WILD INDIAN Video Interview: Jesse Eisenberg On The Importance Of Telling This Indigenous Story (Exclusive)
Jesse Eisenberg (Zack Snyder's Justice League) breaks down his role as an actor and executive producer in Wild Indian, explaining why it was important to him to be part of telling this impactful story.
Directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., Wild Indian focuses on Michael (Michael Greyeyes). He's s moved on from his reservation and fractured past after covering up his classmate’s murder decades earlier, but when a man who shares his violent secret seeks vengeance, Michael goes to great lengths to protect his new life with his wife (Kate Bosworth) and boss (Jesse Eisenberg) from the demons of his past.
The movie is now playing in theaters from Vertical Entertainment, and we recently spoke to Jesse Eisenberg to talk about his involvement in the project. While he only has a relatively minor role in the movie itself, the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice star also served as an executive producer.
That means he was instrumental in getting cameras rolling on the project, and in the video below, Jesse shares some in-depth insights into why it was so important to help make Lyle's vision a reality.
As well as discussing his directorial debut and whether he intends to continue making smaller movies moving forward, Jesse also addresses his role as Lex Luthor in the DC Extended Universe. Commenting on the possibility of returning, he also weighs in on those big rumours about The Batman!
Watch the full interview with the actor about his Wild Indian role below:
It must be great for you to have a film come out during [the pandemic], and I know theaters are struggling right now, but it’s got to be a real pleasure to see Wild Indian get a big screen release?
Yeah, I’ve been in an editing room for the last six months, so that’s been okay. There are some compromises here and there [with COVID], so it’s been okay. With this movie, Wild Indian, I didn't have to do much. It’s an arthouse film, so they’re not expecting you to, you know, fly to Shanghai to do a premiere or anything like that!
I read that you shot the whole thing in 17 days, and I know you have a relatively minor role in the film, but it must have been a very quick turnaround for you?
I just wanted to be involved in the movie. I had read the script and just wanted to see if I could help this fantastic writer and director, Lyle, get his movie financed and made. The fact it only had 17 days means I probably failed on getting the financing part because we only had 17 days to shoot it [Laughs]. I succeeded on the made part because he got to do it, and I think it’s just amazing...so, is your audience international or mainly UK-based?
Ah, okay. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be condescending. All I mean to say is that the movie, Wild Indian, I think of as such an interesting capsule on American culture and an American crisis. That’s the only reason I asked because I was curious if it would resonate in the UK in the same way. The movie speaks to a crisis in America. The writer and director is an indigenous filmmaker and the protagonists are indigenous actors and the movie is about them trying to run away from their pasts; not only their personal pasts but their culture pasts to varying degrees of success.
Although we don’t have that indigenous community in the UK, this is a film I think people can relate to because of the themes in it, so when you read the script, what really attracted you to it and made this a story you wanted to be part of telling?
Well, you almost exclusively see indigenous characters in American movies either as a quiet reciter of wisdom or a metaphor for some abstract concept like land. You so rarely see them as protagonists in this dark way. If they’re not playing the villain, they’re playing this unrealistic portrait of the white graze of wisdom. I thought, ‘This is a brilliant script and a portrait of pity.’ At the risk of sounding kind of petty, my wife and I both graduated with anthropology degrees in college, so our favourite things are just looking for stories about another culture or an inside into a culture that doesn’t often get its story told. What is more powerful than someone from that culture telling their own story? That’s why this movie is so special because it’s an indigenous filmmaker making a cynical, personal, and sympathetic portrayal of how he views this crisis within his culture.
Talking of Lyle, over the course of your career, you’ve worked with some of the all-time great filmmakers. WIth this being his feature debut, is it important to you that you work with a variety of directors and give someone like this a chance?
No one else could have really written the script that Lyle wrote. Lyle still lives on a reservation in Minnesota that my wife and I visited last year, and he’s writing something that is so specific to his mind. It’s an indictment of American crimes as well as a really cynical and honest take on his own feelings and shortcomings. So, no one else could have done that, so in terms of directing, he’s interested in film and he wrote this as a screenplay rather than a book and wanted to see it turned into a movie. You have to support that vision. He’s also incredibly film savvy, so you only have to spend a few minutes with him to see that this is the medium he feels very comfortable working in. The other thing is that in addition to being a first-time filmmaker, he’s unusual in that he’s an indigenous filmmaker, and so here’s somebody who has never made a feature movie, but also someone who doesn’t frequently get the opportunity to make them. That leaves an even more overriding importance to supporting that voice.
I can imagine you must have been able to relate to him in some ways as well; he was making his feature film debut, and I know you’re wrapping up yours as well. In hindsight, it’s got to be quite surreal?
[Laughs] Yeah, he’s truly far more talented than I am. He has an understanding of mood and surreality that I don’t have. Watching him, I was constantly asking questions. I think he realised early on I was either really annoying or about to make a movie because I was just asking why he was doing everything! Then, I just said to him, ‘I’m sorry I’m asking - I’m very curious, I think you’re very talented, I’m just about to do this,’ and then he was just helpful to me in my editing process because he’s very astute and gave me great notes, ultimately.
Do you find that at this point in your career, you’re gravitating towards these more personal stories like this one? You’ve done the big $250 million blockbusters, so having got that in your rearview, are you heading more toward these projects that do have more to say?
Over the last twelve years, I’ve written a play and performed a play between these big movies, so it’s always given me a sense of grounding as a performer. You want to have a sense that you’re doing something that feels really substantive rather than running away from an explosion or something. I’ve noticed that all actors do that thing where they go a little nuts, so for me, it’s always been theatre. This didn’t take a lot of time for me, of course, so it was just about whether I could lend my name and whatever Rolodex I have to try to help support it.
