Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari hardly seem like a natural screen pairing. Eisenberg, the Oscar-nominated star of The Social Network, Zombieland, and The Squid And The Whale, is a serious, process-focused actor who often seems intent on his work to the point of nervous obsession. Ansari is the loose, often raunchy, often wry stand-up comic featured on Parks And Recreation and in memorably brash roles in ensemble-y, comedian-heavy films like Observe And Report, Funny People, and I Love You, Man. Yet the two are paired in the new feature 30 Minutes Or Less as best friends and roommates, and together, they’re the heart of the film.
Their differing approaches and reputations highlight the movie’s dual nature. While it centers on a couple of dim-witted wannabe criminal masterminds (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) who abduct slacker pizza delivery boy Eisenberg, strap a bomb to his body, and order him to rob a bank for them or die, it’s largely an outsized comedy. Director Ruben Fleischer brought a similar blend of serious situation and silly execution to his debut feature, Zombieland, also starring Eisenberg. The two stars recently sat down with The A.V. Club in a Chicago pizza parlor to discuss Eisenberg’s experience with a tutor pizza-deliverer, Ansari’s wish to rob a bank, and the delicate art of balancing comedy and drama in a movie with elements of both.
The A.V. Club: Ruben Fleischer says in the press notes that when he saw the script, he thought of this movie as “Coen brothers heist movie meets John Landis comedy.” Did he present it to you in that way? How did he prep you for this?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah, when he read the script, six months before I read it, that’s what he told me. He said it had Coen brothers elements. I guess because of the small-town criminal element.
Aziz Ansari: It definitely has that element of normal guys getting into situations way over their heads. He never presented it to me like that, but when I read it, the thing that appealed to me about it was… To me, it seemed like a small town with me and Jesse being the bank robbers would seem like a funny premise for a movie. Just two normal guys having to rob a bank. Well, how would they do it?
AVC: Aziz, you recently said in a press conference that robbing a bank is a dream of yours. In that dream, are you thinking an Ocean’s Eleven ambitious, complicated heist, or just a couple of guys with guns?
AA: Oh, I just think it was like, you know, the guys in the movie. When I was a kid, I watched action movies all the time. Probably more than comedies. Like Die Hard, Terminator 2, things like that. So I think, like those guys, it’s kind of cool to think of the idea of being in a great situation like that.
AVC: Jesse, this is your second time working with Ruben Fleischer. Has he changed much as a director since Zombieland?
JE: No. What I really value in our working relationship is that he never compromises the reality of the characters and the authenticity of what they’re supposed to be feeling, even though everything around the characters is either broadly comedic or visually extreme. Or even if some of the other characters are over-the-top characters. In both these movies, even though the other movie is a little more heightened and ironic and takes place in a sillier universe, still the character’s emotional experience is consistent and valid throughout.
AVC: 30 Minutes Or Less is a comedy, but your characters are in dangerous situations they take very seriously. How do you stay true to the characters and the drama while still being funny?
AA: I found that with any comedy, if you play it real, that’s what ends up making it really funny. Not playing it like a goofball, you know? So the more real you treat all the situations, the funnier it ends up being.
JE: Yeah. Whereas I had a sort of difficult time trying to step back and see the tone of the movie, because I had a bomb on me the whole time. You know, in Zombieland, for all the characters, you’re in this terrifying, fake situation, but there was always a self-awareness that you can kind of wink at yourself and acknowledge the silliness of the situation. Whereas this movie, the stakes were so real, even just visually, because I’m standing there with a bomb on me, that I was relieved to be with Aziz and then more briefly with Danny [McBride] and Nick Swardson, because I didn’t feel all of the burden to be funny at every moment. Because I thought it would be inappropriate for what the character was going through.
AVC: Aziz reportedly got to do a lot of improv throughout the movie. Were you encouraged to as well, Jesse? Or was that mostly the people with comedic backgrounds, or more comedic characters?
JE: On Zombieland, I did a lot more, because the nature of the role was different. This, we did, but yeah, it was more Aziz and… I don’t know, I wasn’t really on set with Danny and Nick, but for me and Aziz, it felt to me more like I was dealing with the more plotted elements, and Aziz had more freedom with that kind of stuff.
AVC: How did this compare with improvising on I Love You, Man or Observe And Report, Aziz?
AA: I’ve pretty much been very lucky in all the products I’ve done. I’ve pretty much been able to do the same process, for the most part. Do the script a couple times and then any other ideas we have, try those. Before we do a scene, if we do a rehearsal and something doesn’t feel right, Ruben was always very cool if either of us were like, “Hey, this scene doesn’t feel right,” or “This joke doesn’t seem to work,” or whatever. He was really open to any ideas we had. But the script was really good, and that’s always the ideal situation with whatever project you’re doing. It’s an awesome script, but there is stuff we’d find on set that we’d like to try. But it wasn’t a situation of, like, “Ooh, we’ve got to figure this out.”
AVC: Was there ever a conflict between your working styles? Jesse, you seem to be more the research-and-planning type, whereas Aziz’s style seems looser. How did you guys work that out between yourselves on the set?
