When Jesse Eisenberg arrived at his West Hollywood hotel last week, only an hour off a plane and with a bulky duffel bag slung over his shoulder, he seemed irritated.
And he was, because the night before, he had accidentally caught the last 30 seconds of "The Social Network," in which he stars as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, before a question-and-answer session about the movie in Chicago. He had been trying to avoid it because he does not like to watch his own performances.
"I've been so furious this whole morning about what I did in that scene," he said almost immediately after sitting down at the Sunset Marquis' restaurant. "It's just uncomfortable to watch me. Not in the same way that it's uncomfortable to listen to your voice on an answering machine. I just felt that I didn't get the scene right."
Given that the 26-year-old's portrayal of an aloof, socially awkward Zuckerberg during the founding years of Facebook has already sparked some award buzz, Eisenberg's self-critique may sound like typical false Hollywood modesty. Yet Eisenberg genuinely seems more panicked than excited by any acclaim.
"It feels like — and again, this is just the way my mind works, which is why I go to therapy twice a week — I immediately think that there could be nothing worse than getting that kind of attention," he said, removing his smudged glasses and digging his hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt. "Because, how can you maintain that kind of level of interest and attention? And I really have worked hard and done well in other things that have gotten no attention. So it makes you feel like those kind of things are inconsistent."
"The Social Network" is clearly Eisenberg's most high-profile film to date. After attracting notice five years ago in Noah Baumbach's Oscar-nominated family drama "The Squid and the Whale," he has starred in a variety of quirky projects, including the action-adventure-comedy "Zombieland" opposite Woody Harrelson and "Holy Rollers," about Ecstasy-smuggling Hasidic Jews that grossed just over $300,000 at the box office.
When Eisenberg first read Aaron Sorkin's script for "The Social Network," he knew nothing about Facebook. He didn't have a Facebook profile. He didn't know who Zuckerberg was. So after he was cast, he immediately tried to meet the CEO, who comes off in the movie as a power-hungry, terse tech whiz who steals the idea for Facebook from some fellow Harvard students.
"I was hoping to meet him. To me, that was the first thing to do, playing somebody who's not only alive, but contemporary," Eisenberg said. "And that was an impossibility." (Facebook has said it did not cooperate with Sony or the filmmakers and Zuckerberg has said he will not see the film, which he describes as "fiction.")
With only a month to prepare, Eisenberg went to Plan B: He culled images and videos of Zuckerberg. He made an audio file with excerpts of Zuckerberg's interviews and speeches and put them on his iPod, listening constantly to get into the character's mind-set. He knew Zuckerberg was an expert fencer with "unnaturally straight" posture, so he took lessons to work on isolating the upper half of his body.
Sorkin and director David Fincher insisted they didn't want the actors to do perfect impressions of their real-life counterparts.
"It wasn't important to us that Jesse do an impersonation of Mark Zuckerberg," Sorkin said in an e-mail. "Jesse came to work knowing the scene he had to do that day, and how he prepared — whether it was listening to Mark's voice, fencing or standing on his head — was entirely up to him."
But Eisenberg was exacting. During one scene in which his character is being deposed and has a notepad, he jotted down which takes he considered best.
"There were two takes I really felt like I did really well. So I went up to the script supervisor, who is in charge of keeping track of each take, and I said, 'I just want to let you know, please notate only takes number 12 and 18 are the ones I feel comfortable with,'" he recalled. "And she looked at her book and said, 'Those are the only two [Fincher] had circled as well."
For the 18 days of rehearsals and 72 days of shooting, Fincher said, Eisenberg was hyper-aware of his performance.
"He kept asking me, 'Am I doing OK? Am I doing OK?' And I was like, 'Dude, ask anybody, if you're not doing OK, I will let you know,'" Fincher said, laughing. "I think he wouldn't be as good as he is if he wasn't hard on himself. But I hope he'll get to enjoy it.... He got the very thing that we discussed time and time again about the film, which is: I want you to figure out a way to remain an enigma, and that's a really hard thing."
In a July interview on ABC, Diane Sawyer asked Zuckerberg if he would have preferred that another actor play him in "The Social Network."
"I don't know. I've never met him," Zuckerberg said. "He seems like a nice guy."
Eisenberg's take on Zuckerberg is a bit more complex.
"What I discovered is that he's somebody who is ultimately kind of a lonely person, who has difficulty connecting because I think other people want to connect in a way he's not comfortable with," said the actor. "His reputation is inconsistent with his behavior. It seems to me he's personable. And incredibly bright. Maybe uncomfortable, but who isn't uncomfortable in interviews?"
Eisenberg's own discomfort with interviews has manifested itself in odd ways. During a sit-down with the Heeb Magazine last year, he lied to a reporter — telling her he was taking the antipsychotic drug Haldol — because he felt she was meddlesome. "I felt like the inteviewer was very invasive, so I started just making a lot of things up," he shrugged.
"I just hate being scrutinized. As I've been in more movies, more people write about me or, uh, stop me in the street, and I hate that part of it," he said, not making direct eye contact. "Not enough to stop doing it, because I don't have any other skills."
He is, however, only 11 credits away from graduating with an anthropology degree from the New School in New York City, where he shares an apartment with his girlfriend and a couple of "brain-damaged cats." (His sister rescues felines, and he says he takes "all the real cases" that no one is willing to adopt.)
"Being in school helps me avoid a lot of the entertainment industry — much of it is so self-congratulatory and inward. It seems to me people treat each other as though they're doing something of great global significance," he said, sounding strangely like Zuckerberg.
Many viewers may walk away from "The Social Network" with a negative impression of Zuckerberg, but the actor thinks the movie "allows Mark to make his case." Despite bringing some of his subject's less flattering traits to life on screen, Eisenberg says he nevertheless "developed a great affection" for the Facebook founder.
"I heard someone sent a tweet or something that said: 'This movie made me want to egg Mark Zuckerberg's house and then help him clean it,'" he said. "Of course, I only want to clean it, because I'm living in the house."