Eisenberg fought off the undead in Zombieland and conquered the Internet with his idiosyncratic portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. In Night Moves, the new thriller from director Kelly Reichardt and Portland writer Jon Raymond (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy), in Portland theaters on June 6, he takes on a new cause: the environment. Eisenberg plays an activist who plans to blow up a Southern Oregon hydroelectric dam with two other radicals (Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard). Over the phone, the 30-year-old talked about the draw of playing a militant and why clear-cutting was new to him—all in the same rapid-fire staccato he uses on screen.
Eco-thriller is a new genre for you. How did you get involved in this project?
They sent me their script, and I thought it was phenomenal. The plot, the characters, and their intense plight sneak up on you in a really powerful way. Kelly and Jon wrote a character that was simultaneously two things that are normally in conflict: he is entirely understandable and completely mysterious. I think a lot of his anger comes from very personal things unrelated to his activism. He’s an interesting character to play because he doesn’t know what’s driving him.
Which is totally counter to the “What’s my motivation?” acting cliché. How did you prepare for the role?
I had the opportunity to live on the farm where my character worked for a week. I built a greenhouse, and they were harvesting. It was amazing. In the movie, there are these characters who have taken some kind of action that everybody in that world is aware of, and it becomes mythologized. While I was out there, I got to meet a lot of people who were activists and would tell similar stories.
It’s a different life out there. I grew up in New York. You never pass 10 trucks on the highway full of logs. You don’t see clear-cuts in Central Park. So I can understand, being in that part of the country, what would drive someone to be passionate about the environment.
Do you remember the first time you saw a clear-cut during the filming?
Yeah, although I didn’t know what I was seeing. I’m from a family with a lot of animal rights activists, so my mind goes to the fauna. Where are these animals living?
It’s such a politically charged topic; what has the response been at festivals?
I don’t read any reviews and I don’t watch the movies I’ve been in, so I have no idea what the response has been, but I imagine this is the kind of movie that would spark a debate. In terms of my involvement, it’s not different from any other movie, in that I’m trying to portray an individual as opposed to be the mouthpiece for a political statement—which I know Kelly is not interested in making.