JE: Well, as I was saying, I felt kind of a relief to be with Aziz, because it felt to me like I could really account for the stakes of my character’s situation without having to worry that the tone of the movie would be too dramatic or too tragic. And so I felt unburdened with him.
AA: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think we had any problem at all. If I improvised or anything, Jesse always would just play it real and react however he needed to to whatever I said. I think in these kind of comedies and any comedy, play it real, and it’s always just for the best.
AVC: Speaking of the stakes of the character, the film is based on a real situation that was fatal for the man wearing the bomb. It was an actual murder case. Is it strange to have a comedy coming out of that?
JE: Obviously, we know what you’re referring to, but didn’t know when we read the script. And the script was about fictional characters, and it was an entirely different set of circumstances for our characters. In the movie, we’re mainly focused on this friendship that we have that’s not working and then this crazy day puts us back together in a nice way. And that’s pretty much all we focused on.
AA: Yeah, to me, the movie’s about these two guys have to rob a bank and their friendship. It’s not really based on what happened to that guy.
AVC: That friendship sometimes gets uncomfortable, because your characters are kind of awful people. They’re not terribly bright, and they’ve done horrible things to each other. How did you personally address the characters?
AA: I think any friendship—if you’re friends with someone for a long time, there are some dark moments in the friendship. I don’t think there’s a long friendship that’s all peaches and cream all the time. I think what’s interesting about those characters is they have this falling out, as friends sometimes do, and then they’re brought together by this crazy thing that happens.
JE: Yeah. You know, it’s not our jobs to account for the perceived likeability of a character. So it doesn’t even occur to me.
AVC: Jesse, you were talking about being glad to let Aziz take the burden of the comedic side. Can either of you think of a specific situation where that came up? Where you stopped and said, “You know, this isn’t working. We should do it a different way”?
JE: Oh, I think I just meant he has a good sense of that kind of thing, but not to the point where he’s stopping in the middle and redoing things. I’ve seen him perform stand-up comedy many times now, and he has such an amazing sense of what the effect will be of what he says minutes before he says it. It’s a skill set that is required over a long and very effortful process.
AA: That’s kind of the approach I take to every scene. We do the rehearsal, and “Is this funny enough? Is there anything we can add? Does this joke hit enough?” I do that with everything I act in, so I couldn’t narrow it down to one scene. I feel like that’s just the process that we did with every scene. Really looking at it when we shot it. Like, “Okay, is everything working here? Is it funny enough? Do we need to add a joke here? Does something funny need to happen here? Is this what would happen if they were in this point in the story? In real life, would these guys do this?”
JE: And in some extreme circumstances, we would actually shoot two versions of the scene. I mean, not the entire scene, but we would say, “Is it too much if they…” In the scene on the stoop, where I’m sitting on the stairs drinking, it’s our first scene together, and we… [Laughs.] I just remember we shot it both as us walking in together and being friends, and as us separating. I don’t know what’s in the final movie.
AA: I think we go in together.
JE: We go in together. Because, you know, the tone is very specific. You wanna feel the tension of the relationship, but also, the movie is probably lighthearted as a macro thing. So we shot it both ways, and then the editors can manipulate the friendship. But I guess they do that in every movie.
AVC: In that introductory scene, Aziz, your character is in a car getting a blowjob, which he seems pretty uncomfortable with. What kind of direction did you get on that sequence?
AA: I don’t know. I just thought about it like I knew what that shot was gonna be, and it was just gonna be me looking weird, and then it’s a reveal, so I just thought, “What would be the funniest attitude toward that?” Where it’s vaguely uncomfortable, but at the same time, somewhat enjoying it. I don’t know.
AVC: Jesse, you reportedly followed a pizza deliverer around for a while to see what that process was like. What did you get from the experience?
JE: They hooked me up with a guy who they thought was similar to my character. He was kind of sarcastic, self-aware. Able to comment on the people we were delivering to in a funny way. And it helped me get into the spirit of what a typical day would be like for my character. It’s an isolated job, developed in the sense of righteousness because you’re alone and you’re having very transient experiences. And at the same time, self-aware that you’re delivering pizzas. You’re giving people this unhealthy thing that they’re probably having at home, alone at night. And it also kind of gave me the sense of what the danger was. We only went out for a night, but very late into the night, and you get into some potentially dangerous situations. I would never be able to do that, because I’d be terrified. But what my character does in this movie, going into this dangerous situation, he wouldn’t think is atypical.
AVC: Aziz, how do you prep for roles? Can you see yourself doing that kind of thing where you go hang out with a role model beforehand, like spending time in a classroom because you’re playing a teacher here?
