Jesse Eisenberg built his career playing quick-witted intellectuals — but he gets more physical in his new movie, The Art of Self-Defense. The film, written and directed by Riley Stearns, stars Eisenberg as Casey Davies, a socially stunted man who seeks out a martial arts class-turned-cult after getting mugged.
“It’s like a twisted sports movie,” Eisenberg explains — Casey sets out to better himself and it works out terribly. Unlike the beloved underdog Rocky Balboa, Eisenberg says, Casey’s version of confidence-building “is punching his boss in the throat rather than, like, running up the stairs of the Philadelphia art museum.”
Eisenberg believes the film’s message will resonate in the context of the #MeToo movement. He was filming The Art of Self-Defense when prominent actresses began speaking out about workplace harassment and sexual violence. Eisenberg knew both survivors and perpetrators — and he realized that his character’s pressure to perform masculinity via violence and aggression was particularly relevant to the present moment.
On his character, Casey Davies
He’s impressionable, he’s lonely, and so he gets pulled into this class run by this Machiavellian sensei who tells Casey that everything in his life is not masculine enough. And so Casey decides to re-engineer his entire life to be the man that sensei convinces him [to be]. …
I think of Casey like the 10-year-old version of me. … I was quiet, I was really scared of everything … I was also like innocent and pure and I assumed everyone would be good. And when they weren’t, I was really surprised by it. … So when I was playing this role I was looking at my acting experience as kind of like this almost cathartic, strangely Freudian … or Proustian even, look back at my childhood.
On the film’s critique of modern masculinity
The story could be seen as a kind of allegory for a young man who needs purpose in the world and becomes radicalized by a cult. …
And then when we were doing the movie, just coincidentally the #MeToo movement started and so in the mornings, the entire crew and cast would be reading about people in our industry who, you know, have experienced just pure horror by people that we know. And then we would be just filming this movie which ended up taking on … misogyny and toxic masculinity.
On a confrontation with a bully at his childhood summer camp
I remember the first day of camp … and also, not incidentally, the last day of camp … I was on the bottom of a pool and he just went entirely on top of me in the bottom of the pool, and my back was to the ground of the pool and the kid’s stomach was on my stomach, and he was making deep eye contact with me at the bottom of the pool and lying on me — and he was a big kid. And I just remember having the very specific thought: “Oh, this is how I die.” And then I called my mom and never went back to camp in my life.
On learning karate for the film
There’s a kind of discipline to karate … a physical discipline that I eschew at all possible moments in my life. … Just basic things, like not slouching so that all your organs are smushed into a single corner of your body. … That is kind of helpful and [The Art of Self-Defense] probably gave me a few extra days on my life. …
Literally the day this movie ended, I had to fly to Canada to do this other movie where I was playing, like, a stockbroker. … [As an actor] you learn some skill that seems like it could be helpful in your life … and then immediately have to forget it.
On the sensitive male characters he plays
I, just by virtue of who I am, naturally have a kind of sensitivity or softness to roles that I play. … I guess maybe you could say it’s a luxury — to have played parts where I think, like, the men are seen as, you know, emotional creatures. I mean, a movie like The Art of Self-Defense is perfectly emblematic of that, where I’m playing a character that is almost entirely emotional id.