Jesse Eisenberg Talks Learning Magic, Reuniting with Woody Harrelson, Why He Signed on to the Project, and More on the Set of NOW YOU SEE ME

     April 15, 2013


While Jesse Eisenberg has played all sorts of people and characters like Mark Zukerberg, a zombie hunter, an orthodox Jew, a pizza delivery guy, and tons of troubled kids, in Now You See Me, Eisenberg takes on a new challenge: magician.  And based on what I’ve seen and learned about the film, he’s going to deliver another great performance.

While on set last year, I got to participate in a group interview with Eisenberg.  He talked about why he wanted to be in the project, reuniting with Woody Harrelson, what it’s been like learning the tricks, working with director Louis Leterrier, script changes, and a lot more.  Hit the jump for what he had to say.

Here are a few highlights from the interview:

  • Eisenberg learned some of the basic principles of magic, which he found extremely useful in all of the different tricks and illusions.
  • There was some debate over whether or not to reveal how certain tricks were done in the movie.
  • One of the big things Eisenberg learned about being a magician is that you have to overcome the feeling of discomfort that comes with lying.
  • Letterier wanted to cast actors who were not typically in movies like this, he went for theater-types.
  • Letterier tailored the roles to the actors once his cast started materializing.
  • All of the characters are specialists of their field: Eisenberg is a performer, Isla Fisher is an escape artist, Woody Harrelson is a mentalist, and Dave Franco is a pickpocket of sorts.

Here’s the latest trailer for the film:

now-you-see-me-jesse-eisenberg-isla-fisher-woody-harrelson-dave-francoQuestion: David was just starting to talk about training you guys but he stopped when you came over so what kind of stuff have you been learning?

JESSE EISENBERG: Well there are a few things I have to do in the movie, so those are the things I really practiced a lot, but there are things that are just interesting to know about as a character/magician, and so I realized early on in the training that if you learn some of the basic principles you can apply those principles to many different tricks or illusions.  And what my character does really well is take those principles and use them to create these totally innovative illusions.  The first thing that you see in the movie…  In the first scene of the movie he is with a group of people at a bar outside in Chicago at night, and he asks this girl, to pick any card from the deck.  She takes a card, and then he has the card appear on the face of the Sears Tower.  And it’s kind of explained, I’m not sure how much will make it in the movie, but it’s kind of explained how he does it.  And it’s just so brilliant and innovative.  It’s for no gain other then the enjoyment of the 20 people outside the bar.

So what made you want to get involved in the project?

EISENBERG: I thought it was a great script.  There are so many elements to the script.  The main thing for me as an actor is that it’s an interesting role to play as the character is one of the world’s greatest magicians.  So in his personal life, off stage, he struggles to maintain control over everything.  Because as a magician you’re in control of everything, you’ve preplanned every aspect of your behavior.  In his personal life, though, he struggles to maintain that same kind of control.  It’s an interesting character.  The cast that they assembled was just fantastic, getting to work with Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, Woody Harrelson again, and Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Mélanie Laurent; this is the most amazing cast they could have put together.  And the story was so interesting.  I’m not sure how much you know about it, but it’s also like a mystery movie, where you’re trying to figure out how these magicians are doing these elaborate and very complicated tricks, and over the course of the movie you start to piece things together.  I don’t normally read movies like this, I had no idea.  It was a convincing mystery. 

jesse-eisenberg-now-you-see-meHow you describe him beyond the magic?  What kind of person is he?

EISENBERG: I think my character’s most in his element when he’s performing, and when he’s not performing I think he’s probably just waiting to perform.  I read the script while I was doing a play in New York, and I was really able to relate it to my life.  The ideal way to approach a character is to find something in yourself that relates in some way.  And I really liked doing the play, but the off time was torturous because you’re just anticipating this significant thing that you have to do every night.  So I assumed that’s probably what this character’s dealing with.  He loves performing; he performs as much as he can.  He doesn’t spend a night on a date, rather he goes out and performs for people, so that’s what you see in the first scene of the movie.  That was the most exciting part of the character for me because I could immediately relate to that experience.

I haven’t done magic myself, but how much as far as revealing how tricks are done — because David [Kwong, a magician]’s involved, we haven’t talked to him yet — but if they give away tricks in the movie and how they do things, is that a little dangerous, are they a little nervous about that kind of stuff?

EISENBERG: Yeah, I was thinking that same thing.  I don’t know… 

You must have talked a lot of magicians while you were preparing for this.

