A delight: George-Michael Bluth, Arrested Development
“I so flirt with you in math.”
“Tell me about it. I…same-sies.”
Paulie Bleeker, Juno
He plays her a Moldy Peaches song. Cute.
Scott Pilgrim, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
I mean, how could he cheat on Knives Chau?
Michael Cera, This Is the End
Cocaine’s a helluva drug.
A dick: Jamie, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus
World traveler. Mind-bender. Insufferably anal-retentive jerk.
It’s the lunchtime rush in the Financial District, and I’m inching along in the back of a cab with Michael Cera. We make small talk about movies—a friend of his says Boyhood is the best film of the decade; we both admit, ashamed, that we haven’t seen it—when a cyclist comes barreling toward us. This doesn’t look good. I panic, envisioning a day spent with police officers, explaining, alongside one of the most-talked-about actors of my generation, our involvement in a fatal catastrophe.
“Watch it,” Cera politely says, not shouts, to the cyclist as he rolls down his window and she maneuvers out of the way. “She was not looking, huh?” he says with a smile to the driver, who doesn’t even bother to grunt a response. Then it’s right back to movies. Lately, Cera’s been on a big Japanese-cinema kick and tells me I need to see Nagisa Ôshima’s 1978 film, Empire of Passion.
This throws me. Not that the 26-year-old actor is passionate about film or that he’s excitedly talking about a movie I haven’t even heard of in a way that doesn’t make me feel dumb. It’s that he’s so calm and collected even after our near accident, with an almost Zen-like confidence about him. I always imagined that the guy from Arrested Development, Superbad and Juno shared the neurotic, muttering quality of his characters. But apparently acting requires, you know, acting.
With a tight striped polo, sneakers and a closely cropped ’do, Cera looks not unlike Sam Weir from Freaks and Geeks. He’s friendly. He ends sentences with “man” in the least dudey way imaginable. He talks about his friends a lot—about how they plan to Airbnb a place in Montauk before summer ends, even though he’d often rather “veg out in [his] apartment for 48 hours” on weekends. He asks about me a lot, saying that he recently went to a lake in Wisconsin with his girlfriend after I mention that I went to school in the land o’ cheese.
Cruising now, atop the Brooklyn Bridge en route to a photo shoot in his home borough, we’re talking about another movie, You Can Count on Me, Kenneth Lonergan’s much-loved 2000 drama. We both consider it one of our favorites—Cera’s No. 1 film of all time, by the way, is Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid—and then start reciting lines. Cera gushes about how amazing (similarly mumbly nice guy) Mark Ruffalo is in the movie and about Lonergan’s writing in general.
Lonergan is why we’re together today. The playwright-filmmaker’s 1996 coming-of-age stage drama, This Is Our Youth, about three late-teen/early-twentysomething slackers holed up in an Upper West Side apartment during the Reagan era, is about to have its Broadway debut. Cera’s landed the role of Warren, a part originally portrayed by, you guessed it, Mark Ruffalo.
After hopping out of the cab in Dumbo and wrapping his photo shoot, the actor sits down with me to chat—between munching on pita chips and hummus—about…being Michael Cera.
So you’ve been a Brooklynite for about a year now. Why did you make the move from L.A.?
I never quite clicked with [L.A.], the way that life is kind of laid out there. It was weird. I kind of ended up there automatically. I was doing this TV series out there. That’s where my career was starting to happen. So you automatically keep going out there until it got to the point where I was like, I’m really actively choosing to live here now and for a reason I can’t really identify.
I read an interview where you said you saw Ghostbusters as a kid and wanted to move to New York. What was it about the city in that movie that attracted you?
Just the energy of it—the look and the feeling of New York and the life of it. And then I came here when I was ten or something with my mom for a few days, and I was like, Wow. Yeah, I was like, how could you find a cooler place to live?
When we were rehearsing this play in 2012, I Airbnb’d a place. I didn’t know New York at all, and my friend Nick said, “Why don’t you try to look for a place in Fort Greene? It’s a nice neighborhood.” So then after spending a month or two there, I was like, It’s really got a good feeling. And the next year, I came again last year and did a short film here, and I Arbnb’d a place in Prospect Heights, near Vanderbilt. Every time I left, I was kind of sad to leave. I like the access to the city, but I like that you’re not in Manhattan.
Yeah, the amount of people there freaks me out a little.
Oh, I know what you mean. The volume. It’s really strange when you get used to being in the neighborhood with, like, one percent of the people and the activity, and then you come to Manhattan. I, like, retreat afterward.
What attracted you to This Is Our Youth?
First of all, Kenny’s voice, his instinct for this lower level of human feeling, is beautiful, and you really feel that. I think that his big strength is that he can really make you feel these very nuanced feelings about a character.
Right. He tends to play on the way a character looks away from another person.
Yeah, the way things play out—between the lines. And [my character] Warren—I like that you don’t see him right away. You think, Oh, he’s this little stoner rich kid. And you learn later that there’s a lot more going on than that. That’s how it happens in real life. I mean, you’re growing up and see a kid, and you’re like, Oh, that kid’s so funny and weird, and he’s such a goof, and you project this nonpersonality onto a person, and then they can really surprise you.
I assume there are some misconceptions about you.
Yeah, but that’s kind of normal, I think. If you’re someone who’s in some kind of public field—like if you’re working in entertainment—people are going to see your work and have some kind of perception about you. And it can’t be who you are.
Although it would be cool if you became a one-note person, like you had one banana-slip gag, and that’s all you did.
Yeah! [Laughs] I don’t really know what you would gain from that, but I guess it could be convenient. There’d be no surprises. Gallagher kind of tried that. [Laughs] Going back to the play, how has it been working with Tavi and Kieran?
