Between scenes on "The Social Network," which shot for three days last November at Johns Hopkins sites doubling for Harvard, Jesse Eisenberg sat on a folding chair at an empty folding table across from the Baltimore Museum of Art, dressed in a grey Gap hoodie, reading Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."
Although "Adventureland" and "Zombieland" had won him acclaim and a bit of fame, passers-by might have thought Eisenberg was a Hopkins undergraduate killing time on a slow Tuesday with a quality paperback. He didn't give off "don't touch me" vibes. He was simply engrossed in his book.
His anonymity disappears come Friday, when "The Social Network" opens nationwide to a degree of applause usually reserved for Pixar animated features. There's nothing cartoonish about "The Social Network." It's a swift, smart, suspenseful and sometimes hilarious movie about the blood, sweat, tears and semen that went into the founding of Facebook by some randy geeks in a Harvard dorm in 2004. Despite his casual demeanor, there's nothing laid-back about Eisenberg as an actor. He was an inspired choice to play Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. Like Zuckerberg's computer wizardry, Eisenberg's acting intelligence shoots off the charts.
"This guy with very limited social skills created the biggest social phenomenon after the telephone, probably," Eisenberg said. "That's one of the provocative ironies of the story. I know people like this. I have a friend who's awful to girls, yet when then they break up with him, he asks, 'Why did she break up with me? I told her I loved her! I gave her a present!' But when you gave her the present and said 'I love you,' did you look her in the eye?"
Still, Eisenberg admires Zuckerberg's intellectual fertility. Like the film's admiring critics, he compared his director, David Fincher, to Zuckerberg for his exacting standards and powers of concentration.
"I told my parents the number of takes he shoots sounds excessive until you're working with him, and then every single thing is for a reason, and it's so wonderful," Eisenberg said. He had no time for preparation when he went up for the part, mere weeks before shooting.
"I had never even seen Zuckerberg before I made the audition tape. So after I made the tape, I studied him; I didn't think I got the voice exactly right and the mannerisms." Then he met director Fincher. "He said he didn't want a facsimile for the movie; his goal was to get to the essence of the story."
In "The Social Network," Zuckerberg doesn't ask anyone for sympathy, Eisenberg said. "He's a character you almost never see in movies. Often, as an actor, you're pushed to emote to a point where it feels false. And you're directed to be 'sympathetic' in ways that are often in conflict with real behavior, just to hit certain 'beats.' But this movie is the opposite. I'm doing more takes than I've ever done in my life, but it still feels fresh, partly because the character is always burying all his ideas and feelings."
Eisenberg had picked up Haddon's "Curious Incident" because the book's hero is autistic and "People have said Zuckerberg may have minor Asperger's syndrome." But he acknowledged, "The more I think about Zuckerberg, the less I see Asperger's, and the more I see simply an interesting character. He has all these gradations, from really blank, opaque and unemotive, up to irritable and agitated."
I watched Fincher direct Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, who plays Zuckerberg's only friend and sometime partner, outside Hopkins' Shaffer Hall. It was the aftermath of the pivotal scene in which Harvard puts Zuckerberg on academic probation. "I created this website which shut their system down. But when I'm in with the [disciplinary board] I tell them they should thank me, because I showed them their security flaws." His arrogance jars university officials. But Fincher directed Eisenberg to be "just totally mystified" by their reaction when he explains it to his buddy.
"Zuckerberg processes things in his own way; they seem so logical because he's so literal. When people don't get his humor, it's as if he thinks, 'People don't have senses of humor in the world, and this is something I should have realized a long time ago.' "
But when Zuckerberg thinks that way, Eisenberg said, "He's a humorlessly opaque man asking 'how come people don't have a sense of humor?' He's like, 'They read my blog and I was comparing women to farm animals. I meant that as a joke — they should have known that.' He's mystified every time somebody doesn't like his jokes or see what his reasons are, because they seem so obvious to him."
For Eisenberg, Zuckerberg's tragedy is that "he can think only in terms of logic, rather than nuance." The triumph of Eisenberg's acting in "The Social Network" is that he combines both.