AA: No. I mean, the teacher scene is, like, one scene and it’s being mean to kids, which I’ve done many a time. You know, I think it was Amy Poehler telling me once where she did parts, she would just kind of journalize her character. I kind of do that in my head. I kind of really try to make a long backstory, try to figure out, “Okay, what are this guy’s favorite movies? What is he going through that’s not in the script?” So I made choices like, “Okay, Chet’s favorite bank-robbery movie is Heat.” So when he’s doing the bank robbery, he’s trying to channel Robert De Niro. He’s trying to mimic that style of bank robber. I made a choice early on where I was really hungry the whole day and I hadn’t had anything to eat, so I wanted to get a little bit of food before we did the bank robbery. So there’s a lot of little bits that weren’t in the script. Like when we steal the guy’s car and I ask, “Oh, do you have any granola bars or anything like that in the house?” That just comes from in my head, where I think, “Okay, he’s hungry. He’ll probably want a little bit of food somehow.” When we go to the burger place. All that stuff. You keep little things like that in your head, and then it helps you improvise things that end up being in character and not throwing the story off, because you’re coming from a place of “Oh, okay, that’s in the character’s head. It’s just not in the script at that point.”
AVC: How much did Ruben work with you on building the characters in advance? Did he just let you run with ideas like that?
AA: That was all in my head, you know? But Ruben was always very open to any ideas either of us had. If we had any thoughts on the script or anything, he was just totally cool about collaborating on it. And that’s all you can ask for. For me, as an actor, I view it all as a very collaborative process, and that doesn’t end when you have the script. It’s an ever-evolving thing. And you learn so much when you’re actually there shooting it. In the actual scene with the costumes, in the place, you come up with different things, and things feel different when you actually say them. So I think he was really open to that way of working. That’s how he seemed to work, and it just worked out.
AVC: What’s next for you guys?
AA: I just recorded a second standup special. And I started writing a third tour next year. I go back to Parks [And Recreation], and then I’m developing a couple movies to shoot next year, hopefully. One with McBride, actually and another for [Judd] Apatow about astronauts.
AVC: That came out of a three-film deal. Are you still working on the other ones?
AA: We’re just working on that one for now. I’m trying to get that one made first before we do the other two.
AVC: Is there a timeline for it? Is there a point where you want to get it started?
AA: You know, it’s working around Parks And Rec and stuff like that, so the next hiatus, hopefully we’ll have those scripts done. One or both of them.
AVC: Jesse, you’ve written an Off-Broadway play that launches in September. What’s that about?
JE: It’s about these two guys with a dysfunctional relationship. They’re roommates with a lot of opinions about politics and race. They assume they’re very worldly. And this young Filipina girl becomes their new roommate, and they have to confront their own ignorance in her presence.
AVC: How involved in it are you going to be? Is it something you wrote and gave over to other people? Are you going to be in it?
JE: No, no, I want to be in it. I mean, I’m going to be in it. I wrote a role for myself that is a part that I want to do. There’s a certain kind of experience that I’d like to have. And I get to do parts of it in movies, but this is a part to encompass a lot of the things I’d like to do.
AVC: Like what?
JE: Like [play] an emotional baby, but very smart. I’ve been able to do stuff like that, but not in this exact way. Like in The Social Network, the character’s emotionally underdeveloped, but really bright. But what interests me with the play is that the character’s emotionally underdeveloped, but what he claims to have is this great emotional understanding of the world and of the needy. So that juxtaposition is interesting to me. Like emotionally and personally in what I see in my generation of people who know so much, but have not had any experience. So that’s what I want to accomplish with the play.
AVC: You said in the press notes that having a good character is more important to you than anything else about a project, including the plot, or who else is involved. Why is that so much of a focus for you?
JE: Well, ’cause the experience you have working on something for a few months intensely—like a movie, where you’re working for 12 to 14 hours a day, every day—the experience you have is entirely related to what the character is. It’s impossible for an actor to account for the plot, or for the shots. The only thing you can focus on is that part of it. And so that’s what’s interesting to me. I think if I was… Like for the play, I wrote the play, I’ve written other plays, I have to account for the plotting, as well. But for me, it always comes from what the character’s experience is. And that’s why I liked doing these two movies with Ruben, because he has a good sense of that. So people end up going to the movies—it doesn’t compromise my experience because the characters are credible and authentic. And people go to the movies, and I get to act more.
AVC: Aziz, is there a single aspect that’s more important to you in choosing a project than anything else?
AA: For me, it’s easy to choose a project, because most of the stuff that you read is horrrrrrible. So if you read something that is even remotely decent, you’re stunned! And this was really good, and I could see myself doing this part. I read the character Danny did, and I was like, “Well, they have to get McBride for that. If they get him, that’s huge.” And then they got McBride, and then you have Ruben, and it’s like, “Okay, well, he’s a good director. He did a great job with Zombieland. He’ll be able to do this.” But it’s crazy, because even if it’s a good script, all those other things still had to fall into place. You had to get Jesse, you had to get Swardson. We got really lucky, because all that stuff came into play. You realize, like, “Man! Putting a good movie together is really hard!” There’s a lot of factors that are coming together, and you have so much more respect when you see a successful movie that’s really good. It’s like, “Wow!” Even this is good. No one even may go see it. [Laughing.] Who knows! We’re gonna talk to people about it all day and hope for the best.
JE: [Laughs.] And tomorrow, as well.
AA: [Still laughing.] Tomorrow and a couple days later, again.