Jesse Eisenberg's 'Art Of Self-Defense' Is No Motivational Sports Montage

Jul 12, 2019
Originally published on July 12, 2019 8:37 am

Jesse Eisenberg built his career playing quick-witted intellectuals — but he gets more physical in his new movie, The Art of Self-Defense. The film, written and directed by Riley Stearns, stars Eisenberg as Casey Davies, a socially stunted man who seeks out a martial arts class-turned-cult after getting mugged.

"It's like a twisted sports movie," Eisenberg explains — Casey sets out to better himself and it works out terribly. Unlike the beloved underdog Rocky Balboa, Eisenberg says, Casey's version of confidence-building "is punching his boss in the throat rather than, like, running up the stairs of the Philadelphia art museum."

Eisenberg believes the film's message will resonate in the context of the #MeToo movement. He was filming The Art of Self-Defense when prominent actresses began speaking out about workplace harassment and sexual violence. Eisenberg knew both survivors and perpetrators — and he realized that his character's pressure to perform masculinity via violence and aggression was particularly relevant to the present moment.


Interview Highlights

On his character, Casey Davies

He's impressionable, he's lonely, and so he gets pulled into this class run by this Machiavellian sensei who tells Casey that everything in his life is not masculine enough. And so Casey decides to re-engineer his entire life to be the man that sensei convinces him [to be]. ...

I think of Casey like the 10-year-old version of me. ... I was quiet, I was really scared of everything ... I was also like innocent and pure and I assumed everyone would be good. And when they weren't, I was really surprised by it. - Jesse Eisenberg

I think of Casey like the 10-year-old version of me. ... I was quiet, I was really scared of everything ... I was also like innocent and pure and I assumed everyone would be good. And when they weren't, I was really surprised by it. ... So when I was playing this role I was looking at my acting experience as kind of like this almost cathartic, strangely Freudian ... or Proustian even, look back at my childhood.

On the film's critique of modern masculinity

The story could be seen as a kind of allegory for a young man who needs purpose in the world and becomes radicalized by a cult. ...

And then when we were doing the movie, just coincidentally the #MeToo movement started and so in the mornings, the entire crew and cast would be reading about people in our industry who, you know, have experienced just pure horror by people that we know. And then we would be just filming this movie which ended up taking on ... misogyny and toxic masculinity.

On a confrontation with a bully at his childhood summer camp

I remember the first day of camp ... and also, not incidentally, the last day of camp ... I was on the bottom of a pool and he just went entirely on top of me in the bottom of the pool, and my back was to the ground of the pool and the kid's stomach was on my stomach, and he was making deep eye contact with me at the bottom of the pool and lying on me — and he was a big kid. And I just remember having the very specific thought: "Oh, this is how I die." And then I called my mom and never went back to camp in my life.

On learning karate for the film

There's a kind of discipline to karate ... a physical discipline that I eschew at all possible moments in my life. ... Just basic things, like not slouching so that all your organs are smushed into a single corner of your body. ... That is kind of helpful and [The Art of Self-Defense] probably gave me a few extra days on my life. ...

Literally the day this movie ended, I had to fly to Canada to do this other movie where I was playing, like, a stockbroker. ... [As an actor] you learn some skill that seems like it could be helpful in your life ... and then immediately have to forget it.

On the sensitive male characters he plays

I, just by virtue of who I am, naturally have a kind of sensitivity or softness to roles that I play. ... I guess maybe you could say it's a luxury ⁠— to have played parts where I think, like, the men are seen as, you know, emotional creatures. I mean, a movie like The Art of Self-Defense is perfectly emblematic of that, where I'm playing a character that is almost entirely emotional id.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Actor Jesse Eisenberg has mastered the role of the fast-talking intellectual with an obsessive bent. We see it again in his new film, "The Art Of Self-Defense." His character is sort of a mix between his version of Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" and Columbus from "Zombieland" - a social outcast who just falls into the background of his own life until something happens that makes him willing to do whatever it takes to toughen up. He starts by signing up for karate.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE")

ALESSANDRO NIVOLA: (As Sensei) Name?

JESSE EISENBERG: (As Casey) Casey Davies.

NIVOLA: (As Sensei) That's a very feminine-sounding name. Why karate? This question's multiple choice. A, health and fitness - B, career opportunities - C, New Year's resolution - D, self-defense/traumatic experience.

EISENBERG: (As Casey) What if it's none of the above?

NIVOLA: (As Sensei) Should I read the choices again?

EISENBERG: (As Casey) No, that's OK. A, health and fitness.

MARTIN: Truth is Casey is anxious and nervous, And he's all alone. For Jesse Eisenberg, the role is personal.

EISENBERG: You know, he feels like this is a place where he can really belong. And he meets the sensei who runs this dojo like a cult. And Casey, my character, is like the perfect recipient of a kind of cult leader. You know, he's impressionable. He's lonely. And so he gets pulled into this class run by this Machiavellian sensei who tells Casey that everything in his life is not masculine enough. And so Casey decides to reengineer his entire life to be the man that Sensei convinces him. And the movie is this really brilliant satire on kind of like modern masculinity and kind of the absurd lengths men go to in an attempt to kind of be a man in society.

