Jesse Eisenberg would really like some hand sanitizer.
But Los Angeles has been cleaned out — and, to the actor’s immense regret, that’s where the coronavirus crisis marooned him. On the phone with The Post, the verbose “Zombieland” star found some dark humor in being detained in the last place in the world he wants to be, even during the best of times. “As someone who avoids LA like the plague,” he says, “to be stuck here because of an actual plague feels ironic.”
He’s been famously forthright about his issues with everyday anxiety, but the 36-year-old Eisenberg says the emergence of a global pandemic — an anxiety-inducing event if ever there was one — has a silver lining for him: “I got incredibly calm.”
With flights off limits, he, his wife and young son crashed in LA with a friend, the humorist Simon Rich, but were more than ready to get back to their home in Bloomington, Indiana. (Since we spoke, they managed to snag a rental car and hightail it back to the Midwest.) Eisenberg and his family split their time between Indiana — where his wife, Anna Strout, is from — and New York.
The Hollywood-avoidant Eisenberg finds himself in the spotlight in a big way this week, when many releases have been upended. He’s in two films, “Vivarium” and “Resistance” (both available Friday on demand and on various digital platforms), which couldn’t be more different.
The former is a claustrophobic sci-fi chiller about a young house-hunting couple, Tom and Gemma (Eisenberg and Imogen Poots), who end up trapped in a creepily generic subdivision. “I love that it’s kind of a fever dream about the fear of buying a house or having a child,” says the actor, adding that the screenplay was originally inspired by a housing crisis in Ireland. In the current coronavirus moment, he says, “It’ll more likely be seen as the nightmare of being stuck inside a house that’s eating your soul.”
The actor isn’t planning on seeing it, though. How many of his movies does he take a pass on? “Almost all of them,” he says. Even after almost two decades — his breakout role was in 2002’s “Roger Dodger” — he just thinks it’s human nature to shrink from watching your own performances. “I mean, sane people probably don’t like to see themselves on video,” he says. “Now multiply that feeling by a billion, on a huge screen.”
The other new movie he won’t be seeing is “Resistance,” a World War II drama in which he plays the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau, in his lesser-known early years as a fighter in the French Resistance.
“There were so many strange coincidences,” says Eisenberg, a New York native from Bayside whose family left the city when he was little. “My mother was a birthday party clown in the tri-state area. We lived in [East Brunswick] New Jersey, and every morning, she would put on the same makeup as Marceau, pack her van with balloons and her guitar and hula hoops, and drive to a kid’s house to perform.”
And like the mime, Eisenberg is Jewish. “My family comes from probably two hours’ drive from where Marceau came from, in southern Poland.” In the Holocaust, he says, “we lost family in Poland.” He has one cousin who survived, who still lives there.
Eisenberg also related to Marceau’s being torn between being an artist and an activist. “I want to think of the arts as this very pure thing that should be for its own sake, and I’m married to a woman who is an activist and a teacher. She’s, like, a professional good person,” he says. “She grew up working with her mother, who ran a domestic violence shelter. She teaches in the poorest schools in New York. So I’m constantly thinking about how art can have some benevolent quality, without compromising what’s artistically pure.”
He says he’s less inclined to see borders between mainstream and independent film these days: “The more work I do, the more I realize the lines are a bit more blurry. You could find amazing artistry in a commercial product, and real shallowness in something that appears more artistically unadulterated. I remember being on the Batman movie [2016’s ‘Batman v Superman’] and thinking, ‘This is the most unbelievable set I’ve seen in my life.’” He’s recently said he’d love to reprise the role of Lex Luthor.
Eisenberg, who is also a playwright, is still best known for his reptilian portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in 2010’s “The Social Network,” so maybe it’s unsurprising that you won’t find him on Facebook or any other social media platform. With his sharp and self-deprecating wit, he’d likely be a Twitter star in no time. But Eisenberg thinks it’s a recipe for self-loathing.
“I do one interview, like this one, where I have to briefly talk about myself, and I walk away thinking, ‘What did I just say? How self-aggrandizing and ridiculous!’ If I put something online by my own hand, I would be tormented by it,” he says. “I would say something offensive on the first day, and spend the next 364 days thinking about it.”