The Social Network
Jesse Eisenberg talks about Facebook, fencing, and channelling our generation’s most powerful entrepreneur.
“Do you want a Berocca”
As much as I’d like Jesse Eisenberg to be boasting a hangover at 3pm in the afternoon after a hard night out on the town, he’s actually just extremely jetlagged. “I’m having trouble sleeping at the moment,” he says, smiling almost apologetically, and toying non-commitally with an unopened packet of Berocca. Luckily for him, those piercing baby-blues cut through his slightly wan complexion; in fact, he’s far more handsome in person than his various on-screen personas suggest. Serially cast as an overly-earnest young intellectual in films like The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland, Eisenberg’s career so far has been premised on odd looks and social awkwardness; in person, he’s more charming.
Eisenberg is in Sydney to promote The Social Network, in which he plays Mark Zuckerberg, the web entrepreneur who created Facebook in 2003. Theoretically, the 26-year-old actor (almost the same age as Zuckerberg) is part of the first ‘Facebook generation’ – but in fact, he doesn’t have an account (or any other kind of social networking account). “When I started acting in movies I was about 18 years old, and I was so excited that people might write about me on the internet,” Eisenberg tells me. “But as soon as I read what they wrote, I was immediately mortified. What people write about actors on the internet tends to be very cruel – they have the safety of anonymity. And so when Facebook came around, I was so turned off the idea of writing anything else about myself on the internet.”
Age aside, there is at least one interesting parallel between Eisenberg and Zuckerberg: their discomfort with social situations, and their creative response to that discomfort. Zuckerberg, whose anti-social tendencies are renowned among friends and colleagues, built a network where people could control their social interactions, and even create an idealised image of themselves. Eisenberg, on the other hand, joined the theatre.
“Well, you know, I had a very difficult time in high school,” the actor admits. “I had trouble fitting in, making friends; and so to cope with that I found an outlet, and that was theatre. When I did plays, I felt much more comfortable being this other person, being this character, than being myself in school. I think Mark is motivated by many of the same things: he feels uncomfortable at school; he feels uncomfortable having an in-person interaction; but instead of feeling bad for himself, he creates a world that he feels more comfortable in.” (At which point I can’t help wondering, is Eisenberg describing himself or Zuckerberg right now?)
Eisenberg is under no illusions that Zuckerberg the person, and Zuckerberg the film character are the same thing. Sorkin and director David Fincher have also clearly acknowledged that this is a dramatic version of events, much of which is formulated through speculation - and none of which is based on interviews with Zuckerberg himself (who refused to meet or cooperate with the filmmakers).
Even so, Eisenberg was charged with the complex task of thoroughly researching his subject, and filtering that into the specific parameters of the character. Holding two versions of the one person inside you for any length of time seems mentally demanding at best – but Eisenberg seems to have divided it into ‘Zuckerberg on public record’ (actual Zuckerberg) and ‘Zuckerberg in private’ (the film version). He seems to have focused on taking physical data from the public record, and combined it with an inner life written by Sorkin.
“I’d watch a lot of videos of him, and I’d try to find something very specific – like the way he licks his lips, or the way he blinks when he’s feeling uncomfortable, or the way he stands; I found that he stands in this unique way where he isolates the top half of his body, and keeps his arms in his pockets; I read that he was a fencer, so I took fencing lessons, and it kind of showed me how to stand… I was able to use the real person in order to help create this character version of him.”
Mark Zuckerberg is currently outranking Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in estimated wealth and influence, and even though his empire may seem more limited than theirs in scope (he has just one product, where they have many), only the Google empire could challenge Facebook in the ‘information’ stakes. With 500 million members and counting (that’s approximately 1 in every 14 people), Zuckerberg’s Facebook network is larger than the United States – and most other nations.
Bearing all this in mind, I ask Eisenberg whether his research turned up any interesting surprises about the enigmatic webpreneur. “Yeah. The main thing I was surprised by, again and again, was how little he cared for money. You know, he’s worth 7 billion dollars; he’s the youngest billionaire in the world. You initially think that somebody who’s so rich must be interested in making a lot of money – you wonder what else could have driven them to be so wealthy? For Mark, I genuinely believe that if he could do it for free he would.”
The Social Network is in cinemas now.