Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha join together for Kevin Asch's Holy Rollers
Holy Rollers, a new film from first time director Kevin Asch, was inspired by actual events in the late nineties when Hasidic Jews were recruited as mules to smuggle ecstasy from Europe into the United States. Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), a young Hasid from an Orthodox Brooklyn community reluctantly follows the path his family has chosen for him, awaiting a pending arranged marriage and studying to become a Rabbi. A charming neighbor, Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha), senses Sam's resistance and propositions him to transport 'medicine' for Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), an Israeli dealer, and his girlfriend, Rachel (Ari Graynor). Sam quickly demonstrates his business skills to his new bosses, who instantly take Sam under their wing. Now exposed to the exciting and gritty worlds of Manhattan and Amsterdam nightlife, Sam begins to spiral deeper into their detrimental lifestyle, experimenting with ecstasy and then falling for Rachel. As the business grows, Sam's double life begins to rip his family apart and the community becomes suspicious of his illegal activities. Sam slowly comes to realize the façade behind the easy money and parties. Caught between life as a smuggler and the path back to God, Sam goes on the run, forced to make a fatal decision that could bring the entire operation crashing down.
We recently caught up with both Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Bartha to find out more about the film. Here is our conversation:
Living near Fairfax in Los Angeles, you quickly become aware of how insular and guarded the Hassidic community is. How did you find your way into this world? Did you find a lot of Hassidic Jews that were willing to give of their time and knowledge in contributing to the journey Sam Gold embarks upon?
Jesse Eisenberg: When I first started approaching them, I found it to be very difficult. I soon found that there is a sect of the community that is very open to speaking with secular Jews. Which I am one of. They allowed me in. They would call me every Friday night. "Are you coming to Shabat dinner?" They would ask for my phone number five minutes into any conversation. I was welcomed by this group quite quickly. The challenge was to pull away, because I was busy with other things. They are trying to proselytize in the hopes that you become more religious. My goal was to learn about the community for the movie. I wasn't able to learn about their isolation. That group wouldn't talk to me. As you may have noticed on Fairfax, there would be a proselytizing group. The Chabad sect. That is the same thing in New York. They try to get you to come in and pray with them. I would do that. I had time to go do that. It was a great experience. To be able to learn about that, and prepare for a movie role.
Did you share with them what you were doing in preparing for this particular film role?
Jesse Eisenberg: Frankly? They did not ask. Who would think, "Why do you keep coming to me?" If someone calls you into the school, they ask, "Are you Jewish." I'd say, "Yes." They would ask, "Do you want to come pray with us?" I'd say, "Sure." No one is going to expect that you're gearing up to play a movie part about them. It was not a curious or suspicious thing for me to be there. They were happy to have me. This is something they do with a lot of secular Jews. For me, I don't think I looked suspect at all. I would spend some time with the younger guys, who I felt were very similar to my character. That was my chance to come clean, so to speak. I told them, "I am working on a character. That is why I have these questions." They don't watch secular movies. I don't think they had any idea what that meant. They didn't think this was a movie that was going to come out. I don't think at any time I was insulting them. That was not my interest. To infiltrate the community in a sly way, with dark intentions. I wanted to learn about this, so that I could play the part realistically. I didn't want to have a stereotypical Hassidic Jew, like they do in a lot of movies. That, too me, is offensive.
Justin, What about your character Yosef? A while back, at a party on Highland, I ran into a guy that was shockingly similar to your character in this movie. When I approached him, he was like, "Fuck you, get out of my face!" Is Yosef based on a real guy? Did I run into him? Or was this you in costume, researching your role?
Justin Bartha: I've been known to wander around Hollywood telling people, "Fuck you!" It could have been me. But I don't think so. You never know, though, We did do a ton of research for this film. It's not specifically based on one person. All of the people in the film are fictionalized from the imagination of each actor. For me, I did live above a Hassidic family in Los Angeles. There was a son that was similar to Yosef. I did use him as an inspiration. That could have been the guy you bumped into.
The characters you guys played were amalgamations of various different people. So when we see those title cards at the end of the film, that is a bit of fantasy mixed with reality.
Justin Bartha: It is a bit of fantasy mixed with reality. Obviously the story about a group of Hassidic Jews smuggling Ecstasy out of Europe and into Brooklyn is true. That did happen. They did go to jail. We never met those people. This is our version of a very personal character piece that uses that story as a fantastic backdrop.
