The first time most of us encountered Michael Cera he was a baby faced 15-year-old snuggled up on an air mattress fitted with generic sports-themed sheets in the pilot episode of Arrested Development. When the new episodes premiere on Netflix on May 26, George Michael Bluth will be a college freshman at UC Irvine — but since it's in Orange County, he won't be far from home.
In the intervening years, Cera, like his trademark character, has been schooled — but not in a James Franco way. In fact, you might call Michael Cera the Anti-Franco. The actor, who turns 25 this year, has foregone college and instead spent the past few years embedded as an apprentice with a few of his role models — learning writing, acting and directing straight from the source.
Cera lived with Chilean director Sebastian Silva and his family in South America for three months during the summer of 2011. He spent a couple weeks holed up in an Upper East Side diner with 82-year-old author and screenwriter Bruce Jay Friedman (Splash, The Heartbreak Kid) this past winter, adapting the man's short story for his own directorial debut. To top it all off, he also spent several months in the Arrested Development writers' room, working alongside the same folks who wrote him into the model home attic in the first place.
"Whatever happened with you and my driver at Sundance?" Michael Cera inquires, like a kind yenta, as I'm ushered into a room at a Sheraton hotel in Universal City by a publicist in April. In January, Four months earlier, I'd accidentally met Cera's driver at a sushi restaurant in Park City. "Alex, right? I liked that guy. I had high hopes for you two — just because I would be so central to that story."
Cera doesn't really need another central role — besides writing for and acting in new episodes of Arrested Development, he's starring in two short films for the YouTube channel Jash (the second of which, Gregory Go Boom premiered on Wednesday) as well as two feature films that premiered at Sundance (one of them, Crystal Fairy, will be in theaters July 12). He's also appearing alongside Seth Rogen and James Franco in This Is The End (out June 12).
Of all of these, the most highly anticipated, by far, is Cera's reprisal as George Michael. There were rumors for a while that Cera was reluctant to return to the role — the last holdout among the cast members for the Netflix reboot — but when production began Cera hadn't just signed on to appear in the series, he was helping to write it too.
No one really planned for Cera to be in the Arrested Development writers' room. He says he just showed up the day that they were writing for George Michael and he was curious, so he hung around. "I really wanted to be in there just 'cause it seemed like I had the chance to be. I really wanted to see what goes on in there and be around those guys," Cera says.
At the Television Critics Association in January, series creator Mitch Hurwitz said it wasn't long before Cera became indispensable: "Suddenly we were very dependent on Michael Cera being in the writer's room. He completely understood this complex story. He added to it. He pitched in character. It became clear — it's like, wow, this is like his first language, Arrested Development."
Hurwitz, Jim Vallely and Dean Lorey had been working on the story since November 2011. Cera joined them in June 2012, with filming beginning in August.
When I meet him nine months later, Cera still has seen only the first two episodes, even though the entire series is scheduled to debut on Netflix just a few weeks later — Hurwitz is still editing the rest.
To hear Cera tell it, the whole process was kind of like that — down to the wire, operating at a level of dysfunction befitting the Bluth family. "We were writing basically through July and August, just really casually, and then it got to the point where you looked at the schedule and you were like, okay they're shooting Maeby's episode next week and there is literally no script," Cera says.
On some days, Cera says, "Mitch would be on set and, you know, call the writers room and say, 'Stop what you're doing, I need this scene because we're about to shoot it.'" The show's writers would then have about a half hour to write the scene. "Jim Vallely calls those 'fireman missions.' Like you get a call and you have to jump into action and do it."
He adds: "Those were really fun moments. But I was so happy that it was not my responsibility, in those moments, to get it done. I just had to be in there and try to contribute something."
The distinction between contributing and controlling a shoot is one Cera has become more familiar with recently, as he's writing and directing his own projects. When he speaks of Hurwitz, it's with a mix of admiration and bewilderment that suggests Cera learned both what to do and what not to do from watching the veteran show runner operate up close.
"He is very dangerous in the way he schedules things. I don't think he means to be, but he'll really push himself into a corner with production aspects and with unwinding stories and fights his way out of it," Cera says. "You have to put your faith in him because you're not going to do it any other way — he's leading the thing."
It sounds scary — until you remember that faith in Hurwitz helped lead Cera to where he is today.
And that's as one of the most well-regarded young actors in Hollywood.
The narrative that Michael Cera is a nice guy is so powerful that the idea that Michael Cera might actually be dick has become in itself a riotous joke. In This Is The End, Cera, playing himself, slaps Rihanna's ass — hard — and blows a chalky cloud of cocaine into Christopher Mintz-Plasse's (A.K.A. McLovin's) face. When he ends up impaled on a lamppost, one character remarks, "I guess if Michael Cera's dead its not a total loss."
