Jesse Eisenberg is exactly how you might expect. He’s anxious, speaking quickly with his hands, a slight tremble in his voice from a clear nervousness. In fact, he’s similar to many of the characters he has played over the last 15 years. Eisenberg has repeatedly stated his difficulty in the public eye, his aversion to being famous, which becomes more obvious within minutes of sitting across from him.
His directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World, portrays an isolated family, a theme he continues writing about through short stories, New Yorker articles, and screenplays. Comprised of Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore), Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard), and Roger Katz (Jay O. Sanders in a reduced, hilarious role), each member of the family lives within her/her respective bubble. Evelyn runs a successful domestic abuse shelter, listening to classical music in her extremely small car to and from the workplace. Ziggy has garnered a following on a live-streaming platform, singing folk songs to fans around the world, monetizing this into clothing plastered with his initials. And Roger just drinks his wine and reads his books, often disengaged and uninvolved between the other two’s bickering.
The light drama contains Eisenberg’s wit and political interest, his affinity for prickly familial relationships. It becomes a dichotomy between action and intention, as mother and son run along parallel tracks, each self-aggrandizing their own acts. Ziggy wants to understand more of the world, and Evelyn hopes to help the son of a mother that’s just entered her shelter, placing her wishes for Ziggy onto another high schooler. They are one in the same, cut from the same genes.
With a score from Emile Mosseri and a slew of original songs written by Eisenberg and Wolfhard, the film leans on music to tell its story. A mixture of classical and indie rock beats on the background of this slight satire. Eisenberg is making fun of the Katz family and empathizing with them, working through his similarities to these people. His ideas overflow in the script, while the camera often opts for simplicity in placement. All of these ideas don’t always coalesce, but they make for a compelling-enough story, a relatable one at minimum.
Moore remains a sensational presence and one of our better actors, becoming Evelyn with all of her moral standards and new obsessions. Wolfhard is more-than-believable as this capitalism-obsessed teenage musician. And the supporting cast does enough to keep the audience engaged.
He began the interview by asking about my family and their safety, my holidays, and my experience in New York City. It’s almost as if he didn’t want the actual interview process to start. The experience held a pleasant fervor. I sat down with Eisenberg in a small hotel room to chat with the director about his debut feature, relating to his own son, and his mom’s reaction to his writing.
The Film Stage: How do you feel about doing these interviews?
Jesse Eisenberg: I feel two things. One is I’m very, very grateful that we have this hotel room to support the movie. And then I walk home going, “What did I say? What did I say?” And then my wife says, “What did you say? What did you say?” So I just feel like I’m worried I’m gonna slip up and say something––either too personal or weird or offensive or not good for the movie.
Do you find yourself getting into a rhythm, or does each interview feel like another level of nervousness?
Each interview. How you are, you seem quite similar to me. So I’m aware of that. And I’m tailoring my answers––like I did the Drew Barrymore show this morning. And we could not be more different people, but I liked her very much. But you end up describing your project to different people, and you end up putting kind of a different spin on it. If I met somebody who’s very wry and sarcastic, I would discuss how the movie is kind of wry and sarcastic. But then I was on Drew Barrymore’s show today––I’m talking about the mother-and-son relationship because she’s a very emotionally honest person.
I read in an interview that you never watch yourself onscreen. How was it watching something you made over and over again? Have you just reached a point where you cannot see it anymore?
I haven’t watched it [recently]. My philosophy, which is less a philosophy and more like a therapy, is just to keep moving forward in the arts. Because you can’t control what people like or what becomes popular, or what people hate or what becomes invisible. And so my feeling is the only solution to that instability is to just keep moving forward. And if somebody is hiring you or producing the thing you wrote or publishing it, that’s a good day. And so I don’t revisit anything.
I watched this movie in Cannes where I had to see it, because I was told it would be rude to leave. I think I’m the first person to leave a Cannes opening. I did a movie called Café Society. And that was like a negotiation to get me to walk out. And I don’t mean to be rude––I am just very self-conscious––and I think they said, “This is the first time anybody’s walked out of a Cannes opening. Aren’t you honored to be here?” And I said, “I’m so honored to be here that it’s producing a level of cortisol that I can’t handle and I’m gonna leave.”
Some quick-hitters. Lila’s poem: who wrote that?
Oh, me. I’m obsessed with writing. Yes, I wrote the poem. And I wrote a song that the poem is based on that we did for Audible. And then I had given my music and lyrics to Emile Mosseri, who’s one of the great composers in the world. And he told me that my version sounded like what a teenager in a musical-theater class would write. So he’s going to redo the melody and he’ll get back to me in a day. And so we did that.
Do you like eating with your hands? Like Julianne Moore in the movie.