How do you personally view the dress you're required to wear throughout the duration of the film? Did you consider it a suit of armor? Or did you look at it as an antiquated uniform that no longer serves its purpose outside of the community? How did its restriction feed into the emotional weight you carry throughout the story?
Jesse Eisenberg: The clothing is very helpful in creating the experience of the character. For the most part, it's just in your head. It's helpful to have externalities, which is what they call it in acting school. It gives you something that is external. That is very helpful. It can lend a more realistic feeling to the ultimately contrived notion of making a movie. For me, I had a long black jacket, and I had the curly sideburns. The strings that hang down off the belt. And the fedora. The hat. To put it on every day, in the morning, did have a uniform feeling to it. Then having the other actors put it on as well created a sense of bonding that may have not been achieved. Or it may have been more difficult to achieve. That was interesting. For the characters that didn't wear that, you felt as the characters felt. You felt a little removed from them. It does create all of these subtle, unconscious feelings of being separated from those who are not like you. And attached to those who are. It's probably the same way you felt living near Fairfax, and where I lived in Brooklyn.
Justin Bartha: Costumes always play a huge part in any role an actor plays. It helps you get into creating a specific character, and climbing into their world. The Hassidic grab is something that has been passed down throughout generations. There are different versions within each sect. The black suit. The white shirt. The fedora cap. I think that is something most people are familiar with. The clothes didn't restrict me at all. It helped me get into it. As Yosef developed throughout the movie, you see him getting away from that garb. As he falls deeper into the drug culture, he gets more flashy.
What do you personally make of Yosef's white sneakers?
Justin Bartha: The white sneakers themselves represent a change in Sam. These clean, white, Nike shoes that the drug dealer bootlegs after awhile, and everyone starts to wear them. They represent a secularized version of what is going to happen to Sam.
Jesse Eisenberg: That is a great observation. It creates a feeling of desire. That's what draws Sam in. The white shoes. The Rolex watch. The nice car, which I think was cut out of the movie. It's these little things that make you so intrigued. Maybe that's why someone from this community may end up in that world. Even though they seem like little details, they stand out so much. Maybe they have a greater effect than they would in a secular community}
Once you've immersed yourself in this world and culture, what does it feel like to go without the yamica? Or head covering? Does it bring a mixed sense of freedom and fear, almost like not wearing a seatbelt?
Justin Bartha: Its just another part of the costume. I am Jewish, and I know very well what it means to wear a yamica, or a head covering. You can see it in a scene where the kids get back from Europe, and the jig is up. Where it is revealed that they've been dealing drugs. Yosef screams at his own little brother. His yamica falls off his head. At the end of that scene, you'll notice that he still picks up the yamica, gives it a kiss, and puts it back on his head. Even though he has fallen from grace within his own religion, he still has that ingrained religious tick that he is so used to. It's not even out of respect, it's out of repetition. The costume, the locations, the prayers. Everything helped immensely when creating this character, and it provides endless fodder for ideas.
How closely were you able to identify with the emotional journey that we experience alongside Sam Gold? Did you see it being less about his religious restrictions and more about his own human restrictions?
Jesse Eisenberg: I wanted to do the role because I felt immediately connected to the character. What I really liked about it was that he is in the most emotionally difficult place he has ever been in and may ever be in. This is a community in which he grew up, and he is moving away from that. Eventually, everything breaks down for him in the end. I thought that emotional experience was interesting enough to make me want to play this role. Very much so. We wanted to make this character human. That was of the utmost importance, and therefore those feelings he felt about the restriction of his religion, and the restrictions of his religious community are compelling. What is the effect it has on him emotionally? There was always the discussion of the great sin. Would it be getting kicked out of the community? Would it be getting kicked out of the house? We argued this as secular filmmakers. We thought, "The house! Of course." Because that is his family. But in talking to people in the community, getting kicked out of it or the school where they practice, is just as weighty. They view that as we view our families. Its excommunication. The most important aspect of his journey is his emotional experience. That is informed by his tedious relationships created within the religious community.
The film takes place in 1998. Did you look into how this sort of operation has changed in the past ten years, with airport security becoming more and more heightened? Do you think the Hassidic community has been made more suspicious in the last ten years in terms of air travel, and do you think this film will plant the seed in a lot of heads that maybe we should be watching these fellas a little closer on our flights?
