Jesse Eisenberg on “The End of the Tour”

Actor Portrays a Journalist Interviewing David Foster Wallace On His “Infinite Jest” Book Tour

Jul 31, 2015 Web Exclusive
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In The End of the Tour, Jesse Eisenberg plays David Lipsky, a journalist for Rolling Stone assigned to interview literary legend David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) while on a promotional book tour for his landmark novel, Infinite Jest. The film—directed by James Ponsoldt—was adapted from the memoir that Lipsky wrote recounting those few days the two men spent together, and the way the experience reshaped his life.

Eisenberg’s subtle performance in the film is his best since The Social Network, which earned him a 2010 Best Actor nomination. This summer he’ll also appear in the stoner action film, American Ultra, and will play the villainous Lex Luthor in next year’s anticipated blockbuster Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The actor and writer told us about his experience making the intimate The End of the Tour, as well as his short story collection, Bream Gives Me Hiccups, due in book stores this fall.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: So much of David Lipsky’s book – and the screenplay for the film – was based on taped conversations. Did you consult those tapes, and did they have much hand in shaping your performance?

Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah … You hear this kind of camaraderie mixed with this kind of tacit competition; my character trying to get a word in edgewise. He and the other guy brilliantly talking about things that don’t always have to do with what the interview was about. You hear him talk about funny, off-handed things, and give his opinion on unusual topics.  It made it real for me. It also gave me insight into just how it sounded.

You also spent some time with David Lipsky. What did you take away from the experience with him that you were able to bring into your role?

The first thing I asked him was, “Was this an emotional experience for you?” And he said it was very emotional. I asked why, and he told me what the context of the experience was like and how it caught him at an important time in his life, when he was going through [transforming] feelings of identity, and then meeting this guy who seemingly has got it together, and has everything in the world. And then realizing that this guy who’s accomplished everything my character wants to accomplish actually hasn’t got it together.

The role called for subtlety: your character goes through this big process of self-discovery brought on purely through conversation and reflection. As an actor, how do you approach a script where so much occurs internally? Do you have to map out where you see the emotional beats or your character’s changes to be?

I actually did something I’ve never done before, and I didn’t plan anything, because the movie didn’t call for specific mandates for emotional experiences at any given moment. It’s a looser structure than most movies. I tried to take advantage of that and not plan for any specific moment that should be some kind of climactic experience. And then what happens is you find things that are otherwise seemingly small moments, which become more impactful. It ended up becoming my favorite process that I’ve ever had, because it really felt like at any moment something could hit you in a way that felt real and dramatically potent.

Was there any apprehension or nervousness going into this shoot, knowing that you’d have to portray all of these intimate conversations with Jason Segel, who you hadn’t even met yet?

No, I really liked that. When you’re acting in something, all of the other characters are always in your imagination in some way. Even though another person is playing them, you’re living with the fiction as well.

Jason Segel had to play character who is a literary legend, and whose speech patterns and outward traits are well-known to his face. How did Jason impress you with his performance, now that you’ve worked together?

He was able to really successfully bring himself to the role. Even though the character has some kind of public presence, Jason was able to transcend all of that and make it a character who could exist on his own as an interesting character and really complicated person, irrespective of it being based on a real guy who was a well-known, interesting, and complicated person.

I want to ask you about James Ponsoldt. As much as the film asked from you and Jason, it also had to be a challenge to direct. Can you describe the sort of direction he gave to you on this film, when you were doing these long, conversational scenes?

He’s just the perfect director for this kind of movie. He does these things that are usually in conflict. One is that he makes you, as an actor, feel like you have complete freedom. And he also does this other thing, which is usually the opposite of that, in that he makes you feel like you’re in this safe environment where anything you do is in support of the film, and come off in a respectable way. Those two things usually don’t exist together. A lot of times you’ll feel like you have complete freedom, but the movie might not turn out well because it doesn’t feel like there’s a guiding hand. And sometimes there’s a guiding hand that you feel stifled by. He just has this perfect mix of both. I think Jason and I both felt that everything we were doing was coming from a very personal place within us. And yet, we both knew that it would be shaped for this story that was good regardless of the personal feelings we had for it.

You have a book coming in a few months: Bream Gives Me Hiccups. It’s humorous short stories. What can you tell me about it? Is there a theme that ties the collection together?

