When director Nima Nourizadeh’s (Project X) action-comedy American Ultra was filming in New Orleans in May last year, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. Written by Chronicle scribe Max Landis, the story finds a stoner/sleeper agent (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend’s (Kristen Stewart) life are disrupted when a government operation descends upon their small town with the aim of wiping the stoner out. This is the first time Eisenberg and Stewart have worked together since Greg Mottola’s underrated coming-of-age drama, Adventureland. American Ultra also stars Walton Goggins, Connie Britton, Bill Pullman, Topher Grace and Tony Hale.
While on set I got to watch some filming and talk to most of the cast and filmmakers. In the coming weeks I’ll have a lot more on the cool-looking film, but for now I wanted to share the on set interview with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. During a break in filming they talked about how the project came together, Landis’ script, the look of their characters, the comedy and action, and a lot more.
Finally, while I usually like to post the audio with on set interviews, some spoilers were discussed and they’ve been removed from the transcript.
But before getting to the interview, if you haven’t watched the fun looking American Ultra red-band trailer, I’d take a look at that first.
Question: It was pretty awesome watching you do the choreography stuff today. That’s very different for you.
JESSE EISENBERG: Certainly, I never do that.
Very different from all your other stuff.
EISENBERG: Yeah, we’ve been training for a while.
Are you enjoying that, all the physical training and the action stuff?
EISENBERG: Yeah. I started a few months ago because my character has to be trained, but doesn’t remember that he was trained so it kind of comes to him instinctively.
You have to have this physicality, but you’re obviously not supposed to bulk up because you have to be the stoner guy, so has it been mostly about choreography rather than strength training and stuff like that?
EISENBERG: Yeah. I was in Michigan working last month, so they hired these great guys, and every day off I had was working with them. They were teaching me South-East Asian style fighting, and Rob Alonzo is the stunt coordinator, he’s Filipino and knows –
We were just talking to him.
EISENBERG: Oh you talked to him, yeah.
How did you first get the project? Was it that you read the script and you were like, “Wow! I wanna do this character!”?
EISENBERG: Yeah, it was a great role. The script was finished, I think, like the week I read it, and I just loved it.
[Kristen Stewart joins the interview]
Jesse was telling us how he first read the script and how it came about, can you tell us about you as well?
KRISTEN STEWART: I read the script in a very straight-forward and conventional way, as actors get sent these scripts from their agents. It’s a really original and strange script, I’ve really never read anything like it and I jumped at working with Jesse again. We really had a good time on Adventureland a couple of years ago, and I’ve sort of declared that we should definitely make a movie every five years. So in keeping with that, I jumped on this one.
Max [Landis] was saying to us that, Kristen, this is a role more toward your personality. Was he even accurate in saying that?
STEWART: Phoebe is a sort of straight-forward and sweet, fairly unassuming girl. I didn’t have to bring any quirks to her, I didn’t have to bring any certain things that make her very much different from myself. I think it was just about immersing myself in this extremely surreal, weird, heightened, unique, sort of – not unbelievable, it’s created in a very whole way, but in a slug line it’s like, “What?” It’s definitely not set in our reality, but it is also hyper-real in an odd way. So the character is kind of about – the difficulty for me has been about retaining her truths while still not revealing plot points I’m not supposed to in like the beginning. Then making sure that it’s consistent, and emotional, and also funny. It’s like, we’re always about to die, we’re constantly, constantly about to be like killed or having to kill somebody, and also it’s a broad comedy at the same time, so to balance that has been the difficulty. I am sort of essentially playing myself, if I was living in this –
EISENBERG: Very weird situation.
Talk a little bit about the looks of your characters, we know you dyed your hair, you have a little bit of a different look yourself. How much was that in the script, how much was that working to develop it?
EISENBERG: I wanted just to wear longer hair and a wig, because the character is somebody who would not have gotten a haircut in several years. He’s somebody who has just immersed himself in nothing, in his own laziness and enjoying his own laziness. So I thought, “He would not have gotten a haircut. He wouldn’t groom himself in any kind of consistent way,” and it gives it a better turn for when he has to defend himself. So this is a guy who couldn’t be less prepared to do this.
