Jesse Eisenberg Reveals How an Existential Crisis Sparked His Play 'The Revisionist'
Following 2013's New York run starring Eisenberg and Vanessa Redgrave, the 'Batman v Superman' star nervously anticipates a new cast featuring Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan as the acclaimed play hits Beverly Hills.
In his breakout movie The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg delivered a scathing, narcissistic portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that some compare to his current depraved dot.com billionaire Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Between the two movies, the young actor cornered the market on playing insecure know-it-alls, a type he channeled yet again to portray the solipsistic novelist in his 2013 play The Revisionist, getting its West Coast premiere through April 17 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
"My plight of my self-centered feelings about my life, my writing, my acting, just the kind of navel-gazing lament of a young person," Eisenberg tells The Hollywood Reporter about the impetus for his first play — a visit to Poland while filming 2007's The Hunting Party in Croatia. Displeased with the direction of his career, he scheduled a retreat at the home of his second cousin, a Holocaust survivor. "This woman who had suffered so much and was choosing to celebrate her family and celebrate her life — it provided me with not only an existential crisis, but also a feeling that I could possibly change the way I kind of choose to make meaning out of my own experience."
The three-person drama had its world premiere at New York's Cherry Lane Theater, a 177-seat Greenwich Village venue, offering a rare opportunity to see Vanessa Redgrave up-close playing the resilient septuagenarian Maria. The show garnered solid reviews and a sold-out run, with Redgrave earnings raves. For the West Coast run, newcomer Seamus Mulcahy fills in for Eisenberg opposite Chicago theater grand dame Deanna Dunagan.
When Eisenberg saw her in August: Osage County on Broadway, he liked her so much he went back a second time to make sure her Tony-winning performance wasn't a fluke. But when offered the part of Maria, Dunagan nearly passed because few actors wish to be compared to Vanessa Redgrave, plus she would have to speak a little Polish and English with an accent. In the end, she signed on simply because "you can't not do a play because somebody famous has done it, because then you wouldn't do any plays except brand-new plays," she explains.
Fresh out of the Yale School of Drama, Mulcahy was thrilled to join the cast but was a little leery of Eisenberg's involvement when he was told by director Robin Larsen that the playwright wanted to be "really hands-on." Recalls Mulcahy about the first table read: "Jesse came in and, with his nervous energy, he seemed more nervous than I!"
It's understandable. After all, it's not easy to write and star in a piece based on personal experiences and then turn it over to someone else to interpret. "I have learned to become very flexible. And I've come to realize that sometimes the way I hear something or the way I want something is not the best way," Eisenberg says after 15 years of experience in film and television. With three produced plays to his credit (including Asuncion and The Spoils, all of which he acted in), he's become surprisingly less inclined to add dialogue to material written by others.
It's a lesson that served him well on Batman v Superman, though he came with some precise ideas about Lex Luthor and wasn't shy about sharing them with screenwriter Chris Terrio. "He's not only very academically inclined and very well educated but also a real artist who understands how to write emotion very well," Eisenberg says of the Oscar-winning scribe. "So he was able to create a character who I play who is as comfortable quoting Greek mythology and theology as he is a psychopath."
In The Revisionist, David is not quite a psychopath but certainly antisocial. He barely looks at the welcome dinner Maria has laid out for him, instead escaping into her bedroom, which she has graciously leant him, to smoke pot. Making matters worse, he complains about the The New York Times review of his book, which she has framed and hung on the wall. Never mind that the critic was unkind, she's impressed by the mere fact it was reviewed. Surrounding it are photos of cousins, uncles and nieces, few of whom David recognizes, a shrine to family members an ocean away who have all but forgotten her.
Self-absorbed and callous, David seemed like the quintessential millennial to Mulcahy, although Eisenberg didn't necessarily write it that way. As a member of a generation that seems happy to share every intimate detail of their lives, he spends his time doing the opposite: protecting his privacy. "I don't feel like I'm an ambassador for my generation," he says. "What I'm really trying to do is explore feelings that I have. Whether or not they're relevant to the generation is, in my mind, secondary, though I suspect they probably are."