Michael Cera Might Just Be the Most Interesting Actor of His Generation

The Arrested Development star spent years playing predictably awkward teens. Now, his latest roles reject the tropes that made him famous -- and with great success, too.
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What is happening to Michael Cera right now? Should his recent turn towards the dark side be cause for concern, or is he simply becoming the most interesting actor of his generation?

Up until this summer, his acting career followed a predictable star-making trajectory: a working child actor in Canada, he broke through on Arrested Development as a teen, then followed it up with huge movie comedy, 2007's Superbad. In those works, he created a sharply defined comic persona: the awkward teenager for the post-John Hughes generation.

It would have been easy to trade on this trope for a decade or more, especially since Cera doesn't really seem to age. Cera did cash in for a few years, while putting his unique spin on the archetype. Luckily, most of those movies turned out to be pretty good: Juno, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Youth in Revolt, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But Scott Pilgrim—the last of these films—came out in 2010. What has been doing since then? A minimal (but recurring) voice-over role in Children's Hospital and not much else. Has he been laying low?

Not exactly. This year he stars in four films, as well as a television show, and his choices reveal a nearly unprecedented turn in a successful young actor's career.

First, he came back to the role that launched his career with Season Four of Arrested Development on Netflix, This was a safe, easy choice, and he would have been crucified had he been the lone holdout on the cast. But the first sign of a change was last month's This Is the End. In that hit apocalyptic comedy, Cera and his famous friends (Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill etc.) each play some variation of themselves, but only Cera is game for a complete reversal of his nice-guy persona. In the film's early party scenes, he snorts cocaine in public, harasses women, and generally acts like the biggest jerk in Hollywood (a very high bar). He is such a convincing villain, in fact, that we are all very pleased that he meets his comeuppance when a falling telephone pole impales him while he's searching for his cell phone.

Cera's subversive turn in This Is the End left critics and audiences delightfully surprised, but nobody seemed to take it seriously. Viewers might have assumed this was just a momentary diversion from his past and future career of playing nice guys. But people should have known better, for there were some early indications that Cera would not be interested in playing the good guy for long. In Youth in Revolt, his typically shy teenager had an alter ego—more of an id, actually—who could be seen as a preview of his roles to come. From an interview in Ask Men:

"[H]e's a jerk. But I like him. And, I have to admit, it was fun. It was definitely fun to play the asshole. This is the first movie where I get to have a mustache and an attitude and I'm good with the ladies, which is not how I'm usually cast."

Cera slips into character with ease, an impressive accomplishment considering Cera is not really subverting his previous roles. He creates a rich, complex, mostly unlikeable character who remains fascinating to watch throughout.

Like most good comic actors, Cera definitely enjoys messing with the audience's minds, but with Youth in Revolt and This Is the End, he was staying within the confines of commercial films. That pattern changed with Crystal Fairy, the micro-budget, semi-improvised film by Chilean director Sebastian Silva and in theaters now. He plays Jamie, a snide, arrogant, trust-fund baby who is drinking and snorting his way through Chile. Jamie shares some personality traits with the caricature Cera played in This Is the End, but here he gives a fully rounded performance that is more than a diversion from his nice-guy persona; it's an deep, artful rejection of it.

Jamie is a sad, deluded character, an ugly American who sees himself as worldly and tolerant. He thinks himself an intellectual, but the only book that seems to have made any impact on him is Huxley's The Doors of Perception, and all it inspired is a deep and compelling need to find a certain hallucinogenic cactus, take it to the beach, and trip all night. But even that is difficult for Jamie, who is the kind of guy who becomes so anxious about getting drugs that he kills your buzz before it even starts.

The character's problem is this: Despite Jamie's claims of open-mindedness, he is just a control freak who has to put other people down to keep up his façade of cultural superiority. He drunkenly invites a young American girl (played by former child actress Gaby Hoffman) along and immediately regrets it, and even tries to convince his friends to abandon her at a gas station, but the Chileans have more honor than Jamie.

Crystal is more of an actual free spirit (although a third-act revelation puts her in a similar category as Jamie), and what Jamie perceives as her contrived positivity draws out the worst in him. It's a complex and challenging role, but Cera slips into this character with ease, an impressive accomplishment that has him going beyond subverting his previous roles here. He creates a rich, complex, mostly unlikeable character who remains fascinating to watch in his own right.

Silva seems to have found a muse in Cera; the two also recently completed work on Magic Magic, which does not yet have a release date. It's yet another surprising turn for the actor, who appears in that film to be playing a sociopath with violent tendencies.

It all adds up to a fascinating year for Cera. At the very least, he has set himself apart from his peers, as he is generally lumped in with the Apatow crowd of Rogen, Hill, and McBride. Each of them has made far safe career choices. Rogen and McBride generally stick to the shtick, and while Hill has moved into drama, he has mostly worked with low-risk, critically accepted filmmakers like Bennett Miller (Moneyball) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street). These are well-worn paths, and it's easy to predict where each of them will be in 20 years.

Cera is different. After Arrested Development, This is the End, Crystal Fairy, and Magic Magic, I genuinely have no idea what he will do next. In this era of major-studio-driven, poll-tested filmmaking, that's rare.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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