Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg are a couple in love — and possibly death.
I'm on the set of “American Ultra,” the Max Landis-scripted, Nima Nourizadeh-directed comedic action film that stars Stewart and Eisenberg as Phoebe and Mike, a slacker couple being pursued by heavily-armed contract killers. The reason? Mike is in fact a highly-trained government agent (with amnesia!) who's been marked as a “liability” and targeted for assassination.
We get to see some of the action go down on the film's New Orleans set, a warehouse that's been partially converted into a small-town grocery store. When we arrive they're in the midst of shooting a fight scene that sees Mike engaging in brutal, bloody battle with a number of enemies through aisles labeled “Fresh Produce,” “Electronics,” “Chips” and “Cleaning Products.” In one corner of the warehouse, a giant green screen has been set up that in post will be replaced with the visual of a Humvee driven through the front of the store.
When we first arrive, Eisenberg — his face painted with cuts and bruises — is speaking into an intercom phone while crouched behind one of the checkstands at the front of the store.
“Hey Phoebe! I just wanted to say that I love you…” he begins. Around him, the ground is littered with soda cans and boxes of food. Overturned coolers, shattered glass. A smoke machine casts a hazy pall.
“Kill him! Kill him now!” someone yells. This is a cue for Eisenberg to switch from speaking directly to Phoebe to the killers holding her hostage.
“Give up! Just give up, give me my girlfriend and go home!” he yells.
Eisenberg concentrates intensely before each take. There is gunfire, lots of it. A shelf of candy next to the checkstand is blasted apart. Later, Eisenberg jumps up and hides behind a display. An assassin creeps up on him. Just as he rounds the corner, Eisenberg attacks him and throws him into a shelf. Grabs an eyeliner pencil. Stabs the assassin in the eye.
On the last take, Eisenberg gets carried away and pushes the actor/assassin a little too forcefully. He's okay. The room bursts into laughter.
“American Ultra” is, in case you haven't guessed from the above description or the previously-released trailer (embedded above), “American Ultra” is violent. Very violent. Not even Stewart's porcelain complexion escapes unscathed.
“I punch Kristen Stewart in the face so I'm looking forward to her fan base seeing that,” co-star Topher Grace — playing a villain described by Landis as “a CIA yuppie Richard III” — when he stopped by to chat with us during a break from filming. “So I'll never have any friends in America.”
Later we're corralled into a back room to sit down for a Q&A with Stewart and Eisenberg, who reunited on this film after starring together in Greg Mottola's sweet, underseen 2009 comedy “Adventureland.”
“I jumped at working with Jesse again,” says Stewart, reclining in a chair next to her co-star. “You know, we really had a good time on 'Adventureland' a couple of years ago. And I sort of declared we should definitely make a movie every five years, so just to be in keeping with that, [I] jumped on this one.”
The feeling is, in case you couldn't guess, mutual.
“I couldn't say enough about her,” Eisenberg gushes later. “She's a phenomenal actress. I remember when we were working together [on 'Adventureland'], she was 18 or 17 or something, and after like the first scene I just went over to the director and I said, 'She's really funny.' And he's like 'Yeah, I know.' I was like, 'No, no she's REALLY funny.' She's genuinely very funny…but she does it in a way that's like, without drawing attention to herself being funny. […] She like is the least vain person you'll meet. And she's also like a very pretty woman, so it's –“
“He's really vain, all day long,” Stewart ribs. “Like Jesus, he's in makeup so much longer than me, obviously.”
We all laugh. Eisenberg goes on.
“Anyway, she seems to like serve the story and the other actors before herself. It's a wonderful quality. So it's nice.”
“Likewise,” Stewart counters.
The lovefest isn't a surprise. During the interview Stewart and Eisenberg come across as kindred souls. Both put out an energy that is at once laid-back and quietly anxious, and it's a vibration they share in sideways glances and brief fits of giggling. There is an unspoken communication happening that the rest of us aren't privy to.