EISENBERG: Yeah, I guess there were some debates over whether or not to reveal certain tricks in the movie, but the most important thing is what these magicians are doing is so singular and unique that it’s not revealing too much.  Morgan Freeman plays a “Magic Debunker,” so he makes and sells DVDs of him revealing the great magic tricks.  And he’s seen by the movie as not a noble character.  So the magic debunking is not seen as noble in the movie’s eyes.  The stuff that he reveals is really these tricks that no one else is doing.  In the first magic show we do we rob a bank in Paris and it rains money on the audience, and we’re not revealing any kind of long-standing thing because that never has happened.  So we’re probably in the clear. 

Maybe someone really will do it then after…

EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly. 

now-you-see-me-morgan-freeman-melanie-laurentNow that you know a few magic tricks, would you ever use that in a bar to pick up a woman? 

EISENBERG: I feel very guilty doing magic because you’re deceiving somebody.  When I am with David Kwong and he does magic, people love it and they don’t want to know.  But I am, I guess, too early in the process to realize that they don’t want to know and just feel immediately guilty that I tricked them and tell them how it’s done and David gets upset and the night ends pretty early.  But one of the things about being a magician is you have to overcome the feeling of discomfort that comes with lying, you have to get over that feeling, which is a strange quality.  Especially if you’re like David, who’s a nice, regular guy; he’s not interested in being duplicitous or anything.  You have to get over that, because the truth is people seem to like being lied to in that safe context. 

You guys are filming this over 60 days; it seems like a very ambitious film for a 60-day shoot.  Can you talk a little bit about what it’s been like trying to get it all done?

EISENBERG: It’s not been so taxing for me because the movie goes back and forth between the magicians and the FBI chasing them, so by design we have a lot of time off.  But the crew has been working.  The hours are incredible.  Luckily the tone is set at the top by Louis [Leterrier] and Bobby Cohen, who is producing it and Louis is directing it, and they run a very nice set.  Everybody feels included, everybody feels happy to be there.  That’s not always the case, so the long hours are mitigated by that nice environment. 

How is Louis as a director?  Do you feel he has strength as far as the action?  What do you feel are some of his strengths?

now-you-see-me-isla-fisherEISENBERG: He’s like the tallest kid I ever met.  He just has so much fun doing the scenes.  You know just by watching him work that the scene is going to be fun to watch because he has such a great time with it, such a great time filming it.  When I first met him I was the first actor that they approached, so when he told me who he wanted to put in the movie I realized right away he also really loves actors.  I mean, to assemble a cast like this for a movie that has such a complicated plot, and has such amazing effects, and such a cool storyline, it doesn’t necessarily require the actors that they’ve assembled.  So it’s a really amazing thing that he fought for actors who do independent movies and theater to be in a movie that probably could survive on its own based on the cool premise.

You’re basically describing the film as an action thriller with character actors.  So is this the new changing face of leading men right now, where all of a sudden you are the leading man in an action movie as opposed to a Stallone type?

EISENBERG: Oh, I see.  I don’t know about major trends in movies, but I know they wanted to cast actors who were not typically in movies that were paced at this speed.  It’s been really fun for us, everybody really likes doing it.  Woody Harrelson’s in it and he seems to do all kinds of movies so I don’t think he’s out of his element or anything.  But it’s been fun.  The job for me is the same anywhere.  I mean, this movie probably edits more quickly than an independent movie or something, but my job doesn’t really change that much. 

Have you gotten to see anything edited together?  It’s early for that, but doing a trick and then seeing it all put together?

EISENBERG: The way our characters are introduced is the four magicians are introduced doing their magic, so I’m doing that trick I said at the Sears Tower.  And then Isla is doing a — she’s an escapologist, so she escapes from shackles underwater — and I saw her scene cut together, in which she’s thrown into a tank of piranhas handcuffed and she has to get out of the handcuffs before they attack her.  And it was incredible.  When you’re on set you don’t realize the way something is going to look since you’re on the other side of the camera, but I saw that scene edited together and it’s astounding.

Often when you sign on a project the script looks a certain way and then you get on set and things change.  How has it changed, or not changed, since you signing on to what we’re watching right now? 

EISENBERG: It’s changed a lot since I initially signed on to it because I think I was the first actor to come on to it.  And so once they started assembling this cast, they started to tailor the roles a little more specifically to the actors involved.  That was the big first change.  And then once we were no longer shooting in Atlantic City, they changed it to New Orleans, and we shot most of the movie in New Orleans, so that changed a lot, too.  But the overall storyline is the same and the mystery of the movie remains the same, and that’s the most important element. 

now-you-see-me-mark-ruffaloCan you talk a little bit about how this character is similar or different from the other characters you’re known for?

