Michael Cera

I’ve been working since I was 9 and I haven’t really focused the same amount of energy in my personal life. So that’s something I may actually have to put a lot of work into.Michael Cera

If the idea of a pale, skinny, muscle-addled 22-year-old battling it out with seven crazed ex-boyfriends—several of them, like the one played by actor Chris Evans, being no small threat—over the love of a woman seems a little unlikely, that’s why Michael Cera has made a career out of playing the unlikely hero of Hollywood films. Cera, who has worked as an actor since age 9 and who is probably first remembered for his turn as the young, gawky member of the Bluth family in the cult TV show Arrested Development, didn’t fill any particular casting type, so instead he went out and created a whole new cinematic category for himself: Cera has developed the unlikely protagonist of epic, adorable, and yet almost self-righteously unabashed geek. His 2007 doubleheader of playing the unlucky good kid opposite Jonah Hill in the hilarious high-school picaresque Superbad and the awkward biological father of an unwanted teen pregnancy in Juno defined the Ontario, Canada, native’s talent for embodying less-than-heroic roles. After several other films—Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008), Youth in Revolt—Cera has turned into something of a film idol for a new generation, say the James Dean of a not-so-naturally suave or coolly melodramatic world. In his spare time (and there isn’t much of it—the actor spends more time on set than he does in his Los Angeles apartment) Cera likes to work on writing and making music on his collection of synthesizers. But this month’s release of the superhero action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, where Cera plays the eponymous hero up against a world of jilted boyfriends, may ultimately prove if the star can indeed win over his audience as this millennia’s superman. The actor got on the phone with his friend and Scott Pilgrim adversary, Jason Schwartzman.


MICHAEL CERA: Hey, I have to go. I had a very small window for this interview. I’m sorry.

SCHWARTZMAN: Oh . . . Well, it was great talking to you.

CERA: Okay, a window just opened up for me. I just cancelled something.

SCHWARTZMAN: Oh, great, Michael. First we’ll just say that we worked on a movie together called Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. That’s how we were introduced and we’ve become friends since. We actually trained together. We met at an acrobatics class.

CERA: Yes, with Peng and Lisa!

SCHWARTZMAN: Lisa was our physical trainer and Peng was our fight coordinator. Did you like all the training?

CERA: No. And I’ll be happy to list all of the trainers I didn’t like.

SCHWARTZMAN: You didn’t like any of them?

CERA: They weren’t my cup of tea. But I know for a fact that they don’t read this magazine. This isn’t Stuntman Quarterly, is it?

SCHWARTZMAN: No, it’s not. But it was pretty amazing to do all those stunts. Did you at least like doing the stunts?

CERA: Yeah, I really liked doing them. You got to do some wirework, didn’t you?

SCHWARTZMAN: I never did anything like that before. When Edgar [Wright, the director and co-writer] first said, “I want you guys to fight each other as much as possible,” I was really excited. That’s the wonderful thing about our job—the many bizarre worlds we get to fall into. You can learn a lot of things from being in movies. We got to learn how to fight on wires. Amazing.

CERA: And it’s nice that we don’t have to do it again. You enjoy it more when you know you won’t be doing it forever.

SCHWARTZMAN: Well, the first thing I wanted to ask you is what music are you listening to these days?

CERA: The new Fruit Bats album, The Ruminant Band [2009]. That’s the perfect album, I think.

SCHWARTZMAN: What is it about music that you feel you’re particularly drawn to? Is it something sonic or aesthetic or what?

CERA: It’s just good ideas, you know? It’s great when you can just focus your whole attention on the music and hear all of the decisions and choices that were made. I love when you can feel the inspiration in it. Like the band was sitting around and someone had an idea for a certain sound and it works. There is that part in [David Bowie’s] “Space Oddity,” for example, that I love where it drifts off into a weird place for a second. It’s after the hands clap. And there is this riff where you really feel like you’re floating in space. That’s the moment I always listen for.

SCHWARTZMAN: It’s amazing to read interviews by musicians, because you find out sometimes that certain parts of songs were a total accident. That’s also one of the great things you learn from watching the special features on DVDs. You learn just how many brilliant things were the results of accidents. The classic one is how the shark wouldn’t work in Jaws [1975] and that’s why you don’t see it for the majority of the movie. I feel like today if they were making that movie and the shark wouldn’t work—well, the shark wouldn’t even be here, it would be computer-generated. But no one would show up on set until the shark was fixed.

CERA: Sometimes when a movie is really alive you can see that they were just making decisions on the spot. They weren’t bound to anything, they were working with ideas that the actors and situations presented. It’s like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981]. They were going to do a big fight sequence between Indiana Jones and the guy with the sword and the fancy footwork. But Indiana Jones just pulls out a gun and shoots him. If I remember correctly, they did that because Harrison Ford had food poisoning that day.

