'The Art of Self-Defense': How Jesse Eisenberg Learned "Imperfect" Karate
In most big-budget action movies, there are months of training and prep with dozens of professional stunt performers ready to pull off amazing feats on camera. None of that happened for The Art of Self-Defense. Instead, it was just three weeks of a “karate school,” inside a New York gym until the cameras rolled.
A low-budget dark comedy set in a neighborhood McDojo, director Riley Stearns (himself a purple belt in jiu-jitsu) paints a satirical portrait of toxic masculinity in the story of Casey, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who signs up for a karate class after a brutal assault. He is quickly inspired to grow past white belt and achieve a yellow belt, and maybe all the colors — green, purple, blue, red, brown, and finally, black — until fate takes a decidedly grim turn.
Alongside co-stars Imogen Poots and Alessandro Nivola, Eisenberg endured real karate training under accomplished martial artist and stunt coordinator Mindy Kelly, whose credits include Alita: Battle Angel and Marvel’s Daredevil series. Other scenes were choreographed by the director, whose own knowledge in the grappling arts is featured in the film.
“It was a new experience, and I guess that much more inspiring because it was such an unfamiliar experience,” Eisenberg tells Inverse.
Eisenberg, known for movies like 2010’s The Social Network and 2009’s Zombieland, hadn’t studied karate since the ‘90s when he was a kid in suburban New Jersey, where martial arts dojos line up strip malls.
“It wasn’t for me,” he says, “I realized if I’m never going to get those more colorful belts then this is not worth it. I never progressed past white.”
Which is why Eisenberg found training for The Art of Self-Defense a wild, albeit brief ride. Eisenberg, with Poots, prepped in a sweaty boxing gym in New York City, “a place I might have passed a million times and would never have stepped foot in,” the actor jokes. “By doing this movie I had to go in every day for three weeks, smelling of sweat and testosterone, two things my body doesn’t produce.”
Alessandro Nivola, who plays “Sensei,” began training just three days before production began. But he was ready. Says Eisenberg, “Alessandro came to do this movie straight from another movie where he had to play a Mossad agent, so he was in peak physical condition.”
Training was supervised by Mindy Kelly, a champion martial artist with black belts in kenpo and taekwondo. She’s worked alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Lady Gaga and Childish Gambino. Kelly was The Art of Self-Defense’s one-woman army.
“I was the entire stunts team, aside from doubles for scenes,” Kelly tells Inverse. In collaboration with the director, she sought a true “realism” in martial arts than even Jason Bourne and John Wick.
“We very much wanted it to [actually] be Jesse and not the back of his head,” says Kelly. “The imperfection is what makes anything interesting. I wanted to story-tell through movement, I consider movement an extension of one’s psyche. Riley created a world so grounded in a gritty reality [it] provided us the perfect platform to work with the actors.”
While the actors have all trained in martial arts for previous movies — Eisenberg learned Filipino Martial Arts when making 2015’s American Ultra — Kelly and Stearns had something different in mind.
“I call it movie fu,” says Kelly, “It’s the art of selling action without hurting somebody. What people do in a real fight doesn’t sell on camera.”
Using padding and her own iPhone camera, Kelly showed the actors what their “missed” hits look like onscreen. “I choreograph to enhance somebody. It’s what looks good on them or what they’re comfortable with.”
While Kelly took care of the action when the characters are standing up, Stearns, who wrote the story of The Art of Self-Defense based on his own journey into martial arts, choreographed when the action hit the floor.
“I’ve been training in jiu jitsu for six years,” he says. After finishing his 2014 film Faults, Stearns found inspiration for his next film in the grappling arts. “I was like, why wasn’t I setting something in the world of martial arts? I started thinking what that movie might be like, and not something you’d seen before. Introducing my own thoughts and fears on masculinity, who I was as a man, and expectations that society had for us.”
Stearns found jiu-jitsu as a closeted fan of MMA. “I used to watch UFC and change the channel when someone would walk in. I didn’t feel like the right kind of guy, because only jocks or dudes appreciated the violence. I still don’t like violence, but I think it has a place in art.”
The director took to jiu-jitsu when he noticed fighters using it to outmaneuver opponents. While many martial arts styles emphasize striking force, jiu-jitsu is founded on leverage and technique. “I wanted to learn how to submit someone and not get struck in the process.”
When a gym opened near Stearns, it took three years for him to walk in. “Just like Jessie in the movie, [I was] feeling, What if I don’t belong? What if I’m not man enough? Finally, I walked through those doors and felt a sense of belonging.”
Now a purple belt, Stearns incorporated jiu-jitsu through Imogen Poots’ Anna, a brown belt who teaches submissions to kids and uses it in the film’s violent “night classes.”
“We did have a purple belt that was Imogen’s stunt double who was a jiu-jitsu practitioner as well. Between her and me we did the ground stuff and Mindy did the stand up fight stuff,” says Stearns. “Everyone had a double but I tried not to use the doubles as much as possible.”
Is The Art of Self-Defense a “martial arts movie”? Stearns doesn’t avoid the term, but believes his film is fundamentally different than what you’d see from Jet Li. “There’s martial arts scenes, but it’s not about that,” he says. “John Wick is action. You go for the spectacle. For me, being a small indie film, I knew we’re on a different level. You play play to your strengths.”
“It’s not trying to be flashy or cool,” says Eisenberg. “Self-defense is not something that should be used for violence. It can be an art form which means it can have different manifestations in the way art has different interpretations.”
The Art of Self-Defense is in theaters on July 12.