I know you mentioned not having the biggest of roles in the film, but that scene between you and Michael was so interesting because it feels like he’s toying with you. You’re friends, but there’s an element of him enjoying your discomfort in that moment. I was wondering what it was like to film that and the dynamic between you and Michael off-camera?
You’re very sweet to pick up on that. Basically, Michael is a guy who both aspires to white culture and hates it and is disgusted by it. It’s been something that’s taunted him. You see as a kid that he has a crush on a white girl and him passing her on a bus as he drives to his reservation, and you just see that he aspires to white culture as much as he detests it. Him taunting me, his buddy at work, is his version of micro revenge. My character is in some ways representative of this white culture seen through an indigenous lens. Oftentimes, you see indigenous characters in white protagonist movies and they come in and out as representing something rather than being a real character. In some ways, the white character I portray is that purpose. It seems like everything is going well for him and he seemingly is happy go lucky, but it’s through this indigenous lens we understand how oppressive that might feel to Michael.
We mentioned pandemic and theaters a little earlier and here in the UK, like in the U.S., they’re still struggling to bounce back even with the big Marvel films coming out. As a filmmaker yourself, how do you feel about the rise of streaming services, and are you keen to preserve that big screen experience?
It’s funny because I’m editing a movie now [and] it’s being put out by this great studio, A24, which does amazing theatrical releases of very unusual movies. The post-production process involves a lot of making sure it looks great on the big screen, and it’s funny because that’s the process they’ve used forever. In the back of my mind, I keep thinking, ‘Is this important?’ because I don’t know how people are going to watch it. My movie is a small, personal character movie. It’s shot on 60mm film, so it has an amazing look to it, but it can be experienced both ways with probably equal appreciation.
Is there anything you can tell us about your film? I appreciate you might not want to talk about it just yet, but at the same time, I know a lot of people are really excited to see what you’ve done there.
The movie is, like, the expression of someone who got very lucky. I just feel so lucky. I wrote this book for Audible, and it’s an adaptation of part of that. It stars Julianne Moore and she’s just absolutely divine in it. She plays a character who is quite an unusual, particular woman. She’s just fantastic. The other leading character is Finn Wolfhard who is obviously very popular for Stranger Things and he is just phenomenal in this. [Laughs] He plays a young guy who has a big fanbase because he’s a singer/songwriter, and Finn the person also has a huge fanbase. He’s perfect in the role and so wonderful. The movie is the product of a very lucky break for somebody: me!
On another note, a role that’s followed you for the past few years now is Lex Luthor. Zack Snyder’s Justice League came out earlier this year and we got to see a slightly different take on that scene with Deathstroke, but do you view that as being a character that’s behind you now, or that you could return one day?
Umm… [Laughs] I’m probably the last person to know the answer to that question because I don’t know how they make those decisions. You know, my background is in theatre where you do a play 200 times and you feel like you’re just getting the hang of it by the last performance. I would love to play any character again. After a movie ends, the actors usually turn to each other and say, ‘Oh, now I finally know what I’m doing and I understand what my purpose [was]. Actors, in my experience, do like playing roles again but that particular one is just now up to me. I’m sure I could do a one-man show somewhere but no one would, you know…
[Laughs] I think I asked you a similar question two years ago and you might have said the same thing, and it is a shame nothing has moved forward because, in that Snyder Cut, it felt like it was teasing Lex for The Batman, a movie that now isn’t happening with Ben Affleck. It feels like there were big plans for him moving forward, but I guess it’s just one of those things as an actor?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, of course. Also, if there were [plans], I didn’t know about them. Otherwise, I’d have some great material, but I didn’t know about it!
Going back to Wild Indian, because it is a very important piece, it tackles everything from masculinity to that intergenerational trauma, and there are so many themes here. I know I asked what resonated with you when you first read the script, but when you saw the finished product (that ending is very powerful), what really stuck with you?
Just the way you can tell stories with individuals that can say something about the culture they come from. It sounds kind of academic because what studied in college was anthropology where you’re looking at individuals and trying to make assessments of a culture and how that individual fits into that culture and what their life says about it. In this movie, you have this guy running away from a crime he committed and trying to assimilate into Western, white culture, and it’s not going well. You have this sense that there’s a crisis in the community of feeling marginalised on the one hand and on the other hand, aspiring to assimilate. The interesting crisis this character is going through is representative of a crisis in a culture and that’s the most interesting thing for me. That’s why it’s cool that it’s a movie and not a play because it means it can play everywhere and it can play to people who maybe this movie will have more resonance for than those just in cities.
Finally, as we discussed, this is a very American film in some ways, but there are definitely themes that will resonate with people. Having served as an executive producer, what conversations do you hope people will have after watching it and what it makes them think about?
Oh, well thank you for asking that. That’s really nice. I guess that you would have a greater sensitivity towards other people and other cultures. That’s what I walked away with. The time I spent with Lyle...I spent a day with him on his reservation in Minnesota, but also on set and with the actors, and it gave me insight into a culture I don’t know enough about that we live next door to here in America. For me, it was an education. The movie is both an education and a thrilling dramatic ride as a story, but it serves as an education on a culture that is too frequently overlooked.
Amazing. Well, thank you again, Jesse. It’s been so great to catch up with you again. It’s an awesome film and thank you for answering those Lex Luthor questions. I’m sure by now you’re a little sick of being asked, but I know it’s fresh in everyone’s minds again after [Zack Snyder’s Justice League].
Oh, no problem. Thank you so much.
People are loving your work all over again in that one and I’m sure they’ll love this film as well.
You’re so sweet. Thank you, Josh!