The way you know Cera is is actually a nice guy, though, is by how effusively someone who works for him — like the guy tasked with shuttling Cera around Sundance in January — talks about the star. Alex was not a professional chauffeur, just a Salt Lake City insurance man moonlighting as one for extra cash during the festival in nearby Park City — a fact made abundantly clear by his chattiness about the Arrested Development star.
"I feel like I'm drunk!" Alex tells me, trying to explain what it's like hanging with Cera. He isn't drinking (precious cargo, after all), but he's positively giddy over the actor and how incredibly nice he is. Then he gets a text from Cera, pays his tab and tears out of the restaurant to pick him up.
Cera is in Park City to promote two films—Crystal Fairy and Magic, Magic — both set in Chile, both directed by Sebastian Silva, and both co-staring Silva's brother, Agustín. (Crystal Fairy actually has triple the Silva — it co-stars Sebastian's other two brothers, Juan Andrés and José Miguel, as well.)
Cera initially signed on to do just one film with Silva, whose past work includes Sundance selections The Maid and Old Cats. Magic, Magic is a haunting psychodrama about a troubled young American girl in Chile — not that it necessarily mattered what the film was about.
"For me it wasn't even really a matter of what the story of this was, it was an opportunity to collaborate with someone you admire, and go on his journey, do things the way that he likes to do them — kind of follow his lead," Cera says.
He followed Silva's lead all the way to Chile, where he moved into Silva's house and lived with his family for three months while they all waited for the funding to come through for Magic, Magic. In the director's words, during those months Michael Cera "became a Silva."
"It was kind of just a whim," Cera says. "I was learning Spanish in Los Angeles for Magic, Magic, which we were pretty optimistic about being able to make that summer, so I went in June and the idea was: okay, we'll start filming in July, so I'll have another month in Chile to study Spanish get a little better at it and immerse myself and then we'll go and get started on the movie."
A month went by. And then another. All this time, Cera was living with the Silvas. "It was amazing spending time with them. They're some of the best people in the world. I think anybody who is around them feels that way," he says. "I really feel like they are a second family to me. I really love them."
And then another month went by, with the funding for Magic, Magic still floating somewhere in the ether. Finally the Silvas got fed up and decided to make their own film.
For years, Sebastián Silva had had an empty folder titled, "Crystal Fairy," sitting on his computer desktop as a reminder that someday he wanted to make a film about a trip he took into the Chilean desert with a hippie girl everybody called Crystal Fairy. Silva called up Gaby Hoffmann (the pair had recently worked together on an HBO webseries, The Boring Life of Jacqueline) and asked her to fly down to Chile for the role.
The whole film — a story of about two Americans (Hoffmann and Cera) determined to track down a hallucinogenic cactus and the Chileans (Silva's brothers) who lead the way — was shot in 12 days. The dialogue is entirely improvised, recreated by the actors from Silva's memory of the trip. Production on Magic, Magic began not long after.
In the end it was all worth it for Cera to work with Silva: "I really like the things that he likes about making movies — the things he likes to explore and how organic he is. I had worked on other movies where people were really specific and controlling and I think, maybe as a reaction to that, it's very nice to work with someone who is totally open and works off of the actors and is confident enough to not have to control everything and know everything going in."
Both films were ultimately accepted by Sundance, but it was Crystal Fairy, the improvised one, that netted Silva an award for best direction (World Dramatic category), and a distribution deal.
Silva called the two films "twins" — in an good/evil sense.
"One was shot in the north of Chile, the other one in the south. Completely, completely different landscapes. Summer; Winter. Crystal Fairy, it's a movie that makes you feel good, and Magic, Magic is a movie that makes you feel bad — it was made to make you feel bad and uncomfortable all throughout the experience."
Watching Cera in both films feels like watching the evil twin of the sweet, awkward character he has cultivated for years on screen (Juno, Superbad, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). In both films, Cera (a Gemini, incidentally) explores some of the uglier aspects of human nature. "I know people like that, that act out and are maybe kind of addicted to negativity and are so self-sabotaging," Cera says of his character, Jamie, in Crystal Fairy. "He's a really ugly guy to me. It's hard to watch the movie because it's just so annoying. So annoying."
He adds that the Silvas, in the film (and real life), "are such beacons of love and acceptance and even they can't make him feel okay about himself. He's kind of trapped and whatever demons he's got he's really having a hard time with. I feel for him even though he's kind of awful."
