Jesse Eisenberg’s new series can only be consumed off-screen. When You Finish Saving the World, which he wrote and stars in, is an Audible original—for ears only. It follows three interrelated characters and shifts between their perspectives. Eisenberg voices the first one that listeners meet, a new father named Nathan Katz. It’s 2017, and Katz is recording files into his cellphone to send to his therapist. His issue is that he’s not bonding with his baby. The series’s other main characters are that baby in the future, after he grows into a teenager—voiced by Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard—and the child’s mother in the past, during her politically active college student days. She’s voiced by Booksmart star Kaitlyn Dever.
Eisenberg recently joined me on The Gist to discuss the show and how it both does and does not relate to his real-life family and experiences with fatherhood. A portion of our two-part interview is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Mike Pesca: I know you have a young son, and I think I know that you love the kid and you’re bonded with him. I’ve seen you interacting and snuggling with the boy. So there’s no element of not attaching to your son, but your character went through that. Was that just one of those exercises in imagination?
Jesse Eisenberg: Yeah. I actually only heard of the phenomenon once. I was so sad for the guy who was experiencing the lack of feeling for his child.
I was friends with this guy who told me that he had a daughter, and he said, “I felt nothing for her.” I was shocked that he told me, but even more shocked that he felt nothing, because it just seemed to me like this unbelievable phenomenon, that you’d immediately feel this wave of a million different things.
So I always thought that’d be such an interesting character to explore in a play, because I was just always writing plays. But every time I started writing something that would become a theatrical experience with a baby in it, it just was immediately impossible. When you do something with a baby onstage, it’s usually a speaker wrapped in a blanket, then there’s some sound designers making the speaker cry, and then you have to hold the baby, and it’s impossible to act really well. So I was thinking—I was always looking for a format to tell a story of a character who didn’t connect to their child.
Then when I met with these executives at Audible—I have to say, it’s actually an amazing company in this way. They said, “We’re all figuring this thing out together, so if you have any stories that you think could work for this medium, tell us.” So I pitched them this story about a guy who doesn’t connect with his child. They, I’m sure, assumed that it was about me, and that I should get help. I showed them pictures of me hugging my son, and then they let me do it as a piece of fiction.
It’s amazing what you can do with Photoshop.
But then again, your wife, just like the wife in the show, her mom ran this women’s shelter in Indiana, so she has that connection. There was at the end of your character’s episode a paean to how lovely and great and giving it is to do this work. I’m wondering if either your wife or your mother-in-law has heard that and interpret it as you just giving them a great compliment to the millions of people who might hear this.
Yeah. My view of myself is that I’m a hedonist and incredibly fortunate, having put forth very little effort and received so much from the world. My assessment of my wife is that she wakes up every morning and tries to figure out who she can help, and how she can not get credit for it. So everything I write has been really colored by this dynamic that I’m obsessed with, because of my hedonistic narcissism, which is the thing that begets the theory in the first place.
So everything I write is usually some kind of artist doing something that has no social value, that they’re incredibly confident about. And then somebody who’s doing something that has immense social value, and gets no credit for it, and doesn’t lament the fact that they get no credit. Of course, they’re happier, and the artist is miserable. This is kind of like my current worldview, which I hope matures into something a little more healthy. That’s the dynamic in the series.
But what you just said—how you idealize your wife, and she probably deserves it—that is what’s going on with all your characters in different ways. They each have an attachment to another character, and they’ve really fallen in love with the dream version of that character to one extent or another.
Yes, that’s right. And by extension, I will say that kind of happens to me. I idealize people like my wife and people like … My best friend is a teacher for kids who are formerly incarcerated. I idealize these people to the point where I lionize them, and then I would, just by contrast, denigrate my own work.
Then when I’m writing and thinking about things a little more calmly, I’m able to assess that they have flaws that are maybe driven by selfish things, and that I have some value, and I’m maybe driven by some socially benevolent things as well, and that the manifestations of our work and our interests are much more complicated than I always feel.
I think it took me listening to all the episodes and then four minutes before this interview, for me to get why the title is When You Finish Saving the World. When did the title come to you?
The title came some time after I finished it. The working title was always The Ziegfeld Files, because Ziggy’s name was … Ziggy, who’s the boy in the show. (I don’t even know what to call [the series]. We need a new name for the format that sounds cool, like Blu-ray. Can we take Blu-ray, since that’s no longer a thing?)
The title came to me, yeah, after I finished writing it. I was at a talk that my friend was giving. He’s an activist against mass incarceration. He said something about the mother of his child saying, “When you finish saving the world, remember you have a son,” because he was out always giving speeches about mass incarceration, and he’s done so much good work, but sometimes it maybe came at the expense of visiting his kid back in Brooklyn.
I thought it was such a, I don’t know, such a potent phrase. It was both condemnatory but, at the same time, implies that the person’s doing amazing work. So you almost feel guilty for being so snide to a person who is doing such great work.
I think it speaks to what we owe our family. When we’re doing things that are really important, when we’re an activist for the right causes, and we’re on the right side of justice, what do we owe our personal life? What do we owe the people who are left at home while we’re doing something great?
I think about that all the time. That’s what this is about, because it’s about these characters trying to figure out how to do important work in the world. But on the other hand, they struggle to feel comfortable in the family.
Listen to this full half of the conversation below—the first half can be heard here—and subscribe to The Gist on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Join Slate Plus, and enjoy ad-free episodes of the show.