I worked on a movie where there were executives from the studio in the wardrobe meetings . . . They would be on their BlackBerrys and occasionally looking up at the clothes . . . It’s just a nightmare.Michael Cera

SCHWARTZMAN: Do you think, when you go to work every day—

CERA: I don’t work every day.

SCHWARTZMAN: Right, but when you do go to work to do a scene, have you already thought about it a lot and have it saved in the back of your brain exactly what you’re going to do, or is it something much more free? Scott Pilgrim was a really long shoot for you—many, many months—which boils down to a hundred consecutive days. I only came in toward the end and I remember wondering, When did he learn his lines? How did you have time to prepare?

CERA: I don’t know what your process is like, but I kind of end up getting caught up in whatever the rhythm of the movie is and how open the director is to changing things in the moment or finding it in rehearsal. With Pilgrim, we basically rehearsed the whole movie and changed very little. But it’s different for every movie. I usually feel it out the first week and get a sense of what I need to do.

SCHWARTZMAN: In watching your previous films, I see a lot of really interesting decisions that you make in a scene. Like the obvious thing for an actor to do at a certain point would have been to do one thing, but instead you turn around with your back to the camera, or do the dialogue holding a bottle . . . So I’m wondering if these decisions are just natural to you, or are they things you’ve thought about?

CERA: I don’t know. I don’t have too many specific memories of those decisions. Things move so quickly on set. When you’re about to do another take and you have a minute to figure out what you’re doing, you just kind of determine how you’re going to do it on the spot.

SCHWARTZMAN: I always go back to that Gene Wilder quote where he says, “If the thing you’re doing is really funny, you don’t need to ‘act funny’ while doing it.”

CERA: That’s a great quote.

SCHWARTZMAN: But I know what you’re saying. I was watching this making-of, behind-the-scenesthing on Lou Reed. It was the Classic Albums documentary. Lou Reed was talking about “Walk on the Wild Side” and he was saying, “People ask, ‘Did you figure it all out?’ or ‘Did you plan it?’ ’’ And he said, “That was just the take that we liked. If you listen to the take before, it just wasn’t as good. And the take after it really sucked. So we took that one.” There really is something about working in the rhythms of the moment and understanding how everyone is feeling.

CERA: I worry more about something that isn’t working rather than something that feels really good. You forget about the good stuff. Then later when you finally watch the film, you wait with dread for that scene to come up, and when it does you analyze it and worry and view it as a big flaw.

SCHWARTZMAN: But you wonder if anyone else even notices because they just think it’s fine.

CERA: I don’t know about you, but that’s why it’s really hard for me to watch my own work or have any opinion about it at all.

SCHWARTZMAN: I really can’t watch my own stuff. I will watch a scene and think, Oh, man, that’s the day I had that coffee and felt so weird. I remember working on Funny People with Judd [Apatow] and I was asking him about all the different people he worked with. He paid you a very interesting compliment. He said, “The best thing about Michael is that you know immediately if it is or isn’t working. A lot of people you shoot with, you can’t tell if it’s funny or not. With Michael you just know instantly.”

CERA: Comedy is interesting in that way, isn’t it? The trick is always to figure out how real you’re playing it and how real it’s supposed to feel. That’s a hard thing to figure out, especially in a film like Pilgrim where it’s got such a strange, almost cartoon sensibility. It’s so far from reality that you have to figure out how many liberties you’re allowed to take with real emotions.

SCHWARTZMAN: Do you keep up with the larger world of comedy? People are always asking me if I have seen some funny webisode, and I don’t know who the guys who made them are. They’ll say, “You never heard of them? They’re the best. They’re revolutionizing comedy!” I feel a little out of it because I don’t know. Are you tapped in?

CERA: I spend most of my time catching up on classic comedy—things you absolutely have to see. I think the things that are being done now and that are worth seeing will find their way to you.

SCHWARTZMAN: What are some of the comedy classics for you?

CERA: Well, The Simpsons . . . [laughs] It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which just came out on DVD. And you have to see this Mike Leigh comedy Nuts in May [1976]. Have you seen that, Jason?

SCHWARTZMAN: Of course. That’s a great one.

CERA: Oh, I just watched it. And I got a bunch of other Mike Leigh movies—you know, like Elaine May and The Heartbreak Kid [1972]. I am obsessed with that.

SCHWARTZMAN: You’re the kind of guy who doesn’t seem to want a lot of material things, am I correct?

CERA: What do you mean by material things? I’m sitting in a Porsche right now—which I rented just to sit in during this conversation.

