You know Michael Cera as the nerdworthy everyboy from Juno, Superbad, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But in the new Crystal Fairy, which opens here Friday (July 26), Cera goes in a very different direction. He plays an asshole—specifically, a guy who panics when he runs into another pushy North American while on a psychedelic sojourn in Chile.
“I’m just totally alienated from everyone in this one,” Cera says in his typically friendly way while calling the Straight from New York City.
The darkly comic, highly naturalistic drama was written and directed by Chilean wunderkind Sebastián Silva, who previously had a festival hit with The Maid. And this one, shot in 2011, was actually the first of Cera’s two outings with Silva. The actor subsequently starred opposite another Juno (Juno Temple) in Magic Magic, also about gringos cracking up in the Chilean desert.
More of a thriller role with a villainous edge, it would prove part of his transformation away from passive nice-guy roles, which began on Canadian kid shows, leading to his breakthrough on Arrested Development (which recently got renewed). The Brampton-born veteran, who turned 25 in June, says his shift in the persona department isn’t part of any overarching career strategy.
“I don’t really think about it that way. I think about people I want to work with, and I really wanted to do something with Sebastián. He’s a different kind of director, and this was a different process than I’ve ever been involved with—making a movie in 12 days with only 14 people. It was truly independent, with absolutely no one watching us, and living on a diet of bread and avocado. It was a truly joyful experience.”
In fact, Crystal Fairy—which also features half of the director’s six brothers—happened while everyone was waiting for a real budget to arrive for the Sony-backed Magic Magic.
“I was there for about three months, living with the Silva family, who were teaching me Spanish and feeding me. Sebastián wasn’t even there for most of that, and finally he came back from the States and said, ‘Why don’t we just shoot another movie?’ ”
Here, his opposite number, and the movie’s hairy-legged title character, is played by another former child star, Gaby Hoffman, although roles in Field of Dreams and Sleepless in Seattle took her far from Cera’s early days in showbiz.
“Our experiences were totally different,” he declares. “Gaby started when she was about three, and then she left it behind for a number of years.” (A daughter of the Andy Warhol “superstar” Viva, she grew up in New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel.)
“Her character is this elaborately constructed persona, where mine is more of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get thing, for better or worse. But they are both very much alone. Why are they in this foreign country, travelling with strangers and imposing their will on them? It was fun to play such an odd, unselfaware character, especially while playing opposite someone who’s as delightful to watch as Gaby. And then there are Sebastián’s brothers, who are just the most patient, benevolent guys.”
For the actor, the Chilean adventure meant a break, if temporary, from Hollywood. For Silva, Cera’s commitment represented an opportunity to further connect with a North American audience. According to the Chilean director, Canada’s best-known boychick happened upon The Maid by chance and sought him out.
“We were both in L.A. for different things,” Silva says in clearly spoken English during a same-day call from Brooklyn, where he recently moved. (Cera now lives in the trendy New York borough as well, after years divided between Ontario and California.) “And we just immediately hit it off. We weren’t sure what project we would do, but we decided to do something, and soon.”
So that’s how Cera ended up hanging around with Silva and his six brothers for the two movies they ended up making. (Magic Magic, sadly, is only seeing a DVD and VOD release.) Silva—who is 34, sometimes acts, and usually has a sideline performing with various bands—studied animation in Montreal. After hitting big at Sundance with his class-conscious Maid, he helped develop a 10-part HBO series called The Boring Life of Jacqueline. Through that show, he met Hoffman, who agreed to be his Fairy if he got it to fly. (Cera also played himself on one episode of the 2012 series.)
“Certainly, not everything falls together as easily as this movie did,” Silva admits. “But I guess it just proves that this was meant to be. He really has become a very close friend, and even though I really do not need any more hermanos, man, he’s kind of like another brother.”
Of course, Cera’s Crystal character is not all that lovable.
“That character is a little like me, I have to admit. He doesn’t edit himself, and he’s always oversharing, whether it’s his enthusiasms or he’s just being judgmental. But this is the fun of making movies: working out difficult characters and giving them some distance to travel.”
In Silva’s films (he has made five in the past half-decade), these trajectories are nowhere near as extreme as in Hollywood dramas, and any apparent plot resolutions are still riddled with ambiguities that leave you guessing as to what will happen next.
“They are more like life than most movies are,” is how Cera puts it. And now his life is like more kinds of movies than he ever knew before.