STEWART: We had spoken to Max a bit. I think the basic idea before it was actually a real thing was that if you take the most unlikely people, like two dinky little stoner kids, Jesse Eisenberg and me, and then suddenly see them thrown into this really high-speed, and intense, and disarmingly realistic action movie, it’s funny. It doesn’t feel familiar, it’s a little bit shocking, and so in order to make that hard-hitting, which is the basis for wanting to make the movie. It’s like, I look like I also dyed my hair maybe a year ago, haven’t maintained it, my interests are fairly flippant. We’re very directionless. There’s nothing very defining about any of our looks, everything is very haphazard and comfortable and practical, and we’re just stoners, essentially. So that was all of this.
Can you guys talk a bit about the scene we’re seeing from today? I know it’s gonna take a couple of days. What you do is just kick ass and weird stuff at the supermarket. What’s your goal in the scene?
STEWART: In this scene?
STEWART: It’s tough because I don’t know what I’m allowed to say. You know what I mean?
EISENBERG: Yeah, in an attempt to keep some, I don’t know…
They told us almost everything.
EISENBERG: Oh they told you everything.
STEWART: Everything? That sucks!
They told us I think a little more than you guys probably prefer for us to know, but this is gonna run as a separate interview so I don’t know what you should say.
STEWART: I mean, basically we’ve spent the entire movie – We start off at a point within our relationship where you could call it a little period of unrest, we’re not like too happy with each other in the beginning, and then as the movie goes on you see just how in love these two kids are. They’re really, truly obsessed with each other and it’s a very pure thing. It’s really true. Basically, him coming back to this scene to save me is kind of reconciling. When this whole thing, this really sweet, basic, simple love story [takes a turn], it’s really incredibly heart-breaking, so this whole thing is him coming back and assuming his…he becomes a man, and sort of redeems himself in every way. He really steps into the role that he should have with her, which is her fucking man, and then he gets her back, she gets him back, it’s a happy thing.
Max Landis was saying that, Jesse, your character’s goal in the movie never kind of changes throughout, that you want to propose to her and get married to her. Is that an accurate description?
EISENBERG: Yeah, at the beginning of the movie he has the ring and is planning to propose to her that day, and then everything blows up in his life. He keeps the ring in his pocket throughout the movie and he keeps looking for little moments, but then people try to kill them [laughs], so he keeps being interrupted. But it’s really sweet. [Laughs] And he has no tact, so the times he chooses to propose throughout the movie are the worst possible times, so he’s lucky that they get interrupted. But it’s this running, sweet joke.
You were talking a bit about the tone, but I’m curious, does the comedy come more through the situations, or through the dialogue, or are you playing it straight and it’s just kind of everything around?
EISENBERG: I think we’re aware of the humor, but the scenes we’ve had have been surprisingly so dramatic. When you read the script, you can understand these are very dramatic scenes. The characters are experiencing something that’s very heightened, but they have to experience it in a real way. I always think this, and Kris and I were talking about this in rehearsal, but this will be the most emotional movie we’ll do for a while even though probably for an audience that’s more fun. But as an actor, because you’re in these heightened situations and the two of us don’t fake it, so to speak, we are experiencing real emotions and it’s kind of several histrionic scenes, but they should be funny based on the context, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on us to be like silly.
STEWART: It’s been interesting sort of figuring out which jokes should – you know, because reading the script there have been jokes that I love that really just make me laugh genuinely, and then you get to set and you’re like, “We can’t do that! It’s traipsing all over what we’ve built”.
EISENBERG: It’s too silly.
STEWART: Yeah, exactly. And then in some things you get there and it’s like, “I didn’t think this could be funny, I thought this was gonna have to be played completely straight,” but the ridiculousness of the situation is too much too ignore and so one of our characters can say something silly and funny. He’s really funny, hilarious, like constant, but I think the movie is gonna be hilarious. I laugh everyday even when we’re about to lose our lives.
How does Nima [Nourizadeh] kind of orchestrate all of that and kind of get you into that scene? When you come to the set and say, “This might be a little bit too silly.” how does he kind of talk to you?
EISENBERG: Nima is doing the right thing, as an actor, he will ask us to do what’s emotionally realistic before anything else. In my experience, things are usually funnier if that’s the case anyway because you don’t kind of lose the thread of reality. He’s great, he has like, an obsessive attention to detail, maybe you saw in that last…I don’t know if you were watching carefully, that he was trying to get kind of a millisecond of something correct. And so it’s great, I think that extends to the acting too, he asks us to do things.
