Exclusive: Jesse Eisenberg & Justin Bartha are Holy Rollers

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Looking at this week’s release schedule, it would certainly seem like Jesse Eisenberg is the hardest working actor in showbiz. Maybe that’s true, but before his last movie Zombieland, he had firmly established himself as somewhat of an “indie poster child,” appearing in a variety of movies that have taken a long time to get financing or release, and it’s just a coincidence that three of them are playing in theaters this weekend.

The first is Holy Rollers, a Scorsese-influenced crime-dramedy–is that an actual genre?–directed by Kevin Asch from a screenplay Antonio Macia and a story idea by producer Danny Abeckaser. Eisenberg plays Sam Gold, a young Hassidic Jew from Brooklyn, who is very serious about his religious studies, while working in his father’s garment shop in hopes of getting married until his next door neighbor Yosef, played by Justin Bartha, gets Sam involved in a ring of drug traffickers who use Hassids as mules to bring drugs into the country from Europe. Sam soon finds himself caught up in the lifestyle, partying with the Israeli ringleader Jackie (Abeckaser) and his girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor), but is shunned from his family and the Orthodox community in the bargain.

Holy Rollers premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, so it’s getting a fairly quick release into theaters. By comparison, Sol Tryon’s The Living Wake is a movie that did the festival circuit three years ago to many rave reviews. In that one, Eisenberg plays Mills Joaquin, the personal assistant to an eccentric character named K. Roth Binew, played by Mike O’Connell, who also co-wrote the screenplay. When Binew finds out he’s deciding, he plans to invite all of the people in his life to a “living wake” in order to make amends before he dies.

Eisenberg plays a much smaller role in Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s drama Solitary Man, as a college student mentored in the ways of women by Michael Douglas’ crafty car salesman. You can read more about that one in our interview with the filmmakers here.

We were originally going to speak with Jesse and Holy Rollers director Kevin Asch paired together, but due to timing issues, we ended up getting Jesse with his co-star Justin Bartha, a terrific comic actor in his own right going by his work in The Hangover and the “National Treasure” movies. Although we clearly hadn’t prepared any questions for Bartha, he had a lot to say about the movie, and Eisenberg certainly didn’t seem to mind taking a backseat in the interview. Even so, the two friends were very comfortable with each other, allowing for a lively fast-paced conversation.

ComingSoon.net: I was just talking with Kevin about how this came about and you both got on board with this pretty early, right? Can you talk about what you saw in the script that made you want to do it?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah, I got it before Justin because my agent was friends with the original producer of the movie. I just thought it was wonderful and I was interested in playing this character that I both thought was a unique character and also something I could find my way in because I understood his emotional journey so I felt like that was something I wanted to do. I was talking to Kevin who was directing it, and I said, “There’s no one else who could play this part but Justin” and I was so happy that Justin also loved it and felt that way.

CS: Did you guys already know each other or had you worked together before?
Eisenberg: Yeah, we had known each other from sitting next to each other on an airplane and living close by.
Justin Bartha: Yeah, we’ve been friends for a while.
Bartha: So we were both unconsciously or probably consciously looking for something that would be appropriate for both of us and this couldn’t be more perfect.

CS: Justin, what was your jumping on point for the movie and into this character? I’m not sure if you have any sort of New York Jewish background at all?
Bartha: The first thing I thought of, where the script was, I lived above a Hassidic family in Los Angeles for a year or two and they had this kind of son that was having, it seemed, behavioral problems. The family themselves were a bit eccentric and were always fighting and always seemed to have a lot of turmoil and would keep me up at night, and I always thought that the son was a fascinating character. The whole family was fascinating, and I had always wanted to do something with that. Jesse sent me this script, and I immediately thought of that and after we shaped the project over a couple years and did more and more research, the characters, both of them, seemed to come really clear. I think they’re both very dependent on each other. Since I know have such a familiarity with Jesse and we developed these character together, the development of my character was dependent on the development of his character so it helped quite a bit knowing him.

