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Mimicking Being a Human Being: Michael Cera on “Person to Person” and “Lemon”

If I was asked what actors I’d like to see curate their own film festival, Michael Cera would be right at the top of my list. When invited by The Criterion Collection to name some of his favorite titles granted a pristine release by their company, Cera cited Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 masterpiece, “Close-Up,” as a personal favorite. The picture centers on a devout film lover who poses as his favorite director in order to convince the filmmaker’s family to reenact moments from their lives on camera.

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“I’m a huge fan of Kiarostami, and ‘Close-Up’ is an important film in his career because it’s where he found a new way of working,” Cera told me during a recent phone call. “It’s a very exciting movie because you don’t really know where the line is between what’s real and what’s not, what’s staged and what’s documentary. Eventually, you stop caring about where the line is and you get completely carried away by this story.”

The same could be said of Cera’s performances. His portrayal of sweetly neurotic teenagers in films such as Greg Mottola’s “Superbad” and Jason Reitman’s “Juno”—both of which celebrate their tenth anniversaries this year—was so authentic that it caused many viewers to wonder whether Cera was merely playing himself. Only people with no experience in acting would believe that portraying oneself is an easier task than inhabiting the skin of one’s polar opposite. Regardless of how close these characters may have been to Cera’s own personality, what he crafted in those earlier pictures was a brilliantly nuanced comic persona that instantly made him my favorite actor of my generation. Watching his character of Evan in “Superbad” was akin to watching myself in high school, from his deadpan warbling of “These Eyes” to the uproariously awkward way he sings, “Byyye,” to his crush while scurrying down the hallway. 

“I was the age of my character when I made that film, and I grew up in a pretty similar situation where my friends were kind of my life,” said Cera. “It was all very familiar to me.”

In the years following “Superbad,” the name “Michael Cera” was often used as a term of endearment to describe young neurotic types, enabling people who would usually be ostracized by their peer groups to feel more accepted. Looking back on my own high school years, I realized that I would often affect neurotic behavior in order to amuse—and hopefully gain the friendship of—people my age. There were always hints embedded in Cera’s performances that his eccentricities may have been designed as a sort of protective shield, epitomized by the line of his character Paulie in “Juno” after he’s praised for being cool without ever seeming to try. “I try really hard, actually,” Paulie confesses.  

“I don’t know if I ever thought about that,” Cera said in response to whether he considered his characters’ neurotic personas to be a defense mechanism. “That’s a great interpretation. […] For me, acting is all about trying to mimic being a human being. I think everyone does that, though. From the time you’re a baby, you’re starting to mimic and you’re trying to fit in. I think a lot of people are acting more than they’re not in life.”

Cera’s latest character could certainly be included in that category. He’s one of several people featured in the parallel narratives interwoven throughout “Person to Person,” a charming ensemble comedy set in New York City. It marks the second directorial feature of Dustin Guy Defa, a prolific filmmaker with several shorts and acting credits to his name. 

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“I really liked Dustin when I met him,” said Cera. “I thought he was a really interesting person, and I loved the script that he had written. All I had seen of his work were a few short films that he had sent me the links to, and I felt he had a really strong aesthetic and a strong voice that didn’t feel derivative in any way. It felt like it was his own sensibility and his own kind of humor. His humor is rooted in something real and occasionally tragic.”

As the smitten boss of a newly hired investigative reporter (Abbi Jacobson), Cera’s character of Phil can be extremely funny, but his quirks thinly mask an underlying abundance of desperation.

“My interpretation of that character after reading the script was that he’s a pretty upsetting guy,” said Cera. “He’s kind of good at acting a certain way, but in the end, he falls apart. He’s actually a much more normal guy than he presents himself to be. I think he’s pretty dark. He slowly unravels throughout the movie as his credibility is melting away. He wants you to believe in this powerful mask that he wears at the beginning, where he appears to be speaking from a position of power or knowledge. And then it all starts to crack.”

Cera also noted how his character’s plight isn’t all that uncommon in the Big Apple.

“It’s kind of a two-faced city, in a way,” said Cera. “It can be so fun and so giving but it can also be kind of merciless, and I feel like my character has been broken down by it. He’s working really hard at his life and his job and is not really getting anywhere. There doesn’t seem to be any reward to his existence at all. I know a few people like that living in New York who are having a hard time. It can be kind of tough to live here.”

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Another highlight in the cast of “Person to Person” is the bitingly witty Tavi Gevinson as a young woman whose budding infatuation threatens to dismantle her misanthropic tendencies. Though she and Cera share no scenes in the film, they acted opposite each other onstage during the 2014 Broadway run of Kenneth Lonergan’s play, This Is Our Youth.

“The show was Tavi’s first time doing any kind of performing, and it was my first time doing a play in a real way,” said Cera. “A few years before that, I had done the play for two weeks in what was more of a trial run. It basically consisted of one-on-one scenes where you’re really depending on the other actor, and acting opposite Tavi was a great experience.”

During his 2012 appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Cera expressed his desire to one day make an “alienating film” in the vein of Michael Haneke. A year later, he starred in Janicza Bravo’s short film, “Gregory Go Boom,” a seriocomic portrait of a lonely paraplegic man that ends on a note so shockingly bleak, it could even cause Haneke to shudder. Now Cera and Bravo have re-teamed for her feature directorial debut, “Lemon,” a funnier but no less painful comedy starring Bravo’s husband, Brett Gelman, as Isaac, a pompous acting coach whose life spirals out of control. 

