The 2002 movie "Roger Dodger" launched Jesse Eisenberg's film career. Since then he's won wide recognition, and his latest starring role COULD win him an Academy Award a week from tonight! Here's Harry Smith with THE ENVELOPE PLEASE:
It's no easy task putting a label on Jesse Eisenberg, the Oscar-nominee for Best Actor in "The Social Network."
"Leading Man"? "Screen Idol"? "Movie Star"?
If none of those seem like a proper fit, then may we suggest "Reluctant Celebrity."
"I feel like I've acted better in other things," Eisenberg laughed. "I mean, I acknowledge this movie is regarded better than anything I've ever been in. But it doesn't always feel like there's a direct correlation between, like, what you do and the efforts you put in and the reception that follows."
At the ripe old age of 27, Jesse Eisenberg has more than a dozen feature films under his belt, ranging from independent dramas like "The Squid and the Whale," to the coming-of-age story "Adventureland," and the action-comedy hit "Zombieland."
Eisenberg has established himself as the sort of actor who commands the screen without commanding a lot of attention.
"One of the great things about New York is, you can be fairly anonymous," said Smith.
"I am anonymous!" Eisenberg laughed.
And that's just fine with him: He's happy to have achieved so much - even if he's not-so-happy being scrutinized by our cameras.
"It makes you feel like, you know, your image is being used in a way that you didn't expect it to be," he said. "Or something you said is maybe being taken out of context. There's something very uncomfortable about that."
"I guess that's what it's, you know, normally referred to," he laughed.
But fame has been the inevitable result of his break-out performance as Facebook founder and world's youngest billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg - a highly intelligent, quirky and self-aware character.
Not surprisingly, those are the exact same terms you might also use to describe Jesse Eisenberg.
"This was somebody who felt lonely and then kind of started to, you know, cut that part off of themselves - you know, somebody whose kind of loneliness motivated them to stop kind of producing an emotional connection to other people, - rejecting life before it rejected him. And I felt like I knew people like that. I felt in some ways I did that a little bit, too."
Indeed, when Eisenberg recently hosted "Saturday Night Live" and met the real Mark Zuckerberg for the first time, it was hard to tell who felt less comfortable.
"And as I was leaving," Eisenberg said, "he ran over to say goodbye to me and to say how much he liked doing the show. It was just so sweet and generous and, in a way, a really nice resolution to something that's been in both of our lives in probably a pretty strange way.
"I could imagine it must be really uncomfortable to have a movie made about your life, a movie that you're not involved in, a movie that is showing things that are probably difficult to watch."
Growing up in and around New York City, Eisenberg's own life story revolves around performing.
His sister Hallee made a splash in the 1990s with a series of memorable soft drink commercials. Young Jesse soon took to the stage himself, and by his early teens, he discovered that acting was an outlet he desperately needed.
"I was a very emotional kid," Eisenberg said. "I had, you know, difficulty in school. I had difficulty relating to other kids. I was very emotional!" he laughed.
"And so, like, when I started acting in earnest at 12 years old, I really embraced it because, in a safe and contained and controlled environment, it allowed me to emote. And it allowed me to kind of experience those feelings that were otherwise inappropriate to display, you know, in school or with friends.
"You know, it's really impolite to cry at a basketball game. But it's okay to cry in 'Oliver,' because, you know, his parents are gone and, you know, he's eating out of the street. So, in a way, it was really comforting."
In his first film role, 2002's "Roger Dodger," Eisenberg established a persona that he's revisited many times since: A precocious young man whose intelligence gets in the way of his pursuit of a beautiful woman.
"There's a certain trait of some of the characters you've played: guys who are trying to lose their virginity, right?" Smith asked.
"Yeah. I suppose so," he replied, "although, in my defense, it seems like 90 percent of movies that come out feature that same plight! The movies I've been in do it in the subtlest of ways. So that's my defense of that."
Two other films he released last year further broadened his range: the off-beat comedy "The Living Wake," and "Holy Rollers," based on the real-life story of a Hasidic Jewish drug dealer.
"The Social Network" has dramatically boosted Eisenberg's box office prospects, and if his smart-guy image needed any further bolstering, consider the website he's created: OneUpMe.com.
It's an on-line word game that gives the public a chance to match-wits with Eisenberg by trying to top the pun-filled jokes he publishes each day.
"So, people just all day long, fill in the blank after the line of the day," Smith said.
"Instead of working, right!" Eisenberg laughed.
It is no small irony that the only way to participate in this game is to have an account on Facebook.
We got the feeling Eisenberg doesn't really mind that people are paying more attention to his work; he might prefer we not pay so much attention to him.
"I think of myself, just, you know, as an actor who got a role in something," he said. "And, you know, I could have just as easily gotten a role in a play in a 100-seat theatre about coal miners.
"And I would also have nothing to say about that!"
"Because you're not a coal miner?"
"Ultimately, yeah," he said.
"Or at least I didn't find it in the research any place," Smith added.
"No. No, yeah, we've been successfully hiding that."
For more info:
"The Social Network" (Official Movie Website)
500millionfriends.com ("Social Network" Awards Site)
Interview taped at Bell, Book & Candle Restaurant
141 West 10th Street
New York, N.Y.