Now you see him: Jesse Eisenberg is back – and considering a visit to Dubai
He’ll be back on the big screen in ‘The Hummingbird Project’ and may even bring his new play to
When the local distributor of forthcoming film The Hummingbird Project approached me about the possibility of speaking to Jesse Eisenberg about this “film about fibre-optic cable,” I was somewhat conflicted. Of course, I didn’t want to miss the chance to splash a Hollywood A-lister on The National’s pages. But equally, could you not have gotten me on the list for Batman v Superman?
The Hummingbird Project is much more than simply a “film about fibre-optic cable”, as you would reasonably expect from award-winning Canadian director Kim Nguyen and a cast that includes Salma Hayek and an unrecognisable Alexander Skarsgard. What Nguyen has in fact delivered is a kind of high-tech heist movie set in the world of high-frequency stock trading, somewhere in the largely unexplored no man’s land between The Big Short and Ocean’s Eleven. The film isn’t a million miles away from Eisenberg’s 2013 thriller Now You See Me, but with fibre optics as the weapon of choice for our heroes rather than magic.
Nonetheless, Eisenberg admits that he too was a little unsure about what to expect when he first heard the premise for the movie. “When the producer first came to me, I truly didn’t understand,” he admits freely. “I thought it was a fantasy because there’s an occasional abstracted nature to the movie, just because that’s the director’s taste. It’s kind of this exciting thriller, but it has this meditative quality. I thought the plot line was this fantastical idea to show the absurdity of the financial industry, but then when I started looking into it I realised that this is real; people have tried these kind of things and made a lot of money. It’s incredible.”
The film’s plot revolves around Eisenberg’s Vincent and Skarsgard’s Anton’s effort to lay a fibre optic line of debatable legality all the way from Kansas to the New York Stock Exchange in order to give them a one-millisecond advantage on stock trading. Somehow, despite all the tech talk that certainly does take place in the movie, it manages to be a tremendously entertaining yarn. Eisenberg puts this in large part down to the deft treatment of the subject matter by War Witch director Nguyen: “It’s not exclusively a human drama or exclusively comedic, so it requires a more adept hand to make it accessible because there is this quite complicated financial element to it,” he says. “Of course, the movie is not meant to be only watched by Wall Street. It’s for everybody, so the financial stuff needs to be secondary to the human element. I think that’s where Kim does such a great job as a director.”
The other key element to making a movie about such a niche topic accessible, Eisenberg says, modestly, is the performance of his co-star in the role of technical genius Anton. “Alex does a wonderful job, too, playing a brilliant guy who very few people can understand how his mind works. To make that character both accessible and understandable requires great acting,” he says.
In fact, Eisenberg insists that Skarsgard’s work even made his own job easier. “I’m so glad he played it how he did because it would be really difficult for me to have played my character otherwise. I basically treat him like a child, dragging him round by the ear, and if he’d behaved anything like his own personality it would be really difficult,” he admits. “He was just very humble. The character he played gave him a lot of opportunity to really become the focus of a lot of scenes, but he did what responsible actors should always do and serviced the story line rather than his own eccentricity. Even despite his strong choices for the character’s appearance, he resisted focusing attention on the character at the expense of the story.”
Skarsgard’s appearance is sure to be a talking point for fans of the usually suave actor. For this role, the Zoolander and The Legend of Tarzan star left all his heart-throb ambitions at the door to play a balding, nerdy computer geek, and Eisenberg notes that this wasn’t a universally popular decision. “I think some of the producers were a little upset when they saw how Alex had chosen to look,” he reveals. “They were putting money into a movie with this big-name actor and he completely eschewed all the things he was known for.”
Eisenberg also reveals that he could easily have been playing the Anton role himself. When he was first sent the script, in an unusual turn of events for Hollywood, he was asked which of the characters he would rather play. The actor chose Vincent for personal reasons. “I loved that my character is this extroverted player,” he says. “I felt like I’d played introverted computer geeks already and it would be an opportunity to play something different. Vincent is this second-generation Russian immigrant who feels like the establishment doesn’t really accept him, so he has to do it alone and bypass the system.”
This fact, says Eisenberg, reminded him of his own family, who had themselves emigrated from Ukraine and Poland to the US many years ago. “I felt like I knew people like him because that’s my family,” he says. “They came here from Eastern Europe and they’d go through the garbage in rich neighbourhoods and refurbish things to sell in poor neighbourhoods. There was just something in the character of Vincent that really brought to mind the stories I’d heard about my family making a living.” Eisenberg’s decision was fortuitous for his co-star who, almost inevitably for a Hollywood star who “goes ugly” for a role, is already being talked about in Oscars terms.
Eisenberg has something of a revelation regarding the pair’s recent promotional duties for the film. “I don’t really watch movies,” he admits, somewhat unfathomably. “I’d never worked with Alex before, so all I really knew was his character in this film. I didn’t get that sense of shock that a lot of people might get when they see the movie because I’d never seen him before.”
In fact, his own sense of shock came in the run-up to the film’s release. “I just thought, ‘Oh, here’s this really sweet, sensitive, nerdy actor.’ And of course that’s not really what he is at all. It was only, like, a year after we shot it when we were doing the publicity and I was like, ‘Oh wow, what a cool, attractive man.’”
As our conversation comes to a close so Eisenberg can get back to rehearsals for Happy Talk, the new Off-Broadway play he has written and will shortly appear in, which also stars Susan Sarandon, I’m reminded of what a varied CV the actor has – writing and appearing in his own plays, starring in “serious” movies such as The Hummingbird Project and The Social Network, bona fide blockbuster roles such as playing Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor in Worlds of DC’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. I ask Eisenberg if he has a favourite genre. “Basically, I have a short attention span, so the variety is what I love,” he says.
“I’m rehearsing for the play I’m in right now, and by the end of rehearsals, I’ll be so bored I’ll want to go write something. I just finished shooting the Zombieland sequel for three months, and after that, I wanted to go do some weird, eccentric play that no one’s going to see. I think by doing that I get better at each one every time I do it.”
In fact, Eisenberg’s short attention span could even bring him to the UAE. “I’m co-starring in the play with Nico Santos, the Filipino actor [and Critics’ Choice Award-winning star of NBC’s Superstore]. When he heard I was talking to you, he said, ‘You know what? We should do this play in Dubai. We’d get a huge audience. There’s thousands of Filipinos there.’ Is that right?”
You’ll have to come and find out yourself, Jesse. You have my number if you need to contact the opera house.
The Hummingbird Project is in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday
Updated: April 17, 2019 11:27 AM