The Art of Self-Defense tells the story of timid bookkeeper Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a timid bookkeeper who joins a local karate studio to learn how to protect himself after he’s beaten mercilessly by a roving motorcycle gang. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), Casey begins to experience inner strength for the first time in his life. However, as Sensei’s increasingly bizarre (and violent) lessons continue to develop, he soon discovers what it means to be trapped in a world of hyper-masculinity and violence. As a result, Casey’s growing concerns begin to place him increasingly at odds with his new mentor and he must decide for himself where the boundaries of true strength lie. Given the importance of its exploration of toxic masculinity, star Jesse Eisenberg knew from the first moment that he read the script that the film would be something special and relevant.
“I thought this was a brilliantly funny, funny movie about a cult because that’s kind of what it seemed like to me at the time,” he recalls. “[After all,] the karate classes are like a cult [and] the sensei seems like a cult leader. My character seems like the perfect candidate for a cult. You know, somebody who’s desperate to be part of a group, who can’t make friends, or has trouble interacting with other people. So [I thought] the movie was a great commentary on cult behavior. But then, when we were doing the movie, I realized that it’s just a brilliant satire on masculinity, partly because while we were filming the movie, the MeToo movement began, and the Harvey Weinstein story was released. So, the movie took on this other very kind of relevant, topical feeling of being a clever commentary on what being a man means to society.”
Credit for this sharp satire lies in the hands of writer/director Riley Stearns, who steered the project from its inception. Working with Stearns for the first time on this project, Eisenberg was absolutely blown away but he writing prowess and attention to detail.
“It was the only movie I’ve ever done where we all knew exactly what shops needed to be done in each scene,” says Eisenberg. “We were so aware that the script was so perfectly written… that we knew every shot that needed to be done and then, he was able to execute it perfectly. I think Alessandro said, [that] ‘this is the closest experience he has had from script to screen he’s ever seen a movie.’ That’s how I felt too. It was unbelievably concise and efficient. He was able to just execute exactly what he wanted to so perfectly while, at the same time, making us all feel like we were bringing ourselves to it.”
Of course, the topic of toxic masculinity and its effect on our culture has been on the forefront of our culture in recent years, especially in the light of MeToo movement. Asked what he believes it means to be a man in light of these current conversations, Eisenberg suggests that much of our ideas about gender stem from the importance of empowering those without a voice.
“My wife was raised by a woman who ran one of the most important domestic violence shelters in America,” he explains. “From birth, [she] was raised to be an activist for women’s rights. So, since the moment I met her, my mind shifted about the responsibility of men in society and that it’s important to be an ally to those who don’t have as much power in society. So, I’ve always thought that’s the kind of like best way to be a man and the movie so brilliantly shows the other side of it, [by exploring] what men think they have to do in order to succeed in this society. [They think] they have to listen to the right music, drink the right coffee and have the right kind of tech. The movie shows that in a very blunt and funny way from the pressures that men feel because the movie is the satire. It lets the audience off the hook. It’s not preachy, didactic, or strict. The movie shows, through comedy, the dangers and the absurdities of masculinity in modern culture.”
When he was offered the part of Casey, Eisenberg found himself drawn to his character because he provided the opportunity to play someone who has a powerful emotional experience in the midst of outrageous circumstances.
“This is a comedy and, oftentimes in comedies, the characters are just placeholders for jokes. In this one, [though] the character seems like this real emotional person, even though the style was so heightened. I don’t think you or I know anybody that’s like Casey that speaks in that strange, childish way or that is so trusting and earnest. At the same time, the character has a real emotional experience. So, this movie and this character gave me the opportunity to do what kind of tone and style of performance that I’d never done before, but still within the context of a character that’s experiencing real emotions. It didn’t just seem like performance art, but that [Casey] seems like a character with a psychology, just one that doesn’t really exist in this world.”
As Casey, Eisenberg had the chance to explore the boundaries of power within the masculine psyche. Although the film eists in a world of heightened circumstances, he believes that Casey eventually learns how to find a balance between strength and weakness.
“My goal was to play the kind of six-year-old version of myself. When I was six, I was scared of everything but also very sweet and innocent. I thought of Casey like that. He’s just a child in a world where everybody else was an adult. At the beginning of the movie, everybody hates him and don’t pay attention to him. Halfway through the movie, everybody’s scared of him cause he’s an aggressive, you know, horrible man. Then, towards the end of the movie, he kind of finds his balance.”
“I think he’s so desperate to be part of any group at the beginning of the movie [and] the thing a lot of people like that find who are desperate for acceptance a lot of times is dangerous authority. [They’re the kind of people who] prey on people like Casey. I think what he learns over the course of the movie is that… his goodness can be masculine and strong. The movie is so twisted [though] that to put it in those terms, I think sells short some of the absurd lanes that the [story] actually goes.”
While Eisenberg underwent some intense physical training, he credits the stunt team and other cast members for stepping up to the challenge of developing their martial arts skills. As a result, because his character is only starting out, Eisenberg ultimately felt that the pressure was off him, making the experience more enjoyable for him
“We had [about] three weeks of intense training with this woman, Mindy Kelly, who was like the stunt coordinator for the movie. She is also one of the best martial artists in the world and has been competing since she’s a kid. We had good training, but my character only has to be a yellow belt. So, as good as our training was, I still didn’t have to be as great as like Imogen [Poots] had to be or Alessandro’s character whose characters are black belts. So, I had really intense training with the knowledge that I didn’t have to be as good as some of the other characters. So, it was kind of a bit recreational for me. I had a stunt double this great guy, Ryan Moody, who has worked with me on Zombieland and some other movies. So, I also knew that he would be there for anything that I couldn’t do. Then, when we got to the set, I could do a lot of it cause my character is supposed to look kind a beginner.”
Having worked on both independent films and major studio products throughout his career, one might assume that there may be more opportunity for collaboration on smaller projects. However, Eisenberg insists that that those creative opportunities change from project to project and are less affected by the scope and budget of a film than one might think.
“In terms of collaboration, you would assume that a smaller movie would be more collaborative but actually it depends on the project. I just did Zombieland: Double Tap and that’s probably the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had in the sense that there were many scripts written and the actors were allowed to veto them if they didn’t like them. Then, on set, we were asked to improvise a lot and to do many takes where we’re doing something other than the script. Then in a movie like The Art of Self-Defense, I didn’t change one word because it’s such a brilliant script. You didn’t want to change it. So, it actually just depends on the project. Some just lend themselves to collaboration and require the actors to kind of bring themselves to it.”
With the release of The Art of Self-Defense, Eisenberg is also looking forward to the release of his next project, Zombieland: Double Tap, the long-awaited sequel to one of his signature roles. Despite 10 years having passed since the original, he says the film is a passion project for himself and the cast and that the delay was only due to the fact that they were waiting for the right script.
“The only reason it took this long is because we were waiting for a good script to come in. All the actors in it are very busy actors but we all wanted it to do this movie so much because we loved it. So, we were just waiting for the right script to come in. We were more interested [in doing the film] than the movie company. At some points, you’d think [the movie company] would just want to capitalize on a hit and make a sequel as if possible. [Here,] the actors were pushing it so much in this case just because we loved it so much. We loved the ensemble so much [and] we were eager to find the kind of worthwhile sequel. That’s why it took so long. Otherwise, we would’ve done it right away.
The Art of Self-Defense roars into theatres on Friday, July 19th, 2019.
For full audio of our interview with Jesse Eisenberg, click here.