Though a little late to the zombie-flick resurgence, Zombieland is nevertheless a welcome addition to the subgenre. The new film, from relatively green director Ruben Fleischer, finds a young college kid and a grizzled, gun-loving renegade—Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, respectively—teaming up to survive in a world ravaged by zombies, where they may be the only human survivors. Zombieland goes easy on the seriousness and heavy on the gore/zombie beatings, which makes for a jumpy, fun ride. Eisenberg, whose biggest roles have been in Adventureland and The Squid And The Whale, provides the fresh, funny face; Harrelson is a pro, playing intense moments completely straight for maximum laughs. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Eisenberg and Harrelson have an ease with one another that allows their dialogue to pop. That certainly came across in The A.V. Club’s chat with the two stars, who also covered their love/hate relationship with celebrity, big moments on the stage, and lots of zombies.
The A.V. Club: What was your familiarity with the whole zombie craze before the film?
Jesse Eisenberg: I had no familiarity with it. I knew of the Dawn Of The Dead movies, but I’d never seen any. But I didn’t read this movie like a zombie movie, I read it like a comedy. There’s even long stretches of the movie where there are no zombies, and that’s what I liked about it, that’s why I wanted to do it. Not because of where it fit into the genre.
Woody Harrelson: I was kind of the same way. I’ve watched some zombie movies, like 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Shaun Of The Dead. I normally don’t even like to watch scary movies, because they give me weird dreams, but in this case I really loved it as soon as I read it.
AVC: Woody, the film’s press materials namecheck No Country For Old Men and mention all the awards it won, then ask why you’d follow up with a film called Zombieland. The writers seem surprised.
WH: Well, I did a whole slew of movies between No Country and this one. Most of them were bombs and failures, and of course you wouldn’t have heard of them, but which nonetheless I thought were pretty good. But I don’t really read scripts thinking I want to do a specific type of thing. I just read it and see what the story is and whether or not it resonates. In this case, I told my agent, “Zombies? Really? Is this what it’s come to?” And he kept telling me to read it. I read it, and I thought it was one of the funniest scripts I’ve read.
AVC: Jesse, your press notes start by saying your character is a “big wuss.” Was that how the character was described to you?
JE: No, my agent said it was leading man, they said it was—
JE: Yeah, courageous in the vein of a modern day Humphrey Bogart, like Casablanca in high school. That’s how she described it to me. [Laughs.] I think she was talking about the wrong movie.
WH: If only you could read these [press notes] before you shoot.
JE: What do they write about me? [Thumbs through press notes.] Actually the second little paragraph in the script was, “It was then we hear the voice of a witty, anxiety-ridden everyman,” and in the parentheses it said, “Think Seth Green.” That’s what it said in the actual script, the full text of the script, which can win awards. So I was not even the correct wuss.
AVC: These two main characters have the dynamic prevalent in a lot of movies nowadays: The badass older guy and the young, scared buck who comes into his own.
JE: Yeah, I’m like the Danny Glover.
WH: I’m halfway to despondent at this point realizing how much of a cliché this movie is.
JE: [Laughs.] Yeah, I didn’t realize we were hacks.
AVC: Well, clichés exist for a reason. Does that bother you?
WH: No, I’m just kidding. I haven’t seen a movie like this so, to me, it’s original enough. I’m not insecure about it.
JE: I think the movie is totally original. Being candid, I’m surprised that it turned out to be as original as it did. I haven’t been in a big studio movie before, so I assumed that when a studio buys it, they’re just going to make it—like the jokes are just going to be geared to the lowest common denominator, and the scares are just going to come once every two minutes, and they’re just going to be music based or, you know, sound effects. I’m shocked the movie has its own creative personality.
AVC: Was that part of the draw, to at least have the experience of working with a big studio?
JE: No, of course not. Actors dread working with studios because they dictate what you do in a way that independent movies can’t. When I read the script, it wasn’t with a movie company yet. Although, doing these press tours has me realizing how much it takes to actually put a movie out there that people see, having been in movies that people don’t see.
WH: I feel like this is one of the better action-comedy-zombie movies I’ve seen.
JE: In the last two weeks, absolutely, at least. The best movie I’ve seen three times in the last month.
AVC: How did you guys find the balance between playing the film’s fearful and comedic elements?
JE: It was just about always playing it realistically. I have one moment in the movie that is not realistic, too me, and it bothers me every time I see it. You know when I ask you for a ride—I stick my thumb out? I just hate it. I think it’s totally false.
