You can’t walk through New York’s theater district without seeing the names of Hollywood celebrities beaming down at you. From Julia Roberts to Tom Hanks, it seems that every A-list actor has either appeared on Broadway, or is dying to. Michael Cera is an actor many probably never expected to see on the Great White Way, but he’s on it now in a big way, starring in the acclaimed revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s play, “This Is Our Youth.”
Set in New York in 1982, “This Is Our Youth” follows two days and long nights in the lives of Warren (Cera), a moody teen who just stole $15,000 from his dad; Dennis (Keiran Culkin), his drug-dealing best friend; and Jessica (Tavi Gevinson), a high-strung young woman Warren has the hots for.
Since opening in August, the production’s drawn raves, with most critics singling out Cera’s immersive turn as the chief highlight. Indiewire caught up with the 26-year-old to discuss his transition to the stage.
When you go on stage every night, does it feel like you’re doing the show for the first time?
I wouldn’t say it feels like the first time, but it also feels very much like there’s still a lot to be found. And yeah, it is easy to slip into autopilot with it, but I think the whole point of the exercise is to stay awake and keep finding these things and make sure you’re constantly discovering it.
This marks your first stab at Broadway. What was it about Kenneth’s play that spoke to you?
Well, I love the play. I love the writing. I love the feeling that comes across in it and the characters and the dynamics. It’s fun to do a show with such a small cast. That was appealing to me. And there’s so much to be found in it, there’s so much feeling and so much depth in the characters and relationships.
The first time I read it, I was really unaware of Kenny’s writing, I hadn’t discovered him yet. So this was my introduction to him and I just thought more than any other person I can think of, he was able to bring across these unnamable feelings that really resonated or ring true with you whether you know them personally or not — you can feel them. It doesn’t really matter if you have this friendship or upbringing. There’s so much feeling in what comes across in the characters that you can’t help but have compassion for what he’s showing you.
Both Warren and Dennis don’t try hard to win the audience over. They’re privileged and a tad self-absorbed.
Yeah, but I don’t find them unlikable, personally. I think that’s a matter of opinion — what kind of people you grew up with, what kind of people you like or are used to. These guys are pretty abrasive personality types in different ways, but I grew up with guys like that. If you have guys like in your life growing up, or people like that, you know them. You know that they’re not always just one thing. There’s no such thing as a person with just one note, you know? If you just saw the first five or ten minutes of this play, you’d have a very limited view of who they are. But over the course of the play, they slowly reveal themselves to you.
Warren really comes into his own over the course of the play, especially in the second act. Do you feel that way playing him? Or do you feel you have a solid hold on the guy from the moment you first step on stage?
I personally think it’s there the whole time with him. He has this underlying backbone. He’s got these key relationships in his life, with his best friend and with his father, they both demand him to submit to be smaller. It’s one of those relationships where the person just needs you to be smaller. In order for the relationship to exist, those are the terms. And I guess he realizes toward the end of the play that he is an active participant in this diminishing of himself as a person and he can’t keep going that way. He doesn’t feel that way about himself. It’s complicated because he’s living with his father. They’ve gone though this horrible tragedy together of losing his sister in this horrible way. They’re both just acting out. His father doesn’t have any good understanding of himself and he does. It’s hard when you’re just two damaged people trying to get along and not hurt each other.
Is your stint on Broadway at all comparable to your one on “Arrested Development,” given you’re playing the same character over an extended period of time?
No, I think it’s totally different, because you’re covering the same material with a play. When you’re doing a series it feels kind of like you just have a job, that you keep coming to. It’s always changing, you’re always meeting new people. There’s a new director every episode. There’s always new material, and the story is always progressing. It’s a totally different exercise. It’s also just a different discipline. With this, you show up at 7pm, you get ready and do it, and ad-lib to entertain yourself. It’s hard to compare it to anything else in terms of how it looks in terms of your life and your work. It’s a unique experience.
Has the experience of acting on Broadway changed the way you’re going to approach your career going forward?
I don really know. [Laughs] It’s hard to think past January to be honest. I’m just trying to figure life out until then.
When you say past January, as a working actor, does it make you anxious to know that you’re locked into the play this until then? Or does that excite you?
It doesn’t make me that anxious, I’m into it. I’m living in my house, I’m able to be at home and go to work. The normality thing is appealing to me right now. I love the show we’re doing. Every night is a new experience. When we’re doing a show on stage there’s never a moment where I’m wishing I were somewhere else. It’s hard to speak to what it’ll feel like in December, but it’ll probably go really quickly.
Were you at all nervous about how your performance was going to be received by Broadway critics?
No, I don’t really ever feel that too much because it’s not really like that when you’re working on something. When you’re working with a team of people that you’ve leveled with, it’s a safe environment and it’s a good exercise and that’s why I love doing it. The other stuff is a consequence or a part of it, but it’s not really a part of your involvement. It’s all part of the engine of the whole thing I guess. It’s definitely not how I make decisions; I do it for entertainment and for what the experience is going to be like.
On the night that I saw it, the show got a standing ovation. How gratifying does that feel? You don’t really get that experience when you put a film out into the world, or a TV show — that immediate response.