The Time I Got Really Stoned and Interviewed Jesse Eisenberg
Sunday Night, You're Totally Baked, and a Movie Star Calls
“You know what your problem is? Everything is material for you. Like, you can’t have a normal conversation without thinking how you can use it in an essay or something.”
This is my girlfriend talking, echoing something she’s said a number of times. It’s Sunday night, and we’re unwinding on the couch, watching some dumb TV, hanging out with our dogs. The weekend slid by and this is our last chance to relax before the drudgery of the week begins. I pack a big fat bowl and we get super stoned. Like, send-yourself-to-bed stoned. I’m sinking into the couch—never to return—when I suddenly feel my phone vibrate. It’s a text message. Here is what it reads:
Hi Jonathan, this is Jesse Eisenberg. I’m sorry to bother. Are you available this evening for the Lithub interview. Is that still possible?
The idea of me interviewing Jesse Eisenberg for this website had been floating around for a while. At first I was going to do it, then I wasn’t, then I was again. I was supposed to talk to him Friday night, then Saturday, and when I contacted Jesse’s people on Sunday morning, they said they’d find out what was going on. So when I heard nothing more, I figured it wasn’t going to happen. So I got really stoned. And now I have to interview my first genuine (i.e. non-literary) celebrity while high out of my goddamn mind.
“Sure!” I text back. Let’s do this.
To my girlfriend I say, “I’m fucked.”
* * * *
My phone vibrates and I jump. I manage to mumble something to my girlfriend before ducking outside to the porch. I light a cigarette and take a deep breath. You’re going to be fine. Don’t worry. He’s supposed to be a nice guy. Relax.
I’m about to answer when I realize that in my haste I forgot to grab Jesse Eisenberg’s book of stories Bream Gives Me Hiccups, the whole reason I’m talking to him. But since I’ve already lit my cigarette it feels too late to go back in and get it, so I think I’ll put my cigarette down and go inside, but then I don’t want to take too–
Shit, dude. Answer the phone!
Oh, yeah, the phone!
“Jonathan, hello,” says a familiar voice. “This is Jesse Eisenberg.”
Right away I’m faced with a decision: tell him or not? But what am I to say? Hey, Mr. Eisenberg, thanks so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it, but I have to inform you that I am incredibly stoned at the moment, because, quite frankly, I didn’t really think you’d call. But now you have and here we are.
Would that work? I mean, I know he’s played stoners before, but what if he isn’t one himself? What if he finds the whole weed thing a little sophomoric? Like, c’mon, dude. We’re adults here. We’re in our thirties. Let’s get serious.
I say nothing.
I explain that I have to take a few seconds to record the conversation. I have this app thing for it, which requires me to switch lines and merge them together or something. I kinda forget. I turn on the app and try to merge calls. When I come back to Mr. Eisenberg, I say, “Hello?… Hello? Mr. Eisenberg?”
He’s gone. I’m high and I’ve hung up on Jesse Eisenberg. Goddamn it.
I take another in a series of deep breaths and call him back.
“So sorry about that,” I say. “The app’s not working.”
“But we’re good now?” he asks. “It’s ready.”
“Oh, no,” I say. “I have to do it again.”
So I do it again and—mercifully—it works.
“Ok,” I say. “We’re good.”
I’m so relieved the app works that I forget to start the interview. A long silence passes.
Finally, I manage, “I loved your book.”
“Thanks so much for reading it,” he says. “How do you have time to do all this?”
“Uh, do all what?”
“How do you have time? You must be overwhelmed.”
Overwhelmed? Is he fucking with me?
“Oh, no,” I say. “It’s my job. I just read and write. It’s great.”
“I’m reading this book Purity now,” he says, “and I have to take breaks every two minutes, because it’s, like, so long. How do you have the attention span?”
And suddenly I launch into a whole thing about reading as training and then I’m talking about Purity, which I read but didn’t get to review, which kind of bums me out but it’s fine, you know? Like, I don’t have to review every book I read, so it’s cool, but I realize that Jesse hasn’t finished it yet so I don’t want to ruin it for him.
