Jesse Eisenberg on His Wide-Ranging Performance in New Film Manodrome
Nov 20, 2023
From Mark Zuckerberg to Lex Luthor, Academy Award-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg has played a wide variety of roles over the years (including director, with his excellent film When You Finish Saving the World). His most recent role is in the surreal winter film Manodrome. This definitely isn’t A Christmas Story — the film follows Ralphie (Eisenberg), a man in New York who becomes increasingly paranoid, sexually confused, and violent after he finds out his partner back home (Odessa Young) is pregnant.
From director John Trengove, the head-spinning new Manodrome further proves the versatility of Eisenberg, who’s been a performer to keep note of ever since the days of The Squid and the Whale. Just when you think you’re familiar with the facets of Eisenberg, he goes and transforms a character in the most surprising of ways, something he does here with wonderful results. We recently caught up with Jesse Eisenberg to learn more about the challenges — or lack thereof — behind tackling the infamous Ralphie persona in this bizarre movie.
Leading a ‘Fever Dream of a Movie’
Ralphie is light years away from the sharper or funnier characters Eisenberg has played in the past, though it was more than just the change of pace that first attracted him to this role. As Eisenberg said, “I love anytime a movie feels like it has some kind of emotional reality, despite the logic, because as an actor, you’re kind of like trying to evoke some kind of unconscious feelings. But oftentimes,” he continued, “you’re doing it in movies that really require you to kind of stick with the plotline or stick with a certain joke. And it’s not exactly what I feel comfortable doing.”
When sinking your teeth into a new book or script, first impressions are key in making the decision to commit to the project. “When I read this movie, it just read to me like somebody had transcribed a nightmare that they had,” said Eisenberg, adding:
It just felt like a fever dream of a movie. I got to be in two other movies like that. One was The Double by Richard Ayoade, and one was The Art of Self-Defense by Riley Stearns. And both of those movies, I had the exact same reaction when I read it: I just thought, ‘This is a gift to be able to act in a part like this. It’s a gift.’
Eisenberg elaborated on why he was drawn to Ralphie and why, surprisingly, a central role in such a surreal movie wasn’t as big of a challenge as viewers might think: “When you go to acting school, you study all of these extreme emotions, and you’re tasked with playing characters like A Streetcar Named Desire when you’re 16 years old, and then you get out and you’re auditioning for comedies or commercials or ads or whatever. And then doing something like this is like, ‘Yes, this is exactly what I feel comfortable doing. This is what I’m most familiar with. And this is where I feel like I can excel the most.'” He continued:
“So even though the role, I guess, maybe seems more challenging or darker, deeper than what I normally get to do, it was actually the most kind of familiar process that I’m comfortable with […] I wish I could tell audiences, ‘This is the comfortable stuff. The hard stuff is the kind of natural guy who’s trying to pick the kids up from school or whatever.'”
Jesse Eisenberg and Adrien Brody 20 Years Later
Opposite Eisenberg in Manodrome is Oscar winner Adrien Brody as the leader of a mysterious men’s-only group that seems to frown upon the opposite sex as they band together in their tucked-away headquarters for strange rituals. Even movie buffs might be surprised to hear that this isn’t the first film that features both Eisenberg and Brody. “Adrien and I actually worked together in 2002, on a movie The Village by M. Night Shyamalan, and I had one line in it,” said Eisenberg. “He was the lead, and I didn’t think he would remember me from it because, again, he was the main part.” He continued with delightfully dry humor about making The Village:
I had one line, my character’s name was “Boy on Stump” because I stood on a stump. And my grandma saw the movie, and then called me and said she’d seen the wrong movie, because ‘I wasn’t in it.’ And so I didn’t think he would remember me, just like my grandma didn’t remember me. And he did, and he was so gracious to me.
Eisenberg shared more about collaborating with a heavy hitter like Brody. “I remember feeling so intimidated by him because when we had worked together, he was the most famous actor in the world. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, just to be on set with this guy is so cool and special.’ They had seated me next to him in some group scenes, which was exciting,” said Eisenberg of his time making The Village 20 years ago. “And so to be working eye-to-eye with him [now] was just, in some way, some kind of childhood dream come true.” He added:
“And then, he has a very unusual presence as an individual, this very engaging kind of warmth. And so for me, playing this part against him was so perfect, because he’s like a cult leader, kind of drawing this very vulnerable person (who I play) into his cult. Adrien just naturally has this kind of warm, inviting, and intense personality. And so, I have to say, it was just this incredibly seamless transition from talking to him on set to being kind of brought in by his spell in the movie.”
Related: Best Jesse Eisenberg Movies, Ranked
The Key to Playing Ralphie: ‘Slow Down’
“Dating you is like dating a stairmaster,” says Mark Zuckerberg’s ex (played by Rooney Mara) in the opening scene of The Social Network. The extremely speedy way that Aaron Sorkin’s version of the Meta CEO speaks might just give you heart palpitations when watching the 2010 Oscar-winning movie. Things are very different with his new film. “I was told to slow down a lot, which happened in another movie made by Kelly Reichardt [the excellent Night Moves], who really likes this kind of slow pace. And so it was constantly just, ‘Slow down, slow down,'” Eisenberg told us in regard to playing Ralphie in Manodrome. He shared more about his preparation:
And then with this movie, I had recorded people who are from this area and were like gym guys. And so I was listening to them before every take. I had voice memos on my phone of the way some people who are similar to Ralphie would speak. And so I would just hear them, I would say the words, say the words, say the words — and put my phone down, and we would go.
Related: Exclusive: Manodrome Director on His Chilling New ‘Chosen Family’ Thriller
Another component of Ralphie’s that took time for Eisenberg to prepare for was his sexuality, as Ralphie starts looking at fellow gym rats a certain way, even following one of them (played by Sallieu Sesay) when they leave a workout one day. An Uber driver by day, Ralphie even turns angry when two guys start making out in his back seat. Is Ralphie, who has a pregnant girlfriend back home, having a sexual awakening that he struggles to hide away? Said Eisenberg:
“My character’s questioning his sexuality throughout the movie. And then finally, during the climax of the movie, he finally engages with somebody in that way. And it was this very strange thing because I’m straight, and I didn’t really understand that experience. So it required me to understand what that experience is like, even physically.”
“And then we worked with this amazing intimacy coordinator, which is a new thing in movies,” continued Eisenberg. “And thank God it exists because they came in at just the right time, because me and the other actor, Sallieu [Sesay] — who’s a wonderful, really amazing actor and was really kind of open to anything, including the stuff we had to do in the movie — we’re basically just talking through what the experience of sex with another man on camera is like. And then adding to the fact that it takes place in a factory, and then adding another thing, which is that it takes place during a kind of very violent altercation — what’s that all like?”
This was like the proverbial scene circled on my calendar of something to think about, worry about, and prepare for. And ended up being more this technical thing more than anything cathartic, because you’re trying to do this thing with another person and not hurt that other person.
If acting is largely about being a tourist of empathy and exploring people who are unlike oneself, then Eisenberg is a downright master. From Lionsgate, Manodrome is now in theaters, on demand, and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms like Google Play here or Prime Video here.
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