For Jesse Eisenberg, WWII biopic ‘Resistance’ and sci-fi nightmare ‘Vivarium’ both hit close to home

March 26, 2020, 8:00 PM UTC
Top: Courtesy of IFC Films; Bottom: Courtesy Saban Films

Jesse Eisenberg can’t sit still. 

This won’t shock fans of the 36-year-old actor, playwright, and avowed fast-talker, whose best-known characters—from a nebbish apocalypse holdout in Zombieland to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, all cutthroat ambition, in The Social Network—whir and wheel as if wound up by a key.

With slouched shoulders, a thin smile, and hooded eyes that flit between ferociously intelligent and reptilian cold, Eisenberg’s onscreen persona is that of a coiled spring, and perhaps no leading man in Hollywood is as tied to a particular trait as he is to this brand of fussy, full-body neurosis. Even when Eisenberg speaks by phone, one soon senses the same pent-up, squirrelly energy he has so effectively weaponized across all levels of film, from indie darlings to superhero blockbusters, isn’t just some actorly affect. 

Within the first few minutes of a call with Fortune last Friday to ostensibly discuss the two very different projects he has out this week, sci-fi puzzle-box Vivarium and WWII biodrama Resistance (both on demand and on assorted digital platforms), Eisenberg has already apologized for sounding restless and managed to turn the tables on his interviewer. Specifically, he’s inquiring about the average height of overpasses, how “low” is really meant by “low clearance.”

“I need to figure out how to drive an RV,” the actor explains as he drives around Los Angeles, where he and his family had become unexpectedly grounded amid the coronavirus crisis. “My wife can’t drive one, and my son is with us but he’s 3 years old, so as you might imagine he’s not much help in that department.” 

Eisenberg’s famously not a West Coast guy. He and his wife, Anna Strout, split their time between New York and the Midwest, where she’s from. With flights off the table, they’ll soon hit the road for Bloomington, Ind., a 30-hour drive Eisenberg’s willing to tackle if it gets them out of L.A.

Between being a relatively new parent and navigating a pandemic, Eisenberg has more on his mind than movies. “That the projects are coming out under these very strange circumstances is not something that would make me feel anything less than completely shallow for being concerned about,” he says. “On the level of crises, it just doesn’t register.”

And yet, circumstances be as they may, Vivarium and Resistance are still notable in how they draw out seldom-seen dimensions of Eisenberg’s star power. In both, he delivers surprising and intense performances that push against the well-established borders of his timid, hyperintellectual persona.

The former, directed by Lorcan Finnegan, is a squirmy, Kafka-esque satire of suburban ennui; Eisenberg and Imogen Poots play a house-hunting couple trapped without explanation in a creepily identikit housing development, where they’re asked to raise a mysterious child. “It’s this brilliant fever dream of a movie,” Eisenberg explains. “And it speaks to a certain kind of claustrophobia and paranoia a lot of people are feeling right now, though it’s a more dystopian version.”  

Eisenberg as Tom and Imogen Poots as Gemma in the thriller “Vivarium.” The pair play a couple asked to raise a mysterious child.
Courtesy of Saban Films

His other film, Resistance, finds the actor playing the legendary mime artist Marcel Marceau across his lesser-known early years as a member of the French Resistance. As covered in the drama, written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, Marceau lived in hiding throughout the war and worked to rescue thousands of Jewish children from the Nazis, often using performance art in order to delight and distract them.

Resistance is seemingly relevant in the sense that it’s about this mime who has to be resourceful to keep kids entertained during a terrifying experience,” Eisenberg says. “Most of my days are spent trying to keep my 3-year-old happy, because he can sense something’s happening and it’s stressing him out. I’m becoming increasingly resourceful about how I entertain him, which is what Resistance is about.”

Broadly speaking, both projects—which shot practically back-to-back, about a year and a half ago—find Eisenberg thrust into the role of a reluctant father figure, though he maintains that he wasn’t intentionally looking to play such characters. Still, it was only natural for him to draw from his own experiences as a new parent.

“It’s probably never been easier for me to relate to that as an actor,” he says. “I have a child and I’m experiencing that push-and-pull every day, of being inconvenienced by the most precious thing in the world.”

Vivarium, the much darker and stranger of the two projects, treats parenting as an existential nightmare. Unable to escape their unnaturally polished Möbius strip of a neighborhood, Eisenberg’s Tom and Poots’s Gemma are gradually sapped of their strength, especially after a baby is delivered to their doorstep. “Raise the child, and be released,” reads the ominous note attached. Soon it grows into a monstrous entity (played by Senan Jennings as a child, then Jonathan Aris as an adult) that can distort its voice and appearance in inhuman ways.

“He’s this demonic parasite of a child,” says Eisenberg, who shot Vivarium shortly after becoming a parent for the first time. “When I was filming the movie, my son was standing on the set. He was 1-and-a-half. And it was strange; my character views this kid as disgusting and demonic, so that was oddly horrific.”

Vivarium director Finnegan, speaking by phone, says he thought it would be interesting to cast Eisenberg as an “alpha male type,” someone used to being in control and increasingly infuriated by the loss of his freedom. He recalls Eisenberg struggling with scenes in which Tom reacts with particular anger toward the child, becoming physically violent. 

“Jesse had to pick Senan up and throw him down on the ground, and we had a big crash pad for that scene,” says Finnegan. “And Jesse was a little too gentle at first, and Senan was like, ‘Jesse, chuck me harder.’ He was, like, pushing Jesse to be more violent with him. But Jesse’s son was there, so I suppose he was trying to be a nice, considerate father figure.”

