I'd felt some trepidation in the lead-up to my interview with Jesse Eisenberg.
Throughout his promotional duties for last year's magic thriller Now You See Me, he was sporadically spiky; most notable was the video in which he mocked a young female interviewer for writing questions on her hands, then told her not to cry until the interview was over so that he wouldn't look responsible for her tears. There was also the voxpop in which, having been asked about his favourite things to do in Toronto, he replied sardonically: "Oh, you can read about it on my blog, Jesse's Guide To Toronto, where I list the top 4,500 things that I really like about the city."
In both of those videos, though, he's funny, probably just trying to cut through the tedium, sparring with people not quite capable of keeping up. It's a relief but also something of a disappointment that he doesn't bite today. Sitting opposite me across a table he remains perfectly still throughout, and though he isn't exactly Mr Giggles he's mild-mannered and thoughtful, exceedingly polite.
Eisenberg originally plied his trade as the wired underdog, put-upon but combative, in such films as Rodger Dodger and Adventureland. The Social Network changed all that, and shades of his Mark Zuckerberg, who exuded a smugness of punchable proportions, resurfaced in Now You See Me. You can see why the Batman Vs Superman crew have hired him to play obnoxious megalomaniac Lex Luthor. Today, I get the affable Jesse. But the idea that there is more than one Jesse Eisenberg fits nicely with the film we're here to talk about.
In Richard Ayoade's The Double, which was written specifically for him by Ayoade and Avi Korine (Harmony's brother), he plays Simon James, who has a claustrophobic desk job in a stifling Kafka-esque office and is unencumbered by confidence, regarded with derision if he is regarded at all. When James Simon, his cocky, brattish mirror image (also played by Eisenberg) turns up, Simon is flummoxed as to why someone who looks and sounds exactly like him is so immediately popular. Loosely adapted from Dostoyevsky's novella, Ayoade's follow-up to Submarine is an absurdist, timeless, placeless piece, European-influenced but with a very askew, British sense of humour, plus cameos from Chris Morris, Tim Key and Paddy Considine. Eisenberg plays it absolutely straight, making this a very sad comedy indeed.
"The book and the film deal with the doppelgänger in such a unique way," he says, his speech pattern as machine-gun rapid as it is on screen. "It's funny, but it's ultimately very scary and sad. It's a commentary on feelings of loneliness and alienation and not existing because other people don't acknowledge you and therefore you don't exist." His two characters represent the yin and yang of the psyche: Simon nervy and jittery, James free and cocksure. "This manifestation of the thing you suppress will emerge in a scary way," says Eisenberg, explaining his take on it. "James is the personification of everything Simon lacks. But to excess. So instead of just being comfortable talking to other people, James takes over a room. He does everything to be extreme, and does it at the expense of Simon."
The duality explored in The Double is surely meaty fodder for actors, who spend their working lives inhabiting other people, and who choose to present particular versions of themselves when they're on the promo circuit. Having a public profile, says Eisenberg, is "similar to this movie, in the sense that any time you're discussed without your consent or involvement it's uncomfortable. And in this movie Simon has a physical manifestation that looks and dresses like him, and it's mortifying because it makes him feel alienated from himself. That's a similar experience to being in the public eye and having people perceive you in a way that you didn't intend, or discuss you in a way that's not in accordance with how you think about yourself."
Eisenberg was subject to such scrutiny last year after after those Now You See Me interviews, although he says he doesn't read his press: "There's no good that can come out of it. The really nice things feel like lies and the really bad things feel like truths. Everybody, I think, feels that way."
Does the curiosity to discover what the public are saying about you dissipate with time? "No, no, it doesn't go away. It's an odd experience; you want to be a fly on the wall after you leave a room, and if you're doing something that's public you have total access to that experience. The first movie I was in, I was 19 years old. When it came out and I Googled myself, or Alta Vista-ed myself, and someone said the meanest thing I'd ever heard anyone say about another human being. Just from the trailer of the movie. Which was a small arthousey movie, it was not even a kind of thing that would create a big response that would warrant a mean comment. But after that I never searched for myself again. Because people can be cruel. My dad teaches sociology, so he talks about group behaviour and groupthink and the way people coalesce around certain thought patterns. It makes sense that people would write mean things. That's more understandable than gathering together to say nice things about other people."
From what we do know about Eisenberg, he seems a lot more like The Double's meek Simon than dick-swinging James. Having grown up in New Jersey, he's previously said that he struggled to relate to other kids and felt crushed under the weight of high school's social structure. Did Simon strike a chord? "Yeah, I can relate to the feelings of loneliness and alienation," he says. "Just living in New York City, you have that feeling all the time, that you can disappear and the city would continue moving, that no one would come looking for you because no one knows you're there in the first place. This happens in New York City; somebody will die in an apartment and until the body starts smelling terrible, no one would know. I can understand that feeling – of feeling alienated from the society you're living in. It's really sad."
Eisenberg says he was always very quiet. He began acting at 12 years old and found the process cathartic. It brought him out of himself; he found the social environment on set more comforting than the one in school, and still does. "I just did a play, and you know every night at eight o'clock you'll get to experience some kind of emotional catharsis because you're forcing yourself to. That's probably healthy in some way. If a group of people got together every night at eight o'clock and shouted and cried at each other, maybe it would be good for them! But we suppress so much just because it's impolite."
His roles affect his own psyche, he says, influencing how he feels about his work and himself. "In Now You See Me I played a confident magician, and I've never felt better about my own acting, because my character feels great about his magic and his performance." Working on The Double blurred the lines further. "At times, when I was playing James, the doppelgänger, I thought the scenes went really well, just because he thinks he's better and everybody's reacting to him in a more friendly way. And conversely I thought the scenes where I was playing Simon went terribly because Simon thinks all of his experiences are going terribly. So naturally it affects your unconscious."
Eisenberg doesn't watch his own films. Is this because, like many actors, he'll only pick holes in what he's done? Not quite. "The bigger concern," he insists, "is that it seems OK when you thought you didn't do well, because then you just feel that you have no control over it." It seems a shame that he's unable to glean job satisfaction from the final product. "I know, I know, I know," he says. "I'm curious to see this movie as an audience member, and maybe at some point I will. I don't know, I assume I'll work past this feeling."
In a way, though, I kind of hope he doesn't. Because then he just wouldn't be him.
The Double is in UK cinemas from 4 Apr
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Crunchies2009