CS: Jesse, when you told me about this movie at Sundance when we talked about “Adventureland,” I automatically assumed this was a comedy because you have Hassidic Jews running drugs and because you’re both in it, but it’s not.
Bartha: No, not at all.

CS: Can you guys talk about doing something a little more serious, like a Scorsese-type movie?
Bartha: We always had “Mean Streets” in the back of our mind when it came to… obviously, it’s not as great as that movie, but we did have that archetype of two characters that are very specific in an insular community.
Eisenberg: How much worse is it?
Bartha: How much worse is it? It’s a little bit worse.

CS: Can I quote you on that? “Not as good as ‘Mean Streets'”?
Bartha: But almost as good. (returns to what he was saying)… but that ’70s American filmmaking in the vein of two male characters who very much have an effect on changing each other’s lives, that was very much an inspiration for the development of a character-driven drama.

CS: Jesse, for some reason, people think of you more as a comedic actor though a lot of the movies you’ve done have been dramas that put you in funny or awkward situations. Do you see yourself as a comedic actor?
Eisenberg: I think it’s irresponsible as an actor to put yourself in a genre, because you’re seeing the final product not the path of it. It’s up to the Blockbuster video clerk to put me in a genre, but for me, I don’t see any difference between this movie and a “Zombieland.” The final product may look different but for me, it’s the exact same thing. You’re acting in the scene every day and trying to make it real and coming from a place where if the final product is funny, it often has less to do with my intention than the producer’s intention.

CS: But do you guys see the humor that you can bring to this? Obviously, with the family stuff, basically all families are funny.
Bartha: My personal taste is you always try to see both sides of the coin, so when you’re doing a drama, if there’s no comedy, then it’s not real, and when you’re in a comedy and there’s no tragedy or…
Eisenberg: reality…
Bartha: or conflict, then it’s boring.
Eisenberg: It’s not funny.
Bartha: It’s not funny.
Eisenberg: That’s exactly right.
Bartha: If there’s a sense of realism, even when you’re doing something fantastic like a “Zombieland” or a “National Treasure,” if the character isn’t real then nobody cares and for a real character, there’s comedy and drama.

CS: You live in New York and obviously you’re Jewish…
Eisenberg: Especially from the side…
Bartha: He’s seen your tip. (The two of them start riffing back and forth on this joke, cracking all of us in the process.)

CS: This is all going into the interview. (I lied.) But the point is that you’re not Hassidic but living in New York, you see them all the time and it’s a completely different world, so how do you get into that world? Were you able to talk to anyone or spend time with them?
Eisenberg: Yeah, yeah. We spent a lot of time… Even though it’s such an isolated and separate community, we have the advantage of being so close to them, so yeah, we spent a lot of time talking to them, anyone who would speak with us. There was a sect of Habbad Jews that are not only open to speaking with Secular Jews but seek them out.

CS: I was curious how open they might because they really stick to traditions and this story might not be the one they’d want people outside the faith to know about.
Bartha: I don’t know. I think it is a story that… I mean, there’s a good chance that not many Hassidim will see this movie, but I’ve never seen a movie where the Hassidic characters are portrayed in a real way where we get a sense that they’re real people and they’re not just characters based on archetypes or stereotypes or played for comedy because of their garb and whatnot. This story, what I think is amazing is that it takes place in a quote-unquote strange community that not a lot of people know about that is somewhat mysterious. It could take place in any Orthodox community in any religion, and it would be the same story. It’s not distinctly Jewish. The characters just happen to be Jewish. I think it’s a very universal story that anyone could relate to.

CS: But there are aspects of drama inherent with this happening in this Jewish family, because we don’t really see many modern-day stories of someone being cast out of their community.
Bartha: Well, there’s other religions obviously… the Amish community, Mormon… not Mormon…

CS: Jesse, you’re kind of the poster boy for indie movies in a way, but Justin, have you done a lot of indie movies or is this a new area for you in some ways?
Eisenberg: He did a big independent movie that hasn’t been released yet that’s a romantic comedy with Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Bartha: You know, I’ve done a couple that are…
Eisenberg: You’ve done a movie in France.
Bartha: Yeah, I’ve done a couple…
Eisenberg: And the sequel to “National Treasure.”
Bartha: Yeah, that’s an independent movie.

