LOS ANGELES — When Jesse Eisenberg arrived at his West Hollywood hotel last week, only an hour off a plane and with a bulky duffel bag slung over his shoulder, he seemed irritated.
And he was, because the night before he had accidentally caught the last 30 seconds of The Social Network, in which he stars as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, before a question-and-answer session about the movie in Chicago. He had been trying to avoid it because he doesn't like to watch his performances.
"I've been so furious this whole morning about what I did in that scene," he said almost immediately after sitting down. "It's just uncomfortable to watch me. Not in the same way that it's uncomfortable to listen to your voice on an answering machine. I just felt that I didn't get the scene right."
Given that his portrayal of an aloof, socially awkward Zuckerberg during the founding years of Facebook has sparked some award buzz, Eisenberg's self-critique might sound like typical false Hollywood modesty. Yet Eisenberg, 26, genuinely seems more panicked than excited by any acclaim.
"It feels like — and again, this is just the way my mind works, which is why I go to therapy twice a week — I immediately think that there could be nothing worse than getting that kind of attention," he said, removing his smudged glasses and digging his hands into the pockets of his sweat shirt. "Because how can you maintain that kind of level of interest and attention? And I really have worked hard and done well in other things that have gotten no attention. So it makes you feel like those kind of things are inconsistent."
The Social Network is clearly Eisenberg's most high-profile film to date. After attracting notice five years ago in Noah Baumbach's Oscar-nominated family drama The Squid and the Whale, he has starred in a variety of quirky projects, including the action-adventure-comedy Zombieland, opposite Woody Harrelson, and Holy Rollers, a film about Ecstasy-smuggling Hasidic Jews that grossed a little more than $300,000 at the box office.
When Eisenberg first read Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network, he knew nothing about Facebook. He didn't have a Facebook profile. He didn't know who Zuckerberg was. So after he was cast, he immediately tried to meet the CEO, who comes off in the movie as a terse, power-hungry tech whiz who steals the idea for Facebook from fellow Harvard students.
"I was hoping to meet him. To me, that was the first thing to do, playing somebody who's not only alive but contemporary," Eisenberg said. "And that was an impossibility." (Facebook has said the company did not cooperate with Sony or the filmmakers, and Zuckerberg has said he will not see the film, which he describes as "fiction.")
With only a month to prepare, Eisenberg went to Plan B: He culled images and videos of Zuckerberg. He made an audio file with excerpts of Zuckerberg's interviews and speeches and put them on his iPod, listening constantly to get into the character's mind-set. He knew Zuckerberg was an expert fencer with "unnaturally straight" posture, so he took lessons to work on isolating the upper half of his body.
In a July interview on ABC, Diane Sawyer asked Zuckerberg whether he would have preferred that another actor play him in The Social Network.
"I don't know. I've never met him," Zuckerberg said. "He seems like a nice guy."
Eisenberg's take on Zuckerberg is a bit more complex.
"What I discovered is that he's somebody who is ultimately kind of a lonely person, who has difficulty connecting because I think other people want to connect in a way he's not comfortable with," said the actor. "His reputation is inconsistent with his behavior. It seems to me he's personable. And incredibly bright. Maybe uncomfortable, but who isn't uncomfortable in interviews?"
Many viewers might walk away from The Social Network with a negative impression of Zuckerberg, but Eisenberg thinks the movie "allows Mark to make his case." Despite bringing some of his subject's less- flattering traits to life on screen, Eisenberg says he nevertheless "developed a great affection" for the Facebook founder.
"I heard someone sent a tweet or something that said: 'This movie made me want to egg Mark Zuckerberg's house and then help him clean it,'" he said. "Of course, I only want to clean it because I'm living in the house."