Kenneth Lonergan’s keenly observed This Is Our Youth, about growing up on the Upper West Side in the 1980s, closes on Broadway on January 4. The date may also wind up marking the end of another era. During the past decade, Michael Cera has come to represent “our youth” to many who identify with the slightly awkward, wholly ingenuous high schoolers he’s played in Arrested Development, Superbad, Juno, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Youth in Revolt. At 26, he may be a bit long in the tooth to play a teen, but the light-voiced Canadian adopts no affectations to pass as Lonergan’s 19-year-old hero, Warren Straub. Instead, Cera has used the six-month run to burrow ever more adeptly into the maladroit slacker’s humiliations, hurts, and romantic heart. In a fall season dominated by splashier productions, This Is Our Youth, like Straub himself, has been somewhat neglected and undervalued, but it deserves to be seen, especially for Cera’s disarming performance. He pulls off complicated bits of stage business with an aplomb that confirms his prowess at the physical aspects of performance. If his Broadway debut ends up being a farewell to the kind of characters who’ve made his reputation, it’s a remarkable valediction. I spoke with Cera before a matinee about his newfound experience as a stage actor and Brooklynite, his camaraderie with co-stars Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, as well as his plans post-Youth.
You’ve played George Michael Bluth off and on since you were 15, but This Is Our Youth marks the first time you’ve performed the same text for months on end. What kind of muscles have you had to develop to meet that challenge?
Trying to recover from being sick is one. Just enjoying Kieran and Tavi. Keeping it fun. The three of us psych each other up. We have a vocal warmup before the show. We do a chant, stand on stage and bark into the house. I try to touch my toes. We play Nintendo 64 and catch up and then jump into it. Fortunately, you go in most days around seven, so you have the day to be a human. You can feel like this is your real life, as opposed to doing a movie where there’s your little non-reality for three months with people who become your family, but who you won’t see in a year. This has become a real-life kind of structure. You can keep everything balanced and then go to work.
The work puts you in contact with audience members much more than when you’re shooting on a closed set. How does that affect your balance?
I’ve enjoyed that part of it. It’s very personalizing, going outside the stage door and getting a sense of who these people are. They’re all very sweet and you get a sense of how the play lands on people. You get some immediate, sort of unfiltered, unprocessed reactions. It’s fairly nice. People seem to feel the same way about the play that we do, so we can feel it’s coming across. In Chicago and Australia [where Culkin and Cera performed together in a different production of the play], we wouldn’t really interact with people afterward. There wasn’t a setup for it. Also, it’s a bigger audience here, so the reaction is turned up. It’s just more. Also, maybe it lands here a little differently because it takes place here and a part of the audience had this specific experience, or very close to it, at a certain part of their lives. Warren’s the type of guy who’s gone through something at a very young age and I think that gets to people. I can think of three friends who I could compare him to.
In Chicago, the audience was more up close and personal as well. You were performing just a foot away from them. I imagine your performance has changed from one environment to the other just as it would change if you were playing Warren for the camera.
Yes. It’s kind of like when you’re hanging out with a friend in high school one on one. That’s one thing, but when you’re together in a big group of people it’s different. In Chicago, it was smaller and in the round. They were on the same level as us. The moment when I let Tavi in the apartment, for instance, there was a person right at my navel the entire time we were having that conversation. That gave a different feel to the whole experience. Here [in the thousand-seat Cort Theatre], it’s actually a little more private. There’s this dark void that represents the audience now and the three of us are together in this room, so you can put up the fourth wall a little more easily in your mind. It feels a little more, and this will probably get me in trouble with our director, Anna Shapiro, cinematic. You get a vague sense of how it’s being consumed, the framing of it. You have more of a sense of how it’s landing.
You explored your relationship with the audience, and fans in particular, in your humor piece for The New Yorker, “My Man Jeremy.” You created a version of yourself who’s lonely and almost desperate to befriend a stranger you meet first in an accidental text.
I wrote that to have something fun to do. I was really in gear. We were writing Arrested Development [for its 2013 season on Netflix], and when you’re really busy you’re more productive than you are normally. We were working 10-hour days on that, and I’d go home and write this thing, which I never imagined being published. It was an exciting turn of events when that happened. It’s such a weird atmosphere in the world. And it’s very weird to be someone strangers take an interest in. It’s really fueled now by the weird technology-ship. I just was kind of trying to find a way to bitch about it that wasn’t complain-y because there’s no way to complain about that in a way that’s relatable, so I just went for pathetic.
You seem to have no problem seeming pathetic in much of your work, especially when creating versions of yourself, like This Is the End’s coke-fiend, massive tool “Michael Cera.” It seemed playing that character was the biggest stretch you’ve had. Did you approach playing him as you would any other character?