One of the things we keep talking about is the creativity of the physicality in this movie and the creativity of some of the violence and the kills, and we saw your character obviously practicing that. We didn’t hear about you Kristen, did you get to do some of the physical stuff and some of the creative, fun, weird, kill stuff?
STEWART: I don’t…I’m trying to think…I don’t kill any – Well actually I kill two people but with a gun, so I guess that’s not very creative. That’s the least creative way you could possibly kill someone, actually.
EISENBERG: You’re probably just waiting around for them to die.
STEWART: Actually, yeah, you’re right. But then I wouldn’t really be the one killing them… and actually that’s extremely creative. I’m just gonna sit here and wait.
EISENBERG: [Laughs] Yeah, lock the door.
I am curious with the two of you, working together for the first time since Adventureland, what’s it like reuniting?
STEWART: Awesome. I think me and Jesse work in a really similar way. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but our approach is just very similar. I don’t know, I think we rehearse in the same way, the way we get ready for things is similar. We don’t really like to go over things too much, it feels a little bit disrespectful to the material itself. You know what I mean? It’s like you could overdo shit, and then you have these weird memories of rehearsing it in a room. I think that we both just wanna really experience something, and if we’ve chose a project it’s because we have a good feel for it. Rehearsal has been all about just talking and getting on the same page, even though we were totally kind of on the same page already, just realizing that we were. I’m really comfortable with him, I feel safe, I would do anything. It’s fun. I think he’s kind of fun to hang out with too, that makes it all a good experience.
EISENBERG: Yeah, I couldn’t say enough about her. She’s a phenomenal actress. I remember when we were working together, she was eighteen or seventeen or something, and after the first scene I just went over to the director and said, “She’s really funny!” and he’s like, “Yeah, I know” and I was like, “No, no. She’s really funny! She’s genuinely very funny!” She does it in a way without like drawing attention to herself being funny, she has a great sense of humor and servers the other actors.
STEWART: It doesn’t come across, it just seems personally it does sometimes.
EISENBERG: By accident.
EISENBERG: But she’s like the least vain person you’ll ever meet and she’s also like a pretty woman, so –
STEWART: He’s really vain all day long, I’m just like, “Jesus!” He’s in makeup so much longer than me.
I was gonna say, he looks prettier.
STEWART: Yeah [Laughs].
EISENBERG: So anyway, she seems to like serve the story and the other actors before herself, that’s a wonderful quality.
Topher [Grace] was talking about lines and monologues that his character gives. I was really curious about Max’s writing when it came to the relationship banter, and it just seems that you guys had the time to make that really good, is there just some particular dialogue that stuck out when you looked at your script?
EISENBERG: He’s such a wonderful writer, and writes these characters in such specific and real ways, they seem not only new, but they seem relatable in this very real way. We have this scene where we go to a party of her friend’s, and I’m kind of stuck in the corner but telling her it’s ok and that she should enjoy herself, and she comes and kind of like saves me, rescues me from the party. But then, later that night, we’re sitting on the hood of our car and down the road a car has crashed and the guy has gone through the windshield, you don’t see it it’s just all the way from our point of view looking far down, and I start telling her that I feel like I’m the tree stuck in that car, and she’s the car and this tree has just been stopping for so long and that car has just been moving for so long, and suddenly that tree on this night stopped this wonderful, beautiful thing that’s been moving which is this car. And I’m the tree. And it’s just this really sweet, you know, they’re smoking weed so it’s a bit of a stoned thought, but it’s so beautiful and it sums up this relationship in such a sweet way, the way they both think about each other and for Kristen it’s heart-breaking because she’s actually kind of harboring this horrible guilt.
STEWART: Horrible, unbelievable guilt. That you don’t fucking find out until like page…!
STEWART: It’s so far into the movie!
EISENBERG: So it’s stuff like that where everything feels so specific and meaningful, because Kristen is experiencing it in two different ways and I’m kind of experiencing it in, well one way, but in a very personal way. He’s a very wonderful, special writer.
American Ultra opens August 21st. For more on the film, check out some new images and posters here.