The need for Hollywood to reflect on the vital issues that are informing the evolution of present-day society is as important as ever. That urgency of exploring the media, and overall modern culture’s, obligations to confront such important matters as toxic masculinity; sexism, both in and out of the workplace; and how guns and violence are viewed in America is analyzed in the dark comedy, ‘The Art of Self-Defense.’ The film, which was written and directed by Riley Stearns, crafts a very subtle commentary on those hot-button issues through the use of brilliant dark humor.
The movie was released On Demand, digital, Blu-ray and DVD earlier this month by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, after it was distributed in theaters in July, courtesy of Bleecker Street. The Blu-ray and DVD discs includes the special features, ‘An Important Message from Sensei,’ and cast and crew interviews
‘The Art of Self-Defense’ follows timid bookkeeper Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) after he’s attacked on the street one night by a roving motorcycle gang. After being released from the hospital, he joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei’s mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality and hyper-masculinity, which presents a journey that places him squarely in the sights of his enigmatic new mentor.
Eisenberg generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview in New York City to talk about starring in both ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ and ‘Zombieland: Double Tap.’ The later horror comedy, which was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who also helmed the hit original 2009 film, ‘Zombieland,’ is now playing in theaters, courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
The conversation with the Academy Award-nominated actor began with him explaining why he was drawn to play Casey in ‘The Art of Self-Defense.’ He disclosed that he “read the script about two years ago, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. The dialogue is so funny, as are the individual scenes, and the comic situations are fresh. But underneath all of that funny stuff, there was also some commentary on the ideas about masculinity, violence and sexism, which I thought were really valuable.” He also felt that commentary was “presented in such a sly, subtle way that it wouldn’t undermine what was really funny about the movie.”
Casey isn’t the typical nervous male protagonist throughout ‘The Art of Self-Defense.’ Like Eisenberg mentioned, the story becomes very surreal, and features wry commentary on the absurdities of masculinity. The performer then delved into what the appeal of subverting that trope was, as well as showing that Casey could become an aggressive person, throughout shooting the film.
“The movie takes place in this stylized world, where everything is heightened. So my character’s shyness isn’t what we think of as being shy; it’s almost a physical inability to speak to another person,” the actor divulged. “It’s this heightened manifestation of shyness, where the character can’t even speak to a colleague, because he’s so timid.
“When the character becomes more violent and masculine, it’s also a heightened version of that. The character’s not just standing up for himself to his boss; he also punches him in the throat,” Eisenberg shared. “So he experiences both experiences to the extremes; he starts off almost like a baby, and then becomes an aggressive guy.”
The performer then expressed his appreciation over being able to work with Stearns as the writer-director of ‘The Art of Self-Defense.’ “Riley’s an unusually earnest person. When you have a conversation with him, he doesn’t seem to have an ulterior motive. He’s also very sweet and friendly…So I was able to understand where these characters were coming from,” he revealed.
“My character is a sweet, innocent, child-like man who’s afraid of everything. He’s shocked that he’s attacked on the street, and (doesn’t understand) why anyone would do this to him,” Eisenberg admitted. “He’s such a good person himself, he can’t imagine that anyone would be anything other than a nice, good person.”
Following up on the dialogue that Stearns created for the dark comedy, the Golden Globe Award-nominated actor confessed that the words “were so funny to read silently to myself that I almost didn’t want to read it out loud…I felt that once I started reading the dialogue, it would lose its value, because it was so perfectly written. So I wanted to read, and speak, it as earnestly as possible, so that it wouldn’t lose anything.” Eisenberg added that Casey says “exactly what he thinks; he’s blunt, but not aggressive.”
When he started practicing the dialogue with Stearns, the performer “kept asking him, ‘Are you sure I’m saying this in the right way? The character’s manner of speech is so strange,'” the performer noted. “He talks like a baby, yet he’s a 36-year-old adult…So I kept asking Riley to guide me, since it’s such stylized dialogue. Once the other actors started working on the movie, I realized that what I was doing was right, because we were all part of the same stylized world.”
Further speaking about the rest of the cast, Eisenberg then revealed what it was like working with them, particularly Nivola and Poots. “I took about three weeks of karate with Imogen; sometimes we were in the same class, and sometimes we were in different classes. She became really good at it; since her character’s a brown belt, the expectations for her were a little bit higher than mine, because my character’s a yellow belt.
“Alessandro then came in about a day before he started shooting, which was a week into our filming schedule. Even though he’s the co-lead character in the movie, he didn’t have any time to rehearse. He was immediately very good,” Eisenberg also disclosed.
While ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ is a black comedy, it also contends with the serious subject of the lengths people take in order to protect themselves during, and after, a serious, life-changing incident. It takes familiar story lines of self-actualization through athletics and satirizes it, without any kind of condescension or being sarcastic. The performer then explains what the process of balancing the humor with the somber effects that the attack has on Casey was like.
“Well, unlike a movie like ‘Zombieland (: Double Tap),’ where you have to tone down some of the comedy in some of the sincere scenes, (‘The Art of Self-Defense’) didn’t require that, because the characters are never really being funny. The characters in (‘The Art of Self-Defense’) aren’t funny people, whereas the characters in ‘Zombieland’ are funny, and actively make jokes,” Eisenberg pointed out.
“While what the characters are saying in ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ is funny to an audience, they’re not meant to be funny; if anything, they’re trying to be incredibly sincere,” the actor explained. “So there never had to be a distinction between what was funny and dramatic; there are certain times when the audience are laughing at the characters, while at other times, they’re not.”
Eisenberg also expressed his relief that Casey’s only a yellow belt throughout the dark comedy, as he then began discussing what the process was like of crafting the physicality for his protagonist. “On every project, you always have to learn some new skill that the character knows how to do and you don’t, whether it’s stunts for this film, or magic for the movies I did about magicians,” he said, referencing his 2013 mystery thriller, ‘Now You See Me,’ and its 2016 action adventure sequel, ‘Now You See Me 2.’
“But in this movie, my character’s kind of a novice at karate, so I didn’t have to become great. But I had to look good enough to look as though I was there for six weeks. So I did the three weeks of intensive training. I probably became good enough in real life to actually become a yellow belt, in terms of the things I had to memorize, and the physicality I had to achieve.”
The performer added that people of all cultures, and not just Americans, seem to appreciate the dark comedy, because “it’s so unusual, and therefore is personal. Also, you’ll find whatever’s on your mind in the movie, because it presents a lot of themes in subtle ways,” he shared.
“When I read the script, I thought it was the funniest one I’ve ever read. But when we were making the movie, the Me Too Movement was starting, so I began thinking about masculinity, abuse and violence,” Eisenberg admitted. “So people can really bring their own perspective to this film.”