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ShowTickets Q&A: Jesse Eisenberg on ‘Happy Talk,’ Musicals and the Broadway Shows That Gave Him Neck Problems

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

“To me, theater will always be the best medium for presenting stories to audiences.”

In Jesse Eisenberg’s new play, Happy Talk, Susan Sarandon plays Lorraine, a diva in New Jersey community theater. Her life is falling apart. Her mother is dying. Her husband’s health is ailing. Yet she finds joy starring as Bloody Mary in a community theater production of South Pacific. Lorraine is so devoted to the part, she treats it with the seriousness of a Broadway star. She also adores her mother’s Serbian home aide, Ljuba (Marin Ireland). Presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City, Happy Talk is hilarious, and also explores what it means to be an immigrant living in the United States. An Oscar-nominated actor, Eisenberg also has a slew of upcoming film projects in the works. Next month, he stars in The Art of Self Defense, a story set in the world of Karate that explores toxic masculinity. Also upcoming is Resistance, featuring a script Eisenberg penned, in which he plays the mime Marcel Marceau in the true story of the entertainer saving 200 orphans during World War II. As if all that weren’t enough, he just finished Zombieland 2, which comes out in October. 

Jesse Eisenberg’s new play, ‘Happy Talk,’ stars Susan Sarandon (Photos: Monique Carboni; Serge Nivelle)

Jesse Eisenberg’s new play, ‘Happy Talk,’ stars Susan Sarandon (Photos: Monique Carboni; Serge Nivelle)

You have a thriving career as an actor. What inspires you to write?
Jesse Eisenberg: I see acting and writing as related extensions of each other. Actors naturally tend to imagine their characters in various situations, which I suppose is related to writing a play. Conversely, playwrights tend to perform all the characters as they write. So I think these two skillsets are more related than they are different.
What does writing give you? 
JE: The kind of writing I do, because it is dramatic, can be cathartic because it allows me to say personal things through the mask of a character.  I am a public person so, obviously, I am hesitant to reveal deep, inner thoughts to the world, but playwriting allows me to me express myself in a less personal context.

In Happy Talk, Susan Sarandon's character, Lorraine, is obsessed with musicals. What connection to you have to musicals?
JE: I grew up doing community theater musicals, and I know that world quite well. It’s really special, because everyone is working for free, usually after spending a long day at their “regular job.” They are driven by their passion for musical theater, as opposed to the vanity that accompanies professional entertainment or fame. That said, there’s also something funny about community theater because it’s provincial. So the fact that Lorraine treats it with the seriousness of a Broadway star is funny.  

Can you share a musical that impacted you in your life, and why?
JE: One of the shows I did as a kid was Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim. At some point during the run of the show, I had the realization that it was more sophisticated and complicated than Oliver or Cats. It featured lyrics that were esoteric and complex, and characters who were flawed, real people. Since that time, I have become, like everyone else, a lifelong fan of Stephen Sondheim.

What shows did you love to see on Broadway?
JE: When I was old enough to go in to New York on the bus, I would wait every Saturday morning for 20-dollar “rush” tickets to Broadway shows. Only a few shows did this, so I ended up seeing the same things over and over: most frequently, Titanic: The Musical and Civil War.  I went to these shows by myself about ten times. And the rush tickets were for front row seats, which sounds like it would be a great thing, but ends up producing neck issues later in life.  

Happy Talk delves into how we handle immigration in the United States, and its complexities. What messages do you hope audiences will take away?
: I hope people walk away with a greater sympathy for those in Ljuba’s position. She is struggling to make a life for herself, which seems to be becoming increasingly difficult for immigrants in the United States. She laments the severe limitations on her freedoms in the States and lack of access to the basic services that most people take for granted. On top of that, she is sending most of her money back to her family in Serbia. It’s amazing to me how many people in the United States are doing this utterly selfless act for such long periods of time.

How are you personally active around some of the issues presented in your play? 
JE: My wife and I work with a program called Urban Arts Partnership, which provides arts education programs to thousands of underserved public school students in NYC. Through their Story Studio program, I go into classrooms to help recently immigrated and undocumented students share their personal stories. We've also been bringing students to the show and organizing discussions about how issues in Happy Talk are playing out in their own lives.
We also volunteer with a domestic violence shelter called Middle Way House that my late mother-in-law, Toby Strout, founded in 1971. They have been providing shelter and doing advocacy work around human trafficking, which is unfortunately incredibly common and vastly underreported in the United States.

What keeps you coming back to creating live theater?  
JE: To me, theater will always be the best medium for presenting stories to audiences. It has been around in its current form for about 2,500 years, and there is no comparable art form which demands the attention of the audience so acutely.

What was one of the first Broadway shows you ever saw?
JE: I saw Cats the night before I started first grade, and all I remember was panicking the entire time about going to a new school in the morning. My parents bought the tickets a year in advance, and talked about going like it was the most important activity in our family’s history.  

For more of the best of New York theater, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in July 2019

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