It’s been one heck of a summer moviegoing season so far. Sure, we’ve had big hits like Avengers: Endgame, but largely, many of the blockbusters that studios were banking on, such as Men In Black: International and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, have failed to generate enough buzz in order to become true box office successes. Yet, there are several smaller movies coming down the pipeline this season that may offer something these big movies can’t. Enter The Art of Self-Defense.
I had the chance to see this movie back when it debuted at SXSW earlier this year. It’s certainly not your typical summer affair and it’s certainly not for everyone. That said, those who are a little worn out when it comes to half-baked sequels may be in for a treat here. It’s a totally bizarre, unhinged, dark comedy from the mind of writer/director Riley Stearns. He’s assembled a top-notch ensemble cast, led by Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots and Alessandro Nivola to lead us through a very bizarre, martial arts-filled world.
This is one of those movies that uses something of an absurd lens in order to tackle modern issues. To say something about modern society. Specifically as it relates to toxic masculinity and the way that permeates our culture and manifests itself in ugly ways. Yet, on the surface, this is the most insane karate movie you’re ever likely to see.
Related: Art of Self-Defense SXSW Review: Eisenberg Shines in Pitch Black, Poignant Comedy
The Art of Self-Defense centers on Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), who on the street one night is attacked by a motorcycle gang. In an effort to learn how to defend himself, Casey joins a neighborhood karate studio and winds up looking up to his of a charismatic and mysterious instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), as a mentor. Anna (Imogen Poots), also serves as an important member of the dojo and helps Casey find confidence for the first time. But when he attends the exclusive night classes, this man gets a whole lot more than he bargained for.
I was lucky enough to chat with the cast, as well as Riley Stearns, during SXSW about the movie. In an actual dojo no less. During our chat on the karate mat, we covered quite a bit of ground and I even had the chance to ask Jess Eisenberg about Zombieland 2. So, without further adieu, here’s my chat with the cast and filmmaker behind The Art of Self-Defense.
This movie has all of these weird little musings about life. Did you guys take anything away from that personally? Like, perhaps taking any lessons from it, even though they were coming from a less than ideal place?
Riley Stearns: I don’t know if I’m the one to answer that.
Jesse Eisenberg: Part of the comedy from the movie and part of the kind of insights that the movie presents comes from the idea that you think it’s about one thing, the pursuit of masculinity and being able to defend one’s self, but actually it’s what you’re referring to, you realize that the people who are leading this group are actually corrupt and immoral and that the goal the character has set for himself is not the one you want him to achieve.
Alessandro Nivola: I definitely went away feeling it was better to listen to metal.
Riley Stearns: I like that lesson. I think that’s a good lesson. I mean, it is from my head so I feel like a lot of these things are just ideas that popped up as I was writing the script and stuff. So, if anybody takes anything away and gets anything out of it… mainly I just want people to be entertained. That’s the biggest takeaway.
You brought up the toxic masculinity thing. Imogen, for you, what was it like for you representing the main female viewpoint in this world that is very much dominated by toxic masculinity?
Imogen Poots: It was a great chance to play this part and toxic masculinity was very evident reading the script. And I was excited to play someone who was deeply complicated and had a capacity for great violence, and was obviously existing in such a noxious world, and being denied her right to succeed. And the ramifications of that were pretty horrific. I had spoken earlier about the ridiculousness of some people in control and who decides… the system deciphers whether or not you are allowed to ascend. Just kind of the absurdity of that was evident in the script also and that was really cool.
It’s humorous, but the humor is about as pitch-black as it gets. So what was that like for you guys working with something like that?
Riley Stearns: The main thing is, with this stuff, it would be very easy to sell the dialogue or the lines as jokes, and they are funny. They’ve got an innate funniness inside of them but you can’t acknowledge that when you’re saying it. You have to say everything very earnestly and believe what you’re saying. And that’s where the humor kind of comes from. It’s the absurdity of the line and the way that it’s stated. That’s the most important thing. But, even when things get dark, my favorite art, in general, is always something that’s got a sense of humor lying underneath. So, even as the film gets darker, I always wanted to keep that humor kind of running through. I do think something so dark can be kind of funny too. There’s a specific moment that happens halfway through the film where I feel like the shift happens and we’re now in the darkness territory. And that shift still makes people laugh. Or, at least it makes me laugh and I hope it will make others.
