Michael Cera on Almost Marrying Aubrey Plaza and Getting Slapped by Rihanna

MICHAEL CERA - Credit: Tyler Golden/ABC/Getty Images

MICHAEL CERA – Credit: Tyler Golden/ABC/Getty Images

It was a night of laughs that’s still whispered about in comedy circles. During the last writers’ strike in 2007, Michael Cera hosted a DIY version of Saturday Night Live at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York City for around 200 people. The show was comprised of old and/or never-before-seen sketches that had never made it to air, and the entire cast of SNL participated, including the likes of Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph. Norah Jones was the surprise musical guest

“Seth Meyers held up cue cards,” Cera recalls to Rolling Stone, adding, “Amy [Poehler], who’s known me since I was a child, got me to do it.”

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Cera was in town shooting Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and, coming on the heels of Arrested Development, Superbad, and Juno, at the height of his geek-heartthrob powers. He remembers that his favorite sketch involved him playing one of those gold-man living statues you see in Times Square. And, while the performance wasn’t televised, footage of it does exist.

“Maggie [Carey], Bill Hader’s wife at the time, recorded the whole thing,” says Cera. “So there’s a tape of it … somewhere.”

Cera, now 35, is experiencing something of a renaissance. This year, he has The Adults, a lovely little indie dramedy directed by Dustin Guy Defa that sees him star as Eric, a poker-playing addict who returns home to reunite with his two sisters — Rachel (Hannah Gross), his older sister who harbors resentment for him abandoning the family; and Maggie (Sophia Lillis), his younger sis who wants nothing more than for the trio to be as tight-knit as they once were. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week before going wide on Aug. 18. He has a memorable cameo in “Joan Is Afraid,” the best episode of Black Mirror’s sixth season, out now. He’ll star as Ken’s ginger friend, Allan, in the hotly anticipated Barbie movie, out next month. And will reprise the titular role in Scott Pilgrim the Anime, an anime follow-up series to the cult hit that will drop sometime in the fall on Netflix.

We spoke about all of that — and a lot more — in an overlit Manhattan hotel room.

How did you establish such a wonderful rapport with Hannah and Sophia in The Adults? Because you all do seem like brothers and sisters. And you yourself have younger and older sisters. Was this similar to your own dynamic with them?
This was a personal story for Dustin, and it wasn’t similar to the dynamic between me and my sisters. We had a couple of weeks to rehearse, get familiar with each other, and build something together. This was around the fall of 2021, so we were all kind of hanging out at home. And it was just very well-scripted. Dustin had been working on the script for a couple of years, and it really clicked in.

Michael Cera and Sophia Lillis as brother and sister in 'The Adults.'

Michael Cera and Sophia Lillis as brother and sister in ‘The Adults.’

Music is deployed in fascinating ways throughout the film. It’s used as this tension-breaker amongst the siblings.
It’s a language for them. It’s a shortcut to something. But I don’t find it cheerful. There’s something that’s rotten in it. It has a weird taste. It sort of pronounces the distance between them in a weird way. These relics of childhood that used to be very immediate to them and very natural are now totally stilted and forced, but it’s still a common language for them. There’s a distance that’s crept in. Something has become slowly untethered between them for years in a way that’s like a force that they have little control over, are grappling with, and are struggling under the weight of. They’re mourning together, but it’s about the distance between them, so it’s a strange tension.

Did you bring some of your poker knowledge from Molly’s Game to The Adults? Both your characters are pretty degenerate gamblers.
Definitely. I really loved the way Dustin wrote these poker scenes and the poker frustration. I feel they’re more fleshed out than most poker movies are. Most poker movies and scenes are a little cheesy and lean on people’s stereotypical idea of what poker is. People who play poker, I think, will recognize these scenes a little more because they’re very real — agonizing over whether to call or not. It’s a shortcut to finding out where people’s emotional instability is dialed to. During Molly’s Game, I was kind of looking for a poker game to get back into poker. I had played a friendly home game in Los Angeles. I ended up finding a game out here which has become my standard New York home game, and really fell in love with it.

Has Tobey Maguire ever confronted you about playing him in Molly’s Game?
I never talked to Tobey about it. I’ve met him once since making the movie, and it was very pleasant. Or was it before making the movie? Maybe it was before. I hope he doesn’t hold it against me that I played him because it was a great part.

I saw you years ago in This Is Our Youth with Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson. I actually profiled Kieran Culkin in Newsweek for it. He made me polish off an entire bottle of Lagavulin with him in his dressing room.
Yes! That’s his style. He likes that stuff. He has a bunch of empty Lagavulin bottles up on a shelf. Twelve years ago, Kieran got me a bottle of Lagavulin for my birthday, and he brought it to a bowling alley where I was having my birthday party. I held the box upside down, and it just sailed right out of the top of it and smashed on the bowling-alley floor. It was really, really awful! We’re still close.

Are you a Succession fan?
Oh, it’s the greatest. I’m so happy for him.

You have a film project possibly getting made soon, Jonty, that was co-written by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong, right?
It’s a funny thing. The script is so funny, and it was written by Jesse and Sam Bain, his co-writer on Peep Show. Different directors have been on it and, for various reasons, have had to go on to other things. I feel like I’ve been working with Sam and Jesse on that project for five or six years now, and it’s way longer than I’ve worked on something that I’ve actually made. I actually had a call with Jesse the other day. Maybe one day we’ll actually make it. But in some ways I don’t want to because then we’ll have to end our working relationship.