I love Ethiopian food probably more than any cuisine, and so I wanted to put that in a movie. I haven’t seen it in a movie. And I thought it’d be interesting for this very cultured woman to take this young boy who hadn’t been exposed to something like that to this restaurant.
Favorite restaurant in Bloomington?
My favorite restaurant just closed. It was called Laughing Planet. It was the burrito place, I think, based in Oregon. And it was my favorite place. I was begging them to name the burrito after me––which was kale, plantains, black rice, jack cheese, whole wheat burrito. And they never named it after me. And now they’re closed. I wonder if there’s a correlation.
What about favorite restaurant in New York?
Oh, goodness, Christ, Christ. Well, there is one, but I don’t want to say because I live here and go there. But there is a place that’s kind of a bread place that has sandwiches and they let me sit there for half of the day if I need to. So if I ever have to meet somebody or something, I go there. But truly that’s it. That’s a great place.
Well, maybe you can tell me after off-the-record.
Oh, yeah. I totally will. You need to go.
In the film, Ziggy is wearing a ring on his third finger on his left hand, where a wedding ring would be.
I don’t even have a wedding thing. And I got my wife a wedding ring and an engagement ring. And then we brought it home. Then the cat knocked it into the radiator and I never saw it again. So we’re not aware of that stuff. And I didn’t know that; I’ll have to have a scolding with Finn. But yes, Ziggy’s self-obsessed. So it’s a commitment ring to himself.
Did you have any other titles besides When You Finish Saving the World?
As an audiobook, which is in three parts––the father’s part, the child Ziggy’s part, and then his mother’s part––they each have an intersection with an island. In the first section the father is thinking about it. He writes something about Haiti and this young woman criticizes him for it. And then, of course, Ziggy’s character is interested in the Marshall Islands. And then later on she’s thinking about this, but that doesn’t matter. But the point is: I thought “Oh, my God––this would be such a good title, Lonely Islands.” And I was telling my friend, “Isn’t this a great title?” He’s like, “That’s the name of a famous comedy music group.” I was like, “Really? Oh, God. Do you think they would find out?” He’s like, “Yes, they’re famous. They’re very famous.”
Anyway, so then I had to fix it. And then I heard this comment from my friend who’s an activist against incarceration. And he’s an activist and the mother of his child said, “When you finish saving the world, whenever, you still got a kid.” And he said this in a panel, and I ran up to him after and I said, “Do you mind if I use that as a title?” It’s so evocative. It’s so evocative to me, especially for the circles that I enjoy running in, which are people who are really doing wonderful social work. And I always think about what happens to these people who do such amazing work when they have a family member that’s not interested in it or shallow.
In the last six years you’ve had a child and began playing father figures, as in Fleishman. You’ve started playing older than yourself, basically. And you’re writing more about parenthood. I wanted to ask more generally about your thoughts on parenthood and what you think makes a good father.
It’s something, obviously, you think about every day as a parent. I’ll just say, without divulging any information about my child––because that seems odd––but just that everything I expected my child to be, which, in retrospect, I realized was just like a carbon copy of me, he’s not. So that’s the kind of surprising thing. I guess I had the idea that a person would be birthed with my code and be exactly like me, and it’s my opportunity to kind of shepherd him into the thing that was here. But now I’m realizing that he’s just very different than I was, and I thank the stars every day that he’s different.
Then how do you feel like you can relate to him?
Oh, he’s funny, because I think jokes are the only important currency because I’m shallow and so he’s funny, just by virtue of that. But he’s also being raised by my wife, who is like this saint of a person. And so hopefully he’s getting some influence there as well. It’s funny in the sense that I was thinking about it just in relation to this movie because Julianne Moore’s character, Evelyn, is this brilliant woman and has a son who just seems completely unaware of any issue outside of himself.
And yet it’s so clear that he is her son because he has her ambition. He has her drive. He has her ingenuity. She uses it to run this shelter for victims of domestic violence and intimate partner violence. And he uses it for something that I would call comparatively shallow, but they are each other. They are related. They’re just doing something so different.
So much of the film is the difference of action vs. intention. What do you think happens when these two aren’t connected?
I leave the house in the morning, my wife goes to school––where she teaches disability justice and awareness––and I go and do publicity about myself. And yet, when I’m doing publicity about myself, I tout my own goodness. It’s just the nature of answering questions about yourself––you end up just unconsciously defending everything you’ve been in or done or who you are––and my wife spends zero-point-zero hours a day talking about herself in a public setting. And so when I go home, I think about this. Well, God, who am I? What did I accomplish today? And who is she and what did she accomplish today?
And it occurs to me that I get celebrated publicly and she doesn’t. I envy how she spends her days. And so that’s what I’m thinking about. And you’re very astute to pick up on the idea between action and intention. My intentions all seem quite noble. I can do interviews about myself and talk about why I’m doing this project. And my wife, without fanfare, sanctimony, celebration, or prizes does the actual work that I’m in some ways celebrating myself for being involved in.