The darker side of Michael Cera is one that audiences should get comfortable with, because they're liable to be seeing more and more of it. Most recently, Cera is experimenting with those kinds of roles on Jash, the YouTube comedy channel for which Cera — along with Sarah Silverman, Reggie Watts and Tim and Eric — is producing films.
Jash is the brainchild of late night veteran Daniel Kellison (Late Night with David Letterman, The Man Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live), and the Culver City, Calif.-based company produced YouTube Comedy Week, which runs through Saturday. When Kellison was getting ready to launch the channel, he went looking for people who were "super particular about their comedy." Cera's humor fit the bill, and with his past web experience (Drunk History, Clark and Michael) he was a natural choice, Kellison says: "He was actually pretty familiar with this whole area."
The most notable thing about Cera's contributions to the channel so far — two relatively dark, finely crafted art house films in which Cera plays complicated and sometimes ugly characters — is that, for a comedy channel, they're not very funny.
His first contribution, a 20-minute black comedy based on the short story Brazzaville Teen-Ager by Bruce Jay Friedman, Cera says, is "not really a comedy at all." The film is about a young man (Cera) whose father (Charles Grodin) is hospitalized in a desperate state. He gets the crazy idea in his head that he might be able to save his father's life if he can just convince his boss to sing back-up vocals on a Kelis track.
He only discovered Friedman's work in the last year or two. "I came to him because The Heartbreak Kid is my favorite movie," Cera says. Friedman wrote the short story from which Neil Simon's film (and later, the Farrelly Brothers' remake) was based. "It's pretty perfect."
Jash, likewise, is pretty perfect for Cera because it offers him opportunities to do what he is already inclined to: spend time studying and collaborating with the people he admires. He had the opportunity to do that with Friedman, whose son is a friend of Kellison's. A few days after mentioning his interest in Friedman's work to Kellison, Cera was on the phone with the man.
"We got together in New York and wrote in person for about two weeks, just getting together and getting to know each other and having lunch and working on the script," Cera says. "We wrote in a place on the Upper West Side called Café Eighty Two, which is right at 82nd Street, and in a little booth. The waiters I don't think were very pleased that we were spending that kind of time in there. They kept trying to smoke us out by just coming over repeatedly and asking if we needed anything, just really kind of breathing down our necks — but we had a great time in there."
If Cera wants to sit in diner and write with Friedman, or if he wants to drive out to the Salton Sea and shoot a short film like Gregory Go Boom, written and directed by his friend Janicza Bravo and co-starring Brett Gelman, Jash affords him the latitude to do that.
The Salton Sea is a massive lake in the middle of the California desert, created at the turn of the 20th century by flooding on the Colorado River. At one point, it was a glitzy vacation destination for Angelenos; today the neighborhoods that used to line the lake are mostly deserted and the smell of rot — the Sea's increasing salinity has triggered a massive fish die-off — that hangs in the air for miles.
The Salton Sea is also where Gregory Go Boom — Cera's second film for Jash — is set. In it, he plays a racist paraplegic attempting to date in his deserted town. I won't ruin the ending but it is, without a doubt, Cera's blackest film yet.
When Janicza Bravo first pitched the story to Jash, she was taken aback when the executives asked if she would be all right with Cera playing the title character: "I was like, 'Oh my god, of course — I don't see why he would want to play this part, but I would love for him to play it.' He read it, and there was no hesitation. He was like, 'Oh my god, let's do this right now.' And then so it was."
Cera, says Bravo, has "darker tastes than I think most people know."
Equally surprising was the fact that Jash was game to take on such gritty territory — but maybe that's why Cera and the channel are such a great fit.
"The whole time I kept thinking at some point Jash was going to say there is no way we can do this," Bravo says. "It's incredibly dark, and they're a comedy company. I don't know how it happened but somehow it got through."
It wasn't an accident, Kellison says, but rather by design. "We're definitely — and I think Michael is especially — interested in exploring all forms of comedy. We're doing some lighter things down the road, but for now its been kind of cool that we're able to do these things because we would not be able to do them, probably, anywhere else."
If Brazzaville Teen-Ager is any indication, there's an appetite for this darker material Cera is experimenting with as a writer, director and an actor. "It's a 20-minute short film, but I think in the first couple of weeks we have over 200,000 views of it, which is pretty remarkable," Kellison says.
And Cera, it seems, has the appetite to keep doing exactly what he has been doing.
"The truth is I just always try to have really fun opportunities. I have had so many really great opportunities. It's the best perk of being an actor if you can, to get to meet people you admire, and get to work with people you admire that are amazing people. That's a really special aspect of it, and I think it's worth doing."