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In what feels like all-too poignant timing given the recent headlines about Andrew Tate, the world of toxic masculinity heads to the Berlinale this year with John Trengove’s competition entry Manodrome. Described as a “nihilist thriller,” this tense and troubling dive into incel culture and male fragility is led by a perhaps unlikely guide, Jesse Eisenberg.
Often seen playing insecure men with a more jittery, nervous disposition, Eisenberg’s Manodrome character Ralphie — a gym-obsessed Uber driver and soon-to-be father struggling under personal and economic burdens — sees such anxieties manifest themselves into pure anger, anger which violently erupts after he’s inducted into a libertarian masculinity cult (led by a typically charismatic Adrien Brody).
While Ralphie — a beefed-up young man who appears constantly on the verge of starting a fight — might not seem a typical Eisenberg role, the Oscar-nominated star of The Social Network, Zombieland, Now You See Me, as well as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t quite see it that way. In fact, as he admits, he doesn’t see it at all, living in a purpose-built “bubble” where he doesn’t watch any of his own films or read anything about himself, and one practically impenetrable to public perceptions of his career choices and performances.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Eisenberg — also recently seen in the hit Hulu show Fleishman Is in Trouble — discusses how Manodrome’s production delays saw him spend far longer in the gym than he’s ever done before, his plans to go straight from the Berlinale to Poland to location scout for his second film as director, and why people now come up to him on the street to divulge their own personal Fleishman-inspired stories.
To get into character for Manodrome, I’m assuming you spent several years embedded inside an incel cult?
I did! It’s called the United States of America. Ha! No. But probably like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by the growing fringe and not-so-fringe movement of embracing masculinity in this strange and dangerous way, which is obviously a backlash to the progress we’ve made.
Was that fascination there before this film, or did you do a deep dive once you were offered the role?
It started a few years before, when I was doing this movie The Art of Self-Defense, which is like an absurdist comic take on dangerous notions of masculinity. And I just became really fascinated by these fringe-y movements, which are becoming more mainstream. And then doing this movie, which takes a very serious, very dark, almost fever dream dissection of this culture, I became more interested in the darker sides of it. But there’s also gym culture. What I actually spent most of my time doing in preparation for this movie was just spending time at the gym, because I’m so naturally thin that to get to a point where I could play someone who was in the gym every day was a really big hurdle. So I spent hours in the gym and eating, and for months, because the movie was going to get made two years before it did. So I was preparing in the gym every day, and then it would get pushed six months, but I couldn’t exactly stop.
So you just had to keep going to the gym?
Yes. But this is the nature of independent films. I was directing my own movie [2022’s When You Finish Saving the World] in New Mexico and then going to the gym, and then editing the movie, and then going to the gym. And it consumed my life for such a long time. And it gets you into this mode, for me, of having these unreachable goals. So in some way, it overlapped with what my character was dealing with, which is just this deep personal shame, well of insecurity and self-hate. Just spending all that time at the gym and feeling like my goals are ever further receding into the distance.
When you finished the film, did you just stop training altogether?
I go to the gym now but without the pressure. I can do the things I like. I mean, I had a meal plan for a really long time and was working with trainers. We were on the phone every day for hours. So it was just a lot. I haven’t watched the movie, so I don’t even know how different I look. But it was just so consuming. So in terms of preparation, that’s what sticks out.
Was this area of masculinity something you’ve ever felt remotely close to in any way. Was there any kind of experience at all you could draw from?
Of course, just growing up being a theater kid in a regular public school. I transferred to performing arts in my senior year, but before that, I was going to a school where football players were top of the food chain. I never told anybody that I was doing plays growing up, and looking back, it seems like such a strange thing to have to hide. I guess I grew up thinking that what I was interested in made me inadequate. So I feel it from that side. From the other side, and what this movie discusses, this group formed in the story is a backlash to what I personally think is wonderful progress about gender norms and gender roles, but for them, it feels like their whole world is being threatened. And all their personal insecurities and fears and feelings of inadequacy manifest as anger towards women as opposed to looking inward to fix whatever issues are going on with themselves.
What I found particularly interesting in Manodrome is that the toxic masculinity I’ve heard of seems to be more about misogyny and treating women as inferior, whereas in the film it’s almost a complete rejection of women altogether.
Oh yeah, that’s right. There are more extreme groups that just swear off women. But it’s all driven by the same fear of their own inadequacies manifesting as fear for their own gender.
Hope you don’t mind me saying, but this felt like a very un-Jesse Eisenberg character: a beefed- up, pill-popping, angry gym obsessive. Did it feel different from your usual roles?
I actually don’t think of things like that. The truth is, I don’t watch myself in anything and I don’t read anything about myself, so the only time I’m coming to terms with how the public perceives me is when I do interviews like this, or when somebody tells me something I was unaware of. I live in a bubble. I don’t constantly walk around with my own thoughts about how I’m perceived. But it felt different in some ways. I was spending time in the gym, although what occurred to me while I was spending lots of time in the gym for this movie about a guy who spends a lot of time in the gym is that many actors just do this anyway.
Ralphie goes through a wild range of emotions in the film and spends a lot of time in a state of extreme anger. Is that an easy emotion for you to get into or display on camera?
I guess if I say yes, it’s like I’m a psychopath. I mean, I walk around with lots of emotions that are not appropriate to display in public, and then when I get to do a project where the characters have an extreme range of emotions, that feels really cathartic. I also sometimes marvel at just normal civilized society where people aren’t way more upset or elated with everyday life. But it’s cathartic. And I guess I felt a lot for the character and really sad for what he’s going through.
You mentioned making When You Finish Saving the World. Did getting behind the camera give you any newfound respect for directors?
Yeah. I always had the kind of self-centered assumption that the directors were just constantly stressed out because I wasn’t doing a good job in their movie. Having now directed a movie, I realize that they have a lot of other things going on. That was my main revelation. I was thinking of about 17,000 things that didn’t have anything to do with the actors. So I’m a little more comfortable on set now.
Any plans to direct again?
Actually the day after Berlin I’m going location scouting in Poland. It’s a film called A Real Pain, about two American cousins [Eisenberg directs himself alongside Kieran Culkin] who go on a holocaust tour in southeastern Poland. We start shooting May 1.
You’ve just been seen as a divorced and dating dad in the Hulu miniseries Fleishman Is in Trouble, which has picked up a lot of positive reactions. What has been the response to your character? Are you still getting stopped on the street with questions?
Yeah, I get stopped on a street by people who are divorced, people who are doctors, people who are Jewish and sometimes all three, because they want to tell me that the show was about their lives. For the most part, it’s very nice and kind of a little interesting and provocative to hear people freely divulge personal information. I guess the show is a very relatable and modern way into discussions of universal anxieties and seems to have touched people in quite a personal way.
Like Ralphie in Manodrome, have you ever taken a photo of yourself flexing your muscles?
I did it for this movie. I had a wonderful trainer – Colin Campbell, and he asked me early on to flex in the mirror and take a picture. But I was so nauseated by the idea I couldn’t do it for months and months.
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