Even before the undead yet live-wire comedy-horror hit "Zombieland," Jesse Eisenberg had established a beachhead as the thinking man's Michael Cera: slender and sensitive but also emotionally tough and sinewy.
In "The Squid and the Whale," playing the older adolescent son of an estranged intellectual couple, and in "Adventureland," playing a recent college grad and aspiring travel writer, spinning his wheels and falling in love at a summer job in an amusement park, Eisenberg was equally potent playing fecklessness or sincerity, and better yet when he played both at the same time.
Whether they're actively selfish or merely self-absorbed, Eisenberg invests his characters with a sense of higher possibility. He gets across the way they yearn to poke holes in their own tunnel vision.
But while shooting "The Social Network" on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus this week, Eisenberg made clear with a good-humored ferocity that establishing any kind of persona or performing signature couldn't be further from his mind.
Across the street from the Baltimore Museum of Art, sitting alone at a long table that had been lined with extras just a few minutes before, Eisenberg buried his face into a quality paperback and faded right into the surroundings. Wearing the Gap hoodie and jeans of his character, Mark Zuckerberg, the geeky Harvard renegade who came up with the structure and coding for Facebook, Eisenberg was exulting in the chance to play the worst kind of know-it-all: the kind who might really know more than anybody else. The movie's source book, Ben Mezrich's "The Accidental Billionaires," by and large views Zuckerberg as a sleazy nerd enigma, capable of ruthlessly cutting loose his original partner and best friend, Eduardo Saverin (played in the movie by Andrew Garfield), after Saverin makes a stupid business move or two.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher (in his first film since "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") may have a more nuanced take in the subject, but they're sure not about to follow the Hollywood conventions of making their protagonist "more likable." And that suits Eisenberg just fine.
"Even though I've gotten to be in some wonderful movies, this character seems so much more overtly insensitive in so many ways that seem more real to me in the best way. I don't often get cast as insensitive people so it feels very comfortable: fresh and exciting, as if you never have to worry about the audience. Not that I worry about the audience anyway -- it should be just the furthest thing from your mind."
Acknowledging that a director as exacting as Fincher makes the final decisions on a character, Eisenberg says, "Chances are [Zuckerberg is] the protagonist for the movie, but not in any traditional way. He's a very rare character."
Although Eisenberg has shown formidable talent in making inchoate characters engaging, he says, "It always kills me when I have to think about a character being sympathetic. I mean, it kills my creativity as an actor. Unfortunately, the way most movies are made, if you play a character who is supposed to be sympathetic, it's something you can't avoid thinking about, because you'll be directed in such a way that is often in conflict with what a character would really do but is necessary to hit a certain beat in the movie. And it makes me crazy."
On that score, he couldn't be closer to his director, who in movies from "Fight Club" to "Zodiac" has never whitewashed a hero or glamorized a villain.
"This movie is the biggest relief I've ever had in a movie," says Eisenberg. "I've never felt more comfortable and free than here, because the character seems to be coming from a realistic place rather than a place already transcribed by standard movie plots."
There's nothing random about the book that Eisenberg is holding in his hands. It's Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time," and when asked about it, the actor exclaims, "Oh, my God, it's the greatest thing I've ever read." Haddon's book is about an autistic boy who sets out to discover who killed a dog and in doing so, uncovers family mysteries.
"This guy doesn't have ways of showing things, and you see some of that in Zuckerberg," says Eisenberg. "Obviously, Zuckerberg is much more high-functioning. But people have said Zuckerberg may have minor Asperger's or something. I don't know if it is Asperger's -- I've watched everything there is to watch about him and it doesn't seem like Asperger's -- but he's very opaque. When you watch people with Asperger's, they often just seem a bit distant."
For Eisenberg, the character's elusiveness is a gift. "It's the best thing ever. Often in movies, you're emoting to the point where it feels false, especially if you do so many takes. This is the opposite. Aaron Sorkin wrote so many brilliant deflections for him to pull off. You can't tell if Zuckerberg is deflecting or naturally not sociable. So sometimes it might be Machiavellian and sometimes it might be his natural lack of skills. It's fun to play with that and use that to his advantage, when he doesn't want to answer something. I'm doing more takes than I've ever done in my life, but it still feels fresh, partly because he's burying all these things."
Another reason it feels fresh is working with Fincher, a man who has turned multiple takes into a performance art - there's something hypnotic about watching him guide Eisenberg and Garfield through every possible variation on a scene.
"I've never seen anyone in my life work like him or heard of anyone working like him, at least working today. [William Wyler did in Hollywood's heyday.] I told my parents it sounds excessive until you're working with him, and then you see for every take there's a new reason doing it. He's very nice socially, so I don't want to compare him to Zuckerberg, but he's got that intense focus, which may be one reason he enjoys that character so much."
So what required so many takes when Eisenberg and Garfield were on the steps of Shaffer Hall on Monday afternoon? "Just what we were talking about: finding the gradations of opaqueness versus expressiveness."
Before he's called away for the next set-up, Eisenberg says, "Moviemaking may seem lazy when you see me here reading a book. But when you're on a set you're so immersed, you forget everything else that's happening in the world - I'll forget I have to call my mother. You get addicted to the movie. You want to date all the girls that are there and make best friends with all the boys that are there, because you just want to live in the movie."
Realizing how he sounds, he adds, "I mean, then I realize I want to be with my friends back in New York, but when you're in a movie you feel you're with the single best people that could ever have been placed there."