I don’t think anyone cares whether you’re working or not. I have the luxury now of not having to support anyone and not really needing a whole lot of money.Michael Cera

SCHWARTZMAN: My example was when you told me you were interested in finding this keyboard. As luck would have it, eight months later I saw where you could get one. I wrote you, and you wrote back, “I actually have a couple of other ones that I should get to know and learn on before I buy that one, so I’m fine.” It was surprising because before you were so excited about getting this one. So it’s clear you have a good gauge on what you want and what you know you need.

CERA: Well, in fairness, I had already spiraled a bit in my purchasing of keyboards where I ended up with five on my hands, and I realized I wasn’t playing on any of them—I was just collecting. So I had to slam on the breaks on that.

SCHWARTZMAN: Are you working on any music right now?

CERA: A little bit. Normally what I do is I’ll record something that I really like which will be part of a song or an idea. I kind of just record things and then I’m done with them. It takes discipline to actually carve out a song.

SCHWARTZMAN: I read this great book called Songwriters on Songwriting. In it you can see a clear divide between two types of songwriters. There are guys like Randy Newman who treat it almost like a job. But then there are other people who sort of believe it should come to you and you just try to keep yourself open to things. There was this Neil Young quote where he says something like—I’m paraphrasing—but he said something like, “Writing a song is kind of like trying to hunt a rabbit, where you’ve got to sit and wait. Sometimes the rabbit doesn’t come out, but you’ve got to be there when it does.”

CERA: I’m reading this book called The Craft of the Screenwriter where Paddy Chayefsky talks a lot about that. He says that you have to not think of it as art. You have to think of it as work and you have to go through the misery of it and go back and reread and change the words. He’d spend two years writing a script and then go back over it and make each part better to see if it’s working. It’s pure work. It has nothing to do with inspiration.

SCHWARTZMAN: And then there’s John Hughes, who wrote Planes, Trains & Automobiles [1987] in three days. [laughs] At least that’s one of the things he says on the DVD extras. But I think what we are hovering around is the fact that there is really no one way to do it . . . Did you just get distracted?


CERA: No, did it sound like it?


CERA: I’m biting my nails. That might be it . . .

SCHWARTZMAN: Okay, let me ask you this: Have you ever been working with an actor and while they are acting you’re thinking to yourself, That’s just not good?

CERA: Yeah.


CERA: Yeah. But that’s all under the umbrella of trusting the director, don’t you think? Because even if something isn’t good it can be cut together and still work. If you’re working with a director you trust, you can turn that part of you off that wants to direct other actors in a certain way.

SCHWARTZMAN: At the end of the day that’s most important because the director is going to be making all of the decisions—unless that power is taken away from them.

CERA: That’s a nightmare. I worked on a movie where there were executives from the studio in the wardrobe meetings. I would have to put on clothes and walk out and they would say why I couldn’t wear something or say what looked good. They would be on their BlackBerrys and occasionally looking up at the clothes and the director is just sitting there not knowing what to do . . . It’s just a nightmare.

SCHWARTZMAN: It’s terrible, right? But it happens every day. [Cera laughs] You know, I think making a movie is a weird combination of planning and the absolutely unexpected. To me, the greatest feeling is not quite having it right and then trying to work from a place where you have another opportunity to get it all a little closer to what everyone is working toward.

CERA: Have you ever done any theater?

SCHWARTZMAN: No, not really.

CERA: Me neither. I’ve always dreamed about that as the ultimate situation, where you can rehearse and rehearse and then let go and play off of what the other actors are doing and just be in the moment with the other actors.

SCHWARTZMAN: We should do a play together!

CERA: Yeah! I would love that. I’ve been wanting to do a play for years. Don’t you find it scary, having never done it?

SCHWARTZMAN: It’s a completely different world. What’s funny is you do eight shows a week and mostly you do it at the end of the day. So you have these days free and at the end of it you act. It’s the opposite of a film set, where you start very early in the morning and work slowly through the day.

CERA: What do you do with all that energy during the day?

SCHWARTZMAN: I don’t know. When you’re working on a film, do you ever feel like you become a different person—or turn into your character?

CERA: I think that depends on the job. For Pilgrim, I did kind of get lost in that world. The whole mood of that movie took on the tone of my life. Everything was about that film for six months because it was an everyday job. We were all in Toronto shooting, so the part of life that’s not related to the movie is kind of off in the periphery. Friends in L.A. and family are put on the side.

SCHWARTZMAN: It must have been really weird coming home.

CERA: It was so weird. I still feel like I’m readjusting. There was a three-month period after we wrapped where I didn’t know how to exist. I didn’t know what to make of not doing that movie anymore.

SCHWARTZMAN: It’s not uncommon to hear people say that the re-entry into their lives is very hard. A lot of actors say that the hardest thing about working is not working, because you go from one of the most structured environments in the world to a place of no structure. Maybe that’s why you see someone go from movie to movie to movie. You did a lot of movies back to back, right?

