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From Zombieland to Indieland

Mike O'Connell and Jesse Eisenberg in The Living Wake

No one can accuse Jesse Eisenberg of being typecast: from the angst-ridden son of dysfunctional parents in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale to a young journalist seeking a Bosnian war criminal in The Hunting Party, the 26-year-old actor has a knack for landing diverse roles. While the reigning It boy of indie cinema, Michael Cera, seems to play Michael Cera in every film he's in, Eisenberg has already established himself as a character actor, as well as a leading man — consistently working to make his various roles believable, no matter how atypical they might seem on the page.

Born in Queens, New York, to two educators, Eisenberg always showed an interest in the performing arts. While he played small community theaters during what he calls a "regular public-school upbringing," his little sister, Hallie, stole the spotlight 10 years ago by starring in a string of iconic Pepsi commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Now his sibling is focusing on her education, making Jesse the primary working actor in the Eisenberg family.

After recently playing a college student in the horror comedy Zombieland and a disillusioned graduate in Adventureland, it would have been easy for Eisenberg to pursue a Hollywood career of playing similar roles, but the young actor prefers challenging parts that showcase his range as a performer, in smaller pictures. While he has yet to achieve magazine-cover visibility, Eisenberg has been prudently building his own résumé as an actor, appearing in two independent films opening in theaters this week: The Living Wake and Holy Rollers.

Eisenberg trades his natural curls for payot in Holy Rollers, playing Sam Gold, a would-be Hasidic rabbi who stumbles upon a more financially lucrative career smuggling Ecstasy in the late 1990s. "It was all about creating realistic characters," Eisenberg says. "What we wanted to do was make it more and more personal, so that meant a lot of improvisation on set."

Shot in less than three weeks, Holy Rollers was in development for two years, giving Eisenberg plenty of time to conduct fieldwork on the Hasidim. "I went to the community to see if I could resemble these people, and what I noticed was that lot of them did sound like me, a lot of them had similar affectations to me, and similar posturing to me."

In The Living Wake, Eisenberg plays the mild-mannered Mills Joaquin, sidekick to comically insufferable protagonist K. Roth Binew (Mike O'Connell), who is dying of an unnamed illness, which, according to his doctor, is "as grave in its vagueness as it is vague in its graveness." Written by O'Connell and Peter Kline, the film, set in a generic countryside in an purposely vague era, details K. Roth's final preparations for his eponymous living wake. In an example of what can only be described as meta-cinema, Mills pedals him around in a rickshaw while the pair searches for the all-too-elusive "brief but powerful monologue." As a foppish foot servant, Eisenberg is soft-spoken and amusingly unassuming, delivering a pitch-perfect performance that quietly highlights the main character's fatal flaws.

While The Living Wake has received critical praise, it has thus far failed to find traditional distribution. "It makes you a little disheartened about the industry; it took five years, and now it's being distributed by a friend of the movie," Eisenberg says. "It's a little disappointing that it had such a tough time."

But the actor remains optimistic that this as-yet-undiscovered gem will eventually get the attention it deserves. "I think it's the kind of thing that once it's out there — and finally, it is — people will find it."