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Drama to comedy, Facebook founder to pizza guy, Eisenberg delivers

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / August 7, 2011

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Even though Jesse Eisenberg has been acting in movies for only a decade, it’s fair to say he’s about to set a record for onscreen downward mobility.

Last year, in “The Social Network,’’ he played Mark Zuckerberg: Harvard student, Facebook founder, future billionaire. In “30 Minutes or Less,’’ Eisenberg plays a pizza delivery guy named Nick. Nick does not even have a last name. Worse than that, he has a time bomb strapped to his chest.

“The nature of my job in the movie is to be in a constant state of terror,’’ Eisenberg cheerfully noted during a visit to the Globe last month to discuss the movie.

Cheerfully? This is a comedy, after all.

“30 Minutes’’ which opens Friday, reunites Eisenberg with Ruben Fleischer, who directed him in “Zombieland’’ (2009), another proudly off-kilter comedy. The film also stars Aziz Ansari, as Nick’s best friend, and Danny McBride and Nick Swardson, as the dim-bulb duo who’ve encased him in the bomb so as to get him to rob a bank for them. They need the money because they want to open a massage parlor and also need to pay off a hit man (Michael Pena) and . . . well, you get the idea.

Eisenberg said that the leap (or plummet) from Zuckerberg to Nick was just happenstance. “I wasn’t conscious of doing something new,’’ he said. “I auditioned for ‘The Social Network’ a few times. I auditioned for this movie a few times. I just like to pursue things that seem to have a character who’d be interesting to play over a long period of time. In this movie, the character starts out as a lazy, bitter, selfish guy, and it takes this insane day and a ridiculous situation to get him to grow up a bit.’’

Even if he’d wanted to get as far away from Zuckerberg as possible, Eisenberg said, he didn’t know that that was in his power.

“I’m far less in control of my career than it may appear. I think all actors probably feel that way. Yet because they’re the face of the movie and in such a public position, it makes it look as though they’re far more in control of things than they actually are.’’

Even earning a best actor Oscar nomination, as Eisenberg did for “Social Network,’’ hasn’t really changed that, he said. “Well, I get sent things now earlier in the process. So if a movie is trying to get made, maybe they’ll send the script to me before they have the financing so that, if they get me attached, maybe they’ll have a better chance of getting it funded. But 99 percent of the movies that are funded are not good. So the quality doesn’t change. And you don’t want to do the really bad things in the first place. So I’m not working any more than I would have two years ago.’’

Swardson, who also came to the Globe, has never had the chance to play a Zuckerberg - or even a Winklevoss twin. He’s specialized in beefy, beery buddies in movies such as “Just Go With It’’ and TV series such as “Reno 911!’’ That’s fine with him, he said. He has no problem playing a character who isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

“These guys aren’t so much dumb as very simple,’’ Swardson said. “They don’t live very sophisticated lives. Also, they’re extreme cases of arrested development. We’re in our 20s and building bombs! So it’s kind of fun to go back to that 12-year-old mentality and live there for a day - but with a mustache.’’

“I always think I’m playing a character dumb,’’ Eisenberg mused, “and then my agent sees the movie and tells me that I didn’t do it well. I don’t know why. I guess my eyes move too fast or something.’’

Swardson laughed. “I don’t think Jesse can play dumb. I’d be curious to see you in a movie like ‘Idiocracy’ or something. Even when he’s playing a simple dude, he still comes off as smart.’’

Eisenberg may always come off as smart - sensitive, too - in such movies as “The Squid and the Whale’’ and “Adventureland.’’ The challenge in “30 Minutes or Less’’ was coming off as explosive - literally. What’s it like having to act with a bomb as part of your costume?

“The first incarnation of it was very heavy,’’ Eisenberg said. “In August, it was very hot. And after every second take, meaning every 15 minutes, I’d sweat through all my clothes. So after a while they changed the vest and put ice packs instead of the bomb. But I didn’t like it because it didn’t feel real. I lost the sense of urgency the other thing ignited for me. So we went back and forth all the time. It was annoying. But in a movie like this, where there’s a real strong prop, you end up focusing on that.’’

Swardson nodded in sympathy.

“We all felt bad for Jesse because he had to show up to work every day with a bomb strapped to his chest. That’s why he holds the movie together so well. If they’d cast a stand-up comedian or somebody more wacky-smacky, it would have really hurt the film. But Jesse grounds it in such a reality and stays so true to his character’s predicament.’’

Eisenberg may not be wacky-smacky, but Swardson said he possesses a gift for comedy. “Jesse has a great sense of humor, which I think people don’t realize. . . . You can’t really teach timing. You can’t teach an absurd sense of humor. You have it or you don’t. Jesse has it. He’s very funny.’’

Asked why it is that dramatic actors seem to face a greater challenge with comedy than comic actors do with drama, Swardson threw out a number of possibilities - a harder time with being vulnerable, the timing issue - then gave up. “I don’t know. But Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great actor and he’s been in some very broad comedies. It would be interesting to see Daniel Day-Lewis as Deuce Bigalow, or something.’’

Working on “30 Minutes’’ may not have changed how Eisenberg or Swardson see acting. It definitely has changed their view of another profession.

“We both have developed a greater sense of sympathy and appreciation for the craft of pizza delivery,’’ Eisenberg said.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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