Wait. What the hell is happening? I’m supposed to be interviewing him.
So I switch the conversation back to his book, and I can tell he’s already done a number of interviews about it. I try to ask him whether or not he considers himself a fiction writer or if stories are merely another outlet for his creativity, and he says “I like to do a lot of things, but I find them all connected. I’m not, you know, moonlighting in the WNBA. You know, I write pieces that I then perform, I act in other people’s projects, I write plays that I perform in… these are very similar skill sets. So I hope to continue writing, but I don’t see it as any kind of tangential offshoot of, you know, acting in something. It doesn’t seem like that much of a difference, or that much of a stretch.”
He’s right, obviously. Writing stories really isn’t that much of a stretch from acting. “In good drama,” says Eisenberg, “the characters are not saying the exact message that they’re relaying. They’re usually saying something else, and you have to deduce it.” Good actors generate complex emotions underlying even the most basic spoken lines—in that respect, they have great experience in creating deep characters.
But this feels like well-covered territory, so I ask if he’d like to write a novel.
“I would love to,” he says. “But I always feel like I’m not doing enough. When I sit down to write something like that, it seems like, well I’m not doing enough. There has to be several stories or people will get really bored with this. They’ll want to move onto something else. I’d rather put 50 stories in a book than one. I know I’m wrong, because I think there are a few examples of novels that work—Anna Karenina and Moby-Dick are pretty good—but it seems like such a burden to ask people to read one single story for 200 pages.”
We talk about George Saunders and his novel-less career, and how it’s strange that novels are the more popular form. “Yes, I’m shocked,” Jesse says. “I can’t figure it out.” He’s reading Thomas Morris’s collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, and is enjoying it very much. But novels, it seems, test his patience. Eisenberg leans more toward outlets like McSweeney’s or The New Yorker’s humor pieces, influences that are clear in Bream Gives Me Hiccups.
Which reminds me: I should probably write about his book a bit, huh? It’s a collection of comic pieces of a kind you’ve seen before. You know, things like “Marv Albert is My Therapist” and “Marxist-Socialist Jokes,” where banal forms are spun into humor. They’re not easy to write—funny is hard—but Eisenberg has the right sensibility for it. The pieces are funny. But it’s Eisenberg’s subtle infusion of sadness just beneath the comic that gives the stories a bit more heft. The opening section, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups,” is a series of restaurant reviews from a “privileged nine-year-old.” The conceit is obvious: the kid is young, and he’ll say damning things without realizing it. Like this bit about going to an Iraqi restaurant with his Mom, who accompanies him everywhere: “The first weird thing I noticed when I walked into Masgouf is that a lot of people eating there were wearing big black face masks so you could only see their eyes. Mom said to me kind of disappointedly that she was hoping there would be more people who ‘look like us.’ But I said that we don’t know what those people look like because they’re hiding in the masks. Then Mom elbowed me in the neck.”
But Eisenberg tempers the broad humor with pathos. The mother character in “Bream Gives Me Hiccups” at first appears to be a rich asshole. The only reason she goes to the Iraqi place is because her book club friends have all already been. “I don’t know why Mom is even in the book club,” the son writes, “because she doesn’t read any of the books and, on nights before the book club meeting at our house, she says “fuck” a lot and asks me to look on Wikipedia.” At the restaurant, both the boy and the mother loathe the food, but when she reports back to her book club friends, she lies,
telling them how nice it was to spend some time alone with me and how interesting it was to see all the Iraqi people in their black masks, and that she didn’t even think about Dad’s new girlfriend one time during the fun and tasty dinner. When Mom lies, she doesn’t just say things she doesn’t mean, she says the opposite of the things she does mean. And probably most children would be angry at their moms for lying so much, but for some reason it just makes me feel sad for her.
These little moments of emotional depth give Eisenberg’s stories weight and a real purpose for existing.
“This always happens to me,” he says. “I set out to write comedies and end up writing dramas. Because as an actor you’re trained not to do anything comedically. To find the darker, you know, hidden emotional core of a character.”