Yeah. I thought it would be fun if I could stick my hand in my pants a lot and just be totally mindless and unaware of what was happening below my chin. Like a drug thing. I think I was basing that on a friend of mine, how he imitates someone who’s on crack. Probably just stole it from him. I was wearing this multi-colored windbreaker when I was talking on the phone about the movie with Evan Goldberg [the film’s co-director/co-writer/producer]. And then I was up at my parents’ house a few weeks before the shoot and I was thinking the windbreaker was the key, a thing to hide under. The audience would be wondering, “What is going on with his arms down there in that little tent?” And when I got to location, they wanted to put me in a sweater. I begged them to let me use that windbreaker and finally they bought it.
Do you have more autonomy when you’re playing a character who’s supposedly yourself?
Not really. I was just trying to convince them I kind of knew how to do it. I was open to the sweater thing. But the windbreaker was something to hide under. For the rest of it, I was really deferring to them at the end of the day.
I imagine it wasn’t the first time you’ve had different ideas from what a director wants.
There’s a whole world of weird politics that come with that which can distract from the actual thing you’re trying to do. I learned a lot from Jason Bateman actually about how to kind of stand up for yourself. It was interesting working on a series where you have a rotating wheel of directors and around the second season you definitely feel you know the process and the tone of the show and the instincts of your character a little better than a guy who comes in to do an episode for the first time. I was 16. I didn’t really want to defy a director in any way. If he gave me something I thought was stupid, I’d sheepishly do it. But Jason was really talented in the way he handled that. And he made a really good point one day. He said, “They’re not going to put a scrolling bar at the bottom of the screen saying the director told him to do it this way.” He said, “You have to stand behind your choices. You have to feel good about them because that’s the thing you’re bringing to it. That’s what’s representing you.” If the director told him to do something, he’d say, “No, because you’re going to use it.”
How was the process of working with [Tony Award-winning director] Anna D. Shapiro? Do you enjoy having a long rehearsal process?
Anna’s approach is really fascinating. The first week of rehearsal we just sat around the table reading the script and discussing. Before we even started jumping in, we went line by line. It’s interesting when you sit around and do that. You look at a page or a chunk of dialogue and you think, “Okay, that’s one thing that happens there.” Then you talk about it with them and realize five other things that are happening in this three-line exchange. A character says this and it hits you this way. It does this to you and you react this way. I really like the way Anna digs into something. We had the pleasure of having Kenny [Lonergan] be very involved with the process. There were a lot of days of hearing real-life instances and just getting more and more details and going deeper and deeper where the world of these characters became clearer. It was really an enriching process. I’ve never had anything even close to this level of intensive discussions on films. But I always find rehearsal to be helpful, even if the only thing it does is make people more comfortable with each other, which is really valuable.
You’ve been directing film shorts for the past few years. Has that changed how you work as an actor with other directors?
It makes you more sympathetic for them. But I always felt directors were friends.
Working in a friendly environment and feeling like a member of the team is clearly important to you. You’ve become involved behind the scenes of Arrested Development and even gone so far as to live with Sebastián Silva’s family for months before making his Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic.
It’s just nice hunkering down with a group of people and getting really deep, you know? Things come out very differently once the initial kind of pretenses and apprehensions fade away. That’s why Crystal Fairy was really so fun, because we were all like sleeping on top of each other and eating together. It was so equalizing. There was a 10-person crew and we were all equally invested in the thing were making. That’s hugely valuable, I think. It’s so hard to fake that kind of commitment and care and love you put into a project.
How does it feel working in other countries and other languages as you did on Silva’s films? Are you on your way to leaving these awkward roles behind to become an urbane sophisticate?
Have you ever tried to learn another language? You become a caveman at first, where monosyllabic words are all you can say. I think I learned this from a friend of mine, Miguel Arteta [director of Youth in Revolt]. English is his second language. When he moved to L.A. from Puerto Rico, he was foxy enough to know he needed to develop a kind of charm, a foreign charm. You have to depend on people. You have to be open and ask for their help. You have to feel comfortable being a baby, being the clown. So I’ve become kind of ridiculous, just by what I’m saying. It’s not like a sophisticated thing at all. It’s the opposite. You have to hope that people are willing to catch you and meet you way more than halfway.
Does it seem that way as well when you act outside your comfort zone in these small films or on stage? Is it harder to feel that people are willing to meet you more than halfway on studio projects?
Especially if you’re on a project that’s really big and there’s a really big kind of machine behind it. And you just get brought in and talk to like one person who’s assigned to just cart you around. You get stuck in your room and think, “This is my job.” You’re a cog in the wheel and you’re just trying not to take the whole thing off the rails. There are, like, 200 people buzzing around and it’s so big and so easy to forget what you’re actually doing.
Finally, how does it feel living in the big city, now that you’ve moved to Brooklyn and people are buzzing around you as you bike around? Do they come up and remind you about what you’re doing by talking about the play and your other work?
That’s new for me. It’s been really nice that people say, “I saw your show the other day.” I feel really comfortable living here. But I’d like to drive somewhere soon.