For his latest role, Jesse Eisenberg plays introverted accountant Casey Davies, whose life is suddenly and violently changed after being attacked. While the characters he’s known for playing are usually awkward and socially inept, Eisenberg has always had a grounded, relatable quality, and it’s no different with The Art of Self-Defense. Though the film explores toxic masculinity and its adverse effects on society through the microcosm of a karate dojo, Eisenberg’s Casey shows us how it can change and even corrupt those in a vulnerable state.

Before the movie’s release this weekend (you can read our review here), Atom Tickets spoke with Eisenberg about Casey and the complexities that came with the role. Warning: Spoilers are ahead.

I’d love to know what your first impressions were when you read the script. The story is very different from what we typically see when topics like toxic masculinity, hazing and trauma of male characters are the central themes.

Jesse Eisenberg: Well, I had the most unusual experience with this project, which is that the first ten pages of this movie are misleading in some ways. I think the first ten minutes of the movie almost kind of trick the audience into thinking that this is going to be a kind of typical sports movie, where the weak protagonist gains his inner strength from athletics, and the movie ends up completely subverting that idea. The movie then becomes this kind of dark, brilliant satire on, you know, the dangers of masculinity, on misogyny, and sexism in our culture and on violence, and to me, it’s this unbelievably hysterical, and also very potent satire on the kind of modern ideas of masculinity.

Yeah, it’s not a straightforward comedy because the laughs that you do get – or the ones I did – come at the oddest moments, or you laugh because things are so awkward and laughter is the only way to release the tension.

JE: Yes, exactly.

Casey is very introverted but attempts to socialize with the chauvinistic, misogynistic men he works with. It was interesting to see an introverted character trying to belong with them. What do you think it was about them that made him want to connect with them? Was it about wanting a sense of belonging, or wanting to appear more masculine?

JE: I think the character is incredibly timid and desperate to belong and confused about what it means to be a man, and because the movie takes place in this strange universe where everything seems kind of earnest, and blunt and scary at the same time, his views on masculinity are absurd. He reads a magazine called MAN, where there’s an advertisement saying that a man must own a wolf to be a man, or the wolf is a pet for a man.

His ideas about masculinity are strange and confused, and then he meets this guy who runs this karate class who’s like a cult leader, who tells him with perfect confidence everything he’s (Casey) ever wanted to know about being a man. Of course, as an audience, we’re laughing at it because it sounds ridiculous. But Casey, my character, is treating it with total sincerity. He believes everything the Sensei is telling him, and unfortunately enacts a lot of it, which is brutal and violent and dangerous.

Do you think the reason Casey bought into what Sensei was telling him, even though as you said it’s ridiculous and absurd, is because this was the first male role model who seems interested in him?

JE: Yeah. The director Riley Stearns made a movie before this movie called Faults, and it’s about a cult, and so when I read The Art of Self-Defense, I viewed it initially as a movie about a cult. Casey is the perfect kind of cult member. You know, he’s somebody who’s lonely, who’s looking for meaning in his life, who doesn’t have many people in his life around him to tell him, “You know, joining a cult is a bad idea.”

He has no real core convictions, then he meets this guy, Sensei, who is seductive and persuasive and confident and mysterious, and my character completely falls in line with his teaching. And so, yeah, I think what’s really attractive about Sensei to Casey is his confidence, when Casey is a person who’s looking for a strong man in his life, just like somebody who joins a cult is looking for some direction and unfortunately they sometimes fall in with somebody who’s dangerous and manipulative. Casey completely buys into everything Sensei says, even when it puts Casey in grave danger.

There’s a dichotomy in Casey. He starts out very timid, and then with the assault he kinds of regresses. He becomes reclusive and doesn’t want to go back to work. But you see this very dramatic shift in him after he meets Sensei, where even though he’s still timid, his physicality changes, he moves with more confidence. How did you go about developing that change in Casey?

JE: Part of the humor of the movies comes from Casey just following the orders of the Sensei, which oftentimes put Casey in the position of being an aggressive, brutish guy, so I kind of think of it like the shy kid on the playground with the aggressive dad who tells the shy kid to go and punch some other kid to stand up for himself. So, the kid does it, but without the real conviction of somebody who’s aggressive, and that’s kind of what Casey is. He punches his boss in the throat because Sensei tells him to do it, but without the kind of conviction of somebody who hates his boss.

