Jesse Eisenberg Interview: Taking on David Foster Wallace for The End of the Tour

Jesse Eisenberg’s writer David Lipsky interviews Jason Segel’s David Foster Wallace

When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, it helped to solidify the mystery behind the enigmatic and reclusive author, but it reminded Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky he had hours of interview tapes with Wallace from visiting him in the Midwest around the time of Wallace’s acclaimed 1996 novel “Infinite Jest.”

Lipsky took those interviews and wrote “Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace,” and that book has become the basis for James (The Spectacular Now) Ponsoldt’s fourth film The End of the Tour, starring Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky. It was one of the hot tickets at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and also one of the most buzzed about films after its premiere due to the performances by Eisenberg and Segel, the latter who is thought to be an awards contender for his portrayal of Wallace. sat down with Jesse Eisenberg a few weeks back, talking to him after what was clearly the end of a long and exhausting day of press, done while he was still in the middle of performing his play “The Spoils.” You may be wondering whether we touched upon Eisenberg’s upcoming role as Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder’s upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and we did, but more in relation to the role of the journalist in trying to get information from him about the movie. You probably have so much experience with journalists that you had a lot of experience to draw from to play Lipsky.

Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah, yeah.

CS: Can you talk about that? When I spoke to James (Ponsoldt) he didn’t think you were the most obvious person to play David Lipsky.

Eisenberg: I’ve had experiences where I felt–I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that way from your side–but I’ve felt on my side there’s been some antagonism sometimes from journalists, not so much movie stuff, because there’s not so much controversy but with other things I’ve done – playwrighting and stuff, I’ve felt some pushback. I had a particularly uncomfortable experience and then I read the script and I thought, “Oh how interesting to be able to play that.” To play the journalist who has a seemingly innocuous agenda but is actually harboring some sort of subversive intent to not only get a good story but to make the other person less than comfortable and confident about their achievements.

CS: There’s a fine line being a journalist, because half of you wants to be nice and have a fun conversation, but the other half is like “Gotta get a quote!” I don’t think I’m like that, because I’m more interested in acting and filmmaking and movies, but as I watched the movie, I thought you really nailed a lot of those aspects of being a journalist and not being sure how far to go.

Eisenberg: Yeah, I’ve seen that and also, that’s what creates the most interesting drama in the movie is if this guy is not just a fan, is not just an admirer, but actually feels jealous or feels competitive or feels some kind of existential questioning of why is this guy in this position and I’m in my position?

CS: I think I read that nothing came of the 1996 interview until David Foster Wallace died?

Eisenberg: That’s right. 

CS: That seems crazy to me that he sat on those interviews for so long.

Eisenberg: I think what it was that Rolling Stone, it was a risk for them to do anyway, to have this in-depth interview for an author, and I think, at least in so far the movie presents, I had to beg my boss to do this, so if that was the case then Rolling Stone was already less than 100% in on the story.

CS: I can relate to that as well…

Eisenberg: You’re pushing for stories.

CS: If I want to cover an indie movie, I have to find an angle that might make it worthwhile to cover it.

Eisenberg: Is that a big fight for you? 

CS: Sometimes I need to convince my editor that a director who makes a $5 million movie now might go on to direct… like “Jurassic World” is a perfect example. Let’s talk about Jason. I don’t know when he came on board, but did you have time to spend together rehearsing or was it better to not see each other until you were shooting?

Eisenberg: He was filming the show that he was on, “How I Met Your Mother,” up until the day before filming this movie in California. We met once briefly but then we started acting on the first day together. There was no rehearsal, but it was fine. I mean, we were not playing long-time friends. Even if we were, we could probably have figured it out. But we were playing people who spent a lot of time figuring each other out and strategizing and being curious about the other person, so it seemed to be effective.

Eisenberg: Yeah, exactly. It seemed totally appropriate for the dynamic.

CS: What about working with James? I think of him almost like some think of David Foster Wallace where I feel he’s such a talented director yet he’s such a down-to-earth guy.

Eisenberg: Oh, yeah. But I thought so too until I worked with him and realized he’s a very hard-working guy. He has more enthusiasm than anyone on set. In person, I guess he seems like the kind of guy who I would not think to put 15 hours into something in negative ten-degree weather, because he just seems kind of casual, but when it comes to actually making the movie–he’s still very sweet and funny, a genial guy–but I think he becomes really focused.

CS: Since David Lipsky is still alive, did you want to meet and talk to him?

Eisenberg: Yeah, that was the first thing I did, and he taught me how to interview people and I asked him what was the emotional experience like for him on this trip. Was it just a casual interview or was he questioning everything about himself? He said, “Yes, I was questioning everything.” He had written a book. It hadn’t been received in the way that Wallace’s book was received. “So I was questioning who I was in relation to this industry, in relation to the arts and how I felt about myself and thinking if I had what Wallace had I’d be fine but actually Wallace was seemingly unsatisfied.”

CS: It certainly must have been interesting in hindsight. David Foster Wallace got even bigger after that, but this took place fairly early in his career and not that many people got to meet him.

Eisenberg: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

CS: The setting is interesting, the Midwest of 1996. You were 13 at the time so I don’t know if you remember the days when 13-year olds didn’t have iPhones. It was such a different time.

