Surprising new role for Hollywood star Jesse Eisenberg
Jesse Eisenberg is in genuine shock.
The Oscar-nominated American star of The Social Network, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Zombieland and Now You See It is dealing with the seismic implications of the coronavirus pandemic just like the rest of us, but is struggling to get his head around the conditions in Australia compared to his homeland.
"It's under 100 nationwide?" he says incredulously on hearing the Australian COVID-19 death toll, adding that a close friend had just lost his father to the virus.
"That is unbelievable. Oh my God. That is just amazing to me."
Eisenberg was in Los Angeles when the pandemic started to take hold but rather than head back to his New York base to self-isolate, he rented an RV to drive his wife Anna Strout and their three-year-old son Banner back to their other house in her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana.
Not only did he understandably want to avoid what has become ground zero for the virus in the US, he also wanted to be able to do something useful for the close-knit community in the college town and has been volunteering in a domestic violence centre there that was started by his late mother-in-law.
"It's just this unbelievable town of people pitching in, always with an eye towards helping those most in need," he says.
"So, it feels like the best place to experience something that's otherwise quite tragic."
He says he has been blown away by the generosity and common purpose in adversity, while lamenting the fact that incidents of domestic violence have spiked with families forced into close quarters, but calls for help are down for the very same reason.
"It's just so discouraging because people who would otherwise have been able to get help, can't get help," he says.
"Or they think it's unsafe to go to a shelter. Or the people they would reach out to in an emergency, they can't go to - you can't leave your house with your kids and go to your sister's.
"So, it's just horrible and the frustration and isolation just breeds the worst in people."
DROPPING OFF THE GRID
Eisenberg says his own life hasn't changed all that much since the lockdown - he's perfectly comfortable dropping off the grid at home after months away making a movie and doing puzzles and drawings with Banner is his idea of a good time anyway. But where one might expect a prolific writer such as Eisenberg to use the quiet time to embark on a new play or article, his obsessive-compulsive tendencies have ruled that out.
"I write in one place," he says a little sheepishly.
"In one library in New York. I sit next to a friend of mine who writes his own things and I am incredibly prolific in that exact circumstance. Outside of that exact chair I am useless."
With all that in mind, Eisenberg's new movie - an oddly menacing, sci-fi indie called Vivarium - seems eerily prescient, focusing as it does on a couple who become trapped in a house where nothing changes and with no contact to the outside world. He was initially attracted to the surreal elements that reminded him of some of the movies and subjects he loved while studying anthropology in New York but admits, a little reluctantly, that he also saw some parallels with the big life decisions such as marriage, home ownership and parenting made by adults - including him.
"There's no real safe answer here," he says with a nervous laugh.
"I am an overly analytical narcissist, so in my own examination of myself I assume that like every other person on earth, commitments that we make - even ones we are thrilled to make - carry with them some kind of unconscious fear of them trapping us in some way. So, you marry the person of your dreams - but the unconscious fear is that you'll never have a romantic experience with someone else.
"Or you've been trying to have a child for years and you finally are gifted with this wonderful baby but of course the fear is that this kid is going to turn into a horrible parasite and ruin your life. Or you buy at house and it's the one you wanted in the neighbourhood you wanted and your friends live nearby - but now you're mired in debt."
The fact that Vivarium is being released straight to video on demand at a time when audiences are largely housebound also adds an added layer of relevance.
"The fact that the movie is coming out now during a pandemic is interesting because if people are watching it now, it's going to be filtered through their own frustrations and feelings of being isolated and stuck with the same people in a house that's rapidly losing value and the monotony of day to day life and not being able to do anything other than stay at home."
PANDEMIC TAKES ITS TOLL
The pandemic also took its toll on another of Eisenberg's film projects, Resistance, in which he plays Marcel Marceau, to tell the little-known story of the mime great's heroics in World War II.
The historical drama was one of the last films released in cinemas in the US before they were shut down, but Eisenberg says creative thinking and new technology have helped it find an alternative home by doing Zoom calls to Jewish film festivals around the US that he probably otherwise wouldn't have been able to visit.
"That is a movie that is for an older audience in some ways because the subject matter is a little more adult and it's about World War II," he says.
"It's not the kind of movie that's going to have 15-year-old boys running to it on a weekend and is now useless. So, it hasn't really hurt it.
"It's a beautiful story about finding hope in a worse crisis than we're in right now and it's an average guy who becomes a hero, so in a way it's still fitting and uplifting, especially now."
NOW YOU SEE IT IS BACK
A third chapter was recently announced in the hit Now You See It franchise, in which Eisenberg plays "a brash, arrogant magician". He doesn't know much about it yet - "they tell me last - my friend sent me an article about my career" - but he's keen to revive the character.
"My background is in theatre where you do 200 performances of the same show and never get bored of it," he says.
"That's how I was trained and that's what I still prefer to do. So, to do a sequel to a movie that I like the character, then it's a great thing to do."
He's also keen to go back into the comic book world as criminal genius and Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor but suggests that audiences might have to vote with their wallets to make it happen.
"That has so little to do with my eagerness to play it and so much to do with toy sales and so I have no control over it," he says with a laugh.
"But if you have kids and they are interested in buying one of the dolls that have my general appearance then maybe there will be a chance. It's one of those things where you are completely beholden to something outside your own skill set."
Originally published as Surprising new role for Hollywood star Jesse Eisenberg