In Vivarium, Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots find home isn't what they expect

Jesse Eisenberg in Vivarium. Picture: Supplied
Jesse Eisenberg in Vivarium. Picture: Supplied

The prospect of interviewing Jesse Eisenberg was a little unsettling.

Eisenberg, whose movie credits include The Social Network, has occasionally come across as awkward, even hostile during interviews.

In fairness, what could seem like difficult behaviour could be dry humour or an off day (we all have those, and for performers, being asked the same questions over and over again must take its toll).

When Eisenberg rang, he couldn't have been more prompt, polite or pleasant. He seemed intrigued by the fact that although he was calling at night from the US, it was 11am the following day here.

He even thanked me twice for talking to him, at the beginning and end of the interview.

Eisenberg was discussing the film Vivarium, in which the suburban dream of owning a home turns into a nightmare.

But the problem isn't a financial one. It's far, far stranger than that.

Imogen Poots, left and Jesse Eisenberg in Vivarium. Picture: Supplied

Imogen Poots, left and Jesse Eisenberg in Vivarium. Picture: Supplied

Since a vivarium is an enclosed area to keep animals for study or research, the title provides a clue as to what's going on, though it probably will not be what you think.

Young couple Tom and Gemma (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, respectively) are taken by a real estate agent to a housing development called Yonder.

It's strange and silent and apparently unpopulated and all the houses and all the streets appear to be identical. The agent surreptitiously abandons them while they are walking through house Number 9.

Tom and Gemma attempt to drive out of Yonder but somehow always come back at Number 9. When their car runs out of fuel they decide to spend the night in the house. Food and other necessities mysteriously appear, and then a box arrives with a baby and a note: "Raise the child and be released."

And things get weirder from there.

Vivarium was directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley, with the story being devised by both. Eisenberg says, "I thought it was a brilliant fever dream of a movie."

For him, "It's about all of the worst unconscious fears of moving into the next stage of your life we make."

There's the fear of moving in with a partner, the fear of having a child and of how that child will turn out and the fear of becoming mired in debt.

"It takes all those fears and turns them up to 10."

While he acknowledges the situation depicted in the movie is fantasy, the underlying fears it depicts - of life, of suburbia, of family - are real. It's not literal, he says, but "more like evocative, a Salvador Dali evocation".

The surreal story could, he says, also be read as a critique of "the evils of suburbia".

Eisenberg is a successful Hollywood actor. Other than the intellectual stimulation, Vivarium doesn't have any direct resonances for him - "I don't feel the same fears my character has".

He says, "I do think the themes are so artfully done," - and he can relate to the ideas about unconscious fears and regretting bad decisions.

He seems to be coping well with the COVD-19 restrictions.

"We're in the Midwest of America - Indiana," the actor says.

"We're doing OK, pretty well."

The "we" here refers to himself, his wife Anna Strout and their young son Banner. But rather than simply binge-watching Netflix or learning to make sourdough, Eisenberg has been helping others during the confinement period.

"I work with a a local shelter for victims of domestic violence," he says.

Eisenberg, who has made donations to and spearheaded fundraising for the shelter, is also contributing in a more hands-on way.

"I've been there every other day volunteering."

The shelter, where his mother-in-law is executive director, had been understaffed because a lot of the student volunteers from college town Bloomington, where it's located, had returned to their homes.

Eisenberg is one of at least 10 executive producers named on Vivarium but he says the credit is "purely nominal".

Putting the film together was complicated - it's a Belgian-Danish-Irish co-production that was filmed in Belgium and Ireland - and having Eisenberg and Poots, who also made The Art of Self Defense and Solitary Man together, didn't hurt. She approached him to act with her in Vivarium. Given their series of offbeat collaborations, it's not surprising Eisenberg says, "I've gotten to really like her."

Eisenberg says, "It's important to try different things" since even a successful actor has a few months off a year: without down time and other interests, he says, "you go crazy".

And try different things he certainly has, both as a film actor and in other creative endeavours. As well as film acting, Eisenberg has written stories for The New Yorker and McSweeney's, acted on stage numerous times and written several plays.

His next project obviously had to be postponed.

"I was supposed to be in Bosnia to direct something," he says.

That "something" is a movie he wrote, When You Finish Saving the World, a mother/son story starring Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard that's based on Eisenberg's Audible piece of the same name.

But, as Eisenberg says, coronavirus is "the collective focus right now", even if people and countries are dealing with it in different ways. And one of the ways he is dealing with it is by helping others.

  • Vivarium is available On Demand on Google Play, iTunes, Fetch, Telstra, Umbrella Entertainment and Foxtel on Demand. It will be available on DVD/Blu-Ray on July 8.
This story Jesse Eisenberg in suburban hell first appeared on The Canberra Times.