Cover Story: Friending Jesse Eisenberg

Jesse Eisenberg is a seeker. Whether it's the reporter interviewing him, the photographer shooting him or the local fan who stops him in a coffee shop, Eisenberg spends a good deal of his time probing others for answers.

The 27-year-old's star wattage has increased exponentially since his star turn in "The Social Network," a best picture Oscar nomination contender, and while the greater notoriety doesn't necessarily fit with his low-key personality, Eisenberg is appreciative of the access his increased drawing power has provided him. But rather than covet a newfound access to Hollywood heavyweights, as many budding young stars might, Eisenberg is delighted to meet anyone who may have an interesting story to tell.

"Getting recognized allows you to talk to people," he says. "I'm not interested in talking to a stranger about what it's like to act in a movie, but if I can take control of the conversation, it provides something really great."

One conversation that he hasn't been able to control is one being had by film critics across the country. With top awards handed out from the New York, Boston and Los Angeles critics groups, "The Social Network" has gained a lot of momentum in the Oscar race in just the last week. Not only did all three groups reward the film with best picture, they all got behind David Fincher as best director, with Boston rewarding Eisenberg with a best actor nod, and Boston and Los Angeles tipping their hats in favor of Aaron Sorkin's script.

And though the Oscar nominations are still more than a month away, "The Social Network" is on such a streak that its stiffest (and arguably only key) competitor for the best picture trophy is likely to be "The King's Speech."

For Eisenberg though, it's all about working with the A-team of Fincher and Sorkin on the drama about the founding of Facebook, by two college undergrads, an exhilarating ride, even if it meant signing on with two notorious perfectionists. "I care what I do and I work hard," Eisenberg says. "With someone like David leading the way, it's relaxing because the burden of trying to get others on board to work the way you work is not on you."

Eisenberg has been a film actor since he was 18, when he had his debut opposite Campbell Scott in 2002's "Roger Dodger," but it might be the last seven years that he has spent studying anthropology at a university in New York (which he declines to identify) that have provided him with the best tools to transform himself from indie wunderkind to leading man. "The classes I've taken in anthropology have been far more helpful for acting than the acting classes I've taken. The way other cultures think, people's emotional inner lives, [studying anthropology] has informed far more what I do in a way that is more interesting to me."

Fincher may just be one of the most interesting people Eisenberg has encountered. His relentless work ethic, his all-consuming dedication to every aspect of the film, the incredible forethought with which scenes are constructed are all aspects of Fincher that Eisenberg admires. And, in fact, it fits right in with Eisenberg's preparation for a role, which in the case of "The Social Network" involved fencing lessons (to help adopt Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's posture and gait) and a close study of Zuckerberg's mannerisms, even though he was fictionalizing the young man.

He plays Zuckerberg, "Social Network's" quirky antihero, whose affect can range from socially acceptable to disengaged and aloof depending on what the rest of his brain is busy doing. Eisenberg is much more personable, though his brain does seem to operate at a similar speedy pace as that of the fictionalized Zuckerberg.

"The most interesting people I've worked with are the ones who are so interested in what they are doing that they are willing to do things that may not seem to have a direct impact on their work but in some ways inform the process."

So, it's with enthusiasm that Eisenberg approaches Fincher's meticulous method of work, which began before Eisenberg even landed the role. The actor, like his costars, first auditioned on tape. Then, according to Sorkin, read scenes from Sorkin's other scripts opposite the screenwriter before moving forward to the next round that found the actor in a 60- to 90-minute session with Fincher. A session, according to Sorkin, that was intended to see "How directable were you? How far could he take you?"

Eisenberg also points to one particular scene that perfectly described his director's obsessive nature. Fincher decided to shoot the opening sequence in which Eisenberg's character is running back to his dorm room from left to right, rather than the more standard right to left, a decision — which Fincher decided on a month before shooting — that forced the costume designers to reverse the letters on Eisenberg's Gap sweatshirt, so the frame could be flipped in post-production.

"That may sound to an outsider, of which I consider myself, to be indulgent or excessive, but when you're there you realize it's not that, but it's in fact necessary to create the full picture, a consistent picture with what is in his head. That's a remarkable accomplishment," the actor says.

What happens to Eisenberg now that he's completed his highest profile role yet? He plans to return to school in January to finish his final three classes. He still auditions for roles, even for directors with whom he has already worked. "As popular as I am, which is not that popular, there are other talented people who want to be in the movies," he quips. Little else in his life has changed because of "The Social Network."

"The biggest change for me was being in "Roger Dodger," he says. "It's the same with how Sorkin describes writing. The difference between page 0 and page 1 is life and death, but the difference between 1 and 100 is easy. As an actor creating a career, the difference between being in one good movie is life and death but being in 20 good movies is easy."

Yet Eisenberg, who now has a dozen movies under his belt, many of them plenty good, is still the same determined-yet-insecure actor who really dislikes watching himself on screen, a trait he doesn't mind in the least. In fact, he's studied this phenomenon among his peers and finds it quite common.

"I think there's a misconception that all people who have chosen to act in movies are eager to see themselves in the thing," he says. "You're eager for the experience, you don't necessarily mind that it comes out, and it provides you with the opportunity to do it again, especially if it's successful like 'The Social Network.' But the end goal is not the reason to do it. The end goal often brings a lot of discomfort."

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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