In To Rome With Love, Woody Allen’s most recent traveling roadshow in an iconic European locale, the director steps in front of the camera for the first time since 2006’s Scoop. He plays a retired music-recording exec who visits Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet their daughter’s Italian fiancé, whose father just so happens to be an undiscovered opera virtuoso — as long as he performs in the shower. It’s one of four amusing story threads, but fans of Allen’s most memorable on-screen neurotics will be drawn to Jesse Eisenberg, who plays an American architectural student tempted by his girlfriend’s free-spirited old classmate (Ellen Page). Eisenberg’s previous work — especially in movies like The Squid and the Whale and Zombieland — seemingly pointed him towards an inevitable collaboration with Allen, and you can sense the writer/director may have felt the same way by the way he wrote Eisenberg’s character’s relationship with an older, wiser architect played by Alec Baldwin. When the young man is thrust into an awkward romantic situation where he has to navigate a moral dilemma, you can almost hear two voices whispering advice into Eisenberg’s ear: Baldwin’s architect and Woody Allen himself.
With Rome out on Blu-ray today, the 29-year-old Eisenberg spoke to EW about working with a legend, his next appearance on the New York stage, and an upcoming reunion with Zombieland co-star Woody Harrelson. Click below for a Q&A and an exclusive video extra clip from the new Blu-ray.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Woody Allen is famous for being very particular about selecting the right actors for his films, but then being hands-off and letting them do what they want once the production begins.
JESSE EISENBERG: Yes, I guess he was very open-minded about letting the actors kind of fill up the space. A lot of the shots are just one shot and because you’d don’t have an opportunity to edit many different shots together, you kind of have to fill up a lot of the space between the written dialog, so he was just very open to us saying anything. I think he’s the best script writer, so it seems a little strange to be improvising in a movie of his. But he just wants things to sound casual and to kind of move quickly so there’s not a lot of dead space.
Was it daunting to meet and work with someone you admire so much?
I grew up obsessed with him, so I felt like I knew everything about him. Any time that he would give notes to me or the other actresses, we would just kind of look at each other and smile like idiots because we couldn’t believe we were getting to hear his voice up close. My friend described it as like seeing your favorite band live. His manner of speaking and cadence are so embedded in my mind that there’s something really exciting about being in the same room and hearing it live.
Allen has said in interviews that you’re basically his stand-in, the role he would’ve wanted to play were he a younger man.
That was never explicitly said, but if you’ve seen every movie that he’s made and read the script, you could clearly see where the character fits into the canon. Also, when you’re on set with him, it’s a little difficult not to be speaking with him and then immediately get wrapped in something that’s written in his voice and not feel influenced by the way he writes and jokes. His dialog is so specific.
Your character, an aspiring architect, has a somewhat cosmic encounter with a famous architect played by Alec Baldwin who might be an older version of yourself. Was it awkward to act opposite a character that doesn’t fully interact with the rest of the characters in the scene?
When I read it, I was wondering what [Allen] wanted the character to represent and then while we were doing it, I just made a decision to make it very clear to myself because there’s no other way to perform it with any kind of consistency. It’s a little vague, but the relationship is very specific. The rapport is very specific. It’s almost as though he’s my conscience. On one hand, he’s giving me advice that I know is right, and on the other hand, it’s kind of annoying to hear what you know is right, because it’s not what you want to do in the moment.
You’ve written plays, including The Revisionist, which you’re rehearsing right now in New York. Was that an aspect of your career that you discussed with Allen?
Somebody brought it up just because we both had plays going on at the same time in New York, so he was asking me about my show and telling me about his upcoming show. But we didn’t much exchange feedback.
Where do you possibly find the time to write?
I write all the time because I’m lonely. When you’re acting, you’re working every day all day. But then you have long amounts of time off. I finished a movie in August and didn’t start another until October so I wrote a play for next year.
What’s The Revisionist about?
It’s kind of loosely based on a true story: this young science-fiction novelist is having writer’s block and he goes to Poland because he thinks that this dramatic change of scenery will cure his writer’s block. He has a second cousin in Poland so he thinks he can get a free room, but she’s this 75-year-old woman who is profoundly lonely and very interested in connecting with her American family. So she thinks of his trip as exclusively a personal visit for her. And he sees this trip exclusively as a free room to write. So there’s a clash of interests. And she has this very complicated history that he starts to uncover over the course of his trip. It’s pretty funny.
You’ll play the young writer and Vanessa Redgrave plays the second-cousin. Were you involved in landing her?
When I was writing this, I saw her in The Year of Magical Thinking and thought if I could just get it to her, the play would work because she’s so wonderful. In that Joan Didion play, there are great moments of levity surrounded by a very tragic story, and obviously she does that. She’s the greatest actress alive. I’ve been trying to get my script to her for five years. I tried all these weirdly circuitous routes and burnt bridges to get it to her, and no one ever sent it to her. Then, I met an agent who saw my last play. And they said, “What else do you have?” I said, “I have a play that I’m doing next year.” “Oh,” they said, “Vanessa Redgrave would be perfect.” I said, “I know.” Two weeks later she had read it and agreed to do it. It was pretty quick once she got it, but it took five years to get to her. I’m so happy that I haven’t aged out of the role yet!
Do you prefer stage or film?
The acting thing is pretty similar, but the experiences on the whole are very different. I find theater to be far more stressful because you’re doing the same show every night. But I love writing plays. I write plays instinctively. I don’t like writing movie scripts. As a writer, I write plays and that’s why I [act in] them. I wouldn’t be as comfortable doing somebody else’s play right now because it’s so stressful. My plays, I do them because I can get the ball rolling and get them on a little more easily. I’m going to do one play a year, so I’m going to write another play for next year. And then I also have a musical that will go on next year, that I wrote the music to – somebody else wrote the book and the dialog.
You also have Now You See Me coming out in June, which as a Zombieland fan, I loved to see you paired with Woody Harrelson again.
We’re friends. I guess we weren’t actively looking to do a specific movie together, but when I signed on to this movie, I think the people who were making it thought it would be so great to [reunite us]. It’s a cool movie but it’s very different than Zombieland. These magicians pull this bank heist and Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent play these FBI agents who are tracking us and sort of uncovering their secrets. I play this character who thinks of himself as the greatest magician in the world. And he might be. I guess he’s arrogant, but I would also say for good reason. Woody Harrelson plays a mind reader, and they team up [with two others] to perform these great feats.