October 6, 2008

‘Nick and Norah’s’ Michael Cera: so Uncool He’s Cool


By Mal Vincent

The Virginian-Pilot


Clad in a yellow T-shirt and carrying a bright red backpack, Michael Cera, age 20, looked like the proverbial deer caught in headlights.

"Uh, hey," he said to a reporter as he pulled the backpack off and dropped it on the floor.

This is the guy whom they were calling, at the Toronto Film Festival, "comedy's current wunderkind." He's the one Entertainment Weekly recently named No. 1 among under-30 actors in America. His comic timing has been called impeccable.

This guy?

Did someone leave the door unlocked and the wrong kid has come in? This is the kid whose last two movies made more than $220 million?

He's known mainly as the father of Juno's illegitimate baby, the initially clueless but eventually loving Paulie Bleeker.

"Juno," which won the Academy Award for best script, identified Paulie as a reluctant daddy who hadn't a clue about sex - at least not at first. At last year's Toronto festival, where "Juno" premiered, the most popular publicity stunt was to have guys run about the city in Paulie/Michael's trademark scarlet-and-yellow track outfits. This year, there were stickers everywhere that asked "Where's Fluffy?"

Where's Fluffy? is the name of the rock group that Nick and Norah are seeking in Cera's first leading-man role. "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," which opened Friday, follows the two characters on a wild night through New York City as they try to protect a drunken friend, find the ultra-cool Where's Fluffy? concert and figure out how much they like each other.

"Why are you carrying a backpack?" we asked.

"I thought I might want an apple," he answered.

Looking like a concave asparagus stalk, he has a beak of a nose and soft, sensitive eyes that look as if someone might have hurt his feelings just before he came in.

Does he realize that a Virginia Beach cutie volunteered to go with me to Toronto if she could meet Michael Cera? She called him a "hottie." Does he realize he's a sex symbol?

"Well, uh, that's silly. I don't know. I can't. Uh. Does that mean I'm a symbol of sex?"

He wasn't far from home, since he was born and raised in a suburb of Toronto, son of an Italian father and a mother from Quebec. Both parents worked at the Xerox plant. He has two sisters, Jordan and Molly. He auditioned for parts starting at age 8 and got a few commercials. Then he and his mother moved to Los Angeles and built a succession of TV work and small movie roles into the part of an awkward teen in the TV series "Arrested Development" in 2003.

He was baffled, he said, when he went to the movies the night after the TV show premiered and people came up to him and told him how much they liked the show. "It had only been on one time."

He also has played the young Chuck Barris ("Gong Show" host) in George Clooney's bio-pic "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002). He auditioned for the role of the kid who sees dead people in "The Sixth Sense" but lost out to Haley Joel Osment.

He doesn't like being recognized "because mostly what it means is that people who don't even know me don't like me."

He hoped "Nick and Norah" would be a hit for the producers, but otherwise, he said, he didn't really care.

"I'm not like these parts I play, you know. I mean, it's just acting. I do the work on the set, and then it's over. I would have been just as happy if 'Juno' hadn't made so much money. I would like it to make back the costs, of course, but beyond that ... well, uh, I don't know. The theaters seem a separate thing from me."

What has fame meant to him?

"Nothing, really. I have the same family. The same apartment. The same car. The same girlfriend. The only thing is that I think it'll help me get parts. I used to have to audition all the time, and I never got work. Now I have at least four movies planned."

Was he putting me on? Could anyone be quite that shy and still be a movie star?

Only researching it later did I find I wasn't alone in my puzzlement. Jason Reitman, who directed him in "Juno," once suggested: "Good luck on figuring him out. I met him when he was 16 and wondered, 'Is this some kind of act?' But he's totally sincere, totally kind and inscrutable."

Bateman added that "it would be a misconception that he's not acting. Michael needs to play a tough pimp or something to show that he's not just talented by accident."

"Is there a dark side to you?" we asked Cera.

"Probably, yeah, but not too dark.

"I don't really want to be famous, and I'm kind of scared that might be happening. I've got to be sure that it's worth all that comes with it."

His girlfriend is Charlyne Yi, a comedian who has been compared to Andy Kaufman and is best known as the stoner chick on the couch in the movie "Knocked Up."

He plays the guitar, "but I wouldn't call myself a musician. I don't feel competent." He formed a band called The Long Goodbye with his friends. And in "Nick and Norah," he's a member of a rock band.

Next, he'll star in "Youth in Revolt" as a 14-year-old whose parents are breaking up. He wants his dream girl to help him lose his virginity. "He does some pretty treacherous things," Cera said. "It will be different."

Then he will appear in a film set in biblical times, called "The Year One," to be directed by Harold Ramis.

Cera now has played the role of shuffling-but-cool dork in three movies, but apparently it hasn't grown old. It has placed him in the same teen-heartthrob pantheon once occupied by Ricky Nelson, Leonardo DiCaprio and David Cassidy.

But will he suffer the fate of Jon Heder, who was a sensation as "Napoleon Dynamite" but has faded?

Perhaps Cera, Napoleon Dynamite and Barack Obama face the same challenge: You can be a rising star for only so long before you have to be a star.

He grabbed his backpack and prepared to go back out into the world. That apple was still inside.

At the moment, Michael Cera is so incredibly square that he's hip.

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347, [email protected]

Originally published by BY MAL VINCENT.

(c) 2008 Virginian - Pilot. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.