American Ultra is Chronicle writer Max Landis’ wild medley of a movie. It’s one part Jason Bourne spy thriller, one part indie drama love story, and one part superhero movie – complete with over-the-top characters, heightened reality, and Jesse Eisenberg starring as Mike Howell, a convenience store clerk/stoner who turns out to be a highly-trained government asset. Added to the strange brew are Twilight star Kristen Stewart as Phoebe, Mike’s devoted stoner girlfriend, as well as actors like Topher Grace, Connie Britton and Walton Goggins, as shadowy government agents / assassins, bent on taking Mike out before the stoned slacker fully accesses his programming as a top-notch super agent.
Needless to say, American Ultra is a unique piece of a filmmaking – a wild ride conceived by Landis and orchestrated by Project X director Nima Nourizadeh, with a whole host of famous faces (add John Leguizamo, Tony Hale and Bill Pullman to that list) helping things along. We sat down in NYC with the movie’s headliners (Eisenberg and Stewart) to talk about everything from just how weirdly enjoyable the film is, to how Eisenberg is learning to play in these worlds of heightened realities – a skill set he’ll be putting on display big time, when Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice hits theaters next year.
One of the things that is unique about his movie is of course how it mixes this heightened spy action movie with this very earnest and surprisingly effecting kind of romance story between these two characters. And I was just wondering when you guys were coming into this, when the movie was taking shape, was this something kind of hard to wrestle with and maintain balance of, for you as performers? Or was it something that kind of locked in place from the very beginning?
Kristen Stewart: The script was constructed so masterfully that the scary thing was being able to emulate that. As we read the script it was fantastic but it was so weird, and it really did combine things that usually don’t go together. And so it gave me more confidence going into it with Nima [Nourizadeh] – and mainly with Jesse because I’ve worked with him before, and I trust him, and I think he’s very smart, and I thought we could do it together.
In particular, Jesse, for your character, like I said, this [film] is a big marriage [of material]; we also know, obviously, there’s this big elephant in the room that you’re taking on another iconic character that’s also going to be in this very heightened world. Is there something about the process that’s universal for approaching those two things? Keeping things grounded and focused and building organically from that as a character? Or is it different with each project?
Jesse Eisenberg: Maybe the end goal is different, but the process should be the same, which is to try to create some realism in a heightened situation. Like the reason ‘American Ultra’ is so funny is because our characters are having these realistic reactions to these terrifying situations. So you know, in a typical action movie the characters would be confidently handling these otherwise terrifying situations, but our characters are actually terrified, and when people are coming to kill us, we’re asking them to ‘please stop.’ Like a regular person would do in this situation. So I think like the comedy comes from playing it realistically and having the context be very funny.
So you’re going into Batman V Superman – is that just kind of the same thing? And what would you draw for the character of Lex Luthor?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah same kind of thing. You kind of want to play it realistically and hope that the context around you does all the work to make the situation suspenseful or whatever it’s supposed to be.
When you guys are working with someone like Max [Landis] who comes up with such unique worlds, not just that but his writing – I’ve met Max, we’ve kind of hung out several times, I know what Max is like–
Kristen Stewart: Wow.
Jesse Eisenberg: And you’re still here
Almost not, but I made it – I recovered the next morning. But uh, can you guys talk about anything – I know Topher [Grace] had lines from the script that he fell in love with and that really hit him – were there any kind of parts or lines in the script that really kind of just captured you, grabbed you, that you’re going to remember after this?
Kristen Stewart: So many… Like everything…
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah everything. There were always these funny little moments and these funny reactions that, just like, the characters are so befuddled. I just saw an advertisement for this movie on a website today, and yeah, there’s just this funny line: I’m trying to negotiate a surrender with this guy and ask him like do I have to sign something. Like I’ve, you know, just told the bad guy that he has to surrender, but then I ask him if I have to sign anything because I’ve never accepted a surrender before. So it’s really this really funny juxtaposition of these characters who are in way over their heads.
And if you have a chance, what would you do for your next collaboration together?
Kristen Stewart: We’re about to work with each other again when we get back [to LA]. We’re in New York right now and I think we leave tomorrow or the next day, and then the following day after that, we start our next job [an untitled Wood Allen film.]
American Ultra will be in theaters on Friday, August 21st.