An actor's unarrested development

Hollywood diaries

An actor's unarrested development

Early on in This Is the End, a fame-inflected look at the end of days, Michael Cera, played by Michael Cera, is impaled and hoisted high above Los Angeles, wriggling, covered in blood and patting his pockets for his lost cellphone. He finds the phone, but the rest of it doesn’t go so well.

“We had to kill Cera first,” Seth Rogen, who directed the movie with Evan Goldberg, said. “It just felt right.” Kill Michael Cera, the cuddly, tortured indie boy king of Juno and Arrested Development? Why not murder a basket of puppies while you are at it? Except the version of Cera, who is the first of many to die in This Is the End, is a coked-out sex fiend who has it coming. In fact, the real Cera, a persistent model of twitchy adorableness, has been playing some pretty rugged roles lately. In Crystal Fairy, he is the kind of drug tourist who gives Americans abroad a bad name.

A man-child who grew up before our eyes, Cera is now 25 and in that place where many actors who were irresistible when they were young become invisible as they reach adulthood. It hasn’t gone that way for him. Instead, he is adding significant wrinkles to how people see him.

Cera has an interest in things beyond a busy career that started early and has included movies like Youth in Revolt, Superbad, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Scott Pilgrim vs the World.

Because Cera came of age in public, a child star from Canada, who spent his formative adolescence on Arrested Development, there is an impulse to assume that the kid we saw on television is now a man we know. And even though he’s performed vile and profane acts in the name of comedy, you can’t help assigning a kind of sweetness to him. If he were dating your daughter, you’d keep an eye on him but secretly be pleased she picked a funny, well-mannered boyfriend.

After going quiet for a stretch — his last big movie was Scott Pilgrim in 2010 — he is having a bit of a moment. There are his short but highly visible cameo in This Is the End and his darkly unsympathetic character in Crystal Fairy, a drug-fuelled road trip film directed by Sebastián Silva. And in Cera’s version of George Michael Bluth in the reprised Arrested Development, the actor also served as a writer on the new season. While his characters have seemed daunted by the leap to adulthood, the guy who played them seems to be doing just fine.

Silva had invited Cera down to Chile to make Magic Magic, a dark movie about mental illness, but the financing kept falling apart. Cera, who had been living with Silva’s family and learning Spanish for three months, was worried Magic Magic might never get made. Then Silva mentioned that he had a story about an ad hoc group that comes together on the road in a quest for San Pedro, a cactus that contains mescaline.

Cera was cast as a frantic, boorish drug tourist named Jamie, who casually invites along a woman named Crystal Fairy he met at a party and is stunned when she shows up. Her hippie raps and strained spirituality bring out the worst in Jamie. There are epiphanies, not all of them drug-induced, and for moviegoers, a fair amount of insight into human dynamics.

Cera more than holds his own opposite a remarkable, unalloyed performance from Gaby Hoffmann, who plays the title character. As an actor, he admires her skills, he said, including the ability to balance a beer bottle on her forehead in any position. Asked if he had a parlour trick of his own, he said no.

It would not be the first time Cera has done something that impressed others, but his fans could not be blamed for wondering how Cera, the tracksuited dweeb from Juno, has become so capable of playing damaged, unlikable people.

“Even the nicest people in the world know what it’s like to be selfish, even if they don’t act on it. Everyone has access to those impulses,” he said, his friendly, direct gaze suggesting that might include, say, me.

“He’s both fixated and miserable,” Cera said, speaking of his “Crystal Fairy” character. “He’s a person who is so uncomfortable with himself that he can’t be in the present moment for even a second.”

Silva directed the story without a script but based it on an episode in his life. “I think it is a bit of an accident” that Cera was always cast as a lovable nerd, he said. “He is a smart guy, a very good actor, and he can play anything he wants to with proper direction.” Shot in 12 days, the film still manages to cover significant ground.

“I never thought this movie would have any kind of life at all,” Cera said. “It felt like I was doing just something fun with people I like.” Almost everyone wants to direct when they grow up, but Cera already has some credits. He directed a short film starring Charles Grodin, a hero of his, called Brazzaville Teen-ager, based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman, another hero of his.

Unlike the Hollywood scenester he plays in This Is the End, he doesn’t get out much. “I’m not plugged into that world,” he said. “It’s a really good city to be a homebody and sit and watch movies with friends. It takes a lot of work to be plugged in to people. Every day you wake up it’s a new challenge, like: ‘What am I going to do with myself today?'”

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