Michael Cera, Sharon Van Etten Talk Synth-Pop Collaboration 'Best I Can'

Actor-musicians detail how random meetings, sharing Brooklyn rehearsal space led to track for documentary film 'Dina'

Michael Cera and Sharon Van Etten detail their synth-pop collaboration "Best I Can."

"We're like ships passing in the night," Sharon Van Etten says of Michael Cera, her new musical collaborator. "We're meant to be in each other's orbit right now for some reason." 

Indie rocker Van Etten lent a soothing, soft-spoken vocal to Cera's new single "Best I Can." The song is featured in Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini's Sundance-decorated documentary Dina, which traces a mentally challenged couple's blooming romance. The film's stars, Dina Buno and fiancé Scott Levin, appear in the song's endearing video, which concludes with Levin lip-synching the track at a gymnasium. 

"We've had plenty of run-ins in the past that are just peripheral," Van Etten tells Rolling Stone of meeting the actor-musician. "I played at the screening of a Rick Alverson film [2015's Entertainment] that Michael was in. Later on, my partner and I bumped into him at like two or three different places just in one day when we were walking around, riding our bikes, exploring our neighborhood in Brooklyn."

Cera and Van Etten have one more obvious connection – their respective cameos on Twin Peaks' mind-boggling third season. (Cera appeared in one divisive comedic vignette, playing Andy and Lucy's lisping, motorcycle-driving son Wally Brando. Van Etten performed her song "Tarifa" in one of the episode-ending Roadhouse scenes.) Somehow, though, they've never discussed the experiences.

"At the end of the day, we were at a bar, and he just sat down next to us," she continues. "It was our third run-in with him that day, so I couldn't help but say something. I was like, 'Hey, I'm not a stalker or anything, but we just happened to be at the exact same spot like three times today, and I just wanted to say 'hi' because we are connected somehow. Then I told him about the film and the ways we were randomly close but always missed each other."


The universe – or maybe just their quirky, overlapping social circles – seemed to be pulling them together. And it's easy to picture the duo as friends since their careers mirror each other: Van Etten, who's released four acclaimed solo LPs, expanded into the acting world last year with a brief, scene-stealing role in Netflix sci-fi/mystery series The OA. Cera, best known for comedic performances in Arrested Development and Superbad, has diversified his music resumé in recent years, forming lo-fi project The Long Goodbye with actor Clark Duke, touring with indie supergroup Mister Heavenly, guesting on a Weezer LP (2010's Hurley) and issuing his own solo debut, Take That, a series of lo-fi home recordings he uploaded to Bandcamp in 2014 with minimal fanfare. 

"[Michael and I] started taking about how he's been doing music and looking for a place to play piano because having a piano at home had been hard for him to work," Van Etten says. "And I told him, 'Well, I actually have a piano in my space, and I just got the space a week ago.' He was very interested, and it all happened very organically. That's how we really got to know each other."

Six months into their arrangement, Cera asked his new acquaintance to sing on the swooning "Best I Can," which he crafted as part of his Dina soundtrack. He came into the project after previewing the film during a friends-only screening and telling the filmmakers he had a vision for the music. "[Sickles and Santini] wanted to get some thoughts and see how it was playing early on," he says. "It didn't have any music. It was one of the only times I saw a movie and thought I could actually contribute to it."

The directors originally planned to use Yazoo's 1982 synth-pop hit "Only You" during a pivotal scene, but – expecting they'd have trouble clearing the track – allowed Cera to pursue his own Eighties-styled tune as a potential substitute. "But they cleared [Yazoo], and they were kinda used to it and married to it," he says. "They ended up using my song in the credits, so it's technically in the movie. But we wanted to do an official release to give it a life of its own."

"Best I Can" is more substantive than a retro tribute. Cera blends a childlike synth pattern and electronic beat with a sophisticated string arrangement. And Van Etten experiments with her vocal approach, channeling the film's innate innocence. 

"Hearing what he had originally, I was just trying to be as light and care-free as how he sang it before," she says, admitting that she didn't anticipate winding up with a vocal spotlight." I thought it was going to be me doing a harmony," she adds, laughing. "But he ended up taking his voice out altogether and having me singing."