Jesse Eisenberg is not a man who usually finds himself mistaken for someone else. With acclaimed indies (The Squid and the Whale) and blockbusters (Now You See Me) under his belt, the 29-year-old actor constantly finds himself ducking and weaving fans, all eager to greet him by name, and perhaps snag a photo. Yet in his new film, The Double, Eisenberg is as anonymous as they come, playing a meek office worker named Simon who drifts near-invisibly through life, his family and co-workers barely remembering his name. That is until his exact double arrives on the scene, sparking a bizarre tale of identity and ego.
The dark comedy, which premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend, is the second film from British director Richard Ayoade, who has a slight case of multiple personality disorder himself (career-wise, that is), having worked as a successful actor (British television’s The I.T. Crowd, the Ben Stiller comedy The Watch), professional writer and, now, director. For the follow-up to his acclaimed Submarine, Ayoade turned to an adaptation of the Dostoevsky novella The Double, which famously explores the most corrupt elements of human nature: power and desire. Yet it’s not as heavy as the Dostoevsky pedigree might imply, with Ayoade dressing Simon’s world as a darkly comic dream scape familiar to fans of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
“Our set designer, David Crank, worked with [frequent Lynch collaborator] Jack Fisk, and he really nailed that kind of dream-like world, because in this type of story, realism isn’t what we’re going for,” says Ayoade over coffee at Toronto’s InterContinental Hotel. “Realism may be appropriate for certain films, like say The French Connection, but for something like this, we don’t want a realistic level of detail.” Thus, Simon toils in a surreal office filled with nothing but geriatrics before taking a creaking and ancient train back home to his unbelievably grim apartment block, which we’re informed is the city’s No. 1 spot for suicides.
Again, it all sounds a bit depressing on paper, but Eisenberg knew Ayoade would find the humour behind the hell. “I thought Submarine was incredible, and watching it you could tell that the way Richard directs actors, it’s all very specific and funny, but without compromising what’s emotionally realistic about it,” says the actor, in between fiddling with a pair of toothpicks (cinnamon-flavoured and Canadian-made, he later informs). “When I read the script, I knew it would offer an interesting opportunity to play against myself, like some eccentric acting class.”
The feelings are mutual for Ayoade, who had no other back-ups in mind if Eisenberg passed. “Jesse was really the only actor we approached or had in mind,” the director says, before adding, “well, the only one who was still living. John Barrymore was not available.”
The rest of the cast was filled out by Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor and Chris O’Dowd, all familiar faces from either Submarine or The I.T. Crowd. For Eisenberg, it was easy to see why the performers were eager for another chance to work on an Ayoade set. “All the actors, even the well-known ones who play one short scene, they all said Richard is the only director who they would do this for,” says the star. “Every actor who comes on set, irrespective or the size or emotional depth of their role, is given the most creative space to act and do something interesting, which is extremely unique.”
It wasn’t easy and free-wheeling work for Eisenberg, though. As someone who refuses to watch his own movies—no one tell him how The Social Network ends—the actor found himself forced to review his daily footage, in order to know how to act against, well, himself. “Most actors try to avoid watching themselves in their movie because you can end up focusing on things that aren’t relevant,” says the actor, who is doing, er, double duty at TIFF with the drama Night Moves. “But we were so focused on making sure the movements of both characters were correct in the frame, and making sure that everything was accurate, so I did keep my focus on making it look real.” Adds Ayoade: “It’s almost like a documentary, where you’re constantly winding what you shot back to get the story and re-arrange it. It was a difficult thing to do, especially for Jesse.”
Hopefully Eisenberg—or at least one version of Eisenberg—will finally break his no-watch rule, and get to appreciate all his hard work.