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Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots fight toxic masculinity with karate

The Art of Self Defense

It's not too often you have to take your shoes off to do an interview, but that's just what I did when I entered the Rising Sun Dojo at the height of SXSW to sit down with the cast and director of The Art of Self-Defense.

With the film's grandmaster smiling down on us from a frame on the far wall, I copped a squat on the mat with director Riley Stearns and his three leads, Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots and Alessandro Nivola.

Needless to say, this wasn't the typical interview, which was fitting because The Art of Self-Defense isn't your typical comedy. Stearns follows up his heavy drama Faults with this odd duck about a meek man named Casey (Eisenberg) who has let life walk all over him until he can't take it anymore and decides to sign up at a local karate dojo run by a tough as nails Sensei (Nivola) and his right-hand woman Anna (Poots). The dark comedy grows even darker still as Eisenberg rises through the ranks and learns some dirty secrets about this particular dojo.

I really dig that this movie doesn't exactly take place in our reality. It's close, but off just enough to really give the film a unique feel. That also compliments the ultra-violence that is lightly peppered throughout the movie.

Riley Stearns: Someone recently pointed out to me that my first short that I did that felt like it was totally my thing, The Cub, has this kind of set up with a violent payoff. And then Faults is a similar thing. There's this set-up and a breakdown, a moment of violence and the resolution.

This one sets up what I would say is a more traditional sports kind of movie or a story where someone is trying to better themselves. There's a halfway point moment where the rug is pulled out from under the audience. I want them to think they know where it's going, but all of a sudden they realize anything can happen.

Tone, to me, is the most important part of filmmaking, at least in the way I think of film. I'm less about doing the craziest one long take. If I can control the atmosphere and the tone, that's my main goal. Everything else comes after that. So, we knew what tone we wanted it to be and the world we wanted to live it, but just keeping that tight and knowing where we were at all times was very important to me.

And that's on the actors, too. It's your job to carry the tone. In this case, you do so playing more heightened characters. Can you talk a little about approaching that as actors? Is it more freeing to play these kinds of characters or more stressful knowing you have to go big at times?

Imogen Poots: I love the boundaries of it. I really, really love the boundaries. You know what your playing field is in a way. It's the same when you're given a specific set up, lighting-wise. You know where you are and can sort of forget everything again.

So, you feel like the limitations can be a little more freeing?

Poots: Depending on what the project is. With this, you get the sense of the tone by reading it and talking to Riley. Riley's voice is inherent in the script, so I just tried to imitate Riley. [laughs]

Stearns: She can do a really good impersonation of me. It's the only impersonation of myself I've ever heard and it definitely made me feel a little weird.

Eisenberg: I agree with Imogen. When you said you saw it you felt like it was made for you. When I read it I felt like it was made for me, too. But not because the flashes of violence, but because the comedy... if I could perform in this style exclusively I could be much happier.

I'd say 99 percent of comedies, even if they are really funny, are telegraphing to the audience that it's safe to laugh and this movie doesn't rely on the actors being self-aware in a way to make the audience feel safe laughing. This allows the actors to play as emotional as possible, as realistic to that odd tone as possible, and doesn't burden them with the responsibility of telling the audience it's okay by winking, by being self-aware, by rolling your eyes.

You're not telling them "this is the punchline."

Eisenberg: Exactly. As an actor, it is a complete relief because you're not saddled with the responsibility of conveying to the audience that it's a comedy.

Alessandro Nivola: Yeah, I pretty much just played it for real. Riley and I together came up with a backstory for the character, that in the context of the movie, had both comic and quite sad elements to it. There were wardrobe choices that were a little bit absurd that were supposed to be almost unconscious and invisible, but they would be there.

I basically just committed to what the guy really cared about. I think almost everything I say in the movie is what I really think.

That's interesting because if you think about it your character has the most to hide, but you're right. Now that you say that I can't remember any time he lied.

Nivola: I know, it's weird.

Stearns: Technically the whole way through you're completely honest. I've never really thought about it like that, but he never does tell a lie. That's great!

Art of Self Defense Jesse Eisenberg

The movie deals very much with the alpha male bravado and toxic masculinity. Jesse's character hates them, but wants what he perceives as their strength. Alessandro is kind of the ideal that he's striving for, but Imogen's character has strength with a core of empathy. I assume that was the intention, that you were trying to show that you can be strong without being a monster.

Stearns: Yeah. I feel like we had conversations about it, but the thing that I liked about Imogen's character is that while everyone else speaks in a very literal way, everything's black or white to them, I think Anna has the gray area. She's teaching the kids class. She's teaching the future of the school and is showing them that they don't have to be the way that everyone else is, particularly the boys.

She's not literally doing that in the scene. She's not saying these specific things to the children, but we had conversations about what she was doing in her classes to make changes down the line. Yeah, all of that was in Anna all along and I think that's what she's going to do going forward, whatever that ends up being.

Poots: Yeah, she doesn't subscribe even though it may appear on the surface that she does. The gray area with her is interesting, her past and what she has done. She's a survivor. She has the instincts of someone who knows the reality of the world and what you've got to do. She's a resilient lady.

She also seems to be playing the game, trying to move up the ladder, and isn't rewarded for it.

Poots: I don't think she is playing the game because I don't think she will ever get moved up. In this moment when we meet her the idea is she ain't ascending.

But she learns that during the course of the movie, right? She's expecting to take her place at the top.

Poots: Yes, she's being denied it.

Nivola: I always got the feeling that until a certain point that she was still under Sensei's spell.

Do you guys have any personal experience with martial arts?

Poots: I did ballet for a minute and was thrown out because I lied about something. It was really hard for me.

"Trust me, I pirouetted."

Poots: Did you?

[laughs] No, I was guessing what your lie was! I mean, I know I have a dancer's physique...

Poots: Oh, wow.

Eisenberg: Oh, right, right. I thought that you were ballet dancing when you went to the bathroom... [laughs]

Poots: We did some martial arts training for a couple of weeks prior to shooting, but never before that. Riley however does.

Stearns: Yeah, I do it now and it's a huge part of my life. As a five-year-old I got my yellow belt in karate here in Austin and my dad decided we weren't going anymore and we never went back. So, I got my yellow belt and quit. Five years old. Set the tone for the rest of my life.

Nivola: And that chip on your shoulder made a movie.

The Art of Self-Defense will be released on June 21.