“To me, the movie isn’t alienating,” said Cera. “I’m sure it is to some people, and it could be a polarizing movie, but I just love it. It’s a very rich movie, full of fun ideas and interesting performances. I also think Janicza is a great new voice. I’m a big fan and have been very lucky to work with her a few times. She’s very sure of herself and her taste, which is a really strong quality to have. She knows how to create moments that have a strange feeling about them. I don’t think Janicza is beholden to any kind of payoff or relief for the audience, but I actually feel that ‘Lemon’ has a sweet ending.”

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One of the best scenes revolves around a harrowing encounter between Isaac and Alex (Cera), the ultra-pretentious acting student that he’s become obsessed with. When Isaac realizes that Alex will no longer be a member of his class, his conflicting desires threaten to erupt in any number of ways. Bravo gauges the mounting tension so masterfully that I was reminded of the equally excruciating interview-turned-assault staged by Cera and Zach Galifianakis on the faux online talk show, “Between Two Ferns.” 

“I loved the feeling of that sequence because it shows how my character doesn’t sense danger,” said Cera. “As a viewer, it makes the scene even more dangerous. You feel like you’re watching a cat wander toward a pond with an alligator in it. He’s completely unaware of the danger.”

Rather than follow the traditional Hollywood career trajectory of accepting major roles in tentpole movies, Cera opts for seeking out filmmakers whose work fascinates him. After falling in love with Sebastián Silva’s 2009 Chilean gem, “The Maid,” Cera flew to Chile and began an extended collaboration with the director that was as immersive as it was surprising.

“No project feels the same to me because it all trickles down from the top,” said Cera. “The energy of a project always depends on who the creative engine is, and working with Sebastián was thrilling. The first film we made together was ‘Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus,’ and we shot it in ten days. We were living in the middle of nowhere, sleeping in bunk beds and eating bread and avocados. I was close with his family at that point because I had lived with them for a few months, and they were basically the rest of the cast of the movie along with Gaby Hoffmann. It wasn’t like any kind of work experience I’ve ever had, it was more of a trip that we all embarked on together. Watching that movie, you get a sense of what the making of it was like.”

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Crystal Fairy” was made during the production delays for Silva and Cera’s project that they had initially planned to make, 2013’s criminally overlooked psychological thriller, “Magic Magic.” Cera’s performance as Brink, a closeted sadist with a penchant for torturing women, was not only a startling change of pace, but a splendidly creepy tour de force. He spent a large portion of his time with Silva’s family learning Spanish for the picture.

“It’s a great thing in life to learn another language or go somewhere foreign and try to speak that language,” said Cera. “You learn about yourself in a funny way. When you speak in a second language, you tap into a different kind of personality. It’s weird. I’m sure anyone who speaks multiple languages would understand what I mean by that. You kind of relinquish a part of yourself that you normally hang on to in your mother tongue, which is the ability to present yourself in a certain way. You lose that ability, especially when you’re dependent on people meeting you more than halfway when you can hardly speak the language and you need a lot of help.”

Cera recently earned some of the biggest laughs of his career with his surprise cameo in the fourth episode of David Lynch’s astonishing new limited series, “Twin Peaks: The Return,” currently airing on Showtime. His turn as Wally Brando, the son of series regulars Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) and Lucy Brennan (Kimmy Robertson), suggests what “The Wild One” might’ve been like had Cera been recast in the lead role. Cera’s few minutes of screen time were such a triumph that they caused Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips to speculate, “Is it possible to nominate Cera for an Emmy, a Peabody and a Nobel? Just for his Brando-specific line reading of the word ‘Caucasians’?” 

“It was a real gift,” said Cera. “I only got to spend an hour or so with David. We shot the scene exactly the way it was written and there was very little discussion of it. I just had to show up prepared, we shot it in no time and then it was over. I would’ve loved to have spent more time there.”

This performance offers yet another example of the impeccable comedic instincts and timing that Cera perfected in his career-launching role as George-Michael Bluth on Mitchell Hurwitz’s original three seasons of “Arrested Development” (2003-06). 

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“I got cast in that show based on a taped audition before flying to LA and auditioning in person,” said Cera. “Mitch has always been a really big supporter of mine, and I got to grow up on a show that had the funniest guys ever. David Cross and Jeffrey Tambor and Will Arnett and Jason Bateman are all just staggeringly funny. Any word of encouragement from those guys really meant something to me. Alia Shawkat and I were kids on that show, and we were always dying laughing.”

With “Person to Person” and “Lemon” soon arriving in theaters and online (“Person to Person” on July 28th, “Lemon” on August 18th), moviegoers will have the pleasure of watching Cera continue to stretch himself in roles that never cease to mesmerize, challenge and elicit explosive guffaws. 

“I’m in a really lucky position career-wise to not have to work for now,” said Cera. “I don’t have a family to support. Like every actor, I just hope to do good work and be proud of the work I’m doing. Every time I get an opportunity to work on something I’m excited about and with someone I’m excited about, I don’t take it for granted.”


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