In Interview: Jesse Eisenberg on Holy Rollers (2011)

by David Katz on 09/07/2011

By David Katz

Jesse Eisenberg’s first live-action role since The Social Network (2010) is a big departure from his usual fare: in Holy Rollers (2010) he plays Sam Gold, a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who gets embroiled in smuggling ecstasy for the local mob.

As an independent production the film had a protracted development and release process with Eisenberg filming his roles in The Social Network and Rio (2011) while Holy Rollers sat waiting for the right moment to come out. Holy Rollers certainly serves as a welcome reintroduction to Eisenberg’s talents after he blew us all away as Mark Zuckerberg, with a story of corrupted innocence not dissimilar to Henry Hill’s journey in Goodfellas (1990), his performance as Sam requires both comic and dramatic notes to evoke the transition away from the orthodox Hasidic lifestyle. In interview, Eisenberg is candid and witty as he cheerfully considers his thoughts on the film, its gestation process and its unique subject matter. Here’s what Eisenberg had to say about his latest project:

Was it difficult to capture the essence of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community?

“I actually had a lot of time to learn about the community, so I spent time with kids who were similar to Sam who lived in these communities, I went to the school with them for many days, they brought me into their lives a bit, so by the time we were shooting I felt like I could throw all that away and not be focused on the rigidity of adhering to a specific lifestyle and instead just focus on the emotional experience of Sam and have all that stuff in the background. That was really important because when you’re acting you don’t want to be thinking of which hand you’re using, you want that to be instinctive.”

What drew you to the character of Sam Gold?

“I loved the innocence of the character – I thought it would be interesting to try and maintain that innocence in this underworld of drug smuggling. In the first part of the story, his innocence is understandable because he’s exposed to very little but when he starts being exposed to the more exciting and dangerous things in the world it’s a bit more difficult to maintain that.”

How did you handle the careful balance of comedy and drama?

“We have a great premise that lends itself to great drama but also engenders chuckles, but because the way we were telling the story is so dramatic, we felt like it could always use more humour – at its heart is a fish out of water story, and there would be some funny scenes, but coming from a real place. What we settled on in the movie was more realistic – the drug deals are clumsy, the characters are not as violent as you’d suspect somebody who’s a drug impresario might be – the characters are all realistic and all the scenes are dealt with authentically.”

Did the film’s hurried shoot present any particular challenges for you?

“You spend two years in meetings, for an 18-day shoot, which was so wonderful, but it’s so quick compared to the amount of time you try to get it made. You have 18 days on these rushed sets – but that’s my favourite part. It’s those moments where it feels real and exciting. It’s a lot easier to shoot a movie in 18 days than it is to shoot a movie in 80 days. You build up a momentum and learn to not question things in the same way – it’s very difficult for me to spend 5 months in the emotional place of a character, whereas Holy Rollers we were shooting every day, 14 hours a day, and to me nothing lends itself to being creative more than efficiency.”

Holy Rollers is out in cinemas now.

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