Do you remember your first celebrity crush? I do: the actor Michael Cera. It’s hard to exaggerate how deeply infatuated with Michael Cera I became the summer before ninth grade. With nothing to do but watch TV all day, my affection for Cera’s Arrested Development character, the gawky teenage romantic George Michael Bluth, blossomed into a full-blown love of anything and everything Cera-related. It was 2007, the summer of Superbad and of Clark and MichaelCera’s CBS-produced web series with Greek‘s Clark Duke, so I had endless opportunities to extend my infatuation.
I watched all of Clark and Michael dozens of times; I forced my dad to take me to see Superbad the weekend it came out and couldn’t stop quoting it for years. Because I was 13, it was 2007, and I was already terminally online, I became a power-user on the Michael Cera, Arrested Developmentand Superbad IMDb forums. I was a moderator on a Cera-focused message board. I watched every interview I could find on YouTube; I bought any magazine that even featured a small picture of him; I wrote Arrested Development fanfiction Michael Cera was my Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears or Justin Bieber: I loved him, and everything he did, and it was all I thought about all the time.
Under normal circumstances, I’m only a little embarrassed to admit this. But this week, as part of the press tour for the sweet, moving new Hulu series Life and Beth, I came face to face (or Zoom to Zoom) with the actual Michael Cera, and that was … a lot more embarrassing. It’s never easy to tell the guy you like that you like him, even if the crush is in the past. (I swear!) Now, Cera is in his early 30s with a wife and a baby; I’m 28 with a boyfriend and a cat. His career has also evolved significantly: He’s a Tony nominee and an indie folk artist; he even voiced a foul-mouthed hot dog in an R-rated animated sex comedy.
The mainstream notion of fandom has changed, too. 15 years ago, it felt like a potentially shameful secret, something I had to keep private for fear of mockery. Today, fandom is as a machine that can dictate the success of a film or band, as much a capital endeavor as a personal one. There are studies into, and plenty of discourse about, the phenomenon of parasocial relationships. In 2022, everyone has their own Michael Cera to fixate upon—whether it’s a favorite influencer they can’t get enough of or a YouTuber they stan hardcore.
In Life and Beth, Michael Cera plays John, a character loosely based on star Amy Schumer’s real husband. His first romantic role in years gave me a rare chance to unpack my teen crush, with my teen crush. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Allegra Frank: In 2007, I was 13. I watched Arrested Development for the first time, and you became my first really big celebrity crush—
That says a lot about you. That’s more about you than anything.
Arrested Development had just ended in 2006, but by 2007, you were starring in both Superbad and Juno. I don’t think it’s strange that teenagers like me—and not just me!—started crushing on you when those came out. What did you make of that particular image people had of you back then, as a crush-worthy nerdwhen you were starting to break out into movies?
Around 2007, when I was just starting to be recognized in the street, I was about 20 or 19 years old. I remember my entry into that era being fraught with discomfort at moving around from one day to the next, and that being the basic overarching challenge of my life at that time. Everything about my memory from that time is kind of painted through that lens: me basically struggling to be comfortable and having a bit of a hard time with it all.
I had been pushing along as an actor since I was a child. When you’re just trying to get work, you just push and push and push. Then I suddenly had a breakthrough couple movies that had a big machine behind them, and I had the opportunity to [play] a big role in, which suddenly gave me all this exposure. Then I felt myself pumping the brakes on this momentum that I had been chasing since I was nine. The whole beast [felt] out of my control in a way, and bringing all these complications with it that I never had any preparation for psychologically. It wasn’t all bad. It was also great, because it was exciting. But it was also challenging for sure.
Your career has become a lot more varied from that heyday of the “Michael Cera character.” You’ve played characters that aren’t as average and cute and sweet—I love Scott Pilgrim, but he’s kind of a dick! You’re a celebrity poker star in Molly’s Game. The version of yourself that you play in This Is the End slaps Rihanna’s butt and snorts coke. I wonder if those choices were you wanting to distance yourself from initial mainstream image, or if it’s because the industry itself is changing and moving away from those awkward sweetheart roles.
I’m not 19 anymore, so I think that’s a big part of it,. It’s hard to think of your career as something you orchestrate in a very clear-headed or omnipotent way, because it’s all about opportunity and timing. Then later, as you have more opportunities than you did previously, you get to make choices.
[Those old roles are] definitely not the kind of part that I’m seeking now. … A quality of those parts is that they’re not pathological or sadistic, and that can be fun to play. But as an actor, it’s fun to play sadistic parts and do everything else too.
“As an actor, it’s fun to play sadistic parts and do everything else too.”
I wondered if there would be a phase of my career later where I would just take things because I needed work. … I like the idea of that too, of starting to say yes indiscriminately and see where that takes my career and takes my life.