CERA: I was working pretty consistently up to Pilgrim, which is so nice. It’s nice when you’re an actor to have work consistently. And then you kind of burn out and you tell yourself you’d love to have some time where you’re not working, so you can do all the things that you want to do. And then, I’m learning, I definitely begin to miss working. It’s like having two kinds of scaffoldings in your life—one where you’re working, and then real life that has nothing to do with work. That’s something I’m trying to get a grip on right now because I’ve been working since I was 9 and I haven’t really focused the same amount of energy in my personal life. So that’s something I may actually have to put a lot of work into. You’ve also been working for more than half your life, right?

SCHWARTZMAN: Yeah. But I feel like you’ve been working longer and more intensely than I because you started at 9. Physically those hours are pretty rough. I don’t know how you did it—like on Nick & Norah’s
Infinite Playlist
, which was shot all at night.

CERA: I never find that difficult. I find being on set very invigorating. I never have a problem with that component of it, no matter the situation. I mean, they take care of you. We have pretty nice working conditions. I heard Bob Weinstein actually likened actors to baseball players. You work for a while then all of a sudden you go through a dry spell. Baseball players tend to have something like 20 good years in them and then around their mid-thirties they aren’t in the same shape as the young guys in the league and kind of aren’t worth as much. Then they retire before 40. And they are left floating adrift in the middle of the ocean.

SCHWARTZMAN: The ones who have some charisma become sportscasters. [Cera laughs] But the ups and downs make it a very interesting industry. If you really think about it, the whole thing is a giant gamble. Some actors don’t work for a long time, and then you look at someone like Jeff Bridges who’s worked consistently since the beginning. It’s amazing—who has stuck around and what actors I loved when I was little don’t really ever work. Why don’t they work? How did good actors end up in movies that suck. And now that I’ve acted for some time, I know how that happens. [laughs] It’s like when you go into a video store and all of these cinephile-type guys are ragging on a movie. I usually agree with what they are saying, but I think to myself, “Why is it bad? On paper it must have sounded like it was worth doing for the actor to sign on.” I often wonder, Is it worth waiting only for things you think are going to be truly great, or is that a pretentious attitude to take?

CERA: I don’t think it’s pretentious, because I don’t think anyone cares whether you’re working or not. I have the luxury now of not having to support anyone and not really needing a whole lot of money. I don’t have to work other than to keep the momentum going. Other people are in such different situations—they have their families to feed. I could not work for a long time. I don’t spend very much money. Basically I spend money on food and DVDs.

SCHWARTZMAN: Are you working on anything outside of acting?

CERA: I like to write. I like to do that when I’m not working so I don’t go totally crazy, and so I feel like I’m still doing something constructive. Right now I’m working on something with my friend Jake. You’ve already written a script [The Darjeeling Limited, 2007, with Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola]. It must be an amazing, inspiring feeling to have seen a script through to completion—it can be done, you can do it. It’s so easy to get caught up in your own self-doubt when you’re writing. It can be so easy to tell yourself, “Who am I kidding?”

SCHWARTZMAN: We were just talking about money and making money and having to live . . . It takes so long to write a script, thinking to yourself, “Am I wasting my time? Am I putting everything into this thing that maybe just won’t ever exist?” I always think, God, acting is so much easier. At least for acting you have the source material already. You’re working from something. Writing is like building a bridge while you’re on it. If you step forward you fall off and there’s nothing in front of you.

CERA: [laughs] That’s a really good way to put it.

SCHWARTZMAN: You know what I mean? It’s literally like, “Please be there, idea!” Not to be cheesy, but that is the real power of music, movies, art, or anything—it’s the hope that people will connect to it. And that’s what’s great about your success. You’ve made work that connects to millions of people. You have the rare ability to take something and turn it and flip it and make it into something great. It’s because you have an inquisitive mind and you are endlessly looking for something new. When I watch your work, I feel like I’m getting a philosophical mix tape of all the things that you’re interested in.

CERA: You just lost 80 percent of the people that were reading this article. They all just rolled their eyes and ripped up the page.

SCHWARTZMAN: It’s all right. We’re already in the part that says continued on page 128.

CERA: You and me are going to love to read this. We should get together and read this out loud to each other. Maybe we could do each other’s parts.

SCHWARTZMAN: We’ll do the adaptation of this interview on Broadway. [Cera laughs] You’ll be at your house eating a sandwich and biting your fingernails and there is a split onstage and on the other side I’m pacing around my apartment in shorts and a T-shirt.

CERA: I have one note: I’d like for me to be sitting in a massage chair and have a woman rubbing my shoulders the whole time, so that while we’re doing the run of this play I’ll be the most relaxed I’ve ever been.

SCHWARTZMAN: I think we can make that happen.

Jason Schwartzman is an actor and musician whose credits include Bored to Death and Fantastic Mr. Fox.