Michael Cera is growing up. It may be hard to picture, as at one point it seemed as if baby-faced Cera could forever play the awkward teenage boy next door. But in the last few months, other than a recent return to his Arrested Development roots, Cera has left behind his youthful comedies of yore, such as Juno and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and taken a turn toward the adult and the experimental.
Fresh off the film-festival circuit and into theaters on July 12 is Crystal Fairy — one of two films Cera did with director Sebastian Silva that screened at Sundance this year, the other one being Magic, Magic. Shot in 12 days and largely improvised, Crystal Fairy follows one-track-minded Jamie (Cera), three brothers (Silva's brothers) and a free-spirited tag-along (Gaby Hoffmann) on a road trip throughout Chile in search of a hallucinogenic cactus.
“[T]here was no dialogue written,” Cera says in an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “It was basically just a plot breakdown and every scene was pretty fleshed out” — including a particularly memorable scripted scene where Jamie performs an odd, acute-breathing, yoga-esque exercise, standing in his underwear and snapping his outstretched arms out, then in.
Jamie is similar to the drugged-out, douchey stereotype Cera played in the recently released This Is the End. But his raven-haired character in Magic is a new kind of role entirely. Brink, a role retooled from a Chilean native to an American for Cera, is a troubled, possibly psychopathic young man who exacerbates the mental decline of his already psychiatrically fragile friend-of-a-friend Alicia (Juno Temple).
But his reasons for signing on to Magic were more about working with the director of critically acclaimed feature The Maid (which launched Silva's career and made him a Sundance favorite) than breaking type. Early on, the project was put on hold due to uncertain financing, and Crystal Fairy was made first. Silva already had the project in mind, and the circumstances were right for it: It didn't require a large crew or extensive prep, and he already had a lead male actor in his home. Cera had been living with the Silvas in Chile for a few months and was learning Spanish.
“Half of my vocabulary is stuff that I'll never be able to use in any other country,” Cera says. “And it's even specific within Chile to Sebastian's family… I learned stupid expressions like, 'She's hotter than a country kettle.' Which doesn't mean 'hot' like she's beautiful, though, it means, like, 'horny.' If you say 'caliente' in Spanish, it means 'hot to trot.' So I would use that expression not knowing that, though, and I've gotten into a lot of strange situations.”
Many of his roles come from previous relationships. He joined This Is the End and the Bachelorette parody web series Burning Love — in which he goes into anaphylactic shock and gets stabbed by ballpoint pens — simply because he'd been asked by former costars. And the rumor that he was the lone holdout for the Arrested Development movie (which became the new 15-episode season on Netflix) was a misconception borne from a joke-gone-wrong by creator Mitch Hurwitz, who'd cheekily implied this was the case, and Cera saying in an interview that he didn't really see a need for a follow-up movie.
Cera did ultimately return to Arrested Development — not only as George Michael Bluth but as one of the writers. And he certainly picked one of the most difficult seasons in which to write for the show, what with the multiple, parallel storylines. “I don't know how it ever could have gotten made without [Joey Slamon, one of the writers' assistants],” he says. “Because we would be in the room, Mitch Hurwitz would most of the time be on set — because he actually directed this season. … When he wasn't in the room, we'd all kind of just be, like, 'OK, what if this happens?' And then Joey would be in the corner and go, 'No, that can't happen because Lucille's in rehab at that point…' And we would just be, like, 'Thank you.' ”
This year also saw the launch of Cera's JASH channel on YouTube, featuring original content from him, Sarah Silverman and other comedic actors. His first major work for the channel was directing, co-writing and starring in Brazzaville Teen-Ager, released in April. It follows a young man who has become convinced that the only way to save his ailing father is if his boss sings backup on a Kelis song (updated from a doo-wop band in the original story).
He had always wanted to adapt the 1966 short story by Bruce Jay Friedman, and so he pitched it to JASH head Daniel Kellison at their first meeting. “And [Kellison] goes, 'Oh cool, I know [Friedman's] son!' ” Cera recalls. “And the next day I was on the phone with [Friedman], who's a hero of mine. … It just came together, and all of a sudden, I had a real commitment. Like I just mentioned this without thinking, and now, I have to go do this. Yeah, which I think is a good way to work: Put yourself in a situation … commit to it before you can freak yourself out.”
This sentiment probably explains how Cera has credits spanning film, television, online media and even music, singing in his films and contributing to various bands. He jokingly adds, “And children. … My sister's got a little 2-year-old. We get along, so I consider that a medium.” Although, so far, his niece can't really watch anything he's been in. But he hopes that won't always be the case. “I would love to do Pixar. … They're some of my favorite movies being made.”
But Cera is proving that he is quite the storyteller on his own. When given the same classic challenge posed to Ernest Hemingway to write a story in six words (Hemingway's was “For sale: baby shoes, never used”), Cera comes up with one in seconds. “OK, mine is [a] Craigslist missed connection ad: 'Do you remember me from yesterday?' ” he says. “You have to give it time. It's topical. It's generational.” Appropriate, as one could apply these descriptions to Cera himself.