Jesse, you play this sort of loner, isolated type, and I think everyone sort of knows somebody like that, whether or not it goes off the rails as much. Where did that come from for you? Just getting into that isolated state and feeling. How did you prepare for the role?
Jesse Eisenberg: It’s not exactly natural. It’s not supposed to be a natural style of acting and for me that’s ideal. I much prefer to do this kind of style because you’re given parameters and you’re given a rubric that is so specific that once you kind of find the type of behavior, then you can really indulge in it. A naturalistic kind of movie I find to be much more difficult because you’re required to be at all times kind of authentic, and it has to be so precise because the audience is much more likely to recognize inauthenticity in a natural performance than they are to recognize inauthenticity in a movie that has its own style. So, in a way, it felt like I was doing my own art project and if people like it, that’s on them. But I’m not required to convey at every moment what it’s like to be a natural human being that everybody can kind of recognize and understand. So I much prefer this. It was much easier and comfortable. I just thought, this character is someone who acts like a baby. He acts like he’s a seven-year-old boy. He doesn’t understand sarcasm. He doesn’t employ sarcasm. He doesn’t understand ulterior motives. He assumes that people are as pure as he is. He lives in this kind of strange, literal bubble. I just loved it. I wish I could do it again. Every day was a real gift to an actor.
Alessandro, you have this quiet intensity to you throughout the movie. Where did that come from exactly and what was it like fitting into the puzzle that is the rest of this movie?
Alessandro Nivola: Inspiration for the character was from the guy who runs the dojo for my son’s hapkido class when he was like, eight. And he was very similar to this guy. You always had the feeling that he had this false sense of importance and he was just lording it over these little kids there, who were an easy target. So I kind of just had that in mind the whole time, and I was imitating his body language and the kind of tone that he took, which was very hallowed, and that these are kind of hallowed grounds. There’s something sacred about this space and that it needs to be honored and respected. Of course that, in the context to what [the character] actually ends up getting up to is so completely f****** crazy that the humor comes out of that.
Without getting into spoiler territory, what do you all hope from your own artistic perspective that people take away from this experience?
Riley Stearns: I know it’s kind of funny to say this but I do genuinely hope that they’re entertained. I hope that people come away and think about themselves, maybe find themselves in Casey. I think everyone has a little bit of Casey inside of them. Maybe I might have a little bit more than others. We made something that was a very specific thing and we made it with genuine love for the movie.
Jesse Eisenberg: I hope people find it funny, because it’s not the kind of movie that tells you right off the bat that it’s funny. There’s not really a lot of signposts to indicate that it’s very funny, but to us, obviously, we think it’s the funniest thing. So you kind of hope that people have that same personal love that you have for it.
Imogen Poots: It’s saying a lot! It has a lot to say, which is really cool. And it’s funny and it’s fun, and there’s a bunch of karate, which I haven’t seen in a movie in a very long time.
Allesandro Nivola: I hope there’s a spike in ownership of German Shepherds.
Just before we wrap up, Jesse, you’re doing Zombieland 2 right now. I know you can’t say too much but can you tell me how it’s going?
Jesse Eisenberg: It’s going really well. Just resting on our laurels and really cocky [laughs]. No, the opposite. We’re working so hard. It’s one of these movies that, people loved it for personal reasons. So it’s not just a big hit movie. People love it for personal reasons so you want to make sure it’s as funny and as personal as the other one.
Zombieland 2 is set to arrive in theaters this October. As for The Art of Self-Defense, it will first roll out in select cities on July 12. After that, it will be getting a nationwide expansion from Bleecker Street on July 19.