Though his Harvard Book Store reading on Nov. 19 was not the first occasion on which Jesse Eisenberg had been to Harvard, it was, he said, an event fraught with confusion. “I thought you were affiliated with Harvard, and then when I just found out you were independent it was too late to cancel,” he said, to laughter from the audience at a sold-out Brattle Theatre. “I came here for the tangential association and then discovered it didn’t exist.”
Eisenberg was evidently aware of his near-universal recognizability as star of a certain movie about facebook, but in front of his audience he seemed like any other debut fiction author. Despite his acting training and widely praised abilities, he read much more quickly than do many authors—but his almost breathless delivery dovetailed with his humor, as well as with the stories he chose. Eisenberg read three short vignettes in the style of restaurant reviews penned by a child dragged to fancy eateries by his divorcée mother. Each was suffused with one-liners—“First joke, hit” he said in response to the audience’s warm reception, then “Should have stopped after the joke” once he had finished the story. Simultaneously, his vignettes achieved impressive emotional purchase. “And probably most children would be angry at their moms for lying so much,” his narrator writes at one point, “but for some reason it just makes me feel sad for her.”
This idea of juxtaposition, and not simply of humor and profundity, is, according to Eisenberg, key to his work. “I try to match up things that are in conflict, that are funny juxtapositions,” he said, discussing a story in which Alexander Graham Bell acts far more like a teenager with an iPhone than the erudite inventor of a novel form of communication. “If we give it some extra thought, if we’re curious, we would probably discover that people in history had the same kind of deviant, weird curiosities that we have.”
Eisenberg himself is arguably a sort of human juxtaposition: an A-list actor and a young short-story writer contained within a single body. But these identities, for Eisenberg, seem to function symbiotically rather than conflictually. “I don’t see [writing] as so different from the other things that I do,” he said. “I think about a character in a movie, and I’m thinking about him from an emotional perspective. And then you write this [set of vignettes], and you’re thinking about this boy from an emotional perspective...what this boy is going through, what his emotional life must be, what his mother’s emotional life must be.”
Similarly, he sees far more commonality than contrast between the comic and grave aspects of his stories. “As an actor, you’re trained to do comedies in some ways more emotionally honest[ly] than a drama, because it’s not going to be funny if characters aren’t experiencing it in a real way,” he said. As comedy, for Eisenberg, begets drama, so too does drama beget comedy. When his microphone stand began to malfunction, he asked that it not be fixed. “I prefer a joke and a ruined night [to] no joke and everything go[ing] off without a hitch,” he said.
Given this attitude, it is perhaps unsurprising that Eisenberg has had such a triumphant career despite his documented struggles with anxiety. When asked how he finds success through his anxiety, he attributed a degree of his success to that difficulty. “Whatever is fueling that anxiety will be a lot more interesting than the guy who’s writing from a place of confidence,” he said. “It [will] be more interesting, ’cause you’re going to be revealing something that’s deeper than somebody who’s not necessarily exploring discomfort…. Having anxiety is okay. It’s where you channel it that is the important question.”For Eisenberg, that channeling seems to happen via humor. When Brattle Theatre provided no raised hands at the beginning of the question and answer session, Eisenberg took the potentially awkward moment in stride and set off a relentless slew of audience questions. “Okay, I’ll start,” he said, addressing himself. “Who are you wearing?”
—Staff writer Grace E. Huckins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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