LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The appearance of a doppelganger precipitates a severe psychological identity crisis in British actor-director Richard Ayoade’s latest film “The Double,” as actor Jesse Eisenberg faces himself on screen.
In “The Double,” Eisenberg plays both Simon, a shy, introverted and forgettable office worker, and the brash, egotistical James, a physically identical man with a polar opposite extrovert personality. The film opened in limited U.S. theaters last week and will be showcased at the Seattle International Film Festival this week.
Ayoade, 36, is best known for playing nerd extraordinaire Maurice Moss on British TV comedy series “The IT Crowd,” but the bespectacled actor is carving out a career behind the camera.
For his second directorial feature, Ayoade adapted Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic 1846 novella “The Double” about a man who meets his doppelganger and descends into a psychological crisis.
In his film, Eisenberg’s Simon endures a similar journey as his doppelganger James begins to take over his life in a callous, selfish manner, manipulating love interests and work colleagues to believe Simon’s existence is inconsequential.
“I liked the central premise of this person who is so unnoticeable that no one cares when the doppelganger arrives. It’s not a story about a regular person, it’s really a metaphor for his situation rather than an incident,” the director said.
Casting Eisenberg was key for the independent film, which featured the actor playing opposite himself in numerous scenes that Ayoade said needed meticulous timing and rehearsal.
“We needed someone who could internally animate the two different roles,” he said. “The characters looked different when he was playing each one ... he has a very expressive face and his thoughts do radiate depending on how he’s commanding them.”
The director has a soft spot for outsiders like Simon, both playing one on television and centering his 2010 directorial debut “Submarine” about an intelligent but disconnected Welsh boy.
If “Submarine” was defined aesthetically by sweeping landscapes and natural light, “The Double” sits on the opposite end of the scale, visually dark and oppressive in its setting, an extension of Simon’s feelings of being trapped.
Shot over 53 days on an abandoned office estate, “The Double” is set in a vague non-period that lends to the film’s Orwellian alternate world, littered with kitsch 1980s-style television shows and music from 1960s’ Japanese singers.
“It needed to be an environment that he couldn’t escape from,” Ayoade said. “He needed to feel this was it, like you feel in a dream that’s going badly, you can’t get out of it.”
Ayoade may best be known in the United States for his role alongside Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill in 2011 neighborhood vigilante comedy “The Watch.”
But Ayoade, who has two young children and confessed he rarely likes to leave his London house, said he doesn’t have any designs to conquer Hollywood, at least not as an actor.
The filmmaker, dressed in a sharp navy blue suit with a yellow tie and a shirt covered with illustrated insects, sprinkled the interview with self-deprecating jokes (“I have hay fever, it’s not a cocaine habit,” he quipped, after blowing his nose into a handkerchief).
That mixture of self-awareness and biting humor sets the tone for Ayoade’s upcoming book “Ayoade on Ayoade,” which will feature the director interviewing himself about film.
“I can’t act,” he said with a laugh. “Acting is a strange thing, it’s a strange and hard thing, and it makes you think about all sorts of things and makes you crazy.
“You try not to think about yourself in life, otherwise it’s terrible. I’m not the most interesting thing that can be thought about in any given situation.”
Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy and Andre Grenon