"What if Jason Bourne had been a stoner?" That's the (absurd) question at the heart of American Ultra, the upcoming film starring Jesse Eisenberg (Batman V Superman) as Mike Howell, a typical stoner slacker convenience store clerk, who suddenly finds himself the target of a CIA op to erase highly-trained sleeper agents. Turns out Mike is one of those agents - a surprise to him, as much as anybody. When his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) gets caught up in the crossfire, Mike decides it's time to push through the haze and save the day.
Last summer, Screen Rant was included in a handful of online journalists that were invited to the New Orleans set of American Ultra (a title that references the famous CIA "MKUltra" program). There, we got to dine and chat with director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and writer Max Landis (Chronicle), as well interviewing stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who play Mike Howell (a stoner who doesn't know he's actually a Bourne-style sleeper agent) and his stoner girlfriend, Phoebe. Both Eisenberg and Stewart shared what it was like to get this high-octane script from Chronicle writer Max Landis, what it's like playing stoners, and being two unlikely candidates for a summer action movie.
[Jesse] That was pretty awesome today watching you do the fight choreography and stuff. That’s very different for you doing that sort of action?
Jesse Eisenberg: Oh, yeah. We’ve been training for a while.
Have you been enjoying that, the training and all the physical actions?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah. I started a few months ago because my character has to be kinda trained but doesn’t remember that he was trained. So it comes to him instinctively.
You have to have physicality, but you are obviously not supposed to bulk up because you are supposed to be this stoner guy. Is it mostly just about choreography other than strength training and stuff like that?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah. I was in Michigan working last month, so they hired these great guys. Every day off I had was working with them. they were teaching like Southeast Asian style fighting. Rob Alonzo is the stunt coordinator.
How did you first get the project? Was it you read the script and you were like, “Wow. I want to do this character”?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah. It was a great role. The script, I think it was finished the week I read it. I just loved it.
Kristen Stewart [enters room]: Hello.
Hello. Jesse was telling us how he first read the script and how he came on…
Kristen Stewart: I read the script in a fairly straightforward and conventional way, as actors get sent these scripts from their agents. It’s a really, really original and strange script. I’ve really never read anything like it. I jumped at working with Jesse. We really had a good time on ‘Adventureland’ a couple of years ago and we sorta declared we should definitely make a movie every five years. So, just in keeping with that, jumped on this one.
Max [Landis] was saying, Kristen, that this is a role that’s actually more towards your real personality. Is he accurate in saying that?
Kristen Stewart: Phoebe is a very sort of straightforward and sweet, fairly unassuming girl. It’s definitely nothing outside of…I didn’t have to bring any quarks to her. I didn’t have to bring any certain things that make her very much different from myself. I think it was just about immersing myself in this extremely surreal and weird heightened, unique, sort of…not unbelievable. It’s created in a very whole way...It’s definitely not set in our reality. But it is also hyper real in an odd way...it’s consistent, and emotional, and also funny. We’re always about to die. We’re constantly, constantly about to be killed or having to kill somebody. It’s also like a broad comedy at the same time. So to balance that has been the difficult thing. I am sort of essentially playing myself, if I was living in this world.
Talk a little bit about the looks of your characters. [Kristen] you dyed your hair. You have a little bit of a different look yourself. How much was that in the script? How much was that working to develop it? Talk a little bit about that.
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah. I wanted just to wear longer hair, like a wig, just because the character is somebody who…well, a few reasons. You know the character is somebody who would not have gotten a haircut in several years. He is somebody who has kind of just immersed himself in nothing, in his own laziness, and enjoying his own laziness.
So I thought he would have not have gotten a haircut. He wouldn’t groom himself in any kind of consistent way. It gives it a better kind of turn for when he has to defend himself. So this is a guy who couldn’t be less prepared to do this.
Kristen Stewart: We had spoken to Max a bit. I think the basic idea before it was actually a real thing was that if you were take the most unlikely people, like two dinky little stoner kids, Jesse Eisenberg and me, like it’s just sort of like…and then suddenly see them throw into this really high-speed, and intense, and sort of like disarmingly realistic action movie, it’s funny. It doesn’t feel familiar. It’s just a little bit shocking.
In order to make that hard-hitting, which is like the sort of basis for wanting to make the movie, it’s like if I look like I also dyed my hair maybe a year ago, haven’t maintained it. My interests are fairly flippant. We’re very directionless. We don’t really have…there’s nothing very defining about our looks. Everything is very haphazard, and comfortable, and practical. And we’re just like stoners, essentially. So that was all of this.
Max Landis was saying that, Jesse, your character’s role has a goal in the movie and never kind of changes throughout. You want to propose to her and get married to her. Is that an accurate description?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah. At the beginning of the movie he has the ring. He’s planning to propose to her that day. Then everything blows up in his life. He keeps the ring in his pocket throughout the movie. And he keeps looking for little moments, but then people try to kinda kill them, so he keeps being interrupted. But it’s really sweet.
And he has no tact. So the times he chooses to propose throughout the movie are the worst possible times. So he’s lucky that they interrupted. It’s kind of this running sweet joke that, ultimately, it comes to fruition at the end.
Does the comedy kinda come more through the situations or through the dialogue, or are you kinda playing it straight and it’s kinda everything around you?
Jesse Eisenberg: I think we’re aware of the humor. But the scenes we’ve had have been surprisingly so dramatic. When you read the script you can understand these are very dramatic scenes. The characters are experiencing something that is very heightened, but they have to experience it in a real way.
