From Owen Wilson to Jason Biggs, Woody Allen's been on a decade-long search for the new nebbish. So, it was only a matter of time before he landed on New York-born Jesse Eisenberg. The 28-year-old actor broke onto the scene by playing the neurotic problem child in Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale," and imbues even his lighter roles -- "Adventureland" and "30 Minutes or Less" -- with stuttering intellectualism and a terrible problem with authority.
But in Allen's newest comedy, "To Rome With Love," Eisenberg is not simply the latest incarnation of Woody. In a casting twist, he plays a youthful reflection of Alec Baldwin's character, a famous architect visiting his old stomping grounds. As Jack, Eisenberg is a self-possessed twenty-something whose carefree stint in Italy is interrupted when his girlfriend's (Greta Gerwin) sexy, pseudo-intellectual friend (Ellen Page) pays a visit.
Eisenberg spoke to Moviefone about his upcoming role and his relationship to fame. He also (really) gushes over the fact that he got to work with Woody Allen.
How does one get involved with a Woody Allen movie? Does he just call you up?
Yeah. It’s a little atypical, I guess. I just went in and I met him and he gave me the script and I read it in his office. And then, you know, regardless of what was in it, I would have wanted to do it because I wanted to work with him, but I liked it, as well. It was fun to see a Woody Allen plot that I could be part of.
So, he kind of had his eye on you?
Well, he’s, I guess, friendly with Greg Mottola, who directed a movie I was in, “Adventureland,” and so when that movie came out, Woody Allen sent Greg an email saying something nice about me and Greg fowarded it to me. So I had known that he had seen something I was in and that was really exciting to me.
What does a Woody Allen script look like?
I’ve heard the stories about being on-set and him telling the actors to say whatever you want and don’t worry about the script. But at the same time, his dialogue is so famous and specific and original and unique to him…and obviously his prose is so wonderful as well. I was curious to see how it looks and it looked a lot more normal than I expected. It looked kind of just like a normal script. But I guess because the movie scripts, in his case, are not a blueprint for investors, he can get away with saying things like, "They go to a beautiful site and there’s a beautiful shot of Rome." Whereas scripts that [are] blueprint[s] for investors have to say things like, "The sexiest woman in the world comes out and sleeps with this average man," so the audience can live vicariously through him.
I always took you for more of a young Woody, rather than a young Baldwin...
Yeah, but I guess...Having not seen it, I don’t know if it plays like [Alec Baldwin] is my conscious or if it plays as though he’s just a guy, because, you know, it takes place both in the same time period. So, I don’t know. I can’t really figure out what the myth of our storyline was. I think it was kind of supposed to be vague, and so I don’t really look at [Alec] as my future -- although, I’ve told my girlfriend that it’s a very authentic replication of what’s to come.
Did you ask Woody to explain the storyline in more detail?
Every time I would ask him what literally is happening, he would be kind of vague...
Were you at all frustrated about not knowing the specifics of your storyline?
This is such a unique situation because [Woody Allen] kind of has an unparallelled level of work -- and work that I love more than anything -- so it doesn’t feel like a risk; stand where he tells you to stand and say what he tells you to say and then you got to be in a movie by him. It doesn’t feel like I have to collaborate for my own good.
Do you have any underrated Woody Allen favorites?
The last movie that he made that I loved the most was that movie that he was in, “Scoop,” which is not, I guess, thought of as his best in the last several years. But to me, just to be able to watch him was like the most thrilling experience... I wish I was in scenes with him, that would have been nuts. Although, I probably wouldn’t have been able to work.
You seem sort of like minded -- I know you aren’t terribly interested in pop culture, and I don’t think he is either -- were you trying to befriend him?
No, because... I think it would feel too forced. I’ve idolized him since I was very young and now I’m working for him so it feels a little gross to force a relationship or something and really the most exciting thing was just to be in the same room and just to hear him speak. My friend said, "It’s like going to a concert of your favorite band"... I didn’t assume he’s looking for a new best friend and I’m trying to fill the void. That said, since the movie has come out, and we’ve done press things together, I’ve gotten to go out to dinner with him a few times and he’s invited me to his shows on Monday night in New York, so we got to go see him and eat with him and I’ve now gotten to know him... To me, I don’t really like to socialize too much because it takes me out of the movie circumstances of it. But, anyway, I guess this was doubly intimidating.
This movie deals with the two-sided coin of fame. Do you often feel plagued by it?
Yeah, I mean, I guess it’s a complicated consequence of getting to do this incredible thing, being involved in these amazing stories and getting to do a very unusual -- often times wonderful -- job, and it’s just one of the kind of complicated consequences you have to navigate. Woody Allen’s able to kind of discuss it in such a funny way that it makes it less daunting.
You’ve worked with some really esteemed people, from Woody to David Fincher. Is there anyone left on your wish list?
No. I mean, I’m doing this movie now with [Richard Ayoade] and it’s such an incredible experience and I never thought that I would meet somebody like this. So it feels irresponsible to make a list. It seems like just leading to disappointment. Whereas with no list and no knowledge of the film industry, I’ve wound up with some really exciting opportunites.
So you’re just kind of going along, grateful for whomever you get to work with?
Yeah. And I guess maybe selfishly in service of my own interests rather than, you know, meeting somebody.
Still, filming “To Rome With Love” with Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Greta Gerwin and Ellen Page -- in Italy -- sounds like a dream. Did you ever stop and think, "This is really amazing"?
Yeah. Every single day. We couldn’t stop laughing. It felt rude to smile like an idiot every time Woody Allen would speak to us because it was just a shocking experience to be in the same room. Luckily, we all kind of felt it, so it felt like we could at least commiserate with feeling so uncomfortable and it was great... I imagine that’s what it must be like for anybody who goes onto a set of his. I mean, it’s impossible to be in this business and not in some way idolize him. So, yeah, it was like, every day -- really thrilling.
I know you don’t like watching your movies. Do you plan on seeing this one?
Um, well, no, I guess. It would be the first Woody Allen movie that I would have trouble seeing -- or not see.
"To Rome With Love" hits theaters June 22.