Jesse Eisenberg just might be the smartest actor in the room


ORLANDO, Fla. — Jesse Eisenberg earned an Oscar nomination playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In “Zombieland,” he’s the narrator who has figured out all manner of “rules” for surviving the zombie apocalypse.

So when his clever magician, Michael Atlas, cracks to a cop about who “the smartest guy in the room” is in the heist picture “Now You See Me,” the casting seems on the nose.

“Everybody thinks they’re pretty smart,” Eisenberg shrugs. “Even people who aren’t, in fact, smart at all.”

But even his colleagues are perfectly willing to vouch for his wits.

“He’s endlessly clever,” enthuses Isla Fisher, who co-stars with him in “Now You See Me.”

So when Eisenberg, who has taken to writing and starring in his own plays in New York when he isn’t making movies, faced a problem brought on by that, it’s no surprise that his solution was very “smartest actor in the room.”

“I was experiencing a LOT of stage fright, and nervousness about going on every night doing this play,” he explains. “And ‘Now You See Me’ was a movie script about the most confident performer in the world. I thought, ‘THAT would be interesting. Feeling confident about performing, instead of being nervous.

“I liked the storyline, but the fact that I got to play somebody unlike myself — a confident performer — was the big selling point. I went straight from a play, with a nightly anxiety attack, to playing the most confident guy in the world, part of the world’s most confident profession. If you can’t be confident, you can play a guy who is confident.”

His two plays, “Asuncion” (2011) and this year’s “The Revisionist,” “are “so personal and self-critical that I just feel that much more exposed up there.” So he was more than happy to immerse himself in an ensemble film (opening May 31), where carrying the movie would be shared by Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco, as Robin Hood magicians pulling off illusions aimed at banks that have wronged the public, and Mark Ruffalo and Morgan Freeman as guys out to expose their tricks.

Eisenberg, who turns 30 in October, worked with professional magicians and came to appreciate their art and how it relates to his own.

“Every illusion, not just the big ones, every flick of the wrist has got to be perfected for you to pull it off. Stuff that seems microscopic to us is actually what separates the great from the amateur.

“In order to manipulate large groups of people, a magician has to be about 10 steps ahead of them. He has to know the variables … It’s fascinating to get into the mind of somebody who can think that way, get inside people’s heads.

“In theater, you have to manage something like the same thing. You can’t stop the show if something goes wrong. You have to anticipate. The show goes on. The difference is, my character in ‘Now You See Me,’ Atlas, LOVES that. Me, when I’m doing a play? Nerve-wracking.”

Fisher (“Confessions of a Shopaholic”) sees her co-star as a self-conscious performer, “always pulling back, finding the reality and going no further than that.”

The same could be said of Eisenberg in real life. He is very private, so much so that he rarely confirms or denies Internet buzz on what project is next, whether he’s become engaged (an early May rumor) and the like. His reality is that his latest play, in which he co-stars with Vanessa Redgrave, will move to a Broadway theater later in the year. And the rest he accepts as part of the myth growing up around him.

“It’s pretty weird, the way other people take ownership of some part of your life,” Eisenberg says. “And they don’t know. We live in a world where everybody is written about by others, even if you’re not in movies. I think everybody’s dealing with that version of himself that others create.”