by JANET MANDELSTAM
The principal character in Jesse Eisenberg’s new movie When You Finish Saving the World is the director of a domestic violence shelter in a small midwestern city. That’s not surprising when you know that the Oscar-nominated actor is the son-in-law of the late Toby Strout, who led Bloomington’s domestic violence shelter, Middle Way House, for 30 years until her death in 2017.
“I never met someone like my mother-in-law,” says Eisenberg, who is waiting out the coronavirus pandemic in Bloomington with his wife, Anna Strout, and their young son. “Toby was unusual because she had such a strong sense of personal ethics. She was myopically focused on doing good. I was constantly trying to figure her out; how does her mind work? As a writer, you write the thing you can’t get out of your mind.”
Eisenberg wrote the screenplay and will direct the movie, which, he says, “takes place in a very Bloomington-like town.”
Unfortunately, the independent film will not be shot here. “Different states have different tax incentives for filming locally,” Eisenberg says, and Indiana is not among those with generous offers.
Whether the town will actually be called Bloomington in the film, “will depend on whether we can afford to come for a couple of days to get certain shots that are locally specific.” Either way, he says, “all the bright kids and activists will be there.”
Filming begins in the fall with Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore as the shelter director. “It’s a movie about a woman who is as brilliant and formidable as Toby, but otherwise it is totally fictional,” he says.
What’s real is the connection he and his wife, who divide their time between New York City and Bloomington, have maintained to the mission of Middle Way House, where Anna Strout began volunteering as a young teenager. “I was working in Los Angeles when the pandemic struck,” Eisenberg recalls. “We were in touch with Middle Way and learned that their volunteer base had been depleted when the students left town. My wife thought it would be a good idea to come and help out.”
They rented an RV and drove across the country. “We quarantined on our way to Bloomington,” he says. They’ve been supporting the nonprofit in many ways. They’ve raised money, including $50,000 donations from actress-comedian Amy Schumer and Eisenberg himself, and created a public service announcement on domestic violence [see below], which has been on the rise during the pandemic.
“Anna is a genius when it comes to fundraising and community engagement,” he says. “And personally, I’ve been doing maintenance. I pretty much paint every day.”
He’s also awaiting the August release of an audio book he wrote. The book and film are loosely related, he says, and share the same title. “A friend was committed to fighting against mass incarceration, and one day his mother said, ‘Come home sometime when you finish saving the world.’ That stuck with me. I can understand that as an activist or an artist, when your work is so vitally important, you can lose sight of aspects of your personal life.”
The book, available from Audible, tells the story of three characters in the same Bloomington family over a span of 30 years. Eisenberg and actress Kaitlyn Dever play two of the parts. The young actor Finn Wolfhard, who is known for his role in the Netflix series Stranger Things, performs in the book and will be in the movie, as well. He plays Eisenberg’s son in the audio book and Moore’s son in the film. “The movie is a story about a mother and son who are estranged. He’s trying to do social good, but they don’t see eye to eye.”
Filming, he says, is difficult now because of the virus. “There are different sets of restrictions and regulations, like making sure the actors aren’t too close to each other, but people are desperate to get back to work.”
Until then, there is Middle Way House to support. Eisenberg and Strout are coordinating donations from local businesses. “When you do something that is really good,“ he says, “people want to be involved.”