STACK caught up with the stars of The Hummingbird Project, Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård, and director Kim Nguyen at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

Alexander Skarsgård is practically unrecognisable In Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project, an ambitious tale of humanity versus corporate greed.

Starring opposite Jesse Eisenberg, the actors play cousins in this high-stakes race to build a fibre-optic cable in a straight line between Kansas and New Jersey, where millions of dollars are on the line.

Skarsgård’s Anton is the brains behind the project while Eisenberg’s Vincent is the hustler, pushing each other to breaking point to achieve their goal. Dogged by their old boss, and now nemesis, Salma Hayek is in fine form as a sociopath High Frequency trader, relentless in her bid to stop them in a race where winning is measured by milliseconds.

Sporting a balding pate for his role as a digital physics genius, Skarsgård sports a full head of hair when STACK meets with the actors at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I barely recognised myself with no hair,” laughs the actor whose film and TV roles include The Legend of Tarzan, True Blood and Big Little Lies. “And Jesse didn’t recognise me for two months!”

Somewhat surprisingly, Skarsgård tells us he even suggested the bald look, “That’s how I envisioned the character when I read it and fortunately Kim liked the idea. After I described how I saw Anton, Kim sent me a reference photo in an oversized cardigan with that balding ‘donut‘, kind of hunched over, and I was like ‘That’s Anton! Perfect.’

“So I loved it. It was incredible. I think most actors love an opportunity like that and really embrace it. It’s part of the job when you can make a drastic transformation; incredibly rewarding and fun,” says the actor who shaved his hair, gluing on a lace-line of thinning hair, plucking out errant hairs from his dome as filming progressed. “It was torturous, my entire scalp was pulsating.”

“He plucked his hair out, like hair by hair, with a tweezer,” affirms Eisenberg. “I’ve never seen an actor undergo actual, physical pain to change their look. Normally you would just have to shave in the morning but he literally plucked his hair out one by one for hours and hours.”

More accustomed to being cast as the hyper-active genius/geek – Oscar-nominated for his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and further demonstrated by his roles in the Now You See Me franchise and as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Eisenberg enjoyed flipping the coin.

Immediately drawn to Nguyen’s script, he says, “When I read it, I thought Kim was trying to write about second generation Jewish immigrants, of which I am a part. I thought he was really getting at something in the culture that I don’t even know if he was necessarily intending, that drive to assimilate into American culture. When you are hungry to assimilate, you do extreme things like my own family did when they first came from Poland.

“Some people would even go to the rich neighbourhoods and get their garbage and refurbish it, selling it to the poor people. When you are hungry and trying to assimilate into a rich culture, you do stuff like that. And so I thought this movie was really a story of people who are so desperate to fit in that they do this crazy thing and, only at the end, do they realise the absurd lengths they went to,“ says Eisenberg.

Nguyen is more pragmatic. “Many years ago, I was struck with this amazing premise of people digging thousand-mile long tunnels to try and shave a couple of milliseconds off the time it took to make their stock market trades. Madness,” says the Canadian/Vietnamese director.

“It immediately made sense to explore if there was a movie to be made around that high concept. I had this haunting image in my head of stock market hustlers struggling to walk through swamps and muddy forests in their expensive suits, putting their sanity on the line – all for the good old dollar.

“Little did I know how complex it would be in bringing this to the screen. We talked with experts of every scientific expertise: quantum physics experts, fibre optic physicists, highly specialised tunnel digging experts who dig hundred-mile-long, four-inch-wide tunnels for a living and High Frequency trading experts dealing with daily billion-dollar money flows… Boy, what a ride,” says Nguyen who shot The Hummingbird Project on location in Montreal.

If Eisenberg isn’t the actual brains behind the enterprise, then he infuses the character with his familiar high-speed speech pattern. “What I loved about Vincent is that he’s really manipulative and there’s a sleazy hustler quality to him. And those are people who don’t think before they speak, because they are so comfortable talking and they don’t let other people get a word in. I actually had more dialogue in this movie than on any other project so I wanted to make sure I spoke as quickly as possible,” he says.

A cautionary tale about the lengths people will go to achieve success, Eisenberg understands the drive behind The Hummingbird Project’s characters. “I compared it to when I was younger and was so desperate to write and act in a play, doing so much to get my plays on, to a point of almost destroying personal relationships and taxing my body past a point that was healthy.

“Oftentimes you do things that, only in retrospect, you realise how dangerous it was, but at the time you are still focused on the goal. I think that’s what this movie captures, and especially for my character going through some really tragic things throughout the movie.”

Skarsgård believes his own character’s motivation comes from a different place.

“Anton is not driven by those things. He’s not interested in success or recognition from society or even money. This endeavour is very simple for him – he’s doing it because his cousin asks him to do it.”

“I find that quite romantic in a way, that it’s this absolute insane project yet he does it, unquestioningly, simply because his cousin asks him. But then it becomes a personal challenge and that’s when he goes down the rabbit hole of trying to cut that one millisecond.

“And I love that it’s not about I need to raise three million dollars to save my family or to save the house and we’re about to get evicted, which is usually a trope in a movie; the motivating factor for a character. I found that so refreshing.”

Sporting his unattractive balding crown for three months enabled the striking 6’ 4” Swede to go incognito. “It looked very strange on days off because, when I wasn’t shooting, I obviously didn’t need to shave. So I would have stubble on top, and then this almost monk-like hairline,” he laughs. “I even went to some like fashion thing in New York and got a lot of very weird looks.”

The Hummingbird Project is in cinemas on April 25