He talks about Woody Allen’s influence, saying, “I had a real epiphany about writing things that you think are funny without appealing to a kind of base idea. Woody Allen would make a joke, but it would not be a light joke about relationships, it would be about Freud or questions about religion, and he wasn’t lowering his sights to easier jokes. He was making jokes about things he was interested in.”
Oh, by the way, I’m still really stoned, but I’m at that point where you feel like you’re not stoned because you’ve gotten relatively comfortable in whatever situation you’re in. It’s like I forgot I was stoned, which basically means that during the next, oh, 20 minutes or so I am lost in my own marijuana reverie. You see because after saying that bit about writing about what interests you, Eisenberg quickly acknowledges the privilege he has as a writer. Not only is he a straight, white dude, but he’s also a famous actor, so he can probably write whatever he wants and send it directly to major publishers (though it’s not like Eisenberg got in straight away; he was rejected a lot before he finally published something). His hope, he says, is that people will read it and discover a legitimate book, one that exists because it’s thoughtful and funny, even moving, not because the guy who wrote it is going to play Lex Luther.
Then I start talking about the literary world and about how issues of identity and authenticity and transparency have become more and more central to literary analysis, and I tell him about Michael Derrick Hudson’s stupid use of a Chinese pseudonym and what a mockery that makes of honest art, and I talk about the assholes at the Hugo Awards and the sadly predictable VIDA counts and how art seems to be at a crossroads where an artist’s cultural identity must be included in the conversation about the art itself and how it’s really complicated to do this because it sometimes seems like we’re living in a world now that values flawed characters but seems intolerant of flawed human beings, and then it strikes me that here I am, a straight white guy talking to another straight white guy, and we’re the ones getting the space in print and how that doesn’t seem fair, but, then, like, I gotta do what I can to make it in the literary world and Jesse Eisenberg is merely making art that interests him, and so what is wrong with that? But then how do I reconcile the privileges I’ve had from birth with my choices now: like why do I typically write about men? Is it because those are the writers I know the most about because I read them when I was young and unaware, or is that merely an excuse to continue my blinkered approach to books, and if that’s true how do I change my default setting while still pursuing the literature that first got me into the game?
Wait. Am I saying all this out loud? How much of that did I just say?
I snap back into reality, with Jesse Eisenberg still on the line.
I must not have said all of that because Eisenberg doesn’t miss a beat. He doesn’t follow the literary world much (though he’s aware of the Chinese pseudonym debacle and the Hugo Awards fiasco), but he’s keenly aware of his privileged position. “By virtue of being a movie actor they’ll put me on the Today Show to talk about the book, and I’m astutely aware of the reason I get to be on that show, which has very little to do with my authorship.”
Actually, Eisenberg’s been making these kinds of qualifications throughout our discussion: he’s hyper-aware of his position and wants to preempt anyone’s objections. Eisenberg is, after all, a guy born in Queens and raised in New Jersey, a genuine neurotic and an extremely bright person. He doesn’t read reviews of his films or plays because “I find that very painful.” He stutters and feels the need to append conversational addenda to many of his thoughts. He reminds me of, well, me. As a writer it’s sometimes difficult to interject in the normal flow of a conversation when you’re used to having thousands of words and a lot of time with which to express things. We had numerous awkward exchanges, like this:
ME: Yeah, I–
Jesse: –and it, uh–what?
ME: Oh, nothing. Go ahead.
Jesse: No, please. Go on.
ME: It’s ok. What were you saying?
And so he’s very aware of himself and of his status, and when I bring up the fact that people would probably rather talk to him about the Batman vs. Superman movie, Jesse’s quick to say, “No, it’s great,” because he recognizes that people might read Bream Gives Me Hiccups or go see one of his plays because of the movies, people ordinarily unlikely to pick up a collection of stories or appreciate theater.
