Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor in “Batman v Superman” is likely unlike any other take on the supervillain audiences have seen before — and that’s all completely intentional. In fact, you might not have imagined hearing Superman’s most notable villain described as a pacifist before, but that’s just a part of the acclaimed actor’s new take on things. In the latest superhero movie, Eisenberg’s Luthor is now a young, peppy sociopath, prone to hammy line readings and hand-clapping.
Since comic book movies have become such a main corner of the film industry, do you think people have been taking them more seriously?
I think you have to. I think you have no choice if you’re going to make one and you don’t want to be completely derivative. You have to bring in somebody, for example, like they did here with [“Argo” writer] Chris Terrio, whose background is not comic books, whose background is not in genre culture, who’s interested in politics, who’s interested in theater. And [he gets] to impose his interesting worldview on [director] Zack Snyder’s incredible visual mastery and his obsession with comic books.
Along those lines, how do you turn Lex Luthor into a believable, realistic, human character?
I think it would be impossible for me to play the stock villain character because I don’t have any of those attributes. I’m not a severe-looking, brooding man. I am just somebody who — not intentionally, but probably — exudes an amount of emotion, irrespective of my personal intent as an actor. And so I think I instinctively make this character more of a tortured man rather than somebody who’s kind of a one-note, villainous bad guy.
Yes, exactly. And I think if he has any kind of campiness, it comes from his own need to hide his true feelings which are, as the movie progresses, increasingly dark.
There’s a very performative aspect to him early on. He’s really putting on a show.
I think he puts on a face of an affable, philanthropic businessman. My sense as a cynical, paranoid person is that most people who have a charming exterior are probably scary. I would sooner trust the shy guy than the guy who seems like he’s your best friend within the first five minutes of meeting you, and that’s what this character is. He immediately tries to charm people, and if it doesn’t work he immediately turns on them. He’s the kid who gets his toy taken away prematurely and turns petulant.
You’re also an accomplished playwright. How has it been juggling the multiple roles in the entertainment world?
If you’re a movie actor, seemingly every other door is willing to open. Actors in movies wield an inordinate amount of power — actors on movies change dialogue and there’s a kind of vanity aspect to it. So I feel very fortunate to have been given this kind of platform, and it certainly helps get my foot in other doors. And once I’m in those doors, I feel like I need to compete on my own terms.
What drives you as far as writing for the stage?
I think theater, although it’s far less accessible than movies and more expensive and also therefore more exclusive, is the best place to have a conversation — well a really kind of one-sided conversation — about big themes. I think this movie does it really well, but I find theater to be the best medium for my voice, for the things I want to talk about in entertainment.
I think Chris Terrio, who wrote the script for “Batman vs Superman,” did a really good job of infusing his own philosophical ideas into this big action movie. You can look at this movie sort of allegorically about power and corruptibility of power and power unchecked. My character looks at Superman like he’s a nuclear weapon on the loose. Should this guy be allowed to exist? And my character in that way is considered on the pacifist side of things, that this very violent, threatening, risky character should not be allowed to exist.