Suspense thriller Vivarium tells the unsettling story of what happens when a young couple, Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots), decides to go on a search for their dream home. Their search places them directly in the center of a terrifying nightmare they can’t escape, trapped within mysterious rows of identical houses. Eisenberg also takes the lead in the historical drama Resistance, where he plays a younger version of famous theater performer Marcel Marceau. The film follows Marceau living in Nazi-occupied France, where he has no intention of getting involved in World War II until he decides to join the French Resistance to save children orphaned by the Nazis.
During a 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Eisenberg talked about both of his recent releases, how Vivarium seemed like a fever dream that comes with commitment, what it was like to do one particularly claustrophobic scene, the mime work he did for Resistance, why he enjoys playing more villainous characters, and much, much more.
Collider: Congrats on the releases of both Vivarium and Resistance, on the same day. It must be cool to have two such different stories and characters out there, at the same time.
JESSE EISENBERG: Yeah, it’s great when it works out that way. I did these movies, back to back, and only now, in retrospect, do they have some kind of similarity for me, especially given the current context, which is that we’re all isolating. I have a three-year-old, so I’m spending my time trying to entertain and distract. In Vivarium, these characters are quite literally stuck inside this hellscape and going crazy. And in Resistance, the characters are obviously hiding from the Nazis, which is a far more immediate threat, and my character has to use his imagination to keep these kids entertained.
With Vivarium, there’s something scary about getting to the place in adulthood, where it’s time to get a house, especially for this couple of who is seemingly looking for the perfect home to likely start a family, and then that dream just turns into a nightmare. When you watch this film, there’s a definite building sense of terror to it. Was all of that there, the first time you read the script?
EISENBERG: Yeah. It seemed like the fever dream that you’d have the night before you got married or had a baby or bought a house. It’s like the unconscious fears we all have about making commitments in our lives, even if it’s a commitment that you’ve chosen, the partner you chose, or the house you wanted to buy or live in. It’s just one closer step to your own mortality. So, I just thought it was this brilliant nightmare of that, like the brilliant surrealist movies that evoke certain feelings for us, just through symbols rather than through a more literal depiction of scary, or a literal depiction of a commentary on modern life.
It seems like it also would have been a very emotionally exhausting movie to shoot. Was that the case? And when you do something like that, do you have to personally pace yourself, so that you can get through the shoot?
EISENBERG: Yeah, especially with a movie like this, where the characters are becoming increasingly stir crazy. You want to make sure that there’s some trajectory. Because the acting style is naturalistic, in a way, you’re trying to bring this naturalism in a totally unnatural context. There’s something coincidental because you’re shooting these movies on these like soundstages, where there are no windows or outside noise, and you’re stuck at the same time of day for 14 hours, and that’s exactly what the characters are living in. They’re living in this totally unnatural, plastic hellscape. In a way, it mirrors what the experience of shooting a movie on a soundstage is, but with more dire consequences.
This film also feels even more scary because it seems like there’s no specific reason why these two people have to go through all of this. It seems like it was just random, and that they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Do you feel like that allows the story to be even more impactful and scary, as a result?
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly. The idea that the characters’ worst crime was just wanting a normal life, it feels so strange to think about it, in today’s context, in the sense that wanting normalcy, right now, is courting punishment, quite literally. And in the movie, the characters want normalcy in an otherwise stable world. My character spends the movie digging a hole, with increasing futility, and then only afterwards, realizes that he’s dug his own grave. It speaks to the futility of our behavior. What is the end game, for a lot of our behavior? Are we working with some big goal, that just kills us?
This is essentially just you and Imogen Poots for most of this, along with the younger actor playing The Boy. Because of that, did it feel like more of a partnership, with everybody working together and working with the director?
EISENBERG: Yeah. And also, every shot in this movie had to be engineered so specifically because the movie takes place in this fictitious universe, so it was a bit mind boggling. But the director is great. He’s worked on so many productions, trying to create nightmare scapes, in creative ways. When I say creative ways, I mean without having $100 million budget to build the literal thing, using not just computer generated effects, but paintings, called scrims, that are curtains with the images on it. It was an interesting acting experience, in itself. Lars von Trier’s digital effects team was there from Denmark, and they were showing me, in real time, what it might look like. We were essentially on a stage, where there was no one else, except the crew, who was facing you like an audience. It was a very unusual feeling.
You also get zipped into a body bag in this, which seems like my worst nightmare. Did you actually have to get zipped into that, and were you able to do so without claustrophobia issues?
EISENBERG: Yes, because all of the fears that I have in my life, disappear when I’m on a movie set. I don’t know if it makes me feel invincible because I’m on a movie set. Fears of heights, or in this case, being zipped up in a bag and claustrophobia, immediately disappears. I do stunts in movies that I would never do, in real life. I think there’s a feeling that you’re invincible on a movie set because they take so many precautions, or because you don’t foresee ever getting hurt at work. But I love the stuff in this movie. That was fine. I asked my child, who was one years old, to come out and watch the scene and my wife said, “Are you kidding me? Absolutely not.”
One of the things that I really loved about your work in Resistance was the mime work that you get to do in the film. What was it like to get to learn that and do that, and how long did you work on that for?