I had an idea for a documentary actually, which I haven’t done, but where it would be like, I would get someone to make a documentary of me for one year of my life, saying “yes” to every job that came along , no matter how awful and campy and low-budget it was, and see what happens.
Your work must be interesting for you too, because you actually meet the people you’re a fan of eventually.
It has been strange collecting these experiences of meeting people that I’ve watched and still watch as a fan. I’m sure you can relate to that, with something like Arrested Development as your big breakout.
The person I was most excited about by far was David Cross because I didn’t really have a big appreciation of everyone else yet. I was a big Mr. Show [Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s HBO series] fan when I was a kid. When I found out he was going to be doing the pilot and the show, I was really excited and felt like we were going to have a really good show if he was going to be involved with it.
Right now, you’re talking to someone who, at 13, felt about you the way you felt about David Cross when you were that age too. How does it feel to engage with fans who share how important you or what you worked on were to them?
I don’t know really how to wrap my head around it. To me, it’s a little outside of myself. It’s hard to take that as a personal compliment in a way. Maybe I’m not good at taking compliments. … but I hear you kind of complimenting the things that you’ve seen and the experience you had with them. I like hearing that a lot.
To me, the best compliment I could ever get in the world is when I make dinner for someone and they enjoy it. I love that, because you really work hard on making a meal. That to me feels like a very personal compliment that I can take a lot of pride in. I can fully enjoy that feeling.
To me, the best compliment I could ever get in the world is when I make dinner for someone and they enjoy it.
On Life and Beth, Your character, John, is an unconventional romantic lead, not particularly interested in traditional flirting and dating. As a viewer, I haven’t seen you with a kiss scene in a long time. You played more “Michael gets the girl” roles a dozen years ago. I wonder if, aside from getting to work with amazing people like Amy Schumer and John being a really interesting, big role, you took that into account.
I don’t distinguish between those different brackets [of “romantic” or “non-romantic” lead], I guess. I feel like every character could be romantic. Even the weird characters, probably in some corner of their life, have some romantic element of. To me, it’s just a fully-drawn character.
I think your answer gets at why people like me were so emotionally impacted by you and your work. It was very meaningful to see a young, non-threatening, funny guy be creative and silly and nice in a way that seemed genuine.
When I watched something like Clark and Michael, which is my favorite of all the work you’ve done, I wanted to be friends with your character. But also, because I was a certain age, I wondered, “Maybe I actually want to be with him.”
A huge influence on [Clark and Michael] was Stella [the comedy team of David Wain, Michael Showalter, and Michael Ian Black]. The Stella shorts, especially, but everything by those guys. I felt everything you just described, basically. I felt like I just wanted to be there in their world. They had always included their friends in their short films, and it just looked like they were having so much fun.
I completely relate to [your feelings] in that way. It’s nice to hear you say something that I can recognize the feeling of. It’s not something I’ve ever reflected on, because it’s not something I’ve ever been asked about or had put to me in this way.
Anytime you make something, you want someone to enjoy it and have fun and get caught up in the feeling of fun that we had made it. It really moves me that you mentioned Clark and Michael, because that was just 10 of us going out and running around and making the show. I have such good memories of it.
Finding a thing to love and then diving into that even more deeply was exciting. Arrested Development and Clark and Michael were the first things I took a deep dive into as a teenager. Because I liked them and you in them so much, I wanted to check out the things you liked, and then I fell in love with those things too—like the Scott Pilgrim comics and the bands Weezer and Beulah. But I didn’t like them just because the guy I had a crush on liked them, and I wanted to like what he liked. It was also because I was looking for what really spoke to me and the interests I was starting to develop.
I completely relate to what you’re saying, completely. I had the exact same experience as you honestly, with just slotting in different things. I used to love staying up all night until 5 am watching Mr. Show on DVD with the commentary on, and watching The Office [U.K] over and over and over—just the same 12 episodes over and over, living in it.
It makes you feel like you’re getting to know yourself a little when you’re discovering your own sensibilities and the things that you like and the things you don’t like.
I think there’s something about you that symbolizes the creative and cultural passions that have carried me through into my career. I’ve always found it inspiring to watch you follow your passions too, with your web show and your album and your different roles. When I first became a fan at 13, I was watching you do all these things and thinking, “Wow, and he’s cute!” That also helped back then.
Yeah, I feel very lucky. I feel very lucky to have been able to live that way so far.
To be honest, I’m always just in disbelief about how lucky I am—just even that I have a job that takes me places. I have so many friends and family who just don’t have lives like that, and it’s such a gift. It’s something you really have to appreciate. It’s a very unusual life and a very fortunate one.
I’m very happy for you, but mostly, I’m very happy for me right now.
Yeah, you’re doing great, Allegra.