Eisenberg: It seems recent because I was alive and conscious during that time, but actually, it was a different time. At least when we were filming the movie, it felt like we were part of this… When we were doing the movie and when you’re performing in something, you want to use every possible, visceral tool to help you, so the fact that we were working with these unfamiliar props in unfamiliar cars wearing unfamiliar clothing, it’s really helpful because it cements you and grounds you in another experience.

CS: It’s weird to think of a movie set in 1996 as being a period piece, but it was almost 20 years ago.

Eisenberg: It’s very strange, I know. 

CS: You’ve been in the play on Broadway for a while and I just saw the trailer for “American Ultra” so it’s fun to see you reuniting with Kristen after “Adventureland.”

Eisenberg: It’s quite a different tone.

CS: Was it just a coincidence that you ended up doing another movie together?

Eisenberg: Yeah, pretty coincidental, but we like each other. We work a similar way and have a similar sense of humor. She’s like Jason in that way, too. We like different things that are maybe a little heightened but try to kind of play it maybe realistically, which we did in this movie. And “American Ultra” too. It’s not comparable to this movie, but it’s very heightened but our acting was real. 

CS: You signed on to play Luthor, which is a big iconic role in a big movie, and it’s one that can go on for years, although Gene Hackman only played the role twice and Kevin Spacey only did it once. When you go into something like that, do you look at it as a long-term thing?

Eisenberg: I would hope it would be only so far as the role was so interesting. It was written by this phenomenal writer, Chris Terrio, and he’s just great. I’d love to do anything that he writes. He’s just so talented and created a really interesting character. The director (Zach Snyder) is great with actors, so it was an ideal acting experience irrespective of its exposure or scope.

(At this point, we started talking about Comic-Con, which has already passed, and Jesse expressed his concern about people filming the footage that’s shown with their cell phones, although it was put online almost immediately after the panel. But we did get out of that discussion into more stuff re: “Batman v Superman”)

CS: What’s interesting about “Batman v Superman,” is that for other movies, you see all these photos and footage from the sets, but other than the pictures that have been released, this one’s remained fairly contained and controlled.

Eisenberg: Oh, good. Got lucky then that nothing was leaked.

CS: Is that strange to be in a movie that has so much scrutiny?

Eisenberg: No, I prefer being in a movie where there’s less of an eagerness on the part of the movie to try to get people to see it. Usually, you’re stumping for it where this kind of movie they’re asking you not to say anything.

CS: Has doing “End of the Tour” changed your view on journalism at all? Have you given any new insights into it or have you been doing press for so long that you already knew it?

Eisenberg: I have a sympathy for… like I can’t talk about certain movies. I always feel bad saying I can’t talk about it, because I know if I was doing your job, it would be quite helpful to me to have some information, so I can understand that. So I have some sympathy for that, I guess, but I also would get sued, so I have sympathy for myself as well. No, I’ve always had a sympathy for journalists because I’m on the other side of it, so I can understand if I’m not forthcoming it hurts their job. I can understand. That said, some journalists I feel are antagonistic to me. I’m an uncontroversial person. I have nothing of substance to debate except if I’m in something and then you can debate that thing, but that’s not me. I feel like that’s the only thing that this movie has made me more acutely aware of maybe some kind of subversive agenda that a journalist might have, although I can’t imagine they would have it with me. I just have nothing to offer.

CS: You’ve done a lot of dramas and comedies, so do you have a preference at this point or do you just try to vary it?

Eisenberg: No, anytime there’s a good character. Like “American Ultra” is a movie I never thought I would be in because it’s more violent than the stuff I’m usually comfortable with, but the character is so great. I thought that this character is as good as a character that would be in a kitchen sink drama, an independent drama. It’s a really well put-together role. No, good characters tend to transcend genre in a way that very few other jobs can do. The same guy who can do the special FX on “American Ultra” could probably never set foot on “The End of the Tour” just because he would have nothing to do–maybe little things but it would be boring–but my job can transcend that. If you’re creating a Metropolis world, it probably would be boring to paint out some billboard in “The End of the Tour.” My job is pretty much the same.

CS: Is it true you’re doing another movie with Woody Allen?

Eisenberg: Yeah that’s in August.

CS: How much do you know about those movie before you do them? You’ve worked with him before so there’s maybe less pressure.

Eisenberg: Yeah, they gave me the script for one day so I got to read it. This is like three months ago or so, so I read it for the day and then you show up. A little bit less pressure, exactly. I know what I’m in for, yeah.

CS: How long are you going to be on Broadway for?

Eisenberg: Just another week and a half. It’s ending now, it’s pretty soon.

CS: Are you generally happy with how it’s been going?

Eisenberg: Yeah, this one’s been the best of the ones I’ve done.

CS: I think James mentioned you’re working on a book.

Eisenberg: I have a book that’s coming out in September, yeah. It’s a collection of short stories, it’s called “Breathing Gives Me Hiccups.” It’s a collection of pieces, mostly original and some from The New Yorker and McSweeney’s – I write for them as well.

The End of the Tour opens in select cities on Friday, July 31. Look for our interview with Jason Segel soon and you can read our Sundance interview with director James Ponsoldt here.

(Photo Credit: Joseph Marzullo/


Marvel and DC