There are longer pieces in the book that are, to me, thematically connected. All the stories are kind of personal, even if they are humorous. There’s one about this nine-year-old boy and his mother, and them coming to terms with what their relationship is; it’s funny but sad, and it was very similar to the experience of this movie. This young man becoming sort of disillusioned with his mother in the same way that my character becomes disillusioned with a hero. Well, not disillusioned as much as he sees the reality of it. And then another long spree that I wrote in the book, I was actually writing it on the weekends [while shooting The End of the Tour.] In this movie, my character is feeling so insecure about his own work that I ended up spending every weekend and every night writing from the perspective of this freshman girl who is having trouble transitioning into college, and so she demonizes everybody at school. I guess it was kind of my expression from doing this movie … there are a lot of overlaps that I see with the character I play in this movie and the character in that story, although I can’t imagine any outsider would see it.

How many years of work does this book cover? How far back was the earliest short in it written?

I guess probably three years or so. I’d written for the New Yorker and McSweeney’s, so some of that stuff was written a while ago, and then I wrote a lot of new stuff once I thought to compile a book.

You did an interview at Book Expo, where you expressed that your notoriety as an actor would make editors more inclined to publish your work, and that was why it was important to you to make sure the work stood on its own merits.

Mm-hm.

Does that create a lot of added pressure for you, when you’re in the editing phase? How do you judge when a piece is finally ready? Do you have an inclination to keep tweaking and polishing it?

Yeah, exactly. I’m doing a play now, and I need to stop changing stuff because it’s getting published. But the problem is I do the play every night and so I make little changes. I mean, little tiny changes, because I’m acting in the play and seeing what works, what doesn’t work, I know I can change a word here. But I have to turn the play in to my publisher. That’s been the most egregious example of me struggling to send in the final copy of something. With fiction that’s not being performed, I have people I send it to, but I usually have a good sense if I’m comfortable with something or not. There are things I really like that I consider to be my favorite, but it’s not universally liked by the people that I send it to, but that’s okay, that’s the stuff I feel more comfortable with. Conversely, there are things that I’ve written that people like but I’ll never show to anybody, just because it doesn’t feel like something I feel needs to be in the world beyond my own computer. So, I guess I self-censor as much as anyone else self-censors, but I probably have an advantage an easier time in getting published. I acknowledge that, but I don’t think that necessarily says anything about the quality. I think it probably goes to the top of the pile more quickly, but I think it has to be of equivalent value to everything else that is getting published.

You write prose, and you write for the theater. This seems like a natural progression because you’re an actor, but do ever desire to write a screenplay one day?

Yes. When I was younger, I started out writing movie scripts and it was a frustrating process, because you need to change things to appease so many people whose hand in it is exclusively from an economic interest. So, I had to change things to make characters, as they say, more “likeable.” I’m sure I could navigate it a bit more deftly now, as an adult, but I just hated the experience [back then.] Playwriting for me was so ideal because you’re not asked to change anything to fit any economic pressures. You’re just dealing in a totally different world. And the actors respect the script, as opposed to a lot of actors in movies, who tailor the script to their own persona or what they think audiences want to see because they have a known presence. Stuff like that made me feel much more comfortable in theater.

Donald Marguiles, who wrote this movie, writes for theater, and we talk a lot about that.

Back to The End of the Tour. One of the interesting things, to me, is that your character, David Lipsky, walks into this interview as an accomplished writer – he’s published books, and is on staff at Rolling Stone. But he’s still in awe of his subject, David Foster Wallace, who’s a literary giant. I’m curious—have you ever been in a situation you feel was comparable? Have you ever had a chance to connect with an artist who you really admire?

Yeah. I’m doing a Woody Allen movie, and I’ve worked with him before. But it doesn’t feel like we’re similar things. But he’s seen my plays, and in some ways I do feel like there’s some overlap in writing and performing in your own work. But I was working for him as a kind of employee and taking direction from him, so it didn’t feel like it was competitive at all. Not that I would ever feel competitive with him. But, yeah, it’s intimidating, but I feel curious to watch someone like that do what they do very well.

How do you channel your experience as a writer back into your acting? Not only in this role, but on the acting side of your career in general.

I try to meddle with scripts a less than I think I would if I wasn’t writing, because I think I’m able to satisfy my craving for changing dialogue in my own stuff. So I feel very comfortable going into a movie. The movie I did right before the play I’m doing now is a sequel to Now You See Me. There is a lot of stuff in the movie that characters have to do in the movie for plot-related things, the kind of things that I would typically resist because it’s not 100% character-based. Some of that stuff is plot, because it’s a very complicated plot. The characters happen to be very good, too, but because it’s a very plotted movie there’s a lot of stuff that actors would sometimes resist. But I just don’t feel that way anymore. I feel much more comfortable just being part of something, whether it’s my own thing or it’s a movie where there’s explosions and magicians.

***
The End of the Tour is now playing in select cities. For more information about the film, look for our feature in Under the Radar #54 and check out the film’s website.

American Ultra opens August 21st. Find out more about it here.

Bream Gives Me Hiccups will be available in September from Grove Press. 



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