There’s also the mindset that Casey has, where he becomes completely engrossed in being a yellow belt, and for him it changes everything. His personality changes, and it influences his personal taste, as well. When you saw that change in him what did you think?

JE: Yeah, exactly. It’s like…the way I think of it is somebody who finally found this thing that they’re looking for, and completely immerses themselves because it has been missing in their life for so long that they now dive in fully, and that’s kind of what Casey does. He stops going in to work, he completely abandons everything in his life just so he can be with this karate teacher at this strange dojo.

Casey’s relationship with Anna is very interesting because she’s the first and only woman we see him interacting with, and she’s this extremely strong woman physically, and I guess you can say emotionally, too, because the moments of vulnerability that we see from her always happen with him. She warns him, “I don’t want this for you,” and tells him to leave. Why do you think he didn’t heed her warning after everything that had happened previously?

JE: I think Casey’s very conflicted and he doesn’t know who…you know he’s somebody without a great sense of personal conviction, and so his allegiance becomes torn. As you say, the only woman in the movie is a brown belt who will never be able to become a black belt just because she’s a woman and the dojo is run by this misogynistic guy. So even though Casey has no set of core beliefs, he still feels that that’s unfair, and as the movie progresses his allegiance starts to shift a bit between Sensei and Anna, who are telling him different things. Sensei is incredibly confident so Casey is inclined to follow his orders, but at the same time feels like some of what he’s saying is becoming increasingly dangerous.

This film is the most physical one you’ve done since Zombieland, and you had to train in martial arts. Mindy Kelly (fight choreographer) told me you and the others had a very limited time to train so she trained you at the level of a yellow belt. How intense was that for you?

JE: Well, Mindy, as you know from speaking to her, is one of the best martial artists in the world and she’s a really great teacher. Because she has so much respect for martial arts and because she does it at such a high level, I think she expected a lot from me. We had like a three-week training period which for me felt really intense. Luckily, my character is kind of a novice, whereas Imogen Poots, who plays Anna, had to become a brown belt and Imogen did a great job. Mindy trained her to such a great degree that Imogen could do a lot of her own complicated moves in the movie. The other thing that training did for me was teach me about the discipline behind martial arts, and that was helpful because Casey in the movie is eager for discipline and looks to Sensei to give him some structure in his life. So, it was helpful for me to experience what that feels like, to be a person who’s not used to being in a karate class and then kind of thrust into a completely different set of expectations.

If we look at how the film ended, with Sensei gone and Casey being the one to get rid of him, what do you think would’ve been the next step for Casey?

JE: I think Casey realizes towards the end of the movie that Sensei is actually kind of a con-artist and a dangerous person, who’s manipulating and exploiting those around him, and so if the movie were to continue, I think Casey would be able to find all the things he likes about karate, which is the camaraderie, the structure and the artful part of martial arts. But be able to marry it with some ethics, whether that means helping Anna to secure her place at the top, whether it means maybe working with students, which is what he ends up doing at the end of the movie, and running a class that is not based violence, lies, deception and manipulation.

I found it interesting that he – as I would say – bequeathed Anna her rightfully earned black belt, and he seems to be assimilated to the life of the dojo. They’ve all seemed to have accepted their fates come what may. For you, when you read the ending of the script, what were your thoughts on what Casey’s mindset would be?

JE: I guess his mindset would probably be…I don’t know, I’m just picturing myself in those situations and thinking like there was a poison at the heart of the dojo, but that doesn’t mean the whole dojo has to shut down. It just means you have to kind of get rid of the poison, and I think Casey is able to realize that he can have the best of both worlds of having a great experience at this place that was once pretty toxic.

Because the film is about Casey – and I guess you could say Anna to a certain extent – discovering who they are, and finding out new things about themselves, for you, was there anything you learned about yourself while preparing and shooting the film?

JE: I guess it just made me think about man’s place in society and the best way to be an ally to women, cause that’s what ultimately happens to Casey. He realizes the best way to be masculine is you know, to sometimes to rid yourself of the things we think of as masculine.

So you learned it’s about allyship and when to step back.

JE: Yes, exactly.

The Art of Self-Defense is currently in limited theaters and expands this weekend.

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