Look at Michael Cera in the California sunshine. Look at how the sun lights him up -his signature helmet hair and big, brown saucer eyes, the sweet, winning boyish grin, his corduroy trousers belted strangely high and polo shirt buttoned to the very tippy-top button. Just look at him, everything about him – he’s the biggest nerdo square doofus of all time, every mother’s dream but by no measure of any kind a Hollywood movie star. * Now look at Michael Cera’s car, parked in the Silver Lake district of L.A. – a Toyota Corolla, blue, dusty, dented. He bought it around the time he left the suburbs of Toronto and was playing George Michael on the loony, lovely, too-short-lived TV show Arrested Development. He’s held on to the car ever since, through his career-making successes in Juno (as a quirkily sincere baby daddy), Superbad (quirkily sincere suitor) and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (quirkily sincere again), as well as through the small disappointments of Youth in Revolt, Paper Heart and Year One, right into the great big moment of now, with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Again, he’s playing quirky and sincere, but this time around he broadens his trademarks to include selfishness, solipsism, snideness and a good many action moves. The movie is perfect summertime fare, and Cera’s flawless performance should catapult him right into the world of Ferraris and Bentleys. Yet he just can’t seem to shake that Toyota and let it go.
“Yes, it’s really shitty,” he says almost sheepishly. “But, like, if I’m walking with my friends, and my car is parked on the street, and they don’t realize it, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, guys!’ and kick it, and they’ll get really freaked out. I mean, I can kick it and stuff!”
Cera, 22, admires his kickable car for a moment, arms folded, blocking any view of its interior. Then he steps to the side and suddenly you can see why he might not want anyone peeking inside. It’s a mess in there. Not a mess, a disaster. A suitcase sits plopped on the passenger seat, sprung open, clothes mashed in and overflowing. The back seat is even worse. It’s overstuffed with winter clothes, books, big blankets, CDs, DVDs, random pieces of fabric, wadded-up pieces of paper, a keyboard, batteries, various geologic-like strata of detritus and crud. One can only imagine what any girls of his acquaintance must think. It looks like a homeless person is living out of it.
“Yeah, well,” Cera says. “I drove here from Toronto and haven’t unpacked yet.”
When did that trip take place, exactly?
He scratches his head. “Uh, like, uh, nine or 10 months ago.”
The most important thing to know about Cera is that out of all the classic Hollywood movie-star options open to a guy like him last night, he chose none. Instead, he stayed home, downed a couple of classy movies (Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest), chased them with an episode of The Larry Sanders Show, turned in fairly early for him (1:30 a.m.), woke up fairly early, played a few games of tennis with his pal Jake, got his ass kicked (3-6, 2-6), and got on with the day, guilt-free and unburdened by a hangover. And this is typical, he’s always been this way. “Michael is very grounded,” Cera’s mom, Linda, says. “Until he turned 19, I was with him all the time. He’s never been one to go with that Hollywood scene. He’s never wanted to go to those parties or anything. He’s a pretty smart kid.”
“I’m not a big drinker,” says Cera, “and I don’t know what people do when they go to bars. I mean, they go to meet girls. But I’m just not comfortable in that scene, which is fine.”
Today, he has parked his crummy Toyota out back at one of his favorite L.A. lunch joints and tucked himself into an outside table, where he takes his coffee with a little sugar, orders lentil soup and spinach salad, and asks that he not be judged for his recent trouncing on the tennis court: “I can do a lot better than that.” He admits that sometimes he will have a glass of wine with lunch but that “I always feel weird about it.” Exceedingly amiable and amusing, he starts talking about how his life changed after Juno and Superbad. It was 2007, he was 19, and all of a sudden, he was a star. People were asking for his autograph and staring at him while he ate. On the street, people would shout, “McLovin!” even though, of course, he didn’t play McLovin. He found all the attention unsettling, like what happened one night outside an L.A. movie theater. This very small, very round, very excited woman approached him. She was smoking a cigarette. “Are you the guy from Superbad?” “Uh, yeah.” “You look just like my fiance. Can I give you a hug?” She threw her arms around him and said, “Can I suck your dick?”
“I pulled away from her,” Cera says. “And the cigarette smoke was just falling out of her mouth. It was such a scary image. And then I saw her pull her shirt down for some other guy. There was something demonic and terrifying about it. She was completely crazy. And all it did was make me put a few more bricks in the wall I already have.”
He grew up in the Heart Lake section of Brampton, Ontario, near Toronto. His mom ran a day care, his father was a Xerox-machine repair technician. He had a good family, good friends, and nothing bad ever happened. Looking back at those days, Cera says, “I had a really fun childhood, and I’ve had a pretty trauma-free life, which scares me sometimes. I haven’t been properly prepared for any pain, really.”
At the age of three, he took to bed with chicken pox and watched Ghostbusters so often that he’d soon memorized the entire movie, line for line. (His favorite character was played by Bill Murray, whom he has never met and isn’t sure he even wants to: “It seems like he meets people and decides he doesn’t like them, and I do not want to be one of the people he doesn’t like, so I’d feel more comfortable never meeting him.”) A year or so later, he joined an improv class for kids. By the time he was 10, he’d been in a Pillsbury Doughboy ad (big first line: “Hey, let’s make one humongous cookie!”) and had joined the cast of a Canadian TV show called I Was a Sixth Grade Alien.
About the craziest thing he ever did growing up was to go with a pal to knock on strangers’ doors after school and ask for rides home. They thought it was Tom Green-like. “That was a very stupid phase,” Cera says.
About the most trouble he ever got in he never even got in – it all happened in his mind. “I was with a friend who was shoplifting and I knew it. It was a $75 wallet. That’s robbery. If my friend got caught, I would go down with him. I was terrified.”
When he was 14, he sent off an audition tape for a show called Arrested Development, got the part, com muted back and forth between L.A. and Toronto, and began honing his chops as an awkward, sincere youth, which would soon propel him into Juno and Superbad. Meanwhile, he explored his arty side by making funny YouTube video shorts with a friend, actor Clark Duke. Around this time, Cera was rumored to be dating comedian Charlyne Yi and went along with her idea to semi-fictionalize their relationship and turn it into a motion picture. The result, 2009’s Paper Heart, was met with mixed reviews, and, in the aftermath, the two began denying they were ever dating in the first place. This led to the only scandalous gossip associated with Cera, when it was reported that he ditched Yi because he was “itching to date other people” now that he was “superfamous,” which seems unlikely, or, if true, suggests a darkness to Cera that has been unglimpsed, which would be fine.
But throughout, nothing seems to have happened to him to suggest any reason why he’d need to build that brick wall of his. A guy like him, the way he looks, you’d think maybe he at least suffered from debilitating girl issues as a kid, like maybe they ridiculed him for his whole nerd-king shtick. On the contrary, he’s always been a highly successful lothario, starting from an early age. “I had my first girlfriend when I was 10, but it was nothing,” he says. “But the one I dated when I was 11, we dated for, like, two months. I asked her out on a swing set. We held hands and made out. We were a known couple.” (He waited until he was 17 to lose his virginity.) And pretty much that’s how it’s gone, free and easy.
It’s funny, though, the way conversations go with him. You can start off heading in one wholeheartedly frivolous direction and suddenly find yourself someplace entirely darker.
Are there times when he doesn’t brush his teeth?
He takes a sip of coffee. “Yeah, sometimes I’ll just go to bed.”
What about in the morning?
“If you don’t brush in the morning, you’re weird.”
And does he change his underwear daily?
“Yes, unless I’m just going to sit at home all day.”
“Do you ever use man sprays, like Axe?”
He stops here and thinks about this. Then he says, “I had a bad incident in high school where I got ambushed by this mean guy named JD who cornered me and my friend Paul and sprayed us with, like, three bottles of Axe. People were disgusted by us. Girls were like, ‘Ew, go easy on that stuff.’ The next day, I had a stick of blue deodorant and ran it all up and down the jersey that JD had on. He turned around and laughed, cause he could be nice to me. Then Paul did it too. And JD beat the hell out of him. Not only punched him but unloaded on him. It’s one of my biggest regrets, actually, that I didn’t jump in and take a beating. It was a guaranteed pummeling, and I was afraid. It’s something I should have done, because Paul was all alone. I really regret it. It was traumatic. I mean, if I was there now, I’d do it.”
How does he know he would do it now?
“Because right after it happened, I wished I had done it, and now if it happened, I would have that experience behind me and not be afraid.”
Has he ever been punched?
“I don’t think I have.”
Like Scott Pilgrim, has he ever done anything heroic to secure the affections of a girl?
“I think I’ve done something heroic,” he says finally. “I mean, I have this image of myself being a heroic boyfriend.” At the moment, however, he’s only truly heroic if your image of a hero is a mumbling, bumbling, hesitant nerdchild trying to navigate his way to manhood. Take last summer, for instance, when he played soccer for the first time since a childhood humiliation: “It was a junior high school soccer game, and I jumped up and hit the ball with my knee, and it bounced straight over our goalie and into the net. I scored a goal for the other team. My team hated me. I’m a traitor. And I didn’t play again until I faced the fear.”
Last fall, he attended a 10-day retreat where talking isn’t allowed and you meditate 10 hours a day. “You become aware of your body,” he says. “It’s very intense, very physically painful. You’re not even allowed to move for an hour at a time or even open your eyes. You become very aware of what’s in your mind, and instead of getting caught up in it, you let it pass. I mean, I over-think, maybe, a little bit, and overworry. Maybe it’s out of guilt. Maybe I feel weird about having more money than I need at my age. But there’s nothing that requires overworrying or overthinking. It’s just something you put there for some weird reason, maybe not allowing you to enjoy things, maybe.”
Later on, coffee drained, Cera catalogs his innocences, of which he has many. He’s never been a cigarette smoker or a pot smoker, both of which would be contraindicated anyway by a heart condition of his called Wolff-Parkinson-White, which can cause shortness of breath. In fact, the only thing he’s ever been addicted to is cracking his knuckles (“There’s something calming about it. I couldn’t stop even if I needed to!”). He was 18 when he started to shave but can’t grow a beard (“What I can grow is wispy and disgusting”). He doesn’t have any favorite cuss words and says, “Actually, I’m not too amused by cuss words.” He’s never cheated on a girl (though he has been cheated on, back in high school); never picked up a girl; never participated in a three-way; says that in an ideal world he’d have sex “eight times a fortnight”; can’t really call one orgasm his most memorable because “I’ve blocked most of them out”; and claims that what he looks for in a girl is “skin, really nice skin.” He owns lots of corduroys but only one pair of jeans. He doesn’t have an assistant, and he has never used his name to get to the front of a line (“That would require some power moves that I’m not interested in”).
Truthfully, he seems like the kind of naif who shows up in Hollywood on a Greyhound bus and gets chewed up and spit out. Cera, though, has found his place here and says he’s much happier in it than out in public, where the boob-baring, dick-want-to-be-sucking she-devils lurk.
“I love being on set,” he says. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had. It’s all I know. But then, this weird thing happens when the job propels you to a new place of awareness among people. It’s a weird thing to have to get used to, and it still is.”
Now he’s outside, walking down the sidewalk toward a parking lot, toward his car.
“I don’t really feel my age,” he’s saying. “I don’t feel mature enough to feel older, but for some reason, I don’t feel young. I’m in a weird in-between thing, in a transition, in a process of becoming.”
Then he gets into his car and fires it up. It’s still full of crap, clothes, CDs, books, stuff – the front seat, too, but the mess doesn’t look so odd or out of place. Maybe he’ll get around to cleaning it tomorrow anyway. Then again, maybe not.