WH: Well, that does get a laugh.
JE: [Sighs.] I know, but that’s not the kind of laugh that you want.
WH: You didn’t feel it was real enough. I like his criteria.
JE: Getting a laugh from that is like coming up with a killer pick-up line and using it on a prostitute. You know what I mean? It doesn’t take much to get a laugh from something like that. It’s totally broad, phony comedy, and I hate comedy like that. I hate watching comedy like that, I hate acting in comedy like that. Everything else I feel okay with.
AVC: What’s your take on people’s zombie obsession, now that you’re a part of this film?
WH: We’re seeing how prevalent the zombie thing is, and everywhere we’ve gone—I’m sure tonight you’re just going to see a lot of people dressed up like zombies. We were in Austin a few days ago, and they were loaded with zombies, like there must have been a couple hundred zombies there. It was pretty wild.
JE: We saw the movie in Orange County, California, and you literally can’t hear half the movie because people are cheering. I’ve never seen anything like it.
AVC: Woody, what’s it like to perform for an audience who doesn’t know you at all from Cheers?
WH: I just play it the same. But it is an interesting thing: Now that I’ve kind of hitched my star to Jesse Eisenberg, a lot of these young people know me that wouldn’t necessarily. Maybe someday they’ll go back and see some old rerun of Cheers or something and say, “Oh yeah, I remember that guy.” I’m trying to get my own kids to watch Cheers. [Adopts “dad” voice.] “You know, it was a good show, kids; granted, it’s not Friends, but you could watch it.”
AVC: How’s that working out?
WH: They haven’t really watched it. We don’t have television, the only way that they watch things is on DVDs. So when they get into something—my middle child is completely immersed in Friends now, probably five years of complete immersion. She still watches at least three or four episodes a day.
AVC: What was your transition like from mostly TV and a little film to the opposite?
WH: At the time in the ’80s, it was kind of a difficult thing. It was harder than it is now. I can’t see doing much television now just because there’s only two alternatives. One is you come on a new show like Ted Danson has Bored To Death; so either you’re going to completely go 100 percent into a new show, or you’re going to be a guest star. That might be fun for some people; I can’t get into that because it’s too high-wire. You may not have a good part, and you usually don’t see it until the moment you sit down at the table read, and then the clock is ticking. And if it’s not working, you gotta get the thing re-written. The last thing I did was Frasier, and it wasn’t right. We did the table read, then we came the next day, blocked it out with Jim Burrows at the helm, and it just was not working. So they took the following day off, totally re-wrote the script from scratch except for the B-story, and then we came in on the weekend and rehearsed—which I’d never done in all the time I’d done television. It was just too much of a nail-biter for me, you know?
AVC: You both have strong backgrounds in stage work. What have you taken from that experience and applied to your work in film?
JE: Something I’m learning about movies is that when they do a lot of angles, they’ll make you look good even if you don’t feel like—I don’t mean vanity, I mean they’ll make your performance come across normally, even you don’t feel like you performed well on each angle. And this is the first movie where I realized that. I thought I was doing terribly because they did so many angles, but then I realized they’re just putting it together. I had just done a play before this, and every moment you’re on stage you’re performing, so I assumed it was the same thing with movies. But it’s not. You have to learn how movies are done so that you can pace yourself.
WH: When I met Jimmy Stewart years ago—I met him on an airplane, and sent a note to him [later] saying what a huge fan I was, and seeing if he had any advice. At the time, I was just starting. He says, “Be sure to get time on stage,” and I thought was great advice. It’s a much different thing when it’s a camera, because the camera is so tight on you and you can’t really [flails arms] give one of those big broad performances like you would on stage. So it’s a matter of degree.
AVC: Do you find the pure acting muscle is similar?
WH: Well, although they say the camera doesn’t lie, to quote John Malkovich… He said he thought that’s precisely what it’s there for, and you can get away with a lie a lot easier in film than you can in a theater.
AVC: Jesse, your character in the film is scared of clowns. How do you reconcile the fact that your mom is a clown?