He feels “guilt,” though, publishing a book. “I’m sure they’re right,” he says. “If I wasn’t an actor, the book wouldn’t exist in the same way… It is unfair,” he says. “I see actors in acting classes who are really good and they can’t pay their rent. Why do you think it is?”
(Here would have been a wonderful time for me to ask him about The End of the Tour, the film about David Lipsky’s lengthy interview with David Foster Wallace. In the movie and in the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, there is a tension in regards to being interviewed, and sometimes it seems like Wallace is playing Lipsky with the very same tactic, which basically consists of making the interviewer feel smart by asking him his opinion so that the interviewee doesn’t have to give his. But I don’t ask him about this, or The End of the Tour at all. I just forgot. Don’t do drugs, kids. Or, just don’t do them when you have to interview a celebrity.)
Instead, I am barely able to come up with a response to Eisenberg’s question, which goes something like: “I think—well, it’s because—I don’t know. I don’t know, my own personal shit.” What the hell am I doing?
Thankfully, Jesse moves the interview along and asks me about Wilmington, North Carolina, where I live. Then he asks what I’m doing here, and then suddenly we’re talking about me again! I can’t fucking seem to keep this interview about him. I try to deflect by bringing up Woody Allen, since Eisenberg’s currently filming Allen’s latest. But he gets me talking about how Allen has been a hero of mine since I was a kid and Eisenberg agrees and can’t believe he’s working with him and I get so giddy talking to someone who talks to Woody Allen that the rest of the interview is basically worthless.
* * * *
After I thank him for talking to me and telling him, in earnest, that he was wonderful to interview and is a smart, nice person, I hang up and take a deep breath. Reviewing the conversation, I wonder if I have enough to turn into something interesting. Or anything at all. I listen to the recording… me talking… me again… yes, that’s right, me… oh, Eisenberg! Oh, wait, he’s asking me about me…
I tell my girlfriend that I blew it and that I should not really be a journalist. She comforts me—she’s very sweet—and we soon go to bed.
That night—since inevitably I couldn’t sleep—I have a thought, and the next morning, blurry-eyed and out of it, I text Jesse:
What would you think of the idea of turning your profile into a comic piece in which I, not thinking I was going to have to interview you, get really really really stoned just before you text me, and thus the whole piece will be like me trying to keep it together despite nerves and weed compounding my anxiety? You’d be the straight man to my stoned, irresponsible idiot.
I pause for a moment before adding:
I mean, it’s sort of true anyway. I did get stoned before you texted me. And it would make all those moments when I talked about myself funny, because, as a journalist, I was fucking it all up. What do you think? Would you be down?
I pause again and add:
And also say hi to Woody for me just kidding not really hahahaha, but sorry last time I text I promise.
Time passes. I realize that I have just revealed I was stoned the whole time, that I am unprofessional, disrespectful, juvenile. What did I just do? Why would I text him that? Am I trying to turn my stupidity into material? Shit. My girlfriend’s right. The belief that I can turn anything—even poor life choices—into a working essay. An essay, really, about me, and not Jesse Eisenberg’s book or his movies or even him. Am I borrowing on Jesse Eisenberg’s fame to advance my own ends? Will he see through that? Will he be offended? Annoyed? Will he stop publication of the piece?
Finally, a response:
That’s a funny idea! I’m curious to see how you do it. Woody approves as well.
This text makes me feel giddy and weird and happy and guilty all at the same time. Thrilled that Jesse might have mentioned me to Woody, but just as thrilled if it was a lie, to be in the same lie as Woody is still a big deal for me, and then I think well, what a problematic figure to be validated by, and what does that mean about me and my writing? But then I’m so stressed and tired and full of self-loathing that I just take this as a sign to do the fucking thing the best way I can which isn’t much but it’s going to have to be enough. I’m all I’ve got, just as Jesse’s all he’s got and you’re all you’ve got, really, in the end, and though not everything I write helps the world, makes it better, rights any wrongs, I have to go where my mind and heart take me, even if they lead me to disaster.
With the piece mercifully finished, I pack a bowl.
And I hope Jesse Eisenberg can forgive me.