Q&A With Jesse Eisenberg, Bloomingtonian

Jesse Eisenberg
Jesse Eisenberg

Photo courtesy Audible

I’m currently sitting in a park in Greencastle, watching a guy mow the softball field. Where are you?

I’m doing the exact same thing. Really. I’m looking at a baseball field in Bloomington.

For years, I read straight past your byline in The New Yorker. I always thought the writer Jesse Eisenberg was just someone who shared your name. But that was you! How common is your name in New York City?

It’s not so common there. Maybe in Israel, I don’t know. But there’s a very sweet kid who works with the public theater in New York who has the same name as me. He’s Chinese, but he was adopted by a Jewish family when he was born. He came to a play of mine, and he came up afterwards and met me. He said, “I’m you,” and he showed me his ID.

You’ve been living in Bloomington during the pandemic, which seems an unusual choice for a movie star. What do you do at 4:30 in the afternoon in Bloomington?

I think everybody’s life during the pandemic boils down to two or three activities and nothing else. We have a three-year-old child, so generally I’m either with my son talking about the different sounds that car horns make or trying to teach him how to trace squares or something. If not that, then I have a couple of professional things going on right now. I’m in a kind of pre-production phase for the movie When You Finish Saving the World, so I’m speaking to costume designers and meeting with the crew. And if not that, I’m at the women’s shelter volunteering. So that has been my cycle and it’s been great. It’s really quiet here in Bloomington.

I assume you’re referring to Middle Way House, the Bloomington-based domestic violence shelter. What’s your connection to that place?

For 35 years, my mother-in-law Toby Strout ran Middle Way, which is not just a domestic violence shelter—it provides transitional housing and legal counseling, and they work with victims of sex trafficking. It’s an incredible place, but due to COVID-19, they lost a lot of student volunteers. So my wife and I came here in March, and I’ve been volunteering there about four days a week. I’m doing painting, cleaning, and maintenance.

Sounds like important but menial work. Do you just grin and bear it?

Not at all. It’s been one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had. Being involved in something with a direct benefit to people who are vulnerable has been really fulfilling. So I go there as much as possible. I was there until 1 a.m. the other night, waxing a floor for somebody who was moving in. This has been a very unusual period of my life. I think for a lot of people, the pandemic has kind of thrown off whatever their routine was. For me, that has been a good thing.

Does the volunteer work help you adapt to isolation? Is it easier to write?

It’s good for my psyche. It’s nice to just get out of the house and to have somewhere to go. When I’m writing, it can be stifling sitting at home all day. I was in New York when I wrote this audio book, and I’d go to the library everyday just to have somewhere to go. It breaks up the day. Being completely stuck at home would make me crazy.

Can you tell me a bit about creating the audio book? It’s structured as three long, recorded monologues set in different times in the lives of a family. You portray the first character. How autobiographical is this project?

It’s really not. Long before I got here, I knew a guy who told me that he had a newborn daughter and that he felt very little for his child, while his wife was immediately connected to the baby. And he was kind of embarrassed and felt guilty. And it just stayed with me because it’s such an honest thing to say, but it occurred to me that it might not be uncommon. If you’re not the one carrying the child, I imagine it might be difficult to have an immediate connection. It felt like that was an interesting character to write about. And my wife and I had just had a baby. So when I met the people from Audible and they told me that they were creating fiction exclusively for this medium, it occurred to me that this story would work really well there. Because you can get the internal struggle of this guy recording these diary entries for a therapist.

Jesse Eisenberg
Jesse Eisenberg reads from “When You Finish Saving the World,” an Audible drama he created that’s available this month.

How did you do with your baby?

That’s not really what happened with me. I felt kind of bonded, so to speak, right away. I only have sympathy for people who don’t have that bond. They’re missing such a wonderful aspect of life.

And now you’re about to make the story into a movie. Did you always know you would adapt it for that medium as well?

Whenever I’m writing anything, I always try to think, What do I know, that most people don’t know about? And there’s not much. I really like basketball, so I know a lot about basketball. But that’s not a vital issue. But because of my mother-in-law and my wife’s work at a domestic violence shelter, I know some stories from that world. It’s one that I think not a lot of people know about. There’s a character who’s more of a tertiary character in the audiobook; we hear her start her story when she’s 18 years old on the campus of IU, but we never really hear from her as an adult. So the movie kind of focuses on her as a woman running this domestic violence shelter in Bloomington. She’s raising a kid who she resents because he’s a capitalist, and she’s a socialist. The movie is the story of a mother and a son. When I wrote it, it seemed like it could work as a film. And it didn’t seem impossible to make as a first film, which matters because I have not directed before.

I know you’ve directed plays. Does any of that translate?

No, I’m in over my head. Fortunately, the movie is pretty simple.

But you’re not filming it in Bloomington. Why?

Unfortunately, Indiana doesn’t offer tax incentives for filmmakers. And for an independent movie, it’s really hard to film here because when they finance these independent movies, they take into account the fact that they’re going to shoot in an area that’s going to provide some tax incentives. So Manitoba—which incidentally has a very low number of COVID-19 cases right now—offers this. I mean, this kind of thing can double the budget of small movies. I wish the Indiana legislature would create a tax incentive, because it would be great to film here.

Why? What makes Bloomington so special?

Bloomington is the most unusual place I’ve ever been. My wife grew up here, so I had heard about it for a long time. But living here, just on our block, you have the world’s best hammered dulcimer player. One of the most important lawyers for advocating against the use of the death penalty is a neighbor. There’s a pediatrician and a cellist. The most interesting people in the world go to these college towns. I grew up in the suburbs on the East coast, where we thought of the Midwest as pretty homogenous. That’s the impression I had before I came here. It was an amazing surprise to see such a community-minded city of interesting, diverse people. The fact that a place like Middle Way has the shelter here, it attracts so many people who want to volunteer, who want to help because the town is so community-minded. I just feel so fortunate to be here in Indiana.