By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor Jesse Eisenberg may be best known for his Oscar-nominated performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but in his latest film, the fast-talking actor explores the underground world of magic for comedy heist caper, "Now You See Me."
The film, out in theaters on Friday, sees a group of street magicians come together as the "four horsemen," staging large scale magic shows during which they rob a bank and distribute the money among the audience.
Eisenberg plays silver-tongued sleight-of-hand expert J. Daniel Atlas, a role he said he was drawn to because of the character's confidence and his own need to overcome stage fright in 2011 while performing in an off Broadway production called "Asuncion," which he had also written.
"I thought it'd be like a perfect challenge for me, and maybe help me deal with some of the stage fright I was dealing with. My character is the greatest magician in the world and he has an attitude of someone who's earned that, so I forced myself to feel and behave like him," the actor explained.
In the film, which co-stars Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Mark Ruffalo, Eisenberg joins forces with three other street magicians, played by Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco, to stage a complex and captivating series of shows.
Eisenberg, who said he had never encountered a street magician before this film, had just four weeks to learn the basics of sleight-of-hand magic, and drew inspiration for his character from illusionists David Blaine and David Copperfield.
"David Blaine was so casual and Louis (Leterrier, the director) said he didn't want my character to be that casual, he wanted an edge of severity. I looked at David Copperfield, who is very severe and dramatic and flamboyant in his performance. Somewhere between those two guys is my character," he said.
Debunking magic is one of the many facets of the film's plot, and while learning the secrets of the illusion trade, Eisenberg said he still had concerns that the audience would not be so easily tricked or misdirected.
"I initially thought when I was performing a trick to somebody, the whole time they'd be trying to figure it out and frustrated that they don't know how it's done. So I'd start to reveal how it was done, and I was surprised to find out that they were kind of disappointed," the actor said.
"I think they wanted to feel amazed and that something like (magic) is possible, even though you know it's not."
OSCARS AND OFF BROADWAY
Eisenberg, a native of New Jersey, has been a regular fixture on the independent film circuit in recent years, making his debut in the critically praised 2002 dark comedy "Roger Dodger" and gaining attention in 2009 for comedies "Adventureland" and "Zombieland."
More recently, the actor has starred in Woody Allen's 2012 film "To Rome With Love" and 2011 animated feature "Rio," reprising his role as Blu the exotic bird for "Rio 2" in 2014.
But while his role as sharp-witted Facebook co-founder Zuckerberg in 2010's "The Social Network" thrust Eisenberg in front of a mainstream audience and earned him an Oscar nomination, the actor said he never watches his own films.
"I won't see them, but I hope they're good. I just feel the experience of watching it is so different from the experience of doing it," the actor said.
Off camera, Eisenberg is fast becoming a recognizable force in New York's theater world as both an actor and playwright. He most recently starred opposite veteran actress Vanessa Redgrave in off-Broadway play "The Revisionist," which he also wrote.
"(Film) is an industry driven so much more by an economy whereas stage, I get to write what I want to write. Notes that I get from producers are about making the play more of what it wants to be rather than making it more accessible," he said.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Doina Chiacu)