It’s been great. We just have fun. And Tavi—she’s 18. When we’re hanging out, it’s like you can just be kids. And Kieran’s such a kid too, always down for a game; it doesn’t matter what it is.
What kind of games?
It could be anything. He and I gamble a lot together.
Like in Vegas?
No, like just for fun. Actually, we had a bet recently where the loser had to go see Godzilla by themselves, alone—and sober—and not fall asleep and not text about it. Kieran lost. [Laughs]
Yikes. Sober. You lucked out. So there’s this perception of you that you’ve taken a break, even though you’re working insanely hard on this play. Was there a point where you were on a certain celebrity path and you thought, I don’t know if I want to be doing this?
Kind of, yeah. I guess I didn’t feel so in control. That’s the only way to put it. I was kind of not comfortable about the way things were constructed about me. I wanted to stop thinking about work so much for a minute. I’m really spoiled in that I like to really care about the things I’m working on, really like them. That’s not a realistic way for most people to work. I think I was just not sure if I was enjoying being an actor and all the weird stuff that comes with it.
Your role in Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus was quite a departure. What was it like working with… [Loud noises start coming from the next room.]
Is someone power-washing in there? [Laughs]
Yes, there’s an elephant back there.
[Laughs] Working with Sebastián [Silva]? It was amazing. It was like we hung out and made a movie with friends. Just for the vacation and the adventure alone, I think it was worthwhile.
How much improvisation was there? The awkward conversations feel so natural.
All the dialogue was not written, but the script was very outlined. He’s a responsible filmmaker. He’s also just confident enough to be present and let things happen in the moment and if something’s not working, finding something else. And he’d never get frustrated or intimidated. It was just so casual, and that kind of feeling comes through.
Your character Jamie is a bit of a dick. What was it like being in that headspace?
So fun. So funny. We were laughing so much. You know, he’s someone who’s so a million miles away and so unaware of how they’re coming across or how they’re affecting the group or the general energy or is just indifferent to the energy they’re creating. Like, We have to stop ’cause [Crystal Fairy, played by Gaby Hoffman] has to pee. And he’s like, Yeah, we really shouldn’t right now.
I love the hypocrisy of a chill hippy-ish guy who, deep down, is just a jerk.
Yeah, the laid-back thing is what he’d like to be, it’s what they’d like to project, but, like, there are so many cracks.
He’s a long way off from George Michael Bluth. I read that you came across the script for Arested Development when you were 14 and fell in love with it.
I did this show that nobody ever saw, this sitcom for Fox. So then when I read the script for Arrested Development, I kind of had been reading scripts at that point for, like, a year, and it was just obviously funny. It was really funny. For me, it was so clearly different and special. You could feel [Arrested Development creator] Mitch Hurwitz coming through it.
What was it like writing on the most recent season?
Terrifying at first. And then, you know, it was incredible that it became kind of normal. At some point, I felt I could be comfortable in the room and hold my own and contribute in some way. That was amazing, when you’re with these guys who are just incredible, with story and with jokes and just the way it happens. You could be focusing on a story for one minute and then just be like, Okay, let’s goof around and think of stupid, silly stuff. ’Cause that’s a big part of it too. It’s equal parts.
Can we look forward to another season?
I don’t know. I really don’t. I haven’t talked to anyone about it in a long time. I don’t know if it’s on anyone’s mind or if people are working on other things. I think Mitch Hurwitz is working at Netflix now, doing various things over there, developing stuff.
You’re also a big music buff. What was it like touring with Mister Heavenly a few years back?
So fun. It’s my friends’ band, and yeah, they just asked me to go just to have fun. I mean, I’d never had a chance to do that, to play music consistently. For me, I was like a Make a Wish kid, you know? We were opening for Passion Pit; the audience was very young.
Would they yell out dumb stuff at you because you’re Michael Cera?
Yeah, it was kind of weird, because it’s not, like, my thing—it’s their thing—but inevitable I guess if it’s young kids. We’d be, like, setting up or breaking down after, and you’d just feel this energy coming, and it’s not so comfortable.
Do you still play?
Yeah, I play with friends, you know? I play piano. [Cera e-mails me some of his music in case I want to check it out a few days after the interview. Three days later, the tracks get picked up by the blogosphere, and Cera becomes the top-trending story on Facebook.]
What bands are you into now?
I like the Kinks a lot. They’re the best, yeah. When I drove from Chicago, I was playing a lot of Arthur [(or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)].
Did you hear that Ray and Dave Davies are apparently talking again and might get back together for shows?
No. That’d be great! I mean, it’s so sad that there isn’t anymore harmony between them. They were so beautiful together. And one without the other is too sad for me. It’s just so beautiful that they were these brothers that blended their voices so beautifully. Actually, the guy who lived below me is great guy named Jeremy, and he and his brother grew up playing Kinks songs together. And we’ve had a few nights where they’ll come over.…He and his brother will sing three-part harmonies, playing the Kinks. I’m, like, in heaven, you know? I couldn’t ask for a better neighbor.
I noticed that you’re not on Twitter. Don’t you feel bad that millions of strangers didn’t know you were jamming out to the Kinks?
[Laughs] Yeah. I mean, I just can’t get into it, but the compulsion of Twitter is so odd.
That’s refreshing to hear from a twentysomething Brooklynite.
Yeah, I don’t see the appeal. I also have no use for it. A lot of my friends do—people, like, that do comedy around L.A. or something to let people know where their show is.
It’s become like a job.
Right. And sometimes, people do like ten in an hour or something. That’s too much time with whatever device you’re using. It’s too much time.
This Is Our Youth opens Sept 11.
Scroll right to see how the actor's morphed from playing a delight to a dick.
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