Justin Bartha: Obviously in setting up the movie, it was easier to portray these guys smuggling drugs pre-9/11. The security measures weren't as strict as they are now. That helps when you are making a low budget movie. You try to set those things up a little easier. You still hear stories about wayward individuals within Orthodox communities. Whether it is any type of religion, various people are still caught doing nefarious activities. I try not to racial profile when I am on airplanes nowadays. I think that's something enough people do already. I think its interesting. The portrayal of Hassidic Jews in this movie is more realistic than anything I've ever seen in any other movie that has Hassidic Jews in it. I think if it makes anyone look at someone a little differently, we've done one part of our job.
When previously taking about this film, you said that you didn't think too many Hassidic Jews would actually ever see it. Does that make you more or less concerned about creating an accurate portrayal and not just a caricature of who these people are in this particular society?
Jesse Eisenberg: I think that is irrelevant, really. I don't want my performance to have to live up to the standards of someone else. I just want to have a standard that I set for myself. And I want to reach that standard for the people who are collaborating on the movie with me. Whether someone was offended by my performance was not my concern. We wanted to create some authenticity, because it would make the movie more interesting. We had some unfortunate circumstances that made this difficult. For instance, I couldn't shave my head because I was under a contract at a movie studio for a movie I shot one week after Holy Rollers ended. I couldn't shave my head, because it wouldn't grow back in time for that other movie. Sometimes we were hiring actors for one scene. These were extras who were playing Hassidic Jews. We couldn't ask them to shave their heads, because it was a small film. And you can't ask people to do that. We can't afford that. We had to create our own sect. That had some authentic elements. But there was no other way to make the movie.
Justin Bartha: I don't think it had anything to do with the development of the characters. We always wanted them to be real. We were always interested in creating real, grounded people. That just happened to be Hassidic Jews. This story could take place in any religion. It's more about family and faith. It's not specifically about Hassidic Jews. They won't watch this film, because they don't watch secular movies. I think they'll have no interest in it. There is nothing disrespectful represented, even though some of them are dealing drugs. The movie presents the characters as going back to their faith at the end. They each get what they deserve, I think.
You had a very limited amount of time to shoot the film. When your schedule is that limiting, do you find yourself having to jettison certain ideas or story elements to make it work, or did you guys work overtime to ensure that the whole of the script arrived in tact?
Jesse Eisenberg: There was stuff that got cut after it was shot. The length is not a reflection of a smaller budget. We cut a lot out of it so that we would have the tightest story. The first script I read had more of a thriller element to it. It focused more on the drug deals. On Sam rising through the ranks. That was something that was difficult to afford. There was violence in the script. We felt it more important to concentrate on the characters. We felt if we were going to do a movie on this type of budget, you had to focus on the characters. The director and writer, who both did wonderful jobs creating these characters alone, asked both Justin and myself to really collaborate with them. We could have the most compelling characters, so that when we couldn't afford the big shoot out at the end, even if that's not right for the movie, our characters would sustain in interest. The stuff that got jettison dealt more with the thriller elements. I couldn't be happier with the film as it stands.
Justin Bartha: The conscious choice for us was to make a movie that was a throwback to 1970s American character films that centered on two men that changed each other. The theme of those movies inspired us. We had the benefit of creating these characters over a long period of time, We were always looking at the juxtaposition between the two characters. Who Sam was, and how it related to Yosef. And who Yosef was, and how it related to Sam. And how they switched positions. There is a power switch, and a social switch. And a family switch. That was always the intention behind the two characters. We wanted to play them off each other. The script developed over years. The story was more of a drug dealing gangster thriller. We always knew that would be a hard thing to pull off. And we weren't very interested in making a movie like that. We wanted to make a film like I previously talked about. Since we had a lot of time to develop the script, we formed it around that character concept. We knew we'd have a limited budget and a limited time to shoot. The character drama lent itself to the budget and the time restraints.
How did being friends in real life help shape and mold the relationship we see between you two on screen?
Justin Bartha: It helps when you have an immense amount of trust and respect for each other. That is something you have to build before jumping into something sometimes. We have a shorthand. That shorthand helps when you are dealing with a movie that is low budget. We had a passion for this, and we have a very similar way of looking at things. That lent itself to a very rewarding working process.