Jesse Eisenberg Q & A: Talking Holy Rollers

The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg talks about infiltrating a Jewish sect to research his character in Holy Rollers, and why he finds acting therapeutic

You were involved in Holy Rollers from the beginning. What was the attraction for you?

“The first thing that is of primary importance to me is that the character that I would play is dealt with in a real way and has some kind of real inner life, and something substantive to struggle with. This had all of these things in spades really, because it's coming from this very uniquely isolated world where there are specific rules and specific customs, and entering into this drug world where the rules are constantly changing and where people are acting selfishly."

What else?

“Well the other thing for me was that it was the story of this world that I was very fascinated with. I grew up as a secular Jew so I've always been fascinated with the Hasidic Jews, because I share an ancestry with them, and we share customs, but outside of that we live such different lives. On the one hand you think you can probably relate to them because you come from the same background, but on the other hand our lives couldn't be more divergent. Then, of course, there's the added strange part of it of being associated with them by virtue of having the same religion, but I don't feel any kind of kinship with their day to day experience.”

You studied anthropology at university. Did this also interest you from an anthropological point of view?

“Yeah, exactly. I was signed on to this movie two years before it got made and I was able to spend a lot of time going to their communities, going to their schools, being invited into their synagogues and their stores, and it was not dissimilar to what an anthropologist does for academic reasons. Aside from being helpful with my role and understanding how these people feel and live, it was also just really, really interesting academically.”

How easy was it to enter one of these communities in order to study it?

“Initially it was difficult because the roles we were playing were not based on the sect that seeks out secular Jews in order to encourage them to be more religious. So I was trying to infiltrate a world that I was really not welcome to. Once I realised that I could find this sect that were interested in speaking with secular Jews, I found it very easy to infiltrate their world."

Can you elaborate?

"There's a Hasidic group where they stand on the street and ask you if you're Jewish and try to bring you into their mitvah trucks. In New York during the holidays they have the Hassids on the street asking secular Jews to come and pray with them. But more than that there's schools in Brooklyn where they go every day and study and pray, and they invited me in to their school. I was able to go out to lunch with them at the place across the street from this school, the kosher restaurant that they go to, and I found this one specific sect to be really not only inviting but almost aggressive. You know, calling me all the time to ask if I would go to their events with them, because their goal is to bring secular Jews into the fold. So not only were they not suspicious or irritated by me, but they were actually eager for me to join them.”

Did you go in with any assumptions that your experience either reinforced or dispelled?

“Yeah, both. I had assumptions about their culture being isolated in a way where I might find some bigotry or sexism. And I did find that. But that's all relative, of course, because I'm coming from a different place.

“Some of my assumptions were dispelled because I found that a lot of them had very conflicting attitudes towards their religion. So just as my character [Sam Gold] in the movie doesn't feel entirely comfortable becoming a rabbi, or even being a good student, and even having some kind of conflict about the way he feels about his religion, I found that to be true. The reason I say it was dispelled was because I assumed, prior to knowing anybody in the Hasidic community, that there would be some kind of monolithic group attitude toward religion which would be a hundred per cent devout and non questioning. That was very interesting and really important. It means as an actor the character I'm playing can realistically feel that even as a Hasidic Jew raised entirely in that world, that maybe his religion is not right for him.”

Did you tell anybody in the community what the film was about?

“No. One person who I spoke to for a long time, after hours of talking,  asked me, 'Why are you so interested?' I said, 'Because I'm doing a play about a Hasidic Jew.' I didn't want to say a movie because I thought it would raise too many questions. But then I realised they don't even watch secular movies, so they're not going to be aware of this movie. The other thing is, when we were making this movie, it was frankly a bit difficult to explain to Jews that this movie was not critical of them. Our goal was to show this setting and these characters in a realistic light, and it was an uphill battle trying to describe that and make them not feel threatened by it because of the nature of the story. Most of the time Hasidic Jews in movies are used as a sight gag or caricatures, a joke in some way, and that was never our intention.”
What was your relationship to Judaism when you were growing up? Was it a totally secular upbringing?

