October 2, 2008

Young and Famous and Worried About It

By Katrina Onstad

A Michael Cera joke is not a joke at all. Often the laugh comes at the end of the sentence, when Cera's words have slowed to a dribble, leaving an emptiness filled only by his blank Pez- dispenser face, which is the real punch line.

In Cera's roles as a devoted baby daddy in "Juno" and a thwarted party seeker in "Superbad," his muted comedy was his signature. But in real life the dialed-down persona is a little unnerving.

Jason Reitman, who directed him in "Juno," acknowledged that a chat with the laconic Cera could be a wee bit off-putting. "Good luck figuring him out," he said. "I met him when he was 16 and wondered, 'Is this some kind of bit?' But he's totally sincere, totally kind and inscrutable. He's the dark matter of the universe."

During the Toronto International Film Festival this month Cera, 20, showed up for an interview sporting a bright red backpack, his cords hiked high and belted on his hips like a drawstring bag. He came off much like the type of adorable kid eccentric he often plays, a role he will need to age out of if he wants to sustain his career, though maybe not quite yet.

"This is my mom," he said, as an attractive blond woman waved from the hotel room door and vanished. He sat rod straight and used the phrase "I don't know" 48 times in one hour. But perhaps the vagueness was intentional, a (polite) statement of self- preservation as his latest feature, "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist," nears opening: on Friday in the United States and worldwide throughout the winter.

"I don't really want to be famous, and I'm kind of scared that might be happening," he said. "I might really have to stop and think before I make decisions now, and see how they're going to affect my life, and see if it's what I want to be doing with my life. I guess I need to make sure that it's worth all that comes with it."

If "it" is celebrity, then "it" is already in motion, and his first official turn as leading man won't halt the acceleration. In this indie variation on a John Hughes movie, his Nick is a newly jilted high school bassist and Kat Dennings's Norah is the infatuated stranger compelled by his mournful homemade CD mixes. One night the pair zigzag through hipster New York seeking a secret rock show and falling for each other.

By the time the shoot began on the streets of New York in November, "Juno" had earned $143 million and "Superbad" $121 million. Cera was suddenly a star, and fans interrupted filming, shouting, "Hey, Superbad!" Cut to September 2008: The premiere in Toronto drew a mob, with weeping girls extending cellphone cameras to the sky as Cera walked the red carpet.

"It's been an intense year for him," Peter Sollett, director of "Nick & Norah," said. "The thing people love about him is he's very open and sensitive, and I think he doesn't want to change, but fame inspires change."

Cera is in a continuing struggle with recognition. "It's so strange that people might hate me who have never met me, like people writing on message boards," he said. "I'm most recognized for 'Juno.' I don't know if it's good or bad."

Cera's celebrity is compounded by the Internet, and small-screen success suits his style: he's a kind of comedic miniaturist. He co- wrote and starred in a Web-only show for CBS called "Clark and Michael," playing one of two clueless young actors trying to sell a series in Hollywood. His face is a YouTube mainstay . His fictional firing from "Knocked Up" - he plays himself as an incredibly entitled actor - is one of the most popular downloads on funnyordie.com. But in movies he (like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill) telegraphs a softer brand of comedy, in which the nerdy guy does the right thing and gets the girl.

"In the '70s and early '80s, comedians reacted to the Sid Caesar era with a down-with-the-system attitude," Reitman said. "But in modern comedy there's a return to sweetness. It could even be a reaction to the violence and darkness of Tarantino that the indie has gone vulnerable. It's a great moment for Michael Cera, who's a good Canadian boy."

Cera grew up in Brampton, Ontario, a bedroom community outside Toronto. But unlike Nick and Norah, who feel the bright-lights pull of New York from New Jersey, Cera never hoofed it to Toronto for the night life. In his young curmudgeon way he recoiled at the idea : "I can't stand bars. It's too loud, and I get paranoid with a lot of people around. People are very obnoxious in bars. They try and take your picture. There's no discretion."

After thriving in a local improv class, he began auditioning for commercials and Canadian television while attending a big public high school. After moving to Los Angeles with his mother, he landed the part of the youngest member of the wealthy Bluth family on the Fox comedy "Arrested Development."

"He has a sharp sense of subtlety," said Jason Bateman, who played his father on that show. "He really trusts that the audience and the camera are watching. The only time I've seen directors giving him notes is when they ask him to do more, and it's usually because that director has a more sophomoric sense of humor than he does."

Cera does not employ actor-speak to explain how he works. "Sometimes you just know when something isn't ringing true," he said. "I like subtlety. I like broad. I just watch people. I've learned a lot on sets."

While the man-children of the Judd Apatow clan are in their mid- 20s - Rogen is 26, Hill 24 - Cera has always been the child-child in the group. One wonders how that innocence will play out in his adulthood. "At some point the audience may want something different," Bateman said. "But I think there's a misconception that he's not acting."

Yet Cera seemed less like a hot new Hollywood property than a young boho guy exploring his options. He recently got his own apartment in Los Angeles after years in hotels, and he has a short story coming out in McSweeney's, Dave Eggers's literary journal. He talks with something resembling excitement about the band Bishop Allen and the cult comedy series "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" (though unlike most fans he has appeared on it). He is finishing the music for "Paper Hearts," a partly fictional, partly documentary film about the meaning of love that was written by, and stars, Cera's girlfriend, Charlyne Yi, a comedian.

With his highly tuned emotional receptors, it seems fitting that Cera named Garry Shandling and Woody Allen as two performers whose careers he admires. Insiders who feel like outsiders, they have also made a living off their discomfort, collapsing the distance between who they play and who they are.

But he's not worried about being typecast. "I have no plans," he said. "I might just try to lay low, or recede. I don't want something not to happen in particular. I'm just taking it slow."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

(c) 2008 International Herald Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.