Justin Bartha was largely an unknown until his role as Riley Poole in the National Treasure series made him a star. He continued with steady roles in films like Trust The Man, Failure To Launch and The Rebound, before his role as missing groom-to-be Doug Billings in last year’s comedy megahit The Hangover further increased Bartha’s visibility.
The 31 year-old’s latest role is as drug-dealing Hasidic Jew, Yosef Zimmerman, in the comedy/drama Holy Rollers. It was wondered first off whether Yosef would be best defined as the hard-ass part of the community.
“Well, he was at one point,” Bartha states, “It was always the good angel.”
While Bartha himself is Jewish, he says he doesn’t have strong attachment to the Jewish religion.
“Still a Jew,” Justin says of himself, “I think I, I don’t want to speak for Jesse [Eisenberg], but I will. We both had fairly reformed Jewish upbringings, which means we weren’t religious in the sense of practicing Judaism so much. I went to Hebrew school for a little while and I was bar mitzvahed.”
“But it was more like most of my family’s connection to Judaism traditional than actual religious practice, which is still my connection to Judaism, which is more of a connection to tradition,” he adds, “We celebrated holidays, but my family really likes to celebrate their ancestry and it was never really about celebrating religious per se.”
For the film, Justin had to go to different Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York and interact with the various Hasidic Jewish communities there.
“I didn’t really worry at all,” he says of the experience, “The characters happen to be Jewish. It’s a fairly universal story when it comes to basically a morality play and obviously, there is always sensitivity when it comes to religion, but this story and this movie is not entirely focused on the specific Jewish religion. It’s just a character or characters who happen to be Jewish and are going through specific trials. When we would go to Williamsburg and just kind of observe for the most part the community, it’s not like the Chabad group that Jesse was taken in by. It’s mostly you can’t show a camera and you’re not really encouraged.”
“We both did fairly extensive research,” Bartha continues, “Jesse, more so, when it came to actually spending time with the Hasidic community because his character is very much instilled within the community, but we both had quite a bit of time to research and develop the characters ourselves through the writing process and through the research, we’d be able to take the actual script and then, mold it towards what we would find in our research and in our kind of studying about the faith and the community.”
The film is based on a true story of how Hasidic Jews were used to smuggle ecstasy from Europe into the U.S. However, Justin says his research for the film did not extend into the actual people the film is based on.
“Nobody actually met,” Bartha says, “And even though this is based on true events, this story has, not only in the Hasidic community, but in a lot of other Orthodox communities with all different religions have come up with obviously wayward people in the community doing not only drug smuggling, but nefarious activities.”
“So it’s not necessarily based on a specific one or two people, it’s an amalgam of Amish people,” he continues, “It’s true, it’s loosely based on, but the characters are completely fictionalized and based on Mormons.”
Justin says that Hasidic Judaism’s very strict rules on interacting with the secular world prevented them from having much of an opinion on the end result of Holy Rollers.
“They haven’t seen it and they won’t see it,” he states, “They did throw a party sponsored by Vitamin Water at Sundance.
Co-starring in the film is Adventureland and Zombieland star Jesse Eisenberg. Bartha was asked to comment on a recent remark Jesse made about his feelings on how insecure, neurotic, and self-critical he is and how he is able to be in his field with such a mindset.”
“Because he’s just like everybody else in this business,” he says, “He just says it out loud. It’s all part of the master plan of Jesse. There’s a giant Hawaiian man living inside him. Every actor almost, no matter how big the star, no matter how popular the performer, I would bet every actor is insecure about his place or her place in the business or within the business or within the industry that is the movie business, just like most people are insecure with being in this world.
“It’s a microcosm,” Justin adds, “It just happens to be a microcosm where you get a lot of attention and free stuff. I think there are two separate conversations. I think being confident about your own ability and your own performances is a completely different thing than being secure in a very odd and awkward world that is the entertainment industry. It’s like anything, you take it in stride. Depending on how you feel during that day and what the person is like, just like every experience that you encounter in your life, it’s ever-changing.”
Justin was unable to divulge on whether there would be a sequel to either of his immensely popular films National Treasure or The Hangover, but he did say, however, that he would be very interested in doing them if there was one green-lighted.
“Both movies are in the development stage.” Bartha says, “There’s no sequel for either The Hangover or National Treasure. All these things are subject to change and the script is ever-changing and we’ll see, nothing’s set in stone yet, but most likely, yes, it’s going to happen.”
Until then, Bartha is currently starring as Max in a Broadway revival of the Ken Ludwig play Lend Me A Tenor. We asked the actor if it was a tougher decision for him to choose doing a Broadway play versus doing a film.
“Well, for me, the instinct is always to try always work that is as talented,” Justin says, “And as professional as you can and people that I admire and work you have a sense that’s going to be interesting or rewarding and challenging and those roles for an actor don’t come about as much as you think. So the only calculation that I have and probably Jesse has is being able to spend your time with rewarding and challenging material.”
“So if I can do that on a Broadway stage, which I’m lucky to be able to do as many months as possible, I’ll know that the experience will be better than whatever my instincts drive me towards,” he continues, “That’s where my instincts drove me towards. It’s great. It’s a physical show, so physically, it can be tough, but I’m still having fun, I mean I’m not bored at all. It’s so rare, and Jesse does a lot of theater, it’s so rare to actually act for 2 hours straight or 2 Â½ hours straight. It’s a great experience.”