I always think this, and Kris and I were talking about this in rehearsal. This will be the most emotional movie we’ll do for a while, even though probably for an audience it’s more fun. But as an actor, because you are in these heightened situations, and the two of us don’t, like, fake it, so to speak. So we are experiencing real emotions and it’s kind of several histrionic scenes. But they should be funny based on the context. But it doesn’t necessarily rely on us to be…
Kristen Stewart: It’s so interesting figuring out which jokes should…because reading the script, there have been jokes that I have loved that really make me laugh genuinely. And then you get to set and you are like, “We can’t do that.” It’s traipsing all over what we’ve built.
Jesse Eisenberg: It’s too silly?
Kristen Stewart: Yeah, exactly. And then in some things you get there and it’s like, “I didn’t think this was going to be funny. I thought this was going to have to be played completely straight.” But the ridiculousness of the situation is too much to ignore, so one of our characters can say something silly and funny. He’s really funny. He’s hilarious. It’s like constant. But I think the movie is going to be hilarious….I laugh every day, even when we’re about to lose our lives.
How is Nima kind of orchestrating all of that? I mean kind of getting you into that scene and when you come to the set and say, “This might be a little bit too silly.” How does he kinda talk to you and…?
Jesse Eisenberg: Nima is doing the right thing. Like, as an actor, he’s doing the right thing. He will ask us to do what’s emotionally realistic before anything else. In my experience, things are usually funnier if that’s the case anyway, because you don’t kind of lose the thread of reality. He’s great. He has like an obsessive attention to detail. Maybe you saw in that last…I don’t know if you were watching carefully, but he was trying to get a millisecond of something correct. So it’s great. That extends to the acting, too. He asks us to do things.
One of the things we keep talking about is the creativity of the physicality in this movie and the creativity of some of the violence and the kills. We saw your character, obviously, with the eyeliner, practicing that. we didn’t hear about you, Kristen. Do you get to do some of the physical stuff and some of the creative fun, weird kill stuff?
Kristen Stewart: I’m trying to think. Actually, I kill two people, but with a gun. So I guess that’s not very creative. That’s the least creative way you can possibly kill someone.
Jesse Eisenberg: Aside from probably just waiting around for them to die…
Kristen Stewart: [laughs] You’re right. But then I wouldn’t be the one killing them. Actually, that’s extremely creative. I’m just going to sit in here and wait…
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah. Lock the door.
This is the first time the two of you have worked together since ‘Adventureland’. What’s it like reuniting?
Kristen Stewart: Awesome. I think me and Jesse work in a really similar way. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but our approach is just very similar. I don’t know. I think we rehearse in the same way. The way we get ready for things is similar. We don’t really like to go over things too much. It feels a little bit disrespectful to the material itself. It’s like you can overdo shit and then you have these weird memories of rehearsing it in a room where….I think that we both just sort of really want to experience something. And if we’ve chosen a project, it’s because we have a good feel for it. Rehearsal has been all about just talking and getting on the same page, even though we were totally kind of on the same page already, just realizing that we were. I’m really comfortable with him. I feel safe. I would do anything. It’s fun. I think he’s kinda fun to hang out with, too. And that makes it all a good experience.
Jesse Eisenberg: Oh, yeah. I mean I couldn’t say enough about her. She’s a phenomenal actress. I remember when we were working together she was 18 or 17 or something. And after like the first scene I went over to the director and said, “She’s really funny.” He was like, “Yeah, I know.” I was like, “No, no. she’s really funny. She’s just genuinely very funny.”…She does it in a way without drawing attention to herself being funny. She has a great sense of humor and serves the other actors…
Kristen Stewart: Doesn’t come across...personally, it does sometimes, maybe…
Jesse Eisenberg: By accident. No, she is like the least vain person you’ll meet. She’s also like a pretty woman…
Kristen Stewart: He’s really vain, all day long. I’m like, “Jesus!” He’s in makeup so much longer than me… [Laughter]
Jesse Eisenberg: She seems to serve the story and the other actors before herself. It’s a wonderful quality.
I know Topher [Grace] was talking about lines and monologues his character has. I was really curious about Max’s writing when it came to the relationship banter. It seemed like you guys have the time to make that really good. Is there something particular in the dialogue that stuck out in your minds as you kinda looked over the script?
Jesse Eisenberg: We have this scene where…He is such a wonderful writer and writes these characters in such specific and real ways, they seem like not only new, but they seem relatable in this very real way. We have this scene where we go to a party of her friends and I’m kinda stuck in the corner but telling her that it’s OK and that she should enjoy herself. And then she comes and kinda rescues me from the party. But later that night we’re sitting on the hood of our car and down the road a car has crashed and a guy has gone through the windshield. You don’t see it. It’s just all the way from our point of views, looking far down. I start telling her I feel like I’m the tree stopping that car…she’s the car and this tree has just been stopping for so long and that car has just been moving for so long, and suddenly, the tree on this night stopped this wonderful, beautiful thing that’s been moving, which is this car. I feel like I’m the tree…
It’s just this really sweet….they are smoking weed, so it’s a bit of a stoned thought. But it’s so beautiful and it sums up this relationship in such a sweet way, the way they both think about each other... So it’s stuff like that where everything feels so specific and meaningful...He’ a really wonderful, special writer.
American Ultra will be in theaters on on August 21st.