Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “Rio”) stars in one of the most entertaining films of the year, “Now You See Me,” the story of a group of magicians who rob a bank. It co-stars Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Isla Fisher, Mark Ruffalo, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurant, and Woody Harrelson. It keeps you guessing — and smiling — until the very last minute. Eisenberg sat down with a small group of journalists in Washington, D.C. to talk about the film. He has an electric intellectual energy, very quick, very smart, very witty, with much of the intensity he brings to his roles, and it was fascinating to see him engage so wholeheartedly with our questions with such boundless curiosity that he came up with questions of his own for us. He made us immediately feel like we were part of a conversation that we wished could go on all day.
“When I first read the script,” he told us, “I wanted to play my character more like David Blaine. My character is like a street magician in the script, so I thought, very casual, dress like regular clothing. But the director wanted to have a more flashy style. So the whole aesthetic for the magicians is like they’re these cool magicians of the future and they do tricks that could be done in five years. That was actually the rubric that we used — all this magic could be done in five years. It’s actually not possible now, but it will be possible, with the governing laws of the universe, these could be done.” He talked to us about trying to learn to perform some of the tricks himself. “I play a character who is one of the best slight of hand magicians in the world, so he would have been practicing for 25 years and I had just four weeks to practice before shooting and then four months while we were shooting to perfect the tricks that were going to be done at the end of the movie. So, I learned some basic slight of hand tricks, like a snap change. I could so some smaller, less complicated, less impressive tricks fairly well. There’s a scene where I’m handcuffed to the table, and there are these twin brothers named Dan and Dave Buck, and they are the best card flourishers in the world, just incredible. They can make a cascade or waterfall and the cards look like they’re tied together. It’s beautiful. So they superimposed their hands over my body in that scene. So, there are a lot of computer effects, but it’s not because the magic can’t be done; it’s because we couldn’t do them. Where I’m shuffling those cards, they superimpose their hands over my body, but it’s magic that can actually be done because they’re doing it live.” If he could do any style of magic tricks, he would do close-up magic, slight-of-hand. ”It’s the most impressive thing. Also, I bite my nails, and probably if I did card tricks I would have better nails.”
Eisenberg talked about playing a cool, confident character, a contrast to some of his other roles, where he plays an insecure or nerdy role. ”They sent me the script when I was appearing in a play and had a lot of stage fright performing every night. When I read the script, I thought that this character feels more comfortable on stage than anywhere else. He’s so confident. And I thought this would be a good way for me to challenge myself to play a certain kind of character that might be therapeutic in a way and make me feel confident on stage and in my personal life. And it worked — while we were filming I was feeling really good about myself and had a four month break from my own dumb neuroses. I was sleeping, I was eating — I had an avocado one day! It was a fun experience. It wasn’t difficult for me. Whenever I take on a role, I find it easy to get into the role. Once I’m there, there’s like little challenges along the way.” He does not worry about being type-cast. “Sometimes, when you’re an actor, you get thought of for certain things and that’s what you end up playing. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If you can play one thing well, you’re a successful actor, because most actors can’t play one thing well.” But he says he is glad he is being sent a greater variety of roles now. When he was not happy with what he was being sent, he wrote a play to create his own part.
He said he thought his character in this film “had an air of superiority when he was five years old and then found himself alone in his bedroom and had a deck of cards and found he was good at it and liked doing it and isolated himself and became focused on his work and became great at what he does and is now the best in the world. And then he gets teamed up with these three other characters who also felt like they were the best. And now they’re all kind of competing with each other but they have to work together. I think he feels kind of annoyed by having to work with them.” He talked about working with the cast members who play the other magicians. The actors and their characters have very different skills and styles. ”I knew Woody Harrelson, and he likes to bring his own sensibility to roles, even dramatic roles, and I like to do the same thing. But I didn’t realize how funny Isla and Dave were. Most of the time, the characters are talking to each other, but we have three big performances. We’d film them over the course of a week, sixteen hour days, very long days. It gets repetitive after a while. Because we all had a sense of humor and we had an audience that was a very patient group of New Orleans extras, we would really perform for them. A lot of our off-the-cuff remarks and our personal chemistry made it into the movie. That came just out of trying to keep each other entertained. I suppose there’s a version where the actors try to entertain each other and it’s alienating or annoying to the audience. But we had a good director who knows how to control the set and good actors who know when to stop trying to be funny and do the scene for real and push the plot forward and do the things you need to do for the story. The movie is better for it.”
He was impressed with the “visually arresting” style of director Louis Leterrier, “a great visual filmmaker,” who kept a lot of energy in the performance scenes, making them feel like live shows. He described how, in the one set in New Orleans, “in the first shot, the camera’s on a cable and it circles around us and there’s maybe a three-minute shot, which in movie terms is epic, and then goes to a close-up of Morgan Freeman.”
He said he’s getting “a little better” at feeling that he knows what he is doing. He had just finished a play [The Revisionist, which he wrote], and he said that even after the 79th performance out of 80, he still agonized before each curtain. So did his co-star, Vanessa Redgrave. ”She’s like the greatest actress in the world. And both of us would get there at 3 for an 8:00 show and start panicking. I thought, ‘Maybe it does get easier,’ and then I met her and she is still worried about making sure it’s right. I asked my father about this, and he said, ‘Maybe if you care about what you do, then it will always be hard because you set a high standard for yourself.’ I still feel very nervous. That said, when I was playing this character, I felt really confident. I think the personality of the character starts to infect how you feel about it. In the play I just did, the character is a very angry guy who hates himself, so I was feeling all those feelings, and Vanessa’s character was this tortured older woman, so she was maybe feeling that, too. I supposed if we were playing really happy, confident people who liked ourselves and each other, we might have had a better experience and gotten to the theater a little bit later.”
It is important, he said, to work with people who are “trying to take it seriously, treating it with respect and not just get trying to get something made or make money. That’s actually kind of a rare thing. Even a movie like this, a big-budget movie, when I first met with [director] Louis Leterrier, I asked him what he was thinking of for the acting and he gave me all these French art films, with the most dramatic, terrifying acting I’ve ever seen, and I thought ‘This is a great opportunity, to be in a bigger movie where someone really wants to see good acting, to do your job well.’”