“It decreased over time. The more we got away from my grandparents' generation that came over from Poland, the more my family moved away from being religious, to the point where it's a very small part of my life. So I went to Hebrew school when I was younger, but I dropped out before I had a bah mitzvah. It just became increasingly less important.”

Did doing this film make you feel you might have missed out, or did it have no impact in that sense at all?

“In a way I felt there's something really nice about being part of a community in that way and I kind of regretted not being more devout. Then I realised I'm part of a different kind of community, whether it be part of an American community, a theatre arts community, something like that, and it can, in a way, provide a similar sense of belonging, without some of the things that turned me off about really devoutly religious communities, which are in conflict with some of the feelings I have about gender roles and acceptance of other cultures. So it doesn't totally appeal to me.”

You studied “Democracy and Cultural Pluralism”. Does that come from the same place of feeling that you've just expressed?

“I come from a very progressive family and live in a very metropolitan, integrated community. So people who live in a very isolated way, I have trouble understanding that lifestyle. In the movie, for example, not my character but one of the other characters uses the word schvartza, which is not a really good word to describe a black person. This is a word even distant cousins of mine would use, where people are more religious. It's not something I'm comfortable with because I live in a different world. It's nice to be part of a community but whenever you're part of a community, one of the things that defines the community is who they're not, and that always rubbed me the wrong way. But it was interesting to see how loving they are with each other really.”

You were trying to adapt your play, The Revisionist, which was inspired by your Polish aunt's stories about the Holocaust, into a film. Are you still pursuing that?

“Kind of, but I keep getting distracted with other things and writing other things. Yeah, I guess I get distracted. And I write when I'm not working as an actor. I've just received more attention than I ever would want in the last few months. I've been too distracted, in a way.”

Has The Social Network changed things for you in that respect?

“Yeah, it's almost inadvertantly provided a more public platform than I would have wanted. It's great to be in something that's received but, on the other hand, there's only so much attention one person should get before it's overwhelming.”

I read that you've tried to cut yourself off from the mainstream: you don't watch TV, you don't have email, you don't read magazines. Is that true?

“Yeah, yeah. When I started acting in movies I became so aware of the artifice of it and the product of it that it became a little more difficult to buy into it when I was acting. So stepping out of it a little bit, not watching movies, and being a little bit less aware of the final product of the thing made it easier for me to focus on it and buy into this world that we're creating.”

It sounds like it must take quite a bit of effort to maintain that distance given the pervasiveness of pop culture these days?

“Exactly. You could get all sorts of information in so many different ways it almost becomes a chore to avoid information rather than to seek it out now. It is difficult. And I live in New York City, so when I walk outside I'm immediately bombarded with stimuli. So at least in the house, I try to keep it so there's nothing contemporary in the house.”

You suffer from OCD, so is there also an attempt  to control your environment for that reason as well?

“Yeah, that's the other thing. I'm scrutinised by so many people because I do something that's public, and to avoid me scrutinising other people and to be thinking in that way, I kind of avoid watching things or reading the constant stream of commentary on pop culture, because I don't want to believe that I'm part of it in some way. And a lot of it is so mean-spirited, anyway.”

Acting is such a public activity, what drew you to it in the first place? Do you come from an artistic background?

“I would say my family is more appreciative of the arts than in it. My father's a college professor but my mother uses a drama-based platform to teach cultural sensitivity to young doctors. And when I was younger she was a choreographer in a High School. So it's not an artistic background but people appreciate it.”

It sounds like a mixture of science and the arts.

“Exactly. It certainly wasn't difficult for me to convince my parents that I could maybe do it for a career. I didn't have the struggle that a lot of my friends had when they had to reveal to their parents that they wanted to work in the arts.”

What was the initial attraction of acting for you?

“I probably didn't realise it at the time but it was probably a way to kind of focus whatever personal anxieties I had. It was probably a way for me to direct it in a productive way rather than to just live with it and suppress it. That's certainly what it provides now. I have a catharsis every day in a kind of a safe and creative way, and that's a lot easier than holding something in.”

What do you think your life would be like if you didn't have the creative outlets?

“I don't know. I'm sure it probably generates a lot of anxiety as well but it's also a nice release.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011

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