As director Nourizadeh noted, Eisenberg's attachment made snagging Stewart a relatively painless prospect: “She was an easy one to go out to,” he told us during dinner the evening prior. “I just sent her a text and I said, 'Have you read that script yet?' And she went, 'The one with Jesse? Fuck yeah, dude, I'm in!' Like, that was it. Literally, that was it.”
As scripted by Max Landis, the son of John who also wrote the sleeper 2012 found-footage/superhero mashup “Chronicle,” “American Ultra” is, in Stewart's words, “a really, really original and strange” film — not a surprise when you meet Landis himself, an effusive, passionate presence who described the film this way during the previous night's dinner:
“When I was writing 'American Ultra,' I was like what if there was like a Big Beach [Productions] movie, almost like 'Little Miss Sunshine,' this incredibly sweet, intimate movie about a guy and his girlfriend, and then…suddenly this movie, this like big studio action movie shows up at this like…sweet, romantic movie's door, and goes, 'This is an action movie! Oh, shit!' And the movie goes, 'No. I refuse to let this become an action movie.' And then more and more, as the action movie infiltrates the Big Beach movie, instead of it being like 'From Dusk Till Dawn,' where it's one movie and it becomes another, the indie, romantic, sad dramedy about this relationship refuses to end and goes, 'No, fuck you! This will exist alongside the action movie.'…What's funny is, I think ultimately the human story in 'American Ultra' overpowers [the action movie].”
It's that tonal disconnect that provides the basis for much of the film's humor, and as a way of further highlighting that disconnect Stewart and Eisenberg felt it was important to keep their characters looking a little…mangy.
“I wanted to wear longer hair and a wig, just cause the character is somebody who — well, a few reasons,” says Eisenberg. “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 and his own laziness. And enjoying his own laziness. So I thought he would not have gotten a haircut, he wouldn't kind of groom himself in any kind of consistent way. And it gives it a better turn for when he has to defend himself. This is a guy who couldn't be less prepared to do this.”
Echoed Stewart: “I look like I also dyed my hair maybe a year ago, haven't maintained it, my interests are fairly, you know flippant. We're very directionless, we don't really have — you know, it's like, there's nothing very defining about either of our looks. Everything is very haphazard and comfortable and practical. And we're just like stoners, essentially.”
For Stewart, the character of Phoebe also didn't present much of a stretch from her real-life personality. The challenge for her was in navigating the film's offbeat tone.
“Phoebe's a very sort of straightforward and sweet, fairly unassuming girl. It's definitely nothing outside of — I didn't have to bring any quirks to her, I didn't have to bring any certain things that make her very much different from myself,” she explains. “I think it was just about immersing myself in this extremely surreal and weird, heightened, unique [world]…The difficulty for me has been about like retaining her truths while still not revealing certain plot points that I'm not supposed to in the beginning, and then making sure that it's consistent and emotional and also funny. …And so to like balance that has been the difficulty. I am sort of essentially playing myself, if I was living in this –“
“Strange situation,” Eisenberg interjects.
“Yeah, exactly,” she says.
Speaking of the tonal balancing act required for the film, Stewart in particular made a point of protecting the human element at the center of the story when she felt that the script's moments of black humor betrayed Max and Phoebe's relationship.
“…reading the script there have been jokes that I love that really just like make me laugh genuinely, and then you get to set and you're like, 'We can't do that.' It's traipsing all over what we've built,” Stewart says. “And then some things you get there and it's like, I didn't think this was gonna be funny, I thought this was gonna have to be played completely straight. But the ridiculousness of the situation is too much to ignore, and so one of our characters can say something silly and funny.”
So will “American Ultra” reveal untold comic depths to the famously serious actress? It's worth noting that Stewart seemed genuinely humbled — embarrassed, even — when Eisenberg suggested that she's funnier than the public gives her credit for. Still, while she didn't exactly embrace the description, she did have this to say for “American Ultra” itself: “I think the movie's gonna be hilarious. I laugh every day. Even when we're about to lose our lives.”
“American Ultra” is slated for release on August 21.