Team Behind Jesse Eisenberg Starrer 'Art of Self-Defense' Talks Using Satire to Explore What It Means to Be a Man

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From left: Jesse Eisenberg, director Riley Stearns, Alessandro Nivola and fight choreographer and stunt coordinator Mindy Kelly

Director Riley Stearns tells The Hollywood Reporter that he hopes his violent, dark comedy, in select theaters Friday, will spark conversations about masculinity and being comfortable in one's own skin.

The dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense, directed by Riley Stearns and starring Jesse Eisenberg, follows a dorky, socially awkward accountant’s journey into a world of hypermasculinity and violence as he attempts to learn karate in order to better defend himself and become a man.

Stearns tells The Hollywood Reporter that he aimed to use satire and dark humor in his film to display an overt and over-the-top sense of masculinity. The filmmaker said he hopes the movie will create important dialogue about gender, masculinity and what it means to be a man.

“The idea is that I’m not trying to come up with any answers, I’m not claiming that I have any answers to anything but I am trying to open up conversation,” Stearns said ahead of Thursday's screening of The Art of Self-Defense in New York.

Although the film may seem to explore the theme of toxic masculinity, Stearns’ main goal was for audience members to leave feeling more comfortable being themselves, even if that may not be considered “manly.”

“Toxic masculinity is a conversation that is already happening right now, but when I wrote this it was 2015,” he said. “I don’t think I had even heard the term 'toxic masculinity' at that point, so it wasn’t necessarily about that; it was more about my own personal thoughts and fears about who I was as a man and what it meant to be a man.”

Eisenberg’s character, Casey, is taken under the wing of a brutish and dangerous dojo leader, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), resulting in a level of personal growth that Eisenberg said Casey never expected or wanted.

“The dojo in the movie is like a cult. Initially my character is really lured into what he thinks of as the answer to his problems,” said the actor. “Then, like all cults, he finds the danger in it. He finds what’s disgusting in it and what’s misogynistic, sexist and violent about it, and that’s the part that starts to really confuse him.”

Through his experience at the dojo, Casey undergoes a serious transformation in terms of confidence, physicality and being able to stand up for himself, though not in the way viewers would expect, Eisenberg told THR.

“The movie kind of plays on this idea of the sports genre where the meek character finds his inner confidence through athletics and usually comes out changed in some way. This movie is a satire on that genre, so the character that I play comes out of the movie better for it but not because of the things the athletics teach him and not because of what the teacher teaches him,” he said.

The teacher in Art of Self-Defense not only teaches Casey karate but also how to be a man — pushing misogynistic ideals, violence and toxic masculinity on him, according to Nivola, who believes his character has an extremely flawed perception of masculinity.

“It couldn’t be more obvious. The joke of the movie is on its sleeve. It’s about a wimpy guy who chooses the completely wrong person to try and teach him how to be a man,” Nivola said.

The film has been compared to Fight Club, which was released over 20 years ago and touches on some of the same subject matter. Stearns said he believes the two movies are telling similar messages but that the manner in which they are delivered is distinctively different.

“I think that there is a place for both. Fight Club is super subtle and amazing; mine is very unsubtle, but I think that’s why it was interesting to me. I didn’t want to remake something that’s already been made,” Stearns said. “I think it’s going to subvert some expectations and surprise some people.”