Starting Friday, film fans can pass the time in self-quarantine with a Jesse Eisenberg digital double-feature.
In thriller “Vivarium,” Eisenberg plays half of a hopeful couple house-hunting in a neighborhood full of identical green homes. The couple finds themselves trapped with a child inside one of the houses — a vivarium, which means animal enclosure.
Eisenberg describes the film as a “nightmarish fever dream” where a couple’s dreams of starting a modern middle-class family in the suburbs take a bizarre turn.
“It has some very strange resonance right now where this kind of insidious thing seems to be attacking you and you're stuck inside your house and there's no one around,” he says. “The movie, just as movies often do, takes on different resonances when they finally come out.”
“Vivarium” is a cross between Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s work and Netflix’s “Black Mirror” or “The Twilight Zone,” he says. The film skews real-world symbols to create terror within the characters without traditional horror movie scares, he says.
Whether viewers will enjoy this film while stuck inside because of the coronavirus pandemic depends on their particular situation, he says.
“If you have a kind of case of schadenfreude, you probably would enjoy watching somebody who's worse off than you,” he says. “But if you want to get your mind off it, I'm sure there's a million other things on your queue.”
In biopic “Resistance,” Eisenberg plays the great French mime Marcel Marceau as a young man during World War II. Marceau used his artistic skills and imagination to rescue hundreds of Jewish children orphaned by the Nazis.
To prepare for the film, Eisenberg studied for nine months with Lorin Eric Salm. Salm teaches the discipline of Marceau but also chronicles the legendary mime’s life and the history of the craft. Eisenberg learned both Salm’s choreography for the movie and to appreciate the history of this more abstract style of performance art.
“It's not the kind of literal performances that I'm used to either writing or acting,” he says.
The “reluctant hero” Marceau initially prizes his art and only wants to perform for his own sake, Eisenberg says. But as the war heats up and he’s asked to entertain kids, he realizes he can use his art to help others.
The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Eisenberg says the movie shares a series of “unusual coincidences” with his life. His family is from an area in southern Poland close to where Marceau was from.
Plus, his mother is a birthday party clown. His mother would put on the same makeup as Marceau to perform for children in the same style during his own childhood, he says.
His dad taught social psychology, which helped his mother avoid scaring kids with things like big shoes or a fake red nose, Eisenberg says.
Every weekend, he would wake to the sound of his mother “meticulously” tuning her guitar for her silly performances that she took very seriously, he says. This helped him learn an important lesson.
“I think in some way it unconsciously at least taught me that regardless of what kind of performance you're doing, take it seriously,” he says. “If it's kind of a silly comedy movie or whatever, you take it as seriously as you would take any drama.”
On top of these leading roles, his piece "An Immodest Proposal" performed by actor Richard Kind is part of "The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues."
For Eisenberg, having two movies come out during a pandemic is a “surreal” and “strange” experience. But he imagines people want to engage in normal activities — even if they watch the movie from their couch instead of a theater.
“I'm in the kind of like public conversation once every year and a half when I have movies come out and I have to do interviews,” he says. “And so you know you don't want to be doing it at the time where you feel like it's irresponsible talking about anything other than washing your hands.”
But these two films speak to different contemporary approaches to entertainment, he says: emphasizing the horrors of an unusual suburban neighborhood and an uplifting tale of heroism during wartime. Neither films are “blind to the terrors of the world,” he says.
This segment aired on March 24, 2020.