The start of Jesse Eisenberg’s first-ever day as a politico felt a bit like a scene from one of his movies.
The 34-year-old actor—who frequently plays witty but jittery characters placed in odd or awkward situations—was mistakenly introduced as Daniel Biss as he walked onstage to speak at a rally in support of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate on Saturday afternoon at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago.
Eisenberg—dressed casually in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers—shrugged, looked at the floor, and scratched his moppy hair while quipping that the mistake was fine “because now I get to be governor.”
At the end of his three-minute speech, he introduced the state senator at the end of a rambling sentence full of verbal tics (including a discursive observation about lieutenant governor candidate Litesa Wallace as “one of the most impressive persons I’ve ever met”) that ended with ” . . . um, um, so um, and I’d love to welcome Daniel to speak.”
He admitted later that he’s not ready to be a full-time statesman or activist any time soon.
“I’m totally out of my element here,” he told the Reader after the rally. “This would not be where I would choose to spend my life because I don’t think I’m natural. But I’m happy to pitch in once every four years or whatever.”
There’s some evidence, however, that the New York native’s campaign work for Biss may be part of a recent evolution of his politics towards more direct involvement in left-wing campaigns and causes. Surprise!—it’s not because of Hollywood’s influence. Instead it’s his move to a sleepy midwestern college town, Bloomington, Indiana (“I guess Chicago is my ‘big city’ now,” he says) in late 2016 and the influence of his wife, Anna Strout, and her decidedly leftist family.
Eisenberg’s brother-in-law is Anthony Arnove, who along with Howard Zinn edited Voices of a People’s History of the United States, a companion volume to Zinn’s influential volume of history from a socialist perspective.
Arnove cast Eisenberg in “The People Speak”—an adaptation of the book performed live last June at the People’s Summit at McCormick Center—a three-day conference of 4,000 left-wing activists and progressive political groups. Eisenberg was among a small group of celebrities who performed in Arnove’s production after Senator Bernie Sanders’s keynote address.
He is a fan of Sanders (“I obviously support a lot of what Bernie Sanders supports,” he says) but hedged about also describing himself as a democratic socialist.
“More like a husband to . . . I married into and incredibly brilliant and socially progressive family. And they are educating me and taking me along for the ride,” he says.
“I mean, I come from a liberal Jewish family. My parents are teachers and raised me to think about politics about as way to help the neediest amongst us and not just the people who are powerful and privileged.”
He and Anna moved to Biss’s hometown of Bloomington at the end of 2016 to be with her mother, Toby Strout, who had recently retired from her job as executive director of Middle Way House, a nonprofit domestic violence shelter and sexual assault resource center. Toby was a lifelong activist, starting at age 11, when she participated in a demonstration at a Woolworth’s store in New York City to protest discrimination against African-Americans. She also knew and admired Biss, who also grew up in Bloomington.
Toby Strout died of an undisclosed illness in February 2017.
“My wife and I were looking for things to do to live in her honor and do things that she would have done were she here,” says Eisenberg. “And supporting Biss is one of those things.”
This new commitment to civic duty also included time spent volunteering in Bloomington, which Eisenberg has described as a “hotbed of activism,” and engaging in local politics and causes. He volunteered for Middle Way for four months, attended a meeting for immigrants’ rights, served pizza to the homeless population at an Episcopal church, and sang in a choir to combat climate change.
“I love being part of this energetic and compassionate community,” he told InStyle. “I’m from New York City, where the closest thing we have to a community is a co-op in Brooklyn that has security guards to make sure no nonmembers get their hands on organic squash.”
Perhaps one day the spirit of engagement will rub off enough on Eisenberg that he’ll get over his reluctance to be more directly involved with electoral politics. In 2016, he told Cory Booker that the New Jersey senator should run for president in 2020 (“That’s what I do what to most people when I meet them,” he joked. “Why aren’t you running for president?”) but hell, maybe Eisenberg will run for office himself one day.
He smirked at the suggestion.
“Uh, OK. Now, you’re trying to stir up trouble.”
Moments later, he grabbed a stroller from Anna and guided his sleeping infant son through the Bottom Lounge so the young family could march to Union Park. For now, Eisenberg, the A-list movie star, seems content in his shaggy Indiana University cap playing the role of a humble dad living in a red state.