By J. KELLY NESTRUCK
Saturday, October 20, 2018
Many actors have careers that straddle both screen and stage, but Michael Cera's career does so in an idiosyncratic and entirely improbable way.
You know the 30-year-old Canadian star with the weird wavy hair and appealingly awkward persona from a wide variety of films (from Superbad to Molly's Game) and a perhaps slightly less wide variety of television shows (from Arrested Development to the resurrection of Arrested Development) on the screen - but, on stage, he only does plays by the American dramatist Kenneth Lonergan.
Exclusively Lonergan plays.
And always in their Broadway premieres.
First, This Is Our Youth in 2014.
Then, Lobby Hero last spring (for which he earned a Tony nomination).
And now, The Waverly Gallery - a 1999 family drama about dementia closing in on a Greenwich Village gallery-running grandmother named Gladys, which opens this week on Broadway with a cross-generational catnip cast that includes rarely-seenthese-days comedy legend Elaine May, 86, in the lead and everywhere-you-look-now actor Lucas Hedges, 21, who earned his first Oscar nomination for a Lonergan film - Manchester by the Sea - as her grandson.
These three shows, directed by three different directors, of which Cera and Lonergan are the only common denominators, are strangely enough the sum total of Cera's theatre work, the actor insists, over the phone from New York - unless, maybe, you count the public presentation of a drama class he took in his hometown of Brampton, Ont., when he was about nine years old.
"At the end of the year, there was one performance for the parents, kind of," he says, sounding a fair bit like a Michael Cera character.
"And that was basically the extent of my live-performing experience."
To hear Cera talk about it, he essentially stumbled into the role of the world's foremost interpreter of Lonergan - who in his plays, as in his films, New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote recently, "specializes in screw-ups, compromised souls who would like to do the right thing, if only they had the backbone for it, or if they could figure out what it is."
Well, the exact way Cera puts it is: "I would say the way these came together was pretty organic and pretty natural - and fortunate for me."
It began a decade ago in Toronto during reshoots for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - the 2010 slacker-superhero movie he starred in based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley.
Kieran Culkin, who was also in that cult action comedy, had acted in a 2002 production of Lonergan's Gen X alienation drama This Is Our Youth in London, playing a 19-year-old stoner named Warren Straub who steals US$15,000 from his abusive father. But now, Culkin really wanted to play the other male part, Dennis Ziegler, the frenemy who helps Warren devise a scheme to buy cocaine, cut it, sell it and then return the money to his father - and he thought Cera was the right man for his old role.
"He put the script in my hand, basically," Cera recalls. "He's like, 'Why don't you read this, maybe we could do this?' " That was the start of his love affair with what he calls Lonergan's "bottomlessly deep" stage writing. There are riches in it, he says, that reward revisiting it night after night on a stage.
"What makes Kenny's writing for the stage very powerful is there's a direct line between it and reality," he says. "Not to oversimplify it, but I think one of the big strengths of his is that you're watching it and you just feel that you understand in a very human and familiar and emotional way what's being said."
It took a while, but the This Is Our Youth that Culkin and Cera envisaged on a film set in Toronto eventually did make its way to Broadway. First, there was a twoweek run in Australia in a small theatre at the Sydney Opera House, and then a couple of directors came and went (Philip Seymour Hoffman was attached at one point, but had a conflict with a Hunger Games film). But then, it finally materialized at Steppenwolf in Chicago under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, before heading to New York in 2014.
With its courting of Hollywood actors to pull in high-paying crowds, Broadway can sometimes seem like a showcase for stage dilettantes to a theatre critic visiting from Canada - but I had to swallow all those assumptions when I saw Cera in This Is Our Youth. As I wrote at the time, I was astonished by his sympathetically pathetic performance and particularly impressed by how he created a character with his body; he seemed like a creature of the stage.
Where did that theatrical talent come from? According to Scott Lale, the actor and director who ran that class Cera was in 21 years ago in Brampton, Cera was a natural even when he was 9 - which is why he suggested to his mother, Linda, that she should get him an agent, kick-starting his career as a child actor, poking Pillsbury Doughboy in the stomach in an ad and acting on YTV's I Was a Sixth Grade Alien, before heading to Hollywood.
"He stuck out like a sore thumb - in a positive way," says Lale, who still vividly recalls Cera inventing a brand-new Ghostbuster for a character-building exercise.
"He was just genuinely funny and entertaining. ... It's corny as hell: I went, 'This kid really has 'it.' " Meanwhile, Cera recalls of Lale's encouragement: "That was really very moving for me and exciting because nothing like that had happened to me ... a teacher singling me out and saying, 'He's good at this particular thing.' "I was terrible at everything else. I couldn't play any sports. I was a huge embarrassment in every other department."
Flash-forward to a year and a half ago and Cera got another moving vote of confidence from a mentor, when Lonergan called and asked if he would play Jeff in Lobby Hero. The path back to Broadway was a lot quicker. "That was a great phone call," Cera recalls.
Cera received great reviews as Jeff - a late-20s security guard trying to get his life together, who becomes embroiled in a series of moral dilemmas involving the police - and then came the Tony nomination.
"I love him being closely associated with my work - he's an exceptionally good actor," says Lonergan, 56, who has bonded with Cera over their mutual love of old movies and now sometimes dines with him at Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse (described in a Times review as "the most wonderful terrible restaurant in New York").
"He's extremely truthful. You can't see the wheels turning; he never showboats. He's one of these actors that you can't quite quite tell how he's doing what he's doing, but it's extremely compelling and effective."
In The Waverly Gallery, Cera plays a painter from Massachusetts named Don, a striving misfit whom Gladys lets stay in her gallery after he shows up one day with a car full of artwork. The part was one he really went after - even though he never imagined interrupting his film and television career to do two plays in a single year (even by Lonergan).
"When I found out they were doing this production with Elaine [May], I just basically immediately e-mailed [producer] Scott Rudin and begged him to let me be in it or even just to sweep the floor to get the chance to hang out," says Cera, who once wrote a cartoon with a friend of his that he wanted May and Lonergan to voice. (Both agreed - but it didn't come to fruition: "We pitched it and everybody hated it.") Among the producers of The Waverly Gallery is Toronto's David Mirvish - and Cera says that, while it has never come up, he would love to come do a play close to his family some time if the right project came up. "The last time I lived in Toronto, actually, was 10 years ago, filming Scott Pilgrim, and I had such a great time being there for so long," he says.
But he's sad to hear that the Mirvish retail emporium Honest Ed's - which you can spy in a couple of Scott Pilgrim shots - is demolished.
"The whole building's gone?
That's a travesty!" he says.
Michael Cera and Lucas Hedges rehearse for The Waverly Gallery on Broadway.