Even before the undead yet live-wire comedy-horror hit "Zombieland," Jesse Eisenberg had established a beachhead as the thinking man's Michael Cera: slender and sensitive but also emotionally tough and sinewy.
In "The Squid and the Whale," playing the older adolescent son of an estranged intellectual couple, and in "Adventureland," playing a recent college grad and aspiring travel writer, spinning his wheels and falling in love at a summer job in an amusement park, Eisenberg was equally potent playing fecklessness or sincerity, and better yet when he played both at the same time.
Whether they're actively selfish or merely self-absorbed, Eisenberg invests his characters with a sense of higher possibility. He gets across the way they yearn to poke holes in their own tunnel vision.
But while shooting "The Social Network" on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus this week, Eisenberg made clear with a good-humored ferocity that establishing any kind of persona or performing signature couldn't be further from his mind.
Across the street from the Baltimore Museum of Art, sitting alone at a long table that had been lined with extras just a few minutes before, Eisenberg buried his face into a quality paperback and faded right into the surroundings. Wearing the Gap hoodie and jeans of his character, Mark Zuckerberg, the geeky Harvard renegade who came up with the structure and coding for Facebook, Eisenberg was exulting in the chance to play the worst kind of know-it-all: the kind who might really know more than anybody else. The movie's source book, Ben Mezrich's "The Accidental Billionaires," by and large views Zuckerberg as a sleazy nerd enigma, capable of ruthlessly cutting loose his original partner and best friend, Eduardo Saverin (played in the movie by Andrew Garfield), after Saverin makes a stupid business move or two.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher (in his first film since "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") may have a more nuanced take in the subject, but they're sure not about to follow the Hollywood conventions of making their protagonist "more likable." And that suits Eisenberg just fine.
"Even though I've gotten to be in some wonderful movies, this character seems so much more overtly insensitive in so many ways that seem more real to me in the best way. I don't often get cast as insensitive people so it feels very comfortable: fresh and exciting, as if you never have to worry about the audience. Not that I worry about the audience anyway -- it should be just the furthest thing from your mind."
Acknowledging that a director as exacting as Fincher makes the final decisions on a character, Eisenberg says, "Chances are [Zuckerberg is] the protagonist for the movie, but not in any traditional way. He's a very rare character."
Although Eisenberg has shown formidable talent in making inchoate characters engaging, he says, "It always kills me when I have to think about a character being sympathetic. I mean, it kills my creativity as an actor. Unfortunately, the way most movies are made, if you play a character who is supposed to be sympathetic, it's something you can't avoid thinking about, because you'll be directed in such a way that is often in conflict with what a character would really do but is necessary to hit a certain beat in the movie. And it makes me crazy."
On that score, he couldn't be closer to his director, who in movies from "Fight Club" to "Zodiac" has never whitewashed a hero or glamorized a villain.
"This movie is the biggest relief I've ever had in a movie," says Eisenberg. "I've never felt more comfortable and free than here, because the character seems to be coming from a realistic place rather than a place already transcribed by standard movie plots."
There's nothing random about the book that Eisenberg is holding in his hands. It's Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time," and when asked about it, the actor exclaims, "Oh, my God, it's the greatest thing I've ever read." Haddon's book is about an autistic boy who sets out to discover who killed a dog and in doing so, uncovers family mysteries.
"This guy doesn't have ways of showing things, and you see some of that in Zuckerberg," says Eisenberg. "Obviously, Zuckerberg is much more high-functioning. But people have said Zuckerberg may have minor Asperger's or something. I don't know if it is Asperger's -- I've watched everything there is to watch about him and it doesn't seem like Asperger's -- but he's very opaque. When you watch people with Asperger's, they often just seem a bit distant."