And you and Kieran are reuniting for the Scott Pilgrim anime series for Netflix. What’s it been like to shoot that? It’s one of those films that didn’t do well at the box office but has stood the test of time.
It’s very cool that we get to make more of it. I’ve never had the experience of being able to make a new version of something with the same people like this. It’s very uncanny. It’s a very strange experience! It’s nice that people still care enough to bring it up, watch it, and enjoy it. That seems like a great success. I think it’s gonna be so funny. I’ve had so much fun recording it and hearing what other people are doing. There have been a couple of songs … I kind of don’t fully know what to expect other than it’s going to be really funny.

Aubrey Plaza came out fairly recently and revealed that you two were a couple during and after shooting Scott Pilgrim. I know she was brand new to the industry back then, but have you two remained friends? And what’s it been like to see her ascent in stuff like The White Lotus?
I mean, she’s always been so committed to everything that she does. It’s not surprising to me that she’s doing really well. The thing that’s surprising to me is how much she’s producing and putting together projects. It’s amazing. Ingrid Goes West? That was so great.

Aubrey Plaza and Michael Cera at the 2010 MTV Movie Awards at Gibson Amphitheatre on June 6, 2010, in Universal City, California.

Aubrey Plaza and Michael Cera at the 2010 MTV Movie Awards at Gibson Amphitheatre on June 6, 2010, in Universal City, California.

You two almost got married, right?
Yeah. Well, we were driving through Vegas, and we almost just spontaneously took a detour and got married.

Like an Elvis chapel situation?
Yeah. Like something where you get a certificate. I think the idea was to then get a divorce right away, so we could call each other “my ex-husband” and “my ex-wife” at like … 20. [Laughs]

I saw your Black Mirror episode, “Joan Is Afraid.” Did Salma Hayek actually punch you?
[Laughs] No. She was cool.

Your episode takes aim squarely at Netflix in a funny way, and you play a Netflix programmer. How did you get involved in it?
Well, it’s not called Netflix! It’s called Streamberry. They just asked me! There was almost a chance for me to play a part in a different season that didn’t come together because of a scheduling thing, and I’ve been a fan from the beginning. It was cool that they had something for me!

Was there any apprehension on your part in starring in an episode that mocks Netflix?
I didn’t see it that way! Plus, it’s streaming on their platform, so they must feel OK about it, right? [Laughs] I’m excited to see it. I haven’t yet, and I know nothing about it!

While the Salma smack wasn’t real, I’d read that Rihanna really did slap the shit out of you in This Is the End. The story went something like: The takes weren’t working, and you asked Rihanna if you could slap her [butt] for real, and she said that you could on the condition that she could then slap you across the face in return.
I think that’s a slightly revised version. I don’t think the takes weren’t working. I thought it would look a lot better if she hit me. I don’t think it took much convincing to get her to do it. I just thought it would look a lot better than a fake slap would because you can really feel it. It just looks a lot funnier!

Apparently there were several takes, and she was winding up harder on each one.
I definitely did not regret it! I was into it. The take that is in the movie, she really did hit my ear, which was disorienting. But I have no regrets. I didn’t lose any hearing over it, fortunately!

I also heard that your one stipulation for being in the film was that you had to wear that windbreaker.
It was a suggestion because … I don’t even remember why. I just thought it would be funny. I think they wanted me to wear a cardigan, and I thought I would look more insane in this. I like the windbreaker because I could feel like I’m very itchy and punchy, you know? [Laughs]

I haven’t seen Barbie yet. What was it like to be in the Barbie world?
It came up very last minute for me. I was brought in really right before they started the movie. It was just so exciting to be there. Amazing people to be around. It was a full wig.

The red hair is wild. What did it take to get you looking like Allan, Ken’s friend?
It takes a lot of work! Everybody on the movie had to get full body makeup. And it’s really the breaking down of it. At the end of the day, they take almond oil onto a rag [to take it off] and it smells weird, and then you have to go home and take a shower. We’re all painted to be all Barbie-toned.

Had you ever crossed paths with Ryan Gosling before? I don’t know if there’s a Canadian circuit in Hollywood.
I’d never worked with him before, but I knew him for years. We had coffee together like 15 years ago, and had a flight together once. We were both flying home for the holidays — back to L.A. from Toronto — and we sat next to each other, and we kind of became friends on that flight. We talked a lot about Albert Brooks the whole time because Ryan had just worked with him [on Drive], and then he said, “Why don’t we go have dinner at Albert Brooks’ house?” And then he made that happen with our friend Derek Waters, and we just had the most amazing night. I was so amazed that he actually followed up and made it happen. We had pizza at Albert Brooks’ house, and it was really incredible.

Michael Cera as Allan in 'Babie.'

Michael Cera as Allan in ‘Barbie.’

I was a big Arrested Development fan. How do you feel about the show looking back on it?
Oh, I feel lucky to have been a part of it. I basically owe everything to it, as far as my career and I’m sure, in many ways, my life in general. It was a huge gift.

Was it weird to act in the Netflix revival because you all were green-screened into a bunch of scenes, so you weren’t actually all in the same room?
Yeah, it’s not as much fun, that’s for sure. The first time, when we were on network television and all there together, it was obviously a very different experience. I think a huge part of that show was coming from the cast chemistry — and supported by this amazing writing. That was the furnace that made it really happen, and it was challenging not having that energy on the other seasons.

I feel like the Trumps have made it even more culturally relevant. Every week I see someone share the “Some light treason” meme regarding Trump.
Oh yeah. And also: the wall. The whole storyline with building the wall was something that Arrested Development was talking about years before Trump was talking about.

How do you feel your career is going right now? You’re still pretty young, but you’ve been around for a while, and now you have all these exciting projects coming out.
I feel good. I feel grateful for life in general. To be an actor, and working, and making a living doing it is such a fortunate thing. When you start as a kid it’s your dream, and I feel grateful to be living it. And I still really love working.

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