CS: The third “National Treasure” will be made for $5 million.
Bartha: Yes.

CS: I was actually going somewhere with this indie question… right, I wanted to ask about shooting an indie movie in New York City on a budget, especially a movie this ambitious where you have to work on a faster pace to get the movie done.
Bartha: Well, the movie, it’s a miracle that it got made, but we had about a million dollars to make the movie. It looks like it’s a lot more expensive than that…
Eisenberg: $1.2 or so.
Bartha: Yeah, it looks at least 1.2… we’re both fortunate enough to be able to find work and meet a lot of people, so one of my closest friends was the cinematographer that I went to film school with. (Jesse) had friends he had acted with that he had called in favors that are brilliant actors like Mark Ivanir who plays his father and his sister who plays his sister.

CS: Did you have to beg your sister to be in the movie?
Eisenberg: Yes, I did…
Bartha: And a friend of mine helped produce the movie, so it was really a family project and it was a collaborative effort, so that’s what got the movie made is that especially when you have a first-time filmmaker, even though he’s a talented guy, you need help if you’re making a movie in New York in the winter over two weeks that’s ambitious like this movie is. Everybody really had a passion for the story and believed in the movie and that’s all it takes is getting it done by any means necessary.

CS: Jesse, you’ve worked with a lot of first-time filmmakers, it’s really quite impressive. Is there just having the freedom of collaboration or is there anything in particular that draws you to first-time filmmakers?
Eisenberg: Well, no, I just read the script. I didn’t even know Kevin was directing. I just sign on to scripts that I think are good and characters that I think I can play. I don’t have a technical knowledge of film enough to know that a first-time director has the learning curve to make a movie because I don’t understand what it’s like to make a movie…

CS: You’ve made enough movies that you must know something about making them.
Eisenberg: No, but I don’t like to know about the technical stuff because it distracts me from staying in an emotional place. If I have such a knowledge of what they’re doing with the cameras and stuff, it starts making me feel subconscious about what I’m doing, so I don’t like to know about that stuff, so I have no idea how a movie is going to look until it finally comes out. I don’t understand what’s happening with the camera as much as maybe somebody who has worked on several movies does, but the first-time thing is meaningless to me. Also, movies are so collaborative to attribute it to “it’s a first-time filmmaker” or “Oh, he’s made a movie that was great so this one is going to be great,” and it’s just not the case. It’s such a collaborative effort. There’s a hundred people on set, so to attribute it to one person and to assume you’re going to get the same product from them the second time is just erroneous.

CS: I ask you because you have two other movies coming out in the next week. “The Living Wake” was also by a first-time filmmaker, and David and Brian who did “Solitary Man” obviously have more of a reputation as writers. Did those two movies have a similar type thing where you just saw the script, you liked it…
Eisenberg: Yeah, I liked them. I had to audition for the “Solitary Man” part and I thought I didn’t have a good audition but they cast me in it, but that one I only worked for four days on it. The other movie, “The Living Wake,” we got some great rehearsal time and we got to improvise, so I was more involved in that one, and this one moreso.

CS: “The Living Wake” is a pretty crazy movie. Was that all in the script?
Eisenberg: Oh, yeah, yeah…

CS: Justin, have you seen it?
Bartha: I haven’t seen it, I’m dying to see it. All I’ve heard is wonderful things, not as wonderful as “Mean Streets.”
Eisenberg: Somewhere between “Holy Rollers”…
Bartha: …and “Mean Streets.”

Both Holy Rollers and Solitary Man open in New York and L.A. on Friday, May 21. Eisenberg’s other film The Living Wake also opens in L.A. on Friday, and it’s currently playing in New York. You can read our interview with Solitary Man‘s directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien here and with Holy Rollers director Kevin Asch here.

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