One sunny Saturday morning, a man sat at a corner table in Chicago’s Heartland Cafe. With his tattered Indiana University baseball cap on and his Daniel Biss pin fastened to his shirt, he could’ve been any other young campaign staffer. But this was Jesse Eisenberg, an Oscar-nominated actor known for The Social Network, Adventureland and Now You See Me.
Eisenberg talked with NBN about his foray into politics and why he is supporting Biss for governor in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
NBN: You're not from Illinois. What brought you to support Biss's campaign?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah, I've never been involved in any kind of political campaign, and probably have been resistant to it, because it just seems like not the best match of an actor as a public platform for their political savviness. But my wife grew up with Daniel in Bloomington and my mother-in-law ran for the last 35 years one of the most important domestic violence shelters in the country, [Middle Way House]. She was a leading voice on issues of sexual assault and domestic violence, and she wholeheartedly supported Daniel's campaign. He at one point cited her as one of the inspirations for his public service. When she passed away last year, my wife and I just vowed to find ways to honor her and live by her example. When we heard that Daniel's campaign was really taking off, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to support somebody who my mother-in-law would've supported and who's a genuinely wonderful political candidate – somebody who's not only brilliant, but also cares about the right things, cares about regular, middle-class people, cares about reforming a system to benefit those people. He has a humble background, and he has an ordinary life and an extraordinary mind, and it seems like those are two things that are increasingly rare in politics.
NBN: Which issues on the ballot that are most important to you for this election?
Eisenberg: I'm an interloper, I'm not from here, but literally from A-Z in Daniel's platform is everything I would support. He's the true progressive candidate, whether it be reforming the tax system to not only balance a budget that has been in deep trouble here, but also his support for social issues, whether it be LGBTQ rights or support for social services. My wife and I raised almost a million dollars for [Middle Way House] in the last three years. I've gotten to learn very intimately about how state funding can impact the lives of people directly. It's not some nebulous, vague connection. And so once you see something like that up close, you realize that your vote matters, your vote affects those who need the most help, and you realize that it's very important who is in office.
NBN: What about Biss and his platform would appeal to college students and young people?
Eisenberg: College students are in the process of learning, and so they are steeped in discovering the value of reason and logic, and motivated to be curious. These are things that the best politicians do and have. It's somebody like Daniel who has a bleeding heart and cares for the neediest amongst us but does it from a place of logic and reason, and has the intellectual wherewithal to make things happen. On a more specific basis, he has more progressive ideas, whether it be legalizing marijuana or having a progressive tax rate. These are things that would benefit young people in a way that I think would be appealing to them. But it seems to me the most appealing thing is that you have somebody here who's genuinely bright, who's genuinely curious, and who wants to help those who are not millionaires or billionaires. There's no way to say that without sounding like a Jew from Vermont.
NBN: What's an experience that you value from working with such a grassroots campaign?
Eisenberg: My only analogue is promoting a movie or a play, and it's a very strange difference. Because, when you're promoting a movie or play, it has some kind of relative importance to you – and maybe, if the thing is very good, some relative importance to the culture. But here you're talking about things that have relevance to people outside of the volunteers. The people who are making the calls tend to not be the neediest amongst us – they tend to be people who are able to engage and be active, because their lives can accommodate that. So there's a selflessness to the volunteers, to the campaign staff. The facilities that Biss's staff is working in are probably not as fancy as the facilities for the other candidates, so when you're working on a campaign like this it tends to be for the right reasons, rather than for the perks.
NBN: What was your first experience getting involved politically?
Eisenberg: Who did I vote for first? I guess it would've been Al Gore. But I forgot the punch the hole through my [card], so ... My father was obsessed with politics and debates. He used to tape the debates and watch them with me more than once. [He’d wake] up in a cold sweat that Walter Cronkite had died, and my mom said "No, no, Walter Cronkite's alive" – this was when Walter Cronkite was alive – and let him go back to sleep. I grew up in a family where we discussed these issues. I'm from a liberal, Jewish, Democratic family. My family grew up supporting unions – my parents are teachers – and also grew up thinking that when you vote for somebody, you're voting for the people that need it the most, you're not voting for your own self-interest, and that politics should be about helping those in need.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Democratic primary polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on March 20 and include Alice Millar Chapel and Patten Gymnasium on campus.