Jesse Eisenberg to 'Post': New film is a story of salvation, not revenge

American-Jewish star talks about playing Marcel Marceau in Jerusalem film fest’s ‘Resistance’

A SCENE FROM ‘Resistance’ with Jesse Eisenberg (center). (photo credit: FORUM FILM)
A SCENE FROM ‘Resistance’ with Jesse Eisenberg (center).
(photo credit: FORUM FILM)
“It gradually became a dream role, one that I could not have foreseen,” said Jesse Eisenberg, the star of Resistance, a movie about famed mime Marcel Marceau during World War II, which is showing at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, run by the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
The festival runs through November 22 and Resistance is available online through November 17. Viewers can also access a conversation with Eisenberg and the film’s director, Jonathan Jakubowicz.
When he was offered the opportunity to play Marceau, “I didn’t even know he was Jewish,” said Eisenberg, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post from the set of a movie he is directing in New Mexico, which will be his directorial debut.
Marceau was born Marcel Mangel, the son of Ukrainian and Polish immigrants to France, whose father was a kosher butcher. During the Nazi era, Marceau took part in the resistance movement and the movie focuses on how this experience was a turning point for him in his life, inspiring him to help Jewish orphans flee to Switzerland.
Eisenberg, who earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and has appeared in nearly 50 films, including the Zombieland movies and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, said that as he learned about Marceau’s background, “It became clear that we are literally cut from the same cloth.”
Eisenberg grew up in New Jersey in a Jewish family that, like Marceau’s, traces its roots to Poland and Ukraine. In another coincidence, his mother worked as a birthday-party clown.
“My mother was a huge fan of Marceau’s, she had seen him perform multiple times.... But like a lot of people my age, he was not really on my radar.”
The more he looked, the more Eisenberg found parallels between his life and Marceau’s. “Before the war, he was a self-involved performer, struggling to put on a one-man show,” he said and compared that to his own experience of trying to put on a play in New York.
“I’ve felt those frustrations,” he said.
Resistance shows how Marceau changes perspective partly as a result of his relationship with Emma (Clémence Poésy), a young Jewish woman who works with Jewish orphans in the early days of World War II. Eisenberg credits his wife, Anna Strout, an activist whose mother ran a shelter for victims of domestic violence, with helping him change his own perspective and priorities: “I had to reevaluate my values and incorporate my wife’s worldview into them.”
The two live with their son in Strout’s native Indiana, an unusual home for a Hollywood star.
Eisenberg had not thought seriously about doing a movie set during the Holocaust before. “Jonathan [Jakubowicz] and I had the same reluctance about doing a World War II movie,” since neither wanted to do another movie focusing on victimization. “But we both reacted positively to a story of a Jewish hero who is saving his own people... not through his physical might, but through his creativity and through peace.... It’s a story of salvation, not revenge.”
The best revenge, Marceau learns in the course of the film, is “to save children’s lives, it’s better than picking off one Nazi at a time.”
One challenge of the role for the actor was not only learning to perform as a mime, but also as the greatest and most famous mime the world has ever known.
“I spent six or seven months learning mime. I was working alone with my choreographer and practicing by myself in a room.... I felt I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be.”
But when he performed in the film for the children playing the orphans, “It was such a transformation.” The children erupt with joy as Eisenberg as Marceau mimes to cheer them up and distract them from the harsh reality.
“It was all real. We didn’t tell them how to react, we just turned the camera on them,” he said. It made him think how Marceau was able to put aside his dream of being a one-man performer in an artistic show. “Reluctantly performing for these kids transformed his image of what he could be as a performer.... It made me love mime again and in a small way it mirrored what happened in the real story.”
Eisenberg enjoyed portraying a real person. “When you’re playing somebody real there are only advantages. I wasn’t doing an impersonation, but I was getting at the essence, at the deeper motivation of Marceau.”
He prepared by watching videos of the mime and reading about him. “Marceau talked about himself in the third person with great confidence.” At first, the character in the film is filled with “youthful arrogance” but as the tragic events of the war unfold, “His ego is chipped away by these children,” and the confidence is directed into helping them survive.
Eisenberg noted that even at the end of his career, Marceau, who died in 2007, was performing between 250-300 nights a year, “until he couldn’t move anymore.... The confidence that kept him going onstage night after night as an older man was the same confidence that gave him the ambition and drive to get these children across the border.”
It also seems that Eisenberg himself has the same kind of confidence, which allows him to put his Jewish identity front and center and to live a Jewish life in Indiana, a state where the Jewish community is small, certainly compared to the one he grew up in.
He spoke about visiting the shtetl where his grandfather came from and also taking a trip to the site of the Dachau concentration camp with his family when his son was only two.
“My son started running in the barracks and laughing,” he said. At first, his impulse was to try and stop his son out of respect for the tragic history of the place, but then he felt, “The Nazis’ worst nightmare would be that a Jewish child would be laughing there.”
He said he was concerned about being a Jew recently in a way he hadn’t been before, since not long ago, the KKK placed flyers on the cars of some Jews – although not on Eisenberg’s – in the small town where he lives.
“Our country feels increasingly antisemitic. That makes you embrace [your identity] that much tighter... and feeling increasingly protective of our persecuted minorities,” including African-Americans.
He grew up hearing about his family and his in-laws’ involvement in the civil rights movement, which, he said, was one of “my favorite parts of Jewish history.”
His upcoming movie focuses on the conflict between an idealistic mother, played by Julianne Moore, and her son who is an “unapologetic capitalist” and is played by Finn Wolfhard.
It sounded as if, like Resistance, it’s also a story that Eisenberg relates to very personally.
“It’s about the clash of these two world views,” he said, before excusing himself to go back to the set and “make decisions about green jackets” and other minutiae that are the director’s lot.