In his new film Holy Rollers, the endearingly sheepish Jesse Eisenberg-who has also starred in such film favorites as the Squid and the Whale, Adventureland and Zombieland-portrays Sam Gold, a 20-year-old Hasidic Jew living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the late 1990s. Tired of a life of tradition and modesty and stuck somewhere between the path and legacy into which he was born and the natural, sometimes dangerous curiosity of a young man coming of age in a fervently religious community, Sam becomes entangled in an underground drug operation that employs young Hasidim to act as drug mules, shuttling high volumes of ecstasy pills-which many of the traffickers believe to be “medicine”-into the United States from Europe. The film examines the social and societal structure of the Hasidic community in Williamsburg-about which outsiders know very little-and portrays a series of true-to-life events that ultimately exposed its darker side. The star of the film and its centerpiece, Eisenberg is careful and thoughtful, and brings tremendous sincerity and emotional honesty to his character. Jewcy was lucky enough to catch up with Eisenberg for a few minutes last week to chat him up about faith, religion and the challenges of understanding a profoundly complex and insular community.
Jewcy: How did you come into this role? What about this role and this film appeals to you?
Jesse Eisenberg: It was two-fold. One, I thought it was interesting in the way that it would be challenging because I didn’t know that much about the Hasidic community at the time. The other part of it was that I thought that I could do it. I found an emotional way in, so what was compelling was learning about this community and playing this character that I thought had a very real conflict but in a very neat circumstance, which is being part of this community that I was always intrigued by.
You say that you felt like you’d be able to play this character. What about this character is so relatable to you?
JE: His conflict in the movie is what one might call a universal conflict. He feels like he doesn’t want to go down the path that has been set for him to either be a rabbi, to marry this girl who wants eight children or to work in his father’s textile store. He doesn’t want to do any of those things, and that’s a very understandable conflict. I feel this all the time, even though my career path hasn’t been set for me, I feel indecisive or uncomfortable. So, I thought that was really relatable. At the same time his emotional state is much more heightened than mine because he gets involved in a much darker underworld. It’s a heightened version of this universal experience.
Is this a Jewish film? How instrumental to the plot and the character is Judaism?
JE: I don’t think of it that way. I think of the movie as a universal story that happens to be about Hasidic Jews but could be about any isolated group wherein there are some bad apples. Bad seeds? Bad apple seeds? I forget. Anyway, I could see this story happening to any community. It makes it interesting that it’s Hasidic Jews because your really don’t see that a lot in the movies, also it’s an interesting group to probe. We wanted to do it with respect and treat the characters like real people regardless of perhaps looking strange to outsiders.
What were some preconceived notions of Hasidim that you had before starting the film, and how did those notions change?
JE: I definitely did have those. I assumed that they were sexist. I assumed that they were racist in many ways because they are so isolated. I assumed that they were all fervently religious. I discovered that a lot of that wasn’t the case. Some of them felt conflicted about their faith, and not everybody thought about women in the way that we assume an isolated group might. I realized that they are not this monolithic group, they are actually a very diverse group of individuals that have their own feelings about faith and life and society. There are even some, like Sam, who didn’t feel as religiously fervent as the generation prior to them hoped they would.
How did you prepare for the role? What kind of research did you do?
JE: The day after I read the script I went to Borough Park to see if I could realistically play these people. Can I talk like them? Can I walk like them? Can I even look like them? And I thought that day, yes I can but it would take a lot of research. So I read a lot of great books about Hasidic Jews who have left the community, and also it took about two years to raise the money for the movie so I had about two years where I was involved but not filming. I went to Borough Park and Williamsburg and Crown Heights and tried to speak with anyone who would talk to me; often that came down to the Chabad group, who are very interested in speaking to secular Jews. Occasionally I told them what I was doing but they never really asked. If they asked I told them, but they really didn’t ask. They were open and welcoming, but not because I was filming a movie. I guess they want you to become a little more religious if you are a secular Jew.
How is this role different than the other roles you’ve played?
JE: Well, he looks the most different, and comes from a world that is the most different from probably any world I’ll ever know. It’s such a unique world. To me, I really loved playing how conflicted he felt in every scene. I guess he was naïve in a certain way. A lot of characters I’ve played are knowing and bright people, and Sam is bright but he’s so naïve, partly because he has not been exposed to much. I loved that because in every scene he’s learning something totally new, and it’s so much fun to play that as an actor. Like, what would he notice walking into a nightclub for the first time? It’s interesting for an actor going into that situation. And the more actors can immerse themselves in the costumes and the period of the piece the more accessible the emotional life will be, it’s easier to slip into when you put the jacket and the pais on. You can’t fake it anymore. The costumes do some of the work for you and your investment in the character…when you’re walking down the street on your lunch break people treat you differently, and that informs how you act because that’s how Sam would be treated. People would stare at him longer than they would at other people. That was all so helpful.
Their challenges become your challenges.
JE: Yes, and hopefully you come out with a greater sensitivity. As an actor, you’re trying to embody it, but you have no choice but to come out with a greater sensitivity.
What was the biggest takeaway from this film? How have you grown as an actor from playing this role?
JE: The biggest thing for me as an actor is the emotional experience rather than the circumstances. Sometimes I can’t even quite remember what the plot was, but I can tell you about the emotional experiences of my characters so well. In this movie, everything is coming at Sam at 90 miles and hour. And on the one hand it’s so offensive to him because Hasidic Jews have a conservative lifestyle. But he’s got a strange dichotomy between wanting to appeal to secular people and being offended, by the girls dancing and people wearing clothes without shoulder straps. That experience was, every day, very challenging.
I know that you’re Jewish also. How did your personal relationship with Judaism influence what you brought to your character?
JE: Well, even though we couldn’t live more different lives, [Hasidic Jews and secular Jews] share history, culture, background, tradition, prayers. I learned all these prayers in Hebrew school and they all came back. Like when you learn a language when you’re young and find you can speak it when you go to the country. It was very helpful. I felt, whiel we were filming, closer to the religion. Problem was, the day we finished filming the movie I had to fly to Atlanta to go shoot a movie about people running from zombies so it kind of went out of my brain. I wish I had more time to reflect and unwind.
Did being in this environment and playing this character raise any questions for you about Judaism?
JE: I dropped out of Hebrew school when I was twelve so shooting this movie really made me want to go back to temple and be religious again. But then, I had to go shoot the zombies.