Boy Wonder

Photo: Jeff Vespa/Contour by Getty Images

Michael Cera plays two very different characters in Youth in Revolt. That is approximately one more role than he has played in the entirety of his short, successful career. From his breakout part as George Michael on the groundbreaking sitcom Arrested Development to the films Superbad and Juno, the 21-year-old Canadian is a superstar of typecasting. Where most actors treat range like an investment strategy, Cera nestles in his comfort zone: muddle-minded, sweet, dweeby adolescents who ache for the love of a cool girl. And really, who would buy him as a cop or a boxer anyway?

“It’s a real game people end up playing with their image,” says Cera from Toronto, where he’s spending the holidays with his family. “That’s really not what’s important to me. It’s just not. And I don’t know how to play that game or understand why people do. It’s just not as fun to me as getting to work with people that you really like.”

For Youth in Revolt, opening January 8, Cera collaborated with director Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl) on a film that makes excellent use of Cera’s dry wit and puppy-dog eyes. Based on the cult novel by C. D. Payne, the film follows befuddled 16-year-old horndog Nick Twisp as he struggles to impress a Serge Gainsbourg–obsessed romantic named Sheeni (newcomer Portia Doubleday). She craves danger and urges Nick to be “bad, very bad.”

So Cera, as Twisp, leaves behind his milquetoast Clark Kent persona and adopts a superbad alter ego: He becomes Francois Dillinger, a mustachioed Jean-Paul Belmondo–inspired lothario—“contemptuous of authority,” he announces, “irresistible to women”—who wears aviator sunglasses, a thin Lester-Molester mustache, and very, very tight pants. Francois is prone to such spectacularly foul lines as “I want to wear you like the crown that you are, then tickle your belly button from the inside.” Or this one, Cera’s favorite: “I’m not going anywhere,” Francois says to Nick, “until you sink your filthy dick into this tomato.” The actor says it gets a laugh every time. “It just makes me so happy,” he adds, his voice cracking a little.

“The genius of Michael’s comedy is that he’s never reaching for a laugh,” says Arteta. “He’s always finding a laugh in something that feels truthful …. And Michael has a very playful relationship with the truth.”

To wit, the other Michael Cera. Do a little research on YouTube and you’ll find a behind-the-scenes video of director Judd Apatow calling Cera “the most irritating guy I’ve ever worked with” on the set of Superbad. You can see his co-star Jonah Hill call him “a fucking ass.” Or watch the documentary that caught him and his pal Clark Duke proclaiming themselves “the new kings of Hollywood” in 2007. Most recently, the documentary Paper Heart tracked his affair with comedian Charlyne Yi—before he broke her heart. A friend told Star magazine that when Cera became “superfamous,” he began “itching to date other people.”

We should add that this particular Michael Cera is also meta-fiction—a performance-art composite constructed from self-mocking mockumentaries, sketch comedies, viral videos, DVD extras, and the hilarious online series Clark and Michael. (Cera never misbehaved on set or dated Yi.) The actor, in other words, was living his latest movie years before he got the part—creating Francois-like characters offscreen, almost all of them “jerks or stupid,” he says. “All the fun things.”

The aliases are useful, allowing the actor to hide in plain sight. “You don’t have to get caught up in being yourself in front of all these people that really don’t know you,” says Cera. “The biggest adjustment in the past couple of years was being recognized, mostly because you lose a certain amount of control over your life. It’s scary. I guess one way to deal with it is to find a way to have fun with it.”

He almost prefers to be confused with his roles; it provides yet another smoke screen. “People get caught up in movies and are unable to separate reality,” he says. “A hundred years later and people still don’t understand. And that’s a good thing!” Does it bug him when his ultrasensitive movie persona is parodied? Not at all. “People love being really mean,” he says cheerily. “It’s fun!”

Hiding won’t be an option for much longer. Youth in Revolt is the first film Cera has carried, and in his next one, Edgar Wright’s forthcoming comic-book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, he’ll not only star but play an entirely new sort of character: the heroic leading man. “I’ve been acting since I was 9,” Cera says. “On sets I feel confident. But now there’s this whole other job of selling the movie, and a huge part of that is selling yourself, which is a really strange thing.”

Cera with Doubleday in Youth in Revolt.Photo: Bruce Birmelin/Courtesy of Dimension Films

More than just selling films, he’s also helping to make them. Cera—who has published comic fiction in McSweeney’s and plays guitar—rewrote much of the script for Youth in Revolt with Arteta, helped cast the film, and even wrote and recorded part of the soundtrack. “After the first five minutes of talking to Michael,” says Arteta, recalling their first conversation two years ago, “I said, ‘How about you and me unofficially writing this script?’ I put myself in his 19-year-old hands.” He predicts the actor will spend a few more years acting before becoming an auteur “like a Ron Howard or Woody Allen, but with his unique point of view—the playfully warped reality of Cera versus Cera.”

Turns out the real guy is a combination of Francois’s confidence and Nick’s kindness and wit (we won’t speculate on his horndoggery). “I watched him collaborate with Miguel,” says Youth in Revolt’s producer, David Permut, “and a movie as delicate as this one, and as absurd, he really strove to keep it grounded and real. Michael could move in any direction he chose, and I have no doubt he could direct.”

Presently, a restless Cera is eager to find another acting job; he hasn’t worked since Scott Pilgrim wrapped in August. The leap to something more seems premature. “I really love movies and would like to [write and direct] someday, but it’s scary,” he says. “It’s just hard to know what I’m going to be like in the future.”

Boy Wonder