Café Society: a drink with Jesse Eisenberg

Café Society is a romantic comedy about a small Jewish man who can't make up his mind between New York and Hollywood and between Gossip Girl Blake Lively and film star Kristen Stewart. In the past, the director, Woody Allen, would have played the part himself. These days, he turns to Jesse Eisenberg, who observes: "You surely don't think famous people drink, take drugs, and misbehave for fun?"

In Café Society, Jesse Eisenberg plays the alter ego of his idol Woody Allen. Not for the first time: in To Rome with Love, curly-haired Eisenberg did the same job. For the third time, his opposite number is Kristen Stewart (Twilight, Clouds of Sils Maria). Eisenberg has already impressed and shown his eye for a good film in Night Moves, The Double, and The End of the Tour. Recently, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, he tried his hand at a blockbuster. But we know the fast-talking actor best for his portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

What does it feel like to be Woody Allen's alter ego and to get off with the most beautiful women as a result?
Jesse Eisenberg: Really good. The strange thing about Woody Allen films is that they make relationships credible that are totally unbelievable on paper. Originally, Woody himself played the character who, against all expectations, succeeds with the most beautiful girl. He was the pioneer. He created a new male protagonist and changed the paradigm of how a clever, funny man has to look in a film in order to get the girl. Before him, you had to be Clark Gable; after him, you could also look like a little Jew from New York. Like me, in other words. People like me are eternally grateful to him for that. He paved the way for us. Thanks to him, I'm acting for the third time with Kristen Stewart. We pass for a credible couple, even though she is the most beautiful woman on the planet and I have the posture of a small letter "r".

This is the third time that you've formed a couple with Kristen Stewart. Do you get on well with each other?
Eisenberg: Acting with someone is intimate. You get to know each other really well. And then, after the film, you go your own way and you don't see each other again. We both have a sense of humour and we both detest vanity. I don't look at my films. I don't care about my appearance. After all, I'm not attractive enough to rely on that. She, however, is exceptionally beautiful in a natural way, but, for whatever reason, she is absolutely not vain. She is very genuine and that is intimidating for people who, like me, strive for authenticity but always lapse into fawning and overindulgence in an attempt to get into the other person's good books. Kristen doesn't try that at all. She does nothing to be loved. That is intimidating. Because secretly we want to be like that too. We are ashamed of the artificial personality we put forward in order to make a good impression. She never does that. Not even in films. She comes across as balanced and self-assured. She was born with that gift.

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Woody Allen says he doesn't have the patience to work on a scene for long. Everything has to be in place in one or two goes. Does that method suit you?
Eisenberg: It is at once a nerve-racking business – there is no second chance – and a comfortable one: you get home early. The days, like on every film set, start at six in the morning, but they don't last until six in the evening. You're back home by midday. That is very unusual. It has a dual effect. As an actor, you feel terribly lazy, as you're hardly "working" at all. On the other hand, it creates an energetic vitality that reminds me of the theatre. There, too, it has to be right straight away.

Did you dare to ask Woody Allen for advice now you are writing plays and making TV series yourself?
Eisenberg: I've just directed a pilot episode of a TV series with Parker Posey in a lead role. I had never directed before. Woody Allen gave me some good advice.

Why do you put your time into stage and television projects? Why don't you opt for the cinema?
Eisenberg: I'm not a film buff. I didn't go to film school. I have a degree in anthropology. I write plays. I work for the medium that's on offer. That doesn't have to be cinema. The film industry has changed fundamentally. There is no room any more for the films I would like to make. Woody Allen is the last man standing. He still makes reasonably priced, independent films my parents would go to see.
In the TV series [Bream Gives Me Hiccups – NR], I'm trying to do what the independent film directors tried to do in the 1990s. Back then, there was nothing strange about going to see an indie film. Now that has shifted to television. The sort of stuff I write is either intended for the theatre – for example, a three-hour play that is transgressive, confrontational, and entertaining – or for television. People can then decide for themselves when they will look at sophisticated, subtle stories. The TV series is based on my short stories. I could do what I wanted. It is made with an independent spirit that you hardly find at all in the film world.
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Do you find it weird that a nerd like you can be a real film star?
Eisenberg: Isn't it always the calm, shy people who later become successful? I didn't have any friends when I was growing up. I was a quiet, shy, and often depressed child. I spent all the time intent on revenge on the world. [Laughs] So playing Lex Luthor [Superman's enemy – NR] suited me. I had no friends, so I sat at home writing or making up jokes. I never went to parties, but I did go to the theatre. It often happens that children with a difficult childhood focus on other things and look for other outlets and then later make a career for themselves. Or come to grief with drugs.

Café Society has fun with the dynamics within a Jewish family. Do you recognise those exaggerated scenes?
Eisenberg: I come from a Jewish family with Russian roots. In the film, the three children scatter. My sister is a Marxist intellectual and marries a socialist philosopher, my brother is a gangster, and my character is successful as an entrepreneur. That is exactly what happened to my family in the 1930s. They scattered in all directions too. The film portrays, in a comic but realistic way, the diaspora of the American Jews. The emphasis was on academic careers, left-wing ideas, the civil rights movement. Others became gangsters. That happened in my family too. And there were some very successful business people too. Sadly for me, they were distant relations.

You have kept up to date.
Eisenberg: I find things like that fascinating. I have a degree in anthropology. And what could be more interesting than looking at your own culture? At first, I saw myself as an anomaly. Someone from a quiet, academic Jewish family gets the idea into his head that he's going to act. But research showed me that I'm actually following a perfectly normal pattern. There are lots of Jewish actors. It seems we're interested in telling stories, conveying emotions, and telling jokes.

Café Society capitalises on the glamour of 1930s Hollywood and New York, but also makes fun of the beau monde and the film world. How do you cope with fame?
Eisenberg: When I get up, I comb my hair a hundred times and I say to myself in the mirror: I'm going to win, I'm going to win…joke! I try to make use of the fame that's left over from popular films. Right now, I'm acting in a very personal play in London. Because my face is on the poster, lots of people turn up. I recognise that. I don't recoil from it. I'm not ashamed of it. I don't exploit it either. I am convinced that it's a good play. It would be un-aesthetic to lure people to a play I knew wasn't good.

So fame has mainly advantages?
Eisenberg: Fame has disadvantages too. You surely don't think famous people drink, take drugs, and misbehave for fun? Fame can be terrifying. It's not always fun to be looked at by everyone in the street. But you can also use that fame for a good cause. I'm involved with an organisation that campaigns against domestic violence in India. We collected half a million dollars for an organisation that helps abused women and families.

US, 2016, dir.: Woody Allen, act.: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, 96 min.

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