With Silicon Valley’s renowned film festival Cinequest just around the corner (March 3-15, 2020), it’s time for the announcements of premieres and speakers — in particular, the recipient of this year’s Maverick Spirit Award. Past winners have included Sir Ben Kingsley, Neil Gaiman, Rosario Dawson, and Harrison Ford. The award looks to honor artists who may have great commercial success, but still pursue individual passion projects and create truly unique work.
This year’s recipient has portrayed introverted troubled youths, megalomaniac geniuses, and Lex Luthor. Writer/actor/producer Jesse Eisenberg now adds war hero/renowned mime to his resumé. And it’s a true story. On closing night of Cinequest, March 15, the festival will premiere Resistance, based on the exploits of Marcel Marceau during World War II, when he fought for the French Resistance. Eisenberg will speak and be presented with the Maverick Spirit Award beforehand.
A product of Queens, New York, Jesse Eisenberg got into acting at a young age, making a few commercials and playing small TV and film roles when he was still in his early teens. With his portrayal of Nick in the 2002 Dylan Kidd indie Roger Dodger (awarded the initial Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Feature Film), filmmakers and critics began to take notice. He began to work steadily in a string of films, notably Noah Baumbach’s highly praised The Squid and the Whale. In 2009, he starred with Kristin Stewart in the quirky and much under-rated Adventureland, a coming of age comedy-drama that gave the young actor a chance to showcase the wide range of his skills. Though the film enjoyed only modest financial success, it did provide Eisenberg with even more opportunity. His next film, Zombieland, which also came out in 2009, not only blew the doors off the box office, it also garnered rave reviews for its hilarious depiction of post-apocalypse America and the sweet strength of the film’s ensemble cast (Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, and Bill Murray).
Eisenberg’s deadpan comedic chops were never in question, but his dramatic turns had always been in supporting roles. That is until David Fincher’s The Social Network, where he was cast as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Armed with a crackling screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, Eisenberg knocked the role out of the park and was duly recognized with a host of accolades, including Golden Globes and Academy Awards Best Actor nominations.
His choice of parts and projects quickly expanded. Never one to shy away from challenges, in 2013 Eisenberg took on the dual role of Simon James/James Simon in an ambitious adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double. Though the film, in very limited release, went largely unseen, Eisenberg’s performance was praised by critics as a deft balancing act of portraying both the milquetoast Simon James and his polar-opposite doppelgänger James Simon, who effortlessly usurps the hapless main character.
In 2015, Eisenberg starred in The End of the Tour, as David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer who interviewed the novelist David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel) for five days in 1996, just after publication of Wallace’s tour de force, Infinite Jest. Eisenberg had long been an admirer of the brilliant, but troubled author and immersed himself in the role. He spent considerable time with Lipsky, making sure he would present an honest portrait of the journalist and his relationship with Wallace. The film is beautifully nuanced and literary in tone, with the two writers engaged in a rhythmic, ritualistic dance of discovery, power, mischief, and ultimately connection. The movie-going public didn’t quite know what to make of it and the box office was poor. But critics were completely captivated by the film and almost unanimous in their praise. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers lauded it as “riveting, mesmerizing.” “As the details accumulate, so does the power of the film, an illuminating meditation on art and life. . .That’s what makes the movie, elevated by two extraordinary actors, an exhilarating gift.”
Eisenberg’s latest venture, Resistance (which Cinequest is proud to present as our Closing Night feature) takes another ambitious turn for the actor. He brings to life a young Marcel Marceau, the fabled mime, utilizing his many talents as a member of the French Resistance during WWII. Before Marcel Marceau came into being, Marcel Mangel was a young, struggling Jewish actor with no desire to get involved in the war. But fate drew him into a group of heroes in the shadows who fought the Nazis and helped thousands of orphaned children cope with their horrific circumstances. It is another stellar Eisenberg achievement.
But acting is only one of Eisenberg’s many interests/passions. He has written pieces for The New Yorker, published a collection of short stories (Bream Gives Me Hiccups and Other Stories) and has had three of his plays produced. It’s quite a bio, especially for such a young artist. What he does next is anyone’s guess; he’s far from predictable. But whatever he takes on, it will definitely be interesting and, of course, wildly entertaining.