The Art of Self-Defense is hard to describe — even for Jesse Eisenberg, who uses words such as “strange,” “heightened,” and “unbelievably hysterical.” In the upcoming film from writer-director Riley Stearns, the Oscar-nominated actor stars as Casey, a timid loner who, after a violent attack, comes under the tutelage of a charismatic karate instructor simply named Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). The Social Network star was initially concerned he was being offered another “typical nervous male protagonist role,” which he had no interest in repeating.
“It seems like it’s going to be a typical story of an average man finding his inner strength,” he shares. “And I didn’t want to do that kind of movie because I felt that I had done similar kinds of movies. But I thought the script was so funny that I just kept reading out of curiosity, and thank God I did, because the movie so brilliantly subverts that trope. It becomes this very unusual, surreal, but wry commentary on the absurdities of masculinity.”
At first glance, Casey may appear to be a character that Eisenberg has played before, but he takes a drastic turn upon meeting Sensei, who more resembles a cult leader than a local karate teacher. “He has no real formed personality, and so when he comes under the persuasion of the karate leader he immediately adopts an entirely new personality because his leader has told him to,” shares Eisenberg. “This was one of the most exciting experiences I have had creatively, because the psychology of the person is totally unusual but also perfectly consistent. He thinks and behaves like a baby. He’s this facsimile of a person you’d see in the world, because he has no core presence, he’s so malleable.” As Casey fully integrates into the Sensei’s world, which includes longtime pupil Anna (Imogen Poots), the film manages to both get darker and funnier. “It takes familiar story lines of self-actualization through athletics and satirizes it without any kind of condescension and without being sarcastic,” explains Eisenberg. “The fact that it is unbelievably hysterical and some of the funniest dialogue you will ever see is almost like a bonus, because the movie is so unusual on its own terms without that.”