Published Jul 17, 2019An interview with Jesse Eisenberg is unique because he doesn't watch his own movies. "I have an experience of talking about something that I haven't seen, but remember well and remember fondly, but haven't seen," he explains. "I always felt very uncomfortable watching it. I felt very self-conscious, like critical of myself as well as… like ten percent I felt like, 'Oh this is going to lead to some sort of vanity.' And so I didn't want to have that experience."
As he talks, Eisenberg is almost exactly like the characters he has played on screen, interrupting himself to clarify statements and talking at a breakneck speed. But his thoughtfulness is undeniable, and despite having never seen Riley Stearns' excellent The Art of Self-Defense, he's got his finger on the pulse of his latest starring role. In fact, the black comedy is among his favourite work to date. "I could not feel more affection for it," he says. "It was maybe my favourite project I've gotten to do.
"When I first read it I thought it was unbelievably hysterically funny," he adds. "And then when we were doing the movie the #MeToo movement began, and I realized the movie was not just hysterical, but actually a really brilliant satire on masculinity — on the kind of dangerous forms of masculinity. On the way that men think about themselves and the way men think about each other and men think about women. And since the movie has played around different film festivals, discussion around the movie is about ideas of toxic masculinity and they're talking about the movie in terms of its relevance to modern discussions surrounding these important themes. As much as I love the movie, I didn't realize it would kind of take on its social element in the way that it has."
In the film, Eisenberg plays Casey — a shy, unconfident beta male who finally decides to turn his life around after he's ruthlessly attacked by a motorcycle gang while walking to buy dog food. He decides to sign up for karate classes, where the sensei (an endlessly funny Alessandro Nivola) imparts to him some toxically masculine knowledge. He joins an elite adult class alongside Anna (Imogen Poots), and things get increasingly psychotic.
"The character's like a child in the beginning," Eisenberg says. "He's like a 10-year-old boy. He's terrified of everything, but also very sweet and pure. When he decides he's going to be the kind of masculine version of a guy that sensei directs him to be, he turns into just, almost like a psychopathic, brash, horrible person. Punching his boss in the throat, changing everything about himself — the music he listens to, the language he speaks — in an attempt to be a kind of weird, masculine alpha male."
The music he listens to is actually beloved grindcore band Full of Hell, whose music is used throughout the film. For Eisenberg, it was his first exposure to, well, real metal. "I really love this band Ween," he admits. "They are known for doing every genre. And so they have made some metal songs, but those aren't exactly my favourite. So I was exposed to metal mainly through this movie. The director, who is a jiu-jitsu expert and into more of the things that you see in the movie, actually loves metal… It's not just mocking it, there is love for it. And the guys from the band, I've heard, were really happy to do the movie."
Learning to listen to metal wasn't Eisenberg's only hurdle — he also had to become a passable martial artist. "I had to learn karate. There was three weeks of intensive training for this movie. And I was okay… my character is a yellow belt in the movie, so I didn't have to be that great," he admits. "I had to know certain things extremely well, because there were certain shots that required me to look like I know what I'm doing. And so I just got really good at a very few things that, if I were to get into a fight, would be useless, because I only know what I needed to know for the movie. It was not exactly helpful for my personal life, but it was good for the movie."
In the end, however, viewers will leave The Art of Self-Defense knowing a whole lot more about toxic masculinity than karate. That said, it's not all social commentary. "I guess my main hope, because I thought it was so brilliantly funny when I read it, is that people laugh and find it as funny as I did," Eisenberg concludes. "But I think there's this added wonderful element of it making people contemplate how they think about masculinity and society. It certainly did that for me. I started questioning these kind of big, important issues through this movie, which is a comedy, so I think it works on both levels. But if people don't find that commentary interesting, but still find it funny, then it still works."
The Art of Self-Defense opens on July 19.