree in anthropology. Besides, like most actors, if I’m not in the middle of shooting a movie, I’m always worried that I’m never going to work again.”

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