EISENBERG: This character is…  Well, there are a few different aspects to him that are probably unique.  He is, well, in terms of characters I’ve played, he is controlling and probably unsympathetic in the same what that the character I play in The Social Network is.  And yet he is very charismatic and enjoys performing, so that is not similar to that character.  So I’m finding different elements that maybe overlap with that character.  But this character is like a performer, whereas the character in that was really a hermit, so that’s pretty different.  But in terms of their need to control and to manipulate, their need to be in their element at all times, that’s probably similar. 

I know that your mom is a performer as well.

EISENBERG: Using the term extremely loosely. 

She actually went to my boss’ house when he was a child, so he has a picture of her from 1990.  Yeah, it’s crazy.

EISENBERG: What is his name? 

Jordan Zakarin, he lived in New Jersey, but anyway…


now-you-see-me-posterI know, isn’t that weird?  Always wanted to segue into that, I never thought I could.  Did she give you any tips?  How did she feel about this?  Does she hate magicians?

EISENBERG: Magicians?  No, no, no!  In fact, one of the reasons I really liked the movie when I read it is because I grew up with…  My mom was like a birthday party clown, and so when she was sick, or when it was my birthday and she didn’t do the party, she bartered a party for this magician, this guy Bruce, who had to either perform at my birthday or to perform if she was sick.  I guess to have an understudy that is also a birthday party clown is probably threatening to job security, so she had someone who wouldn’t compete.  And this guy was so wonderful, and then I found…  Well anyway, he passed away. 

Oh yes, that was in the thing, just this past summer.

EISENBERG: You didn’t write anything about…  on America Online?


EISENBERG: Because there was this thing about my mother on America Online. 

Well that was for Huffington Post.

EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, Huffington Post.  You wrote that? 

No, no.  That was my boss.

EISENBERG: Yeah my mom, she read that to me.  And that’s how we found out.  That’s how we found out. 

Oh so he contacted your mom.

EISENBERG: No, we read the article and it said he passed away.  It was terrible. 

now-you-see-me-jesse-eisenbergI’ll ask about you and the relationship with the other magicians, Isla and Woody, because it’s probably interesting.  I’m curious about your take on that.

EISENBERG: Yeah, we are all experts in our specific field.  Isla, as I said, she’s an escape artist, and Woody is a mentalist, and then the other magician is Dave Franco and he’s like a pickpocket.  So we’re all kind of experts in our specific craft, but then when we’re brought together there is some internal tension because we feel like we have to suppress our own leading status in order to be part of this group.  And it comes out a little bit in the movie, but ultimately you see us working together as a team.  But my feeling is if you were to see behind the scenes a little more then you already do you’d probably see that they all hate each other because it’s probably not dissimilar to actors coming together and working together.  You know, you love each other on stage but then backstage… 

Do you have magic fights with each other?

EISENBERG: Yes, exactly.

Can you tell us about the Zombieland reunion?  You and Woody, what is your working relationship like with him?

EISENBERG: I love working with him, everybody does.  He is one of these very unique actors that is as comfortable in a movie like this where there’s a lot of effects and where it’s fact-paced.  As well as movies like an independent movie that is shot in 20 days or something.  So that’s really helpful for me on set because this is one of my first bigger movies at this scale, and so to have him there and to see how he paces himself throughout a day, and see how he is aware of the camera angles, knowing to not necessarily expend all of your energy when the shot is nowhere near your body, that’s helpful to see.  On a personal level, I like him so much, and we have similar tastes in drama and in comedy, so it’s very helpful to work with somebody where you have a similar aesthetic.

Some of us were on the set of Zombieland and witnessed first hand your relationship as well as the improvising that Woody does on every take, where he mixes it up on every take. How is it on this movie?  Have you done scenes with him where on every take he’s doing something different?

now-you-see-me-woody-harrelson-jesse-eisenberg-isla-fisher-dave-francoEISENBERG: I guess because that was more explicitly comedic, it lent itself to more improvisation.  But this movie…  Yeah, we’re improvising.  There is less room in a movie like this where the plot is so specific.  In Zombieland it was such a freewheeling plot it almost didn’t matter what the characters were doing scene to scene as long as there was a consistent banter.  Where as in this we have to account for this plot, so there is a little less room for silly improvisations.  That said, within the context of that more specific goal we are finding places.  And Louis, who’s directing this movie, is French, but has an amazing sense of humor in English, which is not always the case, obviously, and so he loves when we make jokes and stuff.  And so even though this movie is a really plot driven movie, there’s been a lot of room for humor.

Catch up on the rest of our set visit coverage below:

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