At only 31, Jesse Eisenberg has cultivated one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood. Between taking on the role of super villain Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman, starring in Joachim Trier‘s Cannes favorite Louder Than Bombs, appearing on stage six nights a week in his latest acclaimed play, and acting opposite Kristen Stewart in the upcoming stoner thriller American Ultra, Eisenberg may not have the time or interest to watch movies but he’s certainly blowing us away with them. And his latest role as writer David Lipsky in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, a nostalgic examination of a brief chapter in David Foster Wallace’s life, is no exception.
As we’ve previously noted, starring “Jason Segel as Wallace alongside Eisenberg as Lipsky, The End of the Tour was adapted by playwright Donald Margulies from Lipsky’s book of the same title. The End of the Tour picks up in the winter of 1997 when Lipsky convinced Rolling Stone magazine to send him on assignment to profile Wallace on the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour. More road movie than biopic, The End of the Tour is filled with intimate conversations between the two men as they eat candy, chain smoke, and debate everything from their fierce mutual commitment to maintaining artistic integrity and the harrowing pain of loneliness to Wallace’s much-rumored past and his (now iconic) bandana-wearing sartorial choices. Ponsoldt delivers a compelling and elegiac portrait of one of the literary world’s most celebrated artists and his internal struggle with success, providing a glimpse into the mind of a genius.”
After The End of the Tour’s New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest, we sat down with Eisenberg to find out more about his relationship to Wallace’s work, finding himself on the opposite end of an interview, and the pleasure of working with an intimate cast.
As a Wallace fan yourself, what attracted you to being a part of this movie and James’ vision for it?
Usually when movies are about people they’re not as good as fictional movies because a lot of times they’re getting made because the person is interesting and not because the story is good. That was not the case with this one. I knew the writer Donald Margulies because he writes plays and I write plays, and few months before they sent me the script he had moderated a discussion after one of my shows, so we knew each other. They sent me this script and I liked the script and I like James Segal and James Ponsoldt I met with and he he told me he really wanted me to play the role like a sniper, like somebody going into a situation and trying to take out the opposing party. He said he didn’t want me to play the role like a kid brother. He wanted me to play it with some real gravity, and that’s what appealed to me about doing it.
I don’t watch movies, but I asked my agent and he and everybody else said he’s wonderful.
You’re playing a real person, but a real person at a very specific point in his life. So how did you go about preparing for the role and getting to know David Lipsky now?
I met with David Lipsky and asked if I could interview him and if he could teach me how to interview people. I asked him about the emotional experience for him at this time—was it just a conversation and a casual interview or were you questioning yourself, having questions of identity, and questioning your own creativity as it relates to somebody who is receiving a lot more attention for doing the same thing. So he talked to me about that and I realized very quickly that this can be an emotional part, it doesn’t have to just be a conversation, it can be real examination of everything he knows. He’s part of this New York world that feels like the only important place on earth where all important decisions are made, and then he goes to the Midwest where seemingly no important decisions are made—as far as publishing is concerned—and actually the most important person in literature is living out there. So he starts to question what he values.
Could you relate to both Davids, as a writer yourself, but also as someone quite young who has had a lot of success?
Yeah, because in the movie my character writes a book and gets some modest acclaim for it, and then he goes into a much bigger pond and realizes that he is a tiny fish. I’m doing a play right now in New York everyday and one day the play goes really well and you feel good about yourself and the next day it doesn’t go well and you feel completely worthless. It’s the nature of investing your emotions in a job and the job occasionally not working out the way you want it to. I imagine other people in other professions have that experience and that phenomenon, but I think there’s something particularly potent about using your emotional inner life. It’s also very it public so it adds another strange element to it.
Was it eye opening to spend so much time on the opposite end of an interview?
That’s precisely it, and it was surprising because I realized that my character has as much of an agenda as the other character. The other character wants to protect himself and maybe come off in a positive light, but my character has an agenda to get something that no one else has, which means pushing the boundaries of what the interviewee is comfortable with. But my character is also competitive with him, so maybe he’s trying to take him down in some subtle or subversive way.
Right, and they’re both performing for one another, which complicates it further. But you can see that your character wants something from him but might not even be able to say what that is.
Exactly, and it’s hard to articulate exactly what I want from him. I guess I want some advice, but at the same time I don’t want him to give me any advice because I feel like he’s some sort of paternal figure.
It’s interesting because Lipsky wants Wallace’s success, fame, and talent but then meets Wallace and sees how much he rejects it and is still struggling with all of this internally. So then it becomes about—well if that’s what I’m working my whole life to achieve and if I get it I still might be miserable, what’s the point of it all.
That’s exactly it. Jason and I discussed this a lot, in so far as this movie is concerned, You know, achieving the thing that you think will allow you to relax and bring you the kind of peace you ultimately strive for. It never does, the mind just doesn’t work that way, it doesn’t allow you to have that kind of inner peace.
What I found interesting about your performance was that it was so reactive. Even when you were just listening to Wallace there was always something very distinct happening behind your eyes. The scene where he approaches you in the kitchen and tells you to be a good person, you weren’t saying anything but there was a sadness in your expression that translated and carried through a lot of the movie.
Yeah, because throughout every scene he’s feeling inadequate and it comes across in all these ways. He has to put up a front as being a responsible journalist but really he’s spending his time around this guy who does his job better than him.
Had you met Jason before to working on this?
No, but I liked the idea of doing the movie with him because I think we’re probably similar in a lot of ways. Probably because we’re both writers and write funny things, but I imagine we both of us share an affinity for this kind of story and this kind of movie and I knew that we would both work hard at it.
How was the experience of working opposite him?
Good, it was all that it should be. It was entertaining, threatening, fun, but also aloof. It’s all those things, so I was feeling all those things as well, which is like what you were saying about the scene in the kitchen. It’s really terrifying to be told off by somebody who you think is your friend and then you think you weren’t doing anything wrong but maybe you were. So then you’re questioning your own moral compass if you were doing something that you thought was fine and it’s not. It’s terrifying and it keeps you off balance.
You go from doing big budget movies like Batman v. Superman to films like Louder Than Bombs and The Double to this, so I’m curious how you go about choosing the projects you work on because you seem to make really good decision each time.
I’m the recipient of all that in a lucky way, not in any planned way. I know how to do both of those movies. I know how to do a good job in those different kinds of movie. The smaller movies I know the kind of discipline it takes to be there when you only have one take, and in the bigger movies I know how to pace myself so I guess I can do both. But the jobs don’t seem that different, frankly. Ultimately you’re trying to present a character in an honest way and then layering it with whatever the tone of the piece is—if it’s supposed to be funny or something. So I feel very comfortable doing all that.
Do you like being in films like this, where it’s a more intimate experience with a smaller cast and it’s shot over a more condensed period of time opposed to bigger Hollywood projects?
This is the best way to do it because there’s a real momentum that comes from not having much time to question things. On a big budget movie you’re in your trailer for several hours a day just waiting around, so you end up questioning everything and you over think in a way that’s not helpful. Then with a movie like this it’s all visceral, it’s all emotional. You’re running on adrenaline after not sleeping and it’s better. This is how it should be done, but if you do a movie like this for six months it’s exhausting.
What are you working on after the play?
I’m working on a Woody Allen movie.
Are you constantly in the process of writing new things or do you take things as they come?
When I have time, but I haven’t had any time in a while. I have a book coming out in September but that was finished six months ago. Otherwise I don’t really have anything at the moment.
Would you ever want to focus more on your writing and slow down from your acting?
I do, but only by virtue of not getting hired for a period of time, you end up getting six months off. Even very successful actors has long periods of time off.