And how do you personally weigh that benefit versus cost of being in the public eye?
I find it impossible to reconcile what I imagine to be a lifelong struggle. But then I think about the things in the arts that made me feel good, and they were not necessarily socially relevant art projects; they were just something that made me feel connected to the world. So I think: okay, it does have value. I have to remember the times that I felt it had value for me and think that it’s possible that it can have value for other people as well.
There are lots of zooms and close-ups in the film. We’re often quite close to the characters’ faces. I was hoping to hear more about that choice.
It was something that just occurred to me yesterday, because the movie’s playing at the American Cinematheque and they asked me what movie I want to play as a double bill. And I suggested this movie Submarine, which is like one of my favorite movies, and a movie my friend [Richard Ayoade] made. I asked him every question I could ask somebody that’s made a thing, and he uses these zooms in a sweetly satirical way. So in our movie we’re kind of zooming in on characters in their most uncomfortable moments. And I think it does two things: I think it isolates the character, but also brings us literally closer to them and hopefully, emotionally closer to them. And he did it in Submarine in such a way that felt both stylized and emotionally real. And so I was trying to mirror that.
One of the themes of your book, your recent writing, and this film is broken families––families that are isolated. You seem to keep coming back to that.
I didn’t realize that. I probably have to speak to somebody about this. When I think about a clash of values I always think about how, in some ways, we have a responsibility to love our families. And this is a responsibility that seems to come from some place on high. You’re born into having this responsibility of loving people you are put together with, whether it’s chosen family or whether it’s your biological family or whatever. And I think all the time about a clash of values and how people can have such a different set of values and still have to reconcile that relationship.
With this movie, how do you reconcile a kid who is a shallow capitalist, quasi-folk singer online with a woman who spends every day doing this thing, and they live in the next room over from each other and they have a responsibility to each other that transcends liking each other? Families, in some ways, provide a kind of petri dish for that exploration, but my family is quite nice. My parents are quite normal. And I often ask them, “Do you really have no anxiety?” And they say “No, not really.” I’m like, “What the hell happened to me?”
Do you then feel an oddness writing about parents or families that feel dissimilar?
My mom thinks I’m always writing about her as a mom. That’s fiction. She’s like, “You used my first and last name.” It’s fiction. I write a lot about mothers. There’s the trope in Jewish humor of the overbearing mother. I’m sure probably in any kind of ethnic enclave. There’s that trope if you know. And so anyway, I write and my mom’s friends call her and say, “I just read this piece by Jesse about you.” And she’s like, “It’s not about me.” And then she calls me and she says, “Why did you write about me?” She’s not overbearing; she’s normal. But yes: I write about every experience that’s ever happened to me, every food I like to eat, and that’s just the nature of if you have a writer in the family. There’s gonna be something about you. I recognize that. I’m friends with writers, and I know they’ve written stuff about me or that I’ve said to them.
Do you consider yourself more of a writer, director, or actor? Is there a lane you’re focusing on?
Directing is so new and I’m trying to get better. And I’m about to scout for my next project. And I’m hoping to improve, and I’m hoping to just get better in all avenues. That’s the idea: if you want to have a life in the arts, you have to be comfortable with complete instability and you have to try to improve in some ways––just for your own sanity, so you feel like you’re moving forward. Because oftentimes you can have quite a lot of success as a young person––especially as an actor, because most movies are made about young people. And so if you don’t have the sense that you’re improving, it’s a very empty feeling to have in any profession or craft. So I’m trying to improve and get better. Acting, obviously, is the thing that most people know me from that I do more than the other stuff. But when I’m not acting I’m at the library writing. And that’s my happiest place.
Were there directorial things you felt you were inherently good or inherently bad at?
I felt very good about understanding everybody on the set’s job and allowing them to excel. It’s something that, as an actor, I’m very conscious of because, as an actor, I’m going on a set having to emote in front of strangers. So I try to meet everybody very quickly and know everybody very well; it makes me feel more comfortable and creates a work environment that I feel more conducive to being fully emotional on set. I was surprised by how well I knew people’s jobs and how interested I was in making sure everybody was comfortable. For me, having never directed before, I understood where everybody in the crew fits into this process.
The laundry list of things that I’m not good at is probably too long for this interview. But I wish I did more coverage––that’s the thing I’ll say. For people who are film-aware, they know what it is, and for people who are not, that just refers to doing more shots. I had this beautiful notion that every scene could be done in one shot, and in the editing room I realized I wish I had some things to cut away from to pace it differently. And so I’m not unhappy with it. The cinematography is gorgeous and the editing is wonderful, but that’s something I wish I pushed for a little more.
When You Finish Saving the World opens on January 20 in theaters.