EISENBERG: Well, only in retrospect, do I realize that I’ve been thinking about it, my whole life. My mother was a birthday party clown, when I was growing up. She would paint her face like [Marcel] Marceau, and she performed for kids, at birthdays and hospitals, and stuff. So, I’ve been watching clowning since I’m born. And then, for this movie, I spent about nine months with this really brilliant guy, Lorin Eric Salm, who’s just this amazing teacher that not only studied with Marceau for years, but has almost chronicled Marceau’s life. And so, I had this two-pronged education of learning – learning about Marceau and mime, but also learning these routines, learning how to perform, and learning the kind of beauty that comes with more abstract art that I’m used to – art that doesn’t have any literal manifestation. It was just thrilling. Anytime you get to do things like that, as an actor, it’s great ‘cause otherwise you feel a bit like a dilettante, learning little things, here and there, but with no real expertise. Whereas with this, I was required to be more of an expert then you usually are for a movie, probably because I’m playing best one in the world.
Did it feel daunting, at all, to take on playing someone like that, or was it easier knowing that this is a very different part of his life than people are used to or even aware of, at all?
EISENBERG: Yeah. Once I started digging into it, I realized that, at this stage in his life, he wouldn’t be the mime we all know, and there’s no video from this period in his life. Even more comforting than that is that he was performing for these children to entertain them, so it was not about being this brilliant performer. It was about being a performer who can entertain these kids during a horrific time. And so, when I thought about it like that, the mime came more easily because there was a motivation behind it. It’s the difference between being the best opera singer in the world and singing quietly to kids to keep them entertained. That’s how I thought about it, and in that way, it became an extension of my regular acting rather than my mime acting.
We’ve had a lot of stories about the Holocaust, about the survivors, and about the horrible and harrowing things that people went through. Why do you think that is such an important story to tell people?
EISENBERG: What I loved about this is that I’m constantly trying to reconcile being an artist and being a person who can benefit society. I’m an actor and a writer, and I think a lot of what I do is indulgent and self-serving. I married a woman who has been volunteering at her mother’s domestic violence shelter for 35 years, and who works with undocumented kids in New York and teaches in the poorer schools. And so, I come home every night, from a day of my own job, and contend with somebody who’s done something that feels, to me, far more immediately benevolent. I’m constantly trying to reconcile what I do with what she does. In a way, this movie is about how, here’s an artist who, at the beginning of the movie, feels and behaves in ways that appear self-important and indulgent, but by the end of the movie, he’s risking his life to save these children. It spoke to me, in that way. It’s not a real World War II movie or Holocaust movie, as much as it’s a movie about an artist trying to find a way to use his work for the benefit of others.
I’ve been a fan of your work and have followed your career since your TV series Get Real, many years ago, and you’ve played quite a wide array of characters since then. If you had told yourself, at that age, that you’d have this career, what do you think the reaction would’ve been? Has your career been anything like what you thought it might be or could be, or has it been very surprising to you?
EISENBERG: First of all, thank you so much. You’re so sweet to say all of that. When you asked me that, the thing that jumps to my mind is that, when I started acting, and this partly has to do with Jewish stereotypes and partly has to do with my own sense of humor, but I would get cast as these sweet, virginal characters, and I became so frustrated with that, that I started making very strong efforts to play characters that were arrogant and obnoxious. And then, I would basically just get sent those characters, and it seemed to me like I had ended up just pursuing the exact opposite. It’s this strange thing where you have a certain idea of who you are and what you want to play, and then the audience perceives you in certain ways and you get thought of for certain things. And then, certain movies that you do, without foreseeing the future ramifications, become popular and become embedded in the public consciousness of you, and then that’s how you’re perceived.
So, for me, I’ve tried to shift what I do, so that I can just keep it entertaining and interesting for me, but then you end up falling into the same problem, where you’re like, “Oh, now I’m stuck with this kind of persona,” so I’d try to shift it again. This year, I was about to direct these two things – this television show, and then this movie, in the fall. I was gearing up to shift further away from stuff that I’ve been doing, and then, of course, these things are on hold, which is not the worst thing in the world, obviously, compared to anything else. You almost can’t plan, but I guess that’s probably like any job.
Seeing you play Lex Luthor was cool because that felt unexpected, getting to play one of the most iconic villains, but at the same time, it feels like you didn’t fully get the chance to really explore that. Is there another villain, from some other source material, that you’d love the chance to play? Would you like to play a character like that again?
EISENBERG: Yeah. When I write for myself, I end up playing characters that are probably more villainous than they are sweet. I’ve had four plays in New York, and I played the main character in three of them, and they were all despicable people, so I must unconsciously want to do that. I don’t know why. Even with Marceau, he starts the movie in this self-absorbed way. I really do like that, for some reason. I don’t know exactly why. So, certainly, when I create something for myself, I do that, and would love to do it in another movie, if given the chance, but only if it’s depicted in a way that feels nuanced rather than just pure evil, or somebody jumping out of the closet.
You mentioned directing. Is that something that you’ve thought a lot about and that’s interested you for awhile?
EISENBERG: Not directing, but I’ve been writing since I was young. I have a book coming out soon, and my plays are have translated and done, around the world, and that’s always been important to me. And then, when I wrote a few things this year that can only be done as a movie or TV series, I’m directing them, if for no other reason than to make sure that I have control over my writing. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself, for even one day, on a movie like Vivarium, which requires a technical skill set that I don’t really have. So, I’m directing, only in so far as I wanna control what I write. As a playwright, I don’t direct because it’s a different medium, where you don’t really have to direct. There are almost no playwrights that direct their own stuff. But in movies, typically a writer will direct their own work, if it’s an intimate kind of thing.
Vivarium and Resistance are now available on-demand.