Resistance approaches parenthood in a more humane, optimistic manner than Vivarium; where Tom gradually collapses into hatred and despair, Marceau rises to the occasion when he’s thrust into an unexpected paternal role. And while that’s obviously a product of the films’ distinct genres and intentions, Eisenberg says he thought about how external environments informed the nearly diametrically opposed headspaces of his characters.

“Because Vivarium takes place in this surreal universe that’s literally sucking the life out of its characters, there’s a hopelessness there,” he explains. “And because the characters are so alone in Vivarium, they become despondent and lose any sense of meaning. In Resistance, Marceau has a sense of meaning, because he’s needed. It gives him a sense of purpose and hope in the midst of this crisis. I feel it now, having a child during this current crisis, because I have the sense I can’t be selfish or indulgent.”

For Eisenberg, Resistance hit close to home in more ways than one. Raised a secular Jew, the actor lost family during the Holocaust, and his ancestors once lived within a few hours of Marceau’s city of origin. One of his cousins still lives in Poland. And then there was the matter of his mother, the clown. 

Throughout Eisenberg’s childhood in East Brunswick, N.J., his mother performed under the name Bonabini, clowning at birthday parties and for patients in tristate-area hospitals. “My mother used to put on basically the same makeup Marceau wore,” he says. “It didn’t occur to me until I started watching Marceau that my mother was really inspired by him. She adored him growing up. She’d seen him live a few times, and I grew up looking at my mom wearing Marceau’s makeup and not putting it together until I started doing this movie.”

“My mother used to put on basically the same makeup Marceau wore,” says Eisenberg, pictured in “Resistance.”
Courtesy of IFC Films

Jakubowicz, speaking by phone, says he cast Eisenberg based in part on those real-life connections, calling it “a role he was born to play.” The Venezuelan director, best known for 2005’s Secuestro Express, was interested in bringing out the central tension of Marceau as an aspiring artist forced to set aside his more egotistical side for the greater good.

“What’s fascinating about having a guy like Jesse play this role is that he is the master of playing tormented, dark characters you love to hate,” notes the director. “This role is in many ways the opposite of that. The humanity of Marcel is so big, but he’s also always battling his good side, trying to get away from being a hero so he can go become an artist.”

Getting into character, Eisenberg perhaps struggled less than other actors would have to take Marceau’s comic routines seriously. “My mother’s work in some way validated the more abstract performance art, for me,” says Eisenberg. “My work is so literal. Movie acting, especially playing naturalistic characters, is so literal, and my plays are so naturalistic. But what Marceau did so well was embrace abstract performance; he was trying to evoke a feeling.”

To prepare for the role, Eisenberg spent nine months training with the mime Lorin Eric Salm, who had been a student of Marceau’s in France for years before his death in 2007. Together, they choreographed routines inspired by Marceau’s work, specifically tailoring them to suit Eisenberg’s distinct rhythms as a performer. He kept in contact with his mother, as well.

“At moments when I thought there was something silly about what I was performing, I would go back to her and talk with her about the fact she never thought of herself as silly,” explains the actor. “She was dressed as a clown, but she was performing for kids in the most dire circumstances who viewed her as this necessary lifeline to something that was joyful. You could argue that, well, it’s a sillier and less sophisticated style of performance, but in some ways it’s so much more valuable and needed.”

Eisenberg brought his mother out to the set in Nuremberg while filming one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which Marceau performs on stage for Gen. George S. Patton’s troops at the end of the war. “I was dressed in the makeup she’d worn, performing for these troops in Nuremberg,” says Eisenberg. “It was just this really wonderful connection.”

During another scene in Resistance, Marceau play-acts for Jewish orphans who’ve been secretly diverted from concentration camps to a French castle. As they watch his routine, exhaustion is momentarily displaced by a more innocent flickering of joy. While filming, Jakubowicz says he saw Eisenberg lose himself in that moment.

“Jesse later told me that when he was in front of the children, he forgot about the little details and 100% focused on making the children laugh,” he says. “And I think that is the essence that makes Marcel Marceau who he became as an artist. It’s how he connects to his audience. The children are actually laughing and reacting to what he’s doing, and Jesse is reacting to the fact they’re reacting. He’s so moved and so happy he can entertain them. If you think your art is for yourself, you haven’t found it yet.”

To Eisenberg, making art as empathy is at the center of Resistance, as well as a more stated mission he’s taken to heart in recent years. “I think a lot of what I do is self-indulgent and narcissistic, being an artist,” he says. “But my best friend is a teacher for incarcerated kids, and my wife is a teacher for kids who grew up in the toughest circumstances in New York. So it’s on my mind all the time; this movie depicts the most extreme version of using your art for the benefit of others.”

The actor’s eager to reach Indiana, where he plans to unplug from the dread-inducing news cycle and spend time with his son, with whom he’s been bingeing Peppa Pig, a popular animated series for kids. “I don’t know if it’s laced with some kind of drug, but that’s the most addictive, calming thing in the world,” he says. “I imagine once we finish all the episodes, of which there are thousands and which we must be close to finishing, I’ll have to get a little more creative.” 

Eisenberg and his wife will also spend time volunteering at the domestic-violence shelter his wife’s mother ran for 35 years. “Hopefully, we can be of value there,” he says. “When you’re needed, it gives you a sense of hope, or at least it reminds you there are others who need you. And in a way, that’s more meaningful than just surviving.”

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