Whether fighting rampaging zombies in Zombieland or teenage ennui in Adventureland, Jesse Eisenberg broke out big in 2009 as a young star with a unique mix of deadpan wit and emotional sincerity. In his new film, Holy Rollers, Eisenberg plays a neurotic Hasidic Jewish 20-year-old struggling to make his way out of his shell and onto a greater social scene by helping smuggle Ecstasy into America by the suitcase-load.

Eisenberg had such passion for Rollers, a small indie film, that he not only maintained his commitment to the role throughout its two years of fundraising but also helped its producers with casting choices and other key decisions. Not to mention, he had the experience of finally having his bar mitzvah at age 26 during the making of the film.

Q: You’ve done indie and big-studio movies. How do you decide what films to work on?

A: It’s easy to tell on the first page if a film is taking its characters seriously, rather than as punchlines in and of themselves. Stories are secondary to where the parts are.

Q: How did you get into acting?

A: I went to a performing arts high school, which was wonderful and was a college-level acting school. And I worked last year with the Atlantic Theater’s NYU program sitting in on classes. I got the training without having to do the very expensive acting classes working actors have to take.

Q: How did you come across the script for Holy Rollers, and what about it appealed to you?

A: I got the script through a traditional way—one of the producers sent it to my agent. Then it became non-traditional. I really liked it and put extra effort in going to financing meetings, and bringing in other
actors for roles. I was involved for two years prior, trying to do research on the role and meeting the people depicted in the movie.

Q: Your character is a Hasidic Jew. What was your upbringing like?

A: I was a Reformed Jew until I was 12, and at that point I was secular. I [spent] time with the Chabad community in New York [for the film], and they asked [to throw] a bar mitzvah for me. My character would have been bar mitzvahed, so I did it. When we did the movie, I made rash commitments to get back into the fold, but the promise to practice didn’t carry over. There’s time to do it still.

Q: Did the bar mitzvah have an impact on you?

A: I would say mostly it helped me as an actor as opposed to in a spiritual way. It was an emotional scene every day. We shot it in 19 days and it felt as though it was a week of shooting in a day. On some days you’re with both the long hair [Hasidic men grow long ringlets of hair] and the short hair from scene to scene, so [it was] hard to stay on the chronology. It was a fast-paced, emotionally driven shoot with limited resources.