In his new film, “Zombieland,” actor Woody Harrelson portrays a bulky, tan zombie-killing hick named Tallahassee whose aggressive personality fills up the screen. But when I had the chance to sit down with Harrelson and his co-star Jesse Eisenberg, I was surprised to find that he couldn’t be more different from the character he portrays. Instead of ordering me to “Nut up or shut-up,” he greeted me with a calming Southern drawl. And instead of talking about his search for the last Twinkie on earth, he told me about his vegan diet and how the filmmakers had to make him a Twinkie out of Styrofoam… or something.
Jesse Eisenberg, who is swiftly dominating the”geeky-and-smart-yet-adorable-and-funny male lead” category in Hollywood, plays, you guessed it, the geeky and smart, yet, oh-so-hilarious-and-adorable male lead in “Zombieland.” And he seemingly can play that role so well because of personal experience. Throughout the interview, he stumbled and revved over his words like speed bumps, liberally inserting “like” and “ya know” and occasionally dropping a word like “pratfall,” and rushed on while I stayed back and tried to define the word by context. But you see why girls drop like flies for him when, after making a wry, witty comment, he flashes those dimples for which his younger sister, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, is more famous. (Remember the little Pepsi girl?)
Harrelson and Eisenberg spent a lot of time talking about how hard they’ve worked on this film, which is not, they protest, the next “Shaun of the Dead.” But as they spent most of the interview hurling comedic one-liners at each other, laughing in their own world at things I couldn’t understand, it became apparent that being funny isn’t hard work for them.
“I take (my role) three-quarters seriously,” Harrelson said.
“Yeah, like most of your work,” Eisenberg shot back without missing a beat.
This chemistry, which is as natural in the movie as it is in person, was apparently developed a lot on set.
“The fun things to film,” Eisenberg said, “are improvising with Woody. That’s, like, amazingly fun. We would be improvising for, like, several minutes, and we’d all end up laughing and he would just stare at us in character like, ‘Why are you laughing at me?’ Like that look he was just giving me now as I was explaining it.”
Harrelson, quick to return the compliment, talked about the scene where his and Eisenberg’s characters meet.
“This is the last take,” Harrelson said, “and then he says ‘Oh, one and done, I always say. I mean, I said it once.’ It’s like, really clever! Or, ‘Hey watch out, you almost knocked over your alcohol with your knife.’ Things that I couldn’t have known that was gonna be funny. There’s a lot of that stuff.”
Unfortunately for us, however, Eisenberg said much of the improv won’t make it into the movie.
“They’re usually so absurd,” he said, “because they’re just actors trying to make each other laugh, not the characters actually speaking. Uh, yeah, there was a lot of…pratfalls.”
So, perhaps the hard work they’re talking about is running from zombies for hours at a time.
“I mean, it’s difficult to make,” Eisenberg said. “Like, a little fight scene that is, like, 30 seconds, takes a long time to film and, like, a lot of preparation and, you know, you’re running all night and whatever. You have fake blood and puke on you and…it’s, like, really fun to watch, but you know, definitely the least fun thing to film.”
Although “Zombieland” isn’t marketed as a horror film, it doesn’t spare the blood. Director Ruben Fleischer’s zombies aren’t the typical plodding-with-arms-outstretched zombies. In fact, they’re quite fast, and incredibly persistent. Viewers get the opportunity to see a mother get run down in a minivan by her own toddler zombie daughter. The scene ends with you watching mom slide face-first for 10 feet on hot asphalt.
A lot of the carnage got thrown in post-production, Eisenberg said.
“(Fleischer) just became desensitized,” Eisenberg said. “When you edit a movie and you’re sitting there for just days and days and days…he would just stop seeing the blood splatter and they’d end up just putting more in. And now…the whole movie’s just…like sepia-toned.”
When audiences go to see “Zombieland” this Friday, many will be holding it up in comparison to the similar 2004 flick “Shaun of the Dead.” Eisenberg and Harrelson insisted, however, that the films aren’t comparable.
“We’re not a competition,” Harrelson said.
Eisenberg felt a little more strongly about the comparison. He had this to say to those who are critical of “Zombieland”:
“You don’t want to see my movie? Fuck off,” he said, laughing. “I worked so hard on this! If you don’t want to go because there was another movie 10 years ago that had a slightly similar tone…It’s one of the funniest movies you’ll ever see ever. The zombies are, like, almost secondary. So if you don’t want to go see it because you’re, uh, precious about the genre, or whatever, fuck off.”
The film, which actually started out as a television show, definitely lends itself to having a sequel. If it does as well as expected, that very well may be a possibility. The end leaves us wanting to see what happens to our post-zombie-apocalypse characters. Does Columbus come up with more rules to live by? What other shenanigans do he and Tallahassee get themselves into?
“The moment (‘Zombieland’) ended,” Eisenberg said, “I was like ‘We gotta do another one tomorrow!’ It’s so much fun to watch. You want to see another one. You want to see like more rules. You want to see, like, what these people are gonna do. Like, it’s just the most fun experience.”
Look tomorrow for our review of “Zombieland,” which comes out October 2.
Photo credit: Blast staff photo/Aram Boghosian