MARTIN: You mention Casey gets so enveloped in this world, and all of a sudden, he is granted a yellow belt which, like, rocks his world.

EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: He - so much so that he goes to the grocery store and deliberately picks out all the yellow food, which is like such a perfect scene.

EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah. It's so sweet.

MARTIN: Sweet but also really creepy and obsessive.

EISENBERG: Yeah. On the one hand, like, the story could be seen as like a kind of allegory for a young man who needs purpose in the world and becomes radicalized by a cult, but that's not how the movie was conceived really. But, you, know it's funny. When I read the script initially, I thought, this is the funniest thing I've ever read. I mean, the dialogue. It's so funny. The scenes are so funny. And then when we were doing the movie, the - just coincidentally - the #MeToo movement started.

MARTIN: Yeah.

EISENBERG: And so in the mornings, the entire, you know, crew and cast would be reading about people in our industry who, you know, have experienced just pure horror by people that we know. And then we would be filming this movie which ended up taking on this other kind of more relevant and somber idea about misogyny and, you know, toxic masculinity.

MARTIN: Yeah. So I want to ask about this scene where a guy in a parking lot dings Casey's car.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

MARTIN: And Casey's had some karate. So he's at least brave enough to engage the guy.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

MARTIN: What happens to him after that moment?

EISENBERG: He's beaten up. He even kind of mutters, like, I know karate, like, because he thinks like, well, this might, you know, intimidate the guy. But of course the guy is, you know, unimpressed and just pushes Casey down, and then he immediately breaks down and cries.

MARTIN: I mean, the sobbing, Jesse, it's like - it's real. There's pain in that.

EISENBERG: I think of Casey like the 10-year-old version of me. When I was 10, I was quiet. I was really scared of everything. I was also...

MARTIN: You were?

EISENBERG: Yeah. I was also like innocent and pure. And I assumed everybody would be good, and when they weren't, I was kind of really surprised by it. So when I was playing this role, I was kind of looking at my acting experience as kind of like this almost cathartic look back at my childhood and, like, kind of almost behaving in the way that I behaved when I was a kid. Like, you know, being on the playground again when I was 10 and looking at the bullies and just being more just kind of shocked that bullies exist rather than, I don't know, thinking that I had to defend myself against them.

MARTIN: Was there a specific moment? I mean, you say generally there were bullies around. Were you ever directly targeted?

EISENBERG: Yeah. I mean, I'm sure I was. I mean, I remember like the first day of camp when I was - and also, not incidentally, the last day of camp because it was one day for me.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Like, this kid, like, kind of like - I was on the bottom of a pool, and he just went entirely on top of me in the bottom of the pool. And my back was to the ground of the pool. And the kid's stomach was on my stomach. And he was making deep eye contact with me at the bottom of the pool and lying on me. And he was a big kid. And I just remember having the very specific thought that, oh, this is how I die. And then I called my mom and never went back to camp in my life. So I was at camp for one day. And...

MARTIN: Oh, my God. That is awful.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. It's terrible. But yeah, so I was - and I was like, you know, a small kid and everything. So - and I was, you know, I guess, like, funny. But that didn't have much value at that, you know, until really I graduated college.

MARTIN: That was where you got your social capital at that age.

EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: So I wonder how this all - conversations about masculinity - how you have seen this unfold in Hollywood. Women have long called for more multi-dimensional roles. I mean, we're seeing more of that through the #MeToo movement. Have you ever felt similarly boxed in by the roles that are written for men?

EISENBERG: No. I mean, it's - you know, I'm obviously friends with so many actresses. And when we talk about this stuff, it just highlights for me the difference in job of male acting versus female acting. Women are objectified in ways that are so subtle and insidious that men will never even be able to understand the nuances behind that kind of stuff. And luckily, I'm not the kind of actor that gets cast in things where men are kind of like the macho guys and the women are objectified or sexualized. So I don't - I'm not involved in, like, the worst of those projects. But I've seen it get better, definitely seen it get better.

Like the movie I did right after "The Art Of Self-Defense," which was like two months after the #MeToo movement began, like, guys got fired off the set for being, you know, horrible. And that's not just like in the frenzy of a recent topical news story. It's because people genuinely understood that we have to think about things differently. And it just felt like, oh, kind of the world is shifting in a really positive way. And I'm so much happier to be on this project than I am to kind of be on a project that ignores this kind of stuff.

MARTIN: So you are cast as a certain type of guy?

EISENBERG: Just by virtue of who I am, naturally have a kind of like sensitivity or softness to roles that I play or something. Even if I'm playing kind of like a villain in a movie, which I've done before, just because of me and my physique and my personality, like, yeah, I mean, I just - I'm not playing like the alpha version of that thing. I find myself in projects where the female characters are typically the strong ones.

I've done like four movies with Kristen Stewart, and in every dynamic, she plays the kind of strong one in the relationship, you know, I guess you could - if you're just kind of using base archetypes to describe strength. And so my relationship to, like, movie stereotypes are not the ones that are the kind of more problematic ones that we're discussing now.

MARTIN: Jesse Eisenberg. The new movie is called "The Art Of Self-Defense." Jesse, thanks so much for talking with us.

EISENBERG: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.