JE: My mom always said that she didn’t wear a red nose and big shoes because that’s the reason people are scared of clowns. My dad is a sociology teacher, so he probably figured that out with her. Those are the things that are exaggerated, that don’t give off the signals of humans. You know, if you draw a picture of a circle and ask somebody to feel empathy with the circle, they won’t. But if you draw literally two, three dots inside the circle, like two eyes and a nose, you immediately feel empathy. So I think the shoes and the nose dehumanize the clown, or they exaggerate the clown in a way that makes it—I’m sure people know a lot about this, but my mom was never a scary clown. She was always the antidote to the scary clown.
AVC: Jesse, you’ve been on a lot of lists of up-and-coming young stars to watch, that sort of thing. What has your experience been, having recently been thrust into the limelight?
JE: Well, you’re not supposed to read what they write about you, because it’s just debilitating. And people have written mean things that I’ve read, and they make you feel terrible about yourself and feel like: How could I go be a creative person when people think it’s bad?
WH: Let go of that Harvard Crimson review.
JE: Fucking Crimson. A few years ago, somebody wrote something bad in the Harvard Crimson; then we were in Boston yesterday, and I thought the girl who was coming to interview us was the girl, and she never showed up. Smart move. But I have everybody’s name on my bathroom wall, on my stall shower actually, and I just read their names as I soap up and plan on murdering them.
WH: That’s his way of saying you better write some nice stuff.
AVC: It’s a Q&A, so it’s like you’re writing it.
JE: So if I say something self-deprecating, I’ll kill myself.
WH: Oh Jesus, so if we suck then we have ourselves to blame.
JE: There was a six-month period where I got recognized on the street every single day as the guy from Spring Awakening, which took over New York City.
WH: [Mocking.] You do look like that guy!
JE: I would say I’m not him, they’d say, “Yes you are.” They wouldn’t even question it. It was so annoying, especially because I live in Chelsea, which is like the musical-theater capital of the world.
AVC: You must have had to deal with that a lot, Woody, over the years.
WH: Yeah, yeah. It was so weird when Spring Awakening opened. [Laughs.] You know what does happen to me, to this day? All the time, people will be like, “Hey! Woody Allen!” It’s not so bad. I say, “Yeah, and this is my wife Soon-Yi,” because my wife happens to be Asian as well. But the reason it does bother me is that I know that never in his life has Woody Allen been walking down the street and somebody said, “Hey! Woody Harrelson!”
JE: When we were in Georgia, we were in a rural, rural area, where I thought there would be, like, statutes of Woody Harrelson because he’s from the South. And then these two people were like, “Where’d you say Woody Allen was?”
WH: It probably didn’t make a lot of sense to have three syllables in this stage name I came up with, Harrelson.
AVC: Over the years, Woody, which of these types of things have you learned to let go of?
WH: A lot of it. I used to live in Los Angeles, but I didn’t want my kids to grow up in the thick of the obsession with movie-making. There’s a lot of sensationalism and superficiality, you know? I wanted to take my kids out of that and raise ’em up elsewhere, and I wanted to stop being preoccupied with whether my star is on the rise or the descent. I can’t imagine having a much greater life, and I don’t want to be preoccupied with things that don’t matter. But of course, ironically, my two oldest daughters have decided that they’re going to be actresses.
AVC: You have to be saturated with the industry to later walk away from it with work, right?
JE: The only way to be turned off to being famous is to be famous. And I only have like a tiny, tiny bit of that, and I’m already disgusted by it. But I realize that the only way to be disgusted by fame is to be famous, because otherwise it looks amazing. Then people stop you on the street, and it’s like the most annoying thing in the world. The first time it happened it’s great, and then the second time you have to shake somebody’s hand…
WH: I think people’s perception is that when you’re famous, you want people to love you. That’s a big part of why people become famous, because they don’t just want love, they want it on a grand scale. But once you realize—and it’s not a big trick to really figure it out—that it’s just completely artificial, an external pumping of the ego that’s never going to really help you, then it’s an easy thing to step out of it. That’s probably why Harrison Ford lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
AVC: Did you guys freak people out while you were shooting? There were zombies everywhere, after all.
JE: There was another zombie movie filming in Georgia while we were there, and that was actually distressing people. They would put up signs, like big road signs, that said, “Zombie Crossing,” or something, and so people were freaking out. It wasn’t our movie, it was the other movie, which I heard sucks!
AVC: So they were filming another zombie movie right around the time that you were filming a zombie movie?
JE: Yeah, directed by Michael Eisner’s son. Why does he need to make something? Start a foundation! You’re so rich, start a foundation. Unless, of course you’re casting, in which case we loved Sahara.