Sharp-witted Michael Cera breaks out of the supernerd mould and beefs up for his latest role, writes Susan Daly, who chats to him about school, being cool and coping with fame
The first thing you notice about Michael Cera are his glasses. They are thick, plastic-rimmed and out-sized: the perfect accessory to hide behind. I've been told to expect Cera to be a reticent interviewee.
He's been dubbed the nerd-next-door, the king of Generation Y geekdom for his note-perfect gawky teen roles in Juno and Superbad. This could be an awkward half-hour.
"Well," he points out reasonably, "I was a teenager when I made Juno and Superbad." He's 22 now and oddly mature. He says he's "shy, but not painfully so" -- after all, he's been working as an actor since he was nine. He was already a cult comedy figure by 14 when he played George Michael Bluth in black TV sitcom Arrested Development. George Michael was a smart, straight-laced teen, vaguely horrified by the carry-on of his dysfunctional family.
The TV series was prematurely axed after three series, but it laid a blueprint in comedy fans' heads of Cera as a clued-in but slightly oddball kid. His breakthrough movie roles as bewildered baby daddy to Ellen Page's whip-smart Juno and a high-schooler on the margins in Superbad cemented this image in 2007.
In fact, Cera's not a nerd and neither were those characters, not really. Paulie Bleeker in Juno was awkward but not angsty. As Evan in Superbad, he was quiet but thoughtful. When he followed up the next year with Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Cera made the earnest indie kid a plausible romantic lead.
Cera has no truck with tags such as geek and nerd. "They are just words," he says. If anything, he gently opted out of the trials of being labelled a jock or a swot, the science nerd or the class clown.
"I went to high school for a year and got the gist of it," he says wryly. "It was nice, I had my friends and we all played poker at lunch and got in a lot of stupid trouble. Oh my gosh, just tried to survive -- it's scary going to public school; there are some scary characters."
And for a minute he does sound like any vulnerable teen worrying about making it through the battleground of high school. As it turns out, he's being quite literal.
"A kid was murdered in my high school the year I was there," he says unexpectedly at the end of our interview. "It was a guy I had met and the guy who killed him was a guy a few of my friends knew -- sorry, this is depressing -- he actually went and turned himself in afterwards." (I check the story out later and it's true. A 14-year-old was convicted of first-degree murder for strangling a classmate with his belt in Cera's Canadian high school in 2003. Cera would have also been 14 at the time.)
There is nothing dramatic in the way Cera retells the story and he almost seems sorry he mentioned it. But it's clear there are worse fates in those unsteady teen years than being considered on the margins of the in-crowd.
Cera himself is not entirely unhip. Those glasses are less of a mask than part of a personal style, best described as 'young fogey'. Cera once cited his comedy hero Larry David as his style icon. Today he wears the kind of green cords and button-down shirt combo one might expect to see on a 60-something-year-old man, but he's also sporting a pair of scuffed but classic Adidas Superstars. It's not a studied look, but it's cute.
He's self-aware, not self-conscious. He laughs at himself going through intense physical training for his new movie, Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Based on a comic-book series, it's part fantasy, part superhero epic with Cera required to fight off the Seven Evil Exes of his new girlfriend, cool indie chick Ramona.
"We had to build up some endurance," he says. "It wasn't even about specific moves but learning the language of that physical stuff because for anyone who hasn't done anything like that, those movements are unnatural."
He says he loved doing what comes unnaturally -- but won't suddenly become the next Jason Statham, flexing his pecs in the way he's spent the past 10 years buffing his comedy muscle. "I got a glimpse of it and, man, it's hell." He describes himself as kind of average. "I hang around a lot of short people to make me look good," he deadpans.
Cera does a lot of this, making sure we know he doesn't take himself too seriously but not exactly being self-deprecating. Scott Pilgrim, for example, looks set to consolidate Cera as an alternative hero for gamers and comic-book fanboys, but he's not willing to set the character up as a god.
"Scott's a bit of a Homer Simpson character -- he's a bit of a dope. You can tell with certain gags -- the spinning wheel in his head, 'What am I going to say?' It was just fun to play a total idiot. Like Homer (he gets the girl). Like how did Homer get Marge?"
In Cera's mind, the movie is played out through how Scott sees the world. "Even the evil exes, maybe they're not that evil, they're just against him. It's him against the world, you know? It feels like he's the hero of his own movie in his mind."
Cera's a pretty clear-sighted guy. Growing up in the suburbs outside Toronto with parents who he has described as "funny, funny people", he takes his growing fame as it comes. He even finds he can laugh at the absurdities of LA, where he now lives.
"They have everything in LA. They have dog hotels, which is not something you'll find in Toronto." And what do people do in Toronto when they go on holidays? Tie their pets up in the back yard? "Yeah," he says, cracking a grin, "You just leave him tied up with a bowl of food and tell him everything's going to be fine."
Maybe it's the relaxed Canadian vibe or maybe he just likes taking the Michael. Either way, Cera is fun, in a very gentle sort of way.
Not that he's always entirely at ease with being the centre of attention. "I've been scared before," he says of the growing recognition he gets from movie fans. "The first time I really felt weird about being recognised was at the Toronto Film Festival when I was there for this movie Nick and Norah. For some reason, maybe because Toronto's my home town, it just seemed very intense. Just the amount of people coming at you."
But he's learning -- and from a master schmoozer. "It's really nice when you work with someone who is so much more famous than you are because it makes you realise it could be worse. Jack Black is one of the most famous people I've worked with (in Year One) and he's like Santa Claus. We'll go to a restaurant and people will be lining up to meet him like Santa Claus in a mall."
He also thinks one of his Scott Pilgrim co-stars, the laconic Kieran Culkin, is "a very cool guy; if there's cool, whatever that means, he's got it".
You're not so uncool yourself, I tell him. He smiles and shakes his head, but in Scott Pilgrim he looks as comfortable as Jack Black, rocking out on a bass guitar. He has co-written a score to a small independent film that was well-received at the Sundance festival. Last year he had a short story published in Dave Eggers' cult literary journal, McSweeney's Quarterly.
"Dave Eggers was really nice to me, he sent me a nice email about it," he says modestly. Michael Cera: redefining cool.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World opens on August 27
Le geek, c'est chic - movies where nerds rule
- THE NET (1995)
Sandra Bullock strikes a blow for computer geeks by fighting shady corporate entity The Praetorians when they steal her identity. She does, however, look unfeasibly hot for someone who supposedly spends 24/7 in front of her computer, eating pizza.
- PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY (1999)
Relates the early IT battles of Steve Jobs and Apple, and Bill Gates and Microsoft. Noah Wyle (Dr Carter from ER) was so convincing as Jobs that Jobs had Wyle impersonate him on stage at the 1999 Macworld Expo.
- X-MEN (2000)
Labelled freaks by 'normal society', it is actually their mutations that give the X-Men their super powers. It's also based on a Marvel comic book -- nerd heaven.
- NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (2004)
Teen geek Napoleon wears high-waisted jeans and the only sport he plays is tetherball (although he boasts of his martial arts prowess with 'numchucks'). Then he blows away his high-school doubters with a funktastic dance.
- SUPERBAD (2007)
Cera stars in this tale of high-school awkwardness with Jonah Hill, but the movie belongs to Fogell/McLovin'. He's a geek to rival Booger from 1984's Revenge of the Nerds, but a geek who (almost) gets the girl.