Jesse Eisenberg takes on toxic masculinity with deadpan wit and jump kicks

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Art of Self-Defense
Opens Aug 18

Broadway Theatre

Interviews are weird. The subject of the conversation only volunteers a pre-set amount of information while the individual with the recorder sniffs for something juicier. It’s a fundamentally unnatural situation and the outcome can vary from unexpected friendship to genuine contempt (hi, Douglas Coupland!).

Jesse Eisenberg called me one morning at 6.55 a.m. to talk about his new film, the darkly funny The Art of Self-Defense. Even though I was expecting the call, it’s a bit strange that an Oscar nominee is ringing you while you’re still in your pajamas. “Is this Jorge?” said Jesse, seemingly phoning from his own place in New York. and he didn’t say “George”, so brownie points.

The movie that brought us together is The Art of Self-Defense, a merciless, hilarious dissection of toxic masculinity (think Fight Club minus the epic ambition). Eisenberg is Casey, the definition of the beta-male. Following a mugging that left him half-dead and afraid of his own shadow, Casey opts for karate lessons. The dojo’s sensei (Alessandro Nivola) demonstrates the quiet self-assuredness Casey is looking for and soon becomes drawn to him.

Even as the master begins to show his true colors (misogyny, vindictiveness, questionable taste in music), Casey finds himself comfortable with these developments, hinting at the fact his “good guy” persona wasn’t fully reflective of his true self.

The Art of Self-Defense’s style of comedy is dry with a dash of satire. Eisenberg, Nivola and Imogen Poots (Green Room) are deadpan wonders. The film, written and directed by Riley Stearns (Faults), probably wouldn’t work if it aimed for laughs. Counterintuitively, the performances’ seriousness amplifies the humour.

Over the phone Jesse Eisenberg sounds exactly as you would imagine: somewhere between his shady Mark Zuckerberg and his Zombieland character. Delightful, but guarded.

I thought The Art of Self-Defense was a comedy but my wife says it’s a horror film. Who was right?

It’s a horror film in the sense it shows the dangerous lengths men can go to in the name of being masculine, but most frequently people see it as a satire of extreme masculinity.

Do you have to relate to a character to play it and, if so, how do you connect with Casey?

I felt like he was a version of me when I was six years old. Casey acts like a child. He’s desperate to fit in and make friends, but doesn’t know how to talk to other men. He is terrified of everything and has very little confidence. I think of him as a 36-year-old stunted child.

What made you take the role?

I thought what it was saying about men in society was important, in subtle and clever ways. My character is told that his name, the music he likes and even his dog are feminine, and that he has to change his entire personality to be a man. The movie was written in 2015 and we were filming it when the #metoo movement started. It felt like we were commenting on the news we were reading.

The dialogue is heightened but doesn’t sound contrived. How did you strike the right tone?

The rule was that every character in the movie has to say exactly what’s on their mind. Things that we would normally coat with something nicer are said bluntly. Instead of saying “I’ve anxiety,” I just say “I’m very afraid of other men.”

The first time I saw the film, I quite liked the closing credits song. I tweeted Riley about it and he responded that it was supposed to be a parody of adult contemporary music.

That’s hysterical. This says a lot about you and where you are in your life. You’re aging into adulthood.

Thanks. This is a very physical movie. What was the hardest scene to shoot?

Every time an actor does a movie they’ve to learn some skill. Here, I had to learn karate and in certain scenes I had to perform well enough you can see it’s actually me doing the moves. I got pretty good at jump-kicking. I’m definitely not good enough to advance past yellow belt.

I’ll tell you this. I’m a yellow belt, and yours was a very accurate portrait.

Well, congratulations!

What did you learn making this movie you didn’t know before?

I didn’t know that much about martial arts. Creatively, I didn’t realize how much I like the blunt, comic dialogue the movie asks us to perform. It’s what I want to do again most of all.

I would be remiss if I don’t ask you, given recent events regarding Facebook, do you think there would be any value in revisiting Mark Zuckerberg as a character?

I don’t follow that stuff as much as someone who’s affected because I don’t have a page.

I was thinking more about Facebook interfering with elections.

I’m out of the loop, I guess.