Academy Award-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg made his film directorial debut with the 2023 film When You Finish Saving the World, which he also wrote the screenplay for. While promoting the film, Eisenberg sat with Esquire to speak about the film’s characters, a mother and son played by Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard, who fail to understand one another through their own respective selfishness.
Eisenberg notes that when writing the characters in When You Finish Saving the World, he made sure that they were presented as multi-dimensional individuals and not one-note caricatures. He explains, “As an actor, I’m often tasked with playing parts that are pawns in the story. Maybe my character is supposed to be the writer’s commentary on a certain thing. And I resent trying to play that kind of thing, because it’s not how actors work. You don’t think of yourself as a representation of something—you think of yourself as a person. So I think when I’m writing characters, I provide them with the same sensibility, which is that no one is a cliché or a half-formed idea that I’m using to show how clever I am about liberal hypocrisy.”
“As an actor, I’m often tasked with playing parts that are pawns in the story. Maybe my character is supposed to be the writer’s commentary on a certain thing. And I resent trying to play that kind of thing, because it’s not how actors work. You don’t think of yourself as a representation of something—you think of yourself as a person”
Eisenberg has learned valuable lessons about filmmaking while acting from the directors he’s worked with. He shares a specific lesson that he learned while working with James Ponsoldt in the 2015 film The End of the Tour. He recalls, “I remember I had a scene where I was supposed to get a taxi cab—this is going to sound like such a pretentious actor story—but I asked the director, ‘What am I even doing in this scene? Why are we filming this? Why am I getting a taxi cab?’ And the director should’ve just said, ‘Shut up. This is the scene.’ But he said, ‘If you don’t get that cab, you’re not going to make it to the interview. If you don’t make it to the interview, you’re going to be proven as a failure as a writer and a journalist.’ So I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ And I got that cab with everything I had. Stories like that stick out for me, because instead of the director telling me to shut up and get the cab—because that’s what we had planned—he actually brought himself down to my level and gave me exactly what I needed to do. He had such a respect and sensitivity for what I was dealing with.”
One aspect of When You Finish Saving the World that appeals to Eisenberg is the inherent narcissism of the characters, which is typical of many of Eisenberg’s roles. He says, “When you see a very smart character who is smart enough to perhaps behave in a better way, you think, What is driving that person? They’re clearly intellectually capable of behaving in a way that is a little more generous. When I think about people like that, it feels inspiring. You know, I think, What is it that they’re hiding? What are they burying?“
Like many other actors, Eisenberg says he does not watch the movies that he is in — so he says he gets more out of the experience of working on a film than watching the finished product. He explains, “I don’t watch the movies I’m in, so I really just focus on the experiences I’m going to have and what character I’m going to play and live with and feel like. So I guess I’m less concerned with the final product and more concerned with just doing what’s exciting at the moment.”