Michael Cera: Hollywood's go-to-geek
Darling of indie comedy, and now Hollywood's go-to-geek, Michael Cera talks to Dave Calhoun about beating up bad guys in 'Scott Pilgrim vs The World'.
The 22-year-old Canadian actor does deadpan in real life as convincingly as he does in films like ‘Superbad’ and ‘Juno’. He has flown in to London from the Irish premiere of ‘Scott Pilgrim vs the World’ (see Film of the week, p74) with some of his fellow actors and its director, Edgar Wright (‘Shaun of the Dead’, ‘Hot Fuzz’). On the day we meet it’s four days since ‘Scott Pilgrim’ opened in North America, and it hasn’t performed as well as its makers, Universal Pictures, must have hoped. It took less than $11 million on its first weekend, which, for a film rumoured to have cost around $60m, is disappointing. The decision to watch ageing meatheads in Sylvester Stallone’s ‘The Expendables’ or comic-book cool youths in ‘Scott Pilgrim’ must have been too much for the masses.
Cera laughs. ‘Exactly, it’s an easy choice – seeing the wrestler Stone Cold getting punched by Stallone or… Gosh, it’s like saying, “Would you like pizza or would you like this beautifully prepared spaghetti dish that this fine chef made?” I think “Scott Pilgrim” is a tricky one to sell. I don’t know how you convey that movie in a marketing campaign. I can see it being something that people are slow to discover. In honesty, I was slow to find “Shaun of the Dead”.’
Actually there’s a fair amount of mano a mano action in ‘Scott Pilgrim’ too, but you can’t imagine Stallone writing in chat-up lines about Pac-Man or inserting a Bollywood dance number with a goth-girl chorus. ‘Scott Pilgrim’ is a witty comic-book adaptation, a fantasy about a self-centred young Toronto muso, played by Cera, whose head starts spinning when a new girl, the impossibly cool Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), walks into his life. He enters into a challenge to win Ramona’s heart: he must defeat all seven of her evil exes, one by one. He becomes the protagonist in his own computer game, allowing Wright to merge a surreal narrative flow and vivid special effects with a ground-level portrait of the lives of a bunch of suburban wannabe hipsters.
The film’s running gag is that weedy Scott is suddenly throwing top-scoring punches and flying-kicks. Of course, weedy Scott is only possible because of weedy Cera. He’s tiny. His height is average but his frame looks like it would snap in a breeze. He’s not exactly your typical action star, is he? He throws me a quizzical look and manages a smirk. ‘I think it’s passable action. I don’t think it makes me as a person scream “action hero”.’ He thinks a little more. ‘I think it’s surprising when you see me in an action movie, not surprising when you don’t see me in an action movie.’ He gestures to his skinny arms and says: ‘Basically, I don’t think it would work in any other film.’
Cera has been acting since he was nine, picking up a series of small TV roles and the odd film part, such as a younger version of Sam Rockwell in George Clooney’s ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’. But it was his three-year stint on the sitcom ‘Arrested Development’ between 2003 and 2006 as George-Michael, the preppy son of Jason Bateman’s Michael, that made his name. He says that not even that series prepared him for the attention he received from ‘Superbad’ in 2007, when he paired up with Jonah Hill as an odd couple of high school friends who booze and awkwardly flirt their way through one night. Did that feel like a new start?
‘Yeah, it was a big turning point,’ he reckons. ‘When we were making “Superbad”, it felt like a big job. Then, when it came out and was so popular, you feel it right away. More people recognised me than I’d ever experienced, and I’d been working for nine years at that point. It’s frightening, especially at that age. I was 18, and you’re still getting to know yourself. But you learn as time goes by. You learn how to figure it out.’
His reputation grew when his next two films, ‘Juno’ and ‘Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist’, became indie hits. I want to ask why he always seems to play the same role – the nice, lovelorn, indie geek. But I’m not sure how to phrase it without hurting him. He looks vulnerable and doesn’t come across as a million miles away from the parts he plays. Instead I say he always seems to play deadpan comic roles. He looks confused. ‘I don’t know. What’s the opposite to that?’ Well, more expressive, lively comic characters, perhaps? Gag merchants. ‘I don’t mind a gag.’ He looks distressed. ‘Those are the ones I’ve been hired for. I’ve never really written something I’ve been part of, I’ve just been lucky enough to be a part of them. I guess those are the ones I’ve gotten.’
I move on, and ask about the fans who have been salivating over the prospect of ‘Scott Pilgrim’ for many months. In July, he accompanied Wright and the film’s other stars to Comic-Con, the fan convention in San Diego where kids dressed as Spider-Man dribble over clips of upcoming movies. Cera turned up to plug ‘Scott Pilgrim’ dressed as Captain America but says Comic-Con wasn’t a natural environment for him. ‘I’m not a huge comic reader. I think those people have such a personal attachment and devotion. I got my fix on comedies and movies growing up more than anything else.’
Hopefully we’ll see Cera grabbing the comedy reins more in the future. In 2007 he wrote a web series with a friend called ‘Clark and Michael’ and hosted a stage version of ‘Saturday Night Live’ during the writers’ strike. Ask about his comedy heroes and he’s well versed: ‘Oh, Monty Python. Mel Brooks. I loved “Seinfeld”, I loved “Spinal Tap” and all Christopher Guest’s movies. Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, the classic “SNL” years.’ Does he want to write more? ‘If it happens, I’d love to. I love writing with friends, even if it comes to nothing. Someday, maybe when I’ve got a bit more experience, I could do it.’
I finish by digging out a recent shoot he did for GQ in the US. It shows him and ‘Scott Pilgrim’ co-stars Schwartzman and Chris Evans sitting on a bench watching women walk by. The trio are wearing no trousers and a pixellated section around their crotches suggests they’re enjoying themselves. He bursts out laughing. So that was fun to do? ‘They just said: “Do you want to do this? To wear flesh-tone shorts and we’ll blur it out?” I love it, it turned out really funny. I’ll do whatever it takes. It’s nice to have a film you’re proud of. ’
Read our review of ‘Scott Pilgrim vs the World'
Author: Dave Calhoun
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