Michael Cera came of age on-screen. Now he’s all grown up.


As Michael Cera surveys the path ahead, the 35-year-old actor is growing a bit concerned about the possibility he’ll slip up and take a tumble.

It’s a reasonable worry, since only some of the sidewalks have been cleared on this icy January morning in Brooklyn. So Cera — initially unrecognizable in a hat, scarf and heavy coat, as well as a medical mask he’s wearing for warmth — promptly plots a roundabout route through his neighborhood that’ll dodge any slick surfaces. Considering Cera is heading to Germany in March to start shooting Wes Anderson’s next film, it’s probably best for him to avoid showing up on set with an unexpected cast on his arm or brace on his knee.

Plus, he’s not just looking out for himself nowadays. Once he’s found refuge from the blistering cold at a chic diner, Cera stirs granola into his Greek yogurt, chuckles and shares a realization: “This is almost exactly what I made my son for breakfast.”

After breaking into Hollywood as a child actor on the cult-hit sitcom “Arrested Development” and breaking out on the big screen in many a coming-of-age comedy, Cera has most definitely grown up. And art is beginning to imitate life: In addition to raising two sons — a baby and a 2½-year-old with his wife, Nadine, he faced fatherhood on-screen when shooting Season 2 of “Life & Beth,” which starts streaming Feb. 16 on Hulu.

Cera plays Long Island farmer John, the love interest of Amy Schumer’s Beth, in the offbeat comedy loosely based on Schumer’s romance with her husband, chef Chris Fischer. Season 1 planted the seeds of the couple’s courtship, and that relationship grows deeper in the new episodes as marriage, kids and the concurring conflicts come to the forefront, with both characters unpacking childhood traumas and John processing his neurodivergence.

The series is just part of a recent resurgence for Cera, who took time off during the pandemic but recently stormed back into the cultural consciousness. Over the past year, he played an opportunistic marketing executive in the surrealist indie film “Dream Scenario”; headlined the family dramedy “The Adults”; tackled artificial intelligence in the tech dystopian shows “Black Mirror” and “Command Z”; slyly anchored a viral marketing campaign for CeraVe; and swiped scenes as the one-of-a-kind wallflower Allan in “Barbie.”

“He’s not afraid to kind of go quiet for a little bit and wait till things feel right to him,” Schumer says. “He really, really trusts his instincts. And I feel like the love for him is always there.”

Cera’s inherent earnestness is evident in an interview over breakfast with the Toronto-area native, who is contemplative and inquisitive while considering his career, politely asking nearly as many questions as he answers. Every now and then, you’re reminded that this unassuming Canadian has led an extraordinary life. (Asked whether he’s been to D.C., he enthusiastically replies: “Yeah, once — I went to meet Obama.”) But Cera, who doesn’t have a smartphone and avoids social media, still comes across as open, amiable and devoid of Hollywood hubris.

The actor learned a while ago — after the 2007 releases of “Superbad” and “Juno” and before filming 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” — that he didn’t have a particular affinity for fame. As “Superbad” became a generation’s high school comedy of choice and the Oscar-winning “Juno” birthed its own fervent fandom, the occasional recognition he enjoyed during “Arrested Development’s” initial run gave way to full-on celebrity. “I felt like I went out surfing and went into a tidal wave,” he recalls. “I wasn’t prepared for that — I just wanted to do some body surfing.”

So Cera, who had become the industry’s go-to choice for depicting tongue-tied teens and stunted 20-somethings, took a step back in hopes of slowing his dash into stardom. He turned down a “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig, much to his representatives’ alarm, and veered away from franchise films that would’ve further elevated his visibility. In between the movies Cera did make, he created content for his YouTube channel and recorded music.

“I was just so young, and it took me awhile to really know myself well enough to know how to handle things and where my boundaries could be,” he says. “I just needed to reset and make sure I was in touch with my own actions and what was driving them and what I actually wanted.”

That shift can be seen in Cera’s eclectic body of work, which has since been populated by niche independent films (“Magic Magic,” “Tyrel,” “Gloria Bell,”), fleeting turns in buzzier projects (“This Is the End,” “Molly’s Game,” “Twin Peaks