At the age of 21, Michael Cera has been acting professionally for more than half his life, since he was a pre-teen in his native Toronto.
His breakthrough role – at least in Hollywood – was the Emmy-winning but short-lived sit-com, “Arrested Development.” It showcased his comedy style of misdirection: mild-mannered exterior, disguising an inner fire that sneaks out in hesitant, unexpected ways.
His open, slightly defensive smile is a secret weapon, masking a subversive streak that comes through in his work, such as “Youth in Revolt,” opening Friday (1/8/10). In that film, he plays Nick Twisp, a would-be teen rebel who taps into his inner bad-boy – literally – to woo the woman he loves.
When I spoke to him at the Toronto Film Festival in September, he seemed to be sharing a joke with himself. Affable and polite, he also had the same unflappable, mildly deadpan persona that has identified him on the screen.
Q: Francois Dillinger is Nick’s tough alter-ego. Do you have any darker urges you wish you could act out that way?
A: I try to lie as often as I can but I don’t lie as constantly as Francois. I had fun playing that part. I like to do things that let me step outside myself. I figure any acting is an opportunity. You step away from yourself and get to do whatever you want. I’ve never done anything criminal. I’ve never gotten in serious trouble. I have such a sense of identity with the feeling of getting caught, that lump in your stomach. It’s not something I can relate to.
Q: In the scenes where you play both Nick and Francois, Francois has a mustache. Did you grow one or was that a stunt mustache?
A: It’s fake. It’s a make-up mustache.
Q: What does it look like when you grow a mustache?
A: Sort of pirate-y. There were a lot of quick changes and I was going back and forth so a fake mustache made sense.
Q: How much of a challenge was it, playing scenes with yourself, as it were?
A: It was only tough because the timing can be tricky. You have to commit to a take doing one character. Once you commit, then you do the other side. You watch it over and over and figure out the rhythm. It’s not impossible but it’s tricky sometimes, with just an eyeline or an earwig to work with. It got easier as we went along.
Q: You’re 21 now, but still look young enough to play teen roles. Do you worry about making the transition to adult roles?
A: I’ve been lucky enough to keep getting roles, working with people I like. That’s gotten me here. I don’t know where it will take me. The transition to adult roles – I don’t think about adult roles. You don’t have much control when you’re an actor. The arc of my career is full of stuff I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of.
Q: Was that a big celebration – when you turned 21?
A: I was here working in Toronto and the drinking age is 19 so it was not a huge milestone. All it really represents is drinking in the States.
Q: I know that you initially moved to Los Angeles with your mother, who lived with you when you were younger and working. But now you’re on your own in L.A.?
A: Yeah, it happened sort of really without me planning. I got a place and suddenly I realized I’d moved out from my parents’. It’s sort of a new thing for my parents. It wasn’t a harsh transition.
Q: Why did you start acting?
A: I always wanted to be an actor. I liked “Ghostbusters” when I was little. My parents tell me that, when I was young, I talked a lot about acting. I started taking classes at 8.
Q: How old were you when you were cast as George-Michael Bluth in “Arrested Development”?
A: I was 14 when I shot the “Arrested Development” pilot. The show shot until I was 17.
Q: Did you have any sense then of whether it would be a hit?
A: I loved the script and pilot. I just wanted to be part of it. Doing a TV series is such a dream if you really like it. I was a 14-year-old kid from Toronto. I just flew down and hoped the pilot would be picked up. I’d been working at acting since I was 9.
Q: What do you hear about an “Arrested Development” movie?
A: I’m just waiting to hear about the movie. Mitch (Hurwitz, the show’s creator) is working on it. It takes time.