Culture

Jesse Eisenberg Says His Obsessive 'Hummingbird Project' Character Shows the 'Larger Effects of Greed'

Actor Jesse Eisenberg has made a career of making unlikable characters sympathetic. 

He first did it with his breakout role as Mark Zuckerberg in 2010's The Social Network. Eisenberg elevated his loathsome yet brilliant character's cunning intelligence, con-man tendencies and algorithmic obsessions, while conveying an innocent awkwardness that made viewers still hope for Zuckerberg's success and maybe even somewhat understanding of why he screwed over the people who were good to him in the process. 

Eisenberg's latest role may make viewers experience a similar wave of emotions. The actor plays Vincent Zaleski, a conniving and abrasive high-frequency trading-titan-in-the-making in The Hummingbird Project, directed by Kim Nguyen. Opposite Alexander Skarsgard's demure, timid and balding Anton Zaleski, Eisenberg's character is nearly insufferable. Yet somehow, watching Vincent unravel throughout the film is still painful.

"Vincent’s a hustler, and he’s a liar, and he’s all these things that actors love to play," Eisenberg told Newsweek during a recent phone interview. "He’s dealing with this very serious existential crisis. This character is greedy, and he’s a liar, and he’s immoral, but he’s also really desperate. He’s desperate to succeed. He’s a second-generation Russian immigrant, and he feels like he has to work the system in order to succeed."

So what's Vincent's goal? He wants to install a fiber-optic cable extending from Kansas to New Jersey to send trading data in 16 milliseconds. The reward? A chance at earning some $500 million a year. Of course, tunneling the cable across the country is no small feat, and the obstacles the New York cousins face along the way bring out the utter worst in Vincent.

Read on for more of Newsweek's full interview with Eisenberg. The Hummingbird Project premieres in theaters across the U.S. on Friday.

Jesse Eisenberg's Role in 'The Hummingbird Project' Depicts the 'Larger Effects of Greed' In an interview with Newsweek, actor Jesse Eisenberg discusses the lengths of destruction that comes with greed as it's portrayed in his new movie, "The Hummingbird Project." The Kim Nguyen–directed film premiers in theaters on March 22. Nicolas Bolduc

Did you pull from any of your own experiences to help bring Vincent and his plight to life?
I write and act in these plays in New York, and when it’s getting close to the show, I used to become kinda crazed. And you know, you end up hurting people you love or maybe being quicker with your family or something, just from being so obsessed with this one particular thing. I can understand his obsession. I can understand why somebody would become so myopic and blind to the outside world in pursuit of this one specific goal. I can understand it, and I feel bad for him because he doesn’t realize he’s hurting [people] and what he’s doing is kind of meaningless. Except for making other people rich, he’s not doing anything for the world.

Vincent receives some devastating news in the midst of his and Anton's project, but he's desperate to keep it a secret. Why is that?
I had a lot of anxiety growing up. I never talked about it then. I can remember feeling ashamed of something that isn’t normal to feel ashamed about. I can understand his need for secrecy. He’s so desperate to succeed that he doesn’t realize what’s actually important in his life and what’s actually going to have an effect on him and the people that care about him.

Should viewers feel sympathetic toward Vincent?
I think they will. This character is definitely a greedy, lying person. But he talks about the pressure that his father put on him. He talks about how he doesn’t feel comfortable in the establishment—the Wall Street establishment—and how he feels like he has to side-step mainstream Wall Street. You start to kinda see he’s an outsider and he’s desperate and he’s struggling up against that Wall Street culture.

Is this your first time working with Alexander Skarsgard?
Yes! I met him the day before filming, which sounds like it could be difficult, but actually, it was perfect because I kinda just knew him as the bald heavy-set guy—his character. Of course, most people know him as this very attractive, cool-looking guy. Seeing him in that way was great because it kinda allowed my character to boss him around and condescend him and vandalize him, because [Anton] doesn’t have such an alpha presence. He’s so funny in the movie, in that role. I know people are surprised by him playing it because he seems so different and looks so different than what he normally does.

How was your experience being directed by Kim Nguyen?
He was great. He’s from Quebec. English is his second language, and yet he wrote this unbelievable script with characters who speak a mile a minute and talk about really complicated things, obviously in English. He’s just a really talented guy. He has confident feelings about the stuff he’s writing about. He’s writing about guys trying to beat the stock market. He has some complicated feelings about it and about what they’re doing. It’s greedy and as they’re trying to build this tunnel they’re destroying the environment. I think [Nguyen's] trying to prevent all these things with this story. The way he presents all these things through this story, it shows how destructive greed can be.

It kind of makes you question how far we’ll go as a society for technological advancements.
Exactly, and like what we’ll allow people to do in the name of greed. These characters are drilling through mountains, digging under people’s homes and it’s in service of something that provides nothing to society. It just gets a few people very rich.

What’s the overall takeaway of the film?
I like the idea it has of considering the effect you’re having on other people and the world, because these characters don’t really stop to think about the effect they have on the environment, on other people or themselves. I like that towards the end of the movie the characters are sort of coming to the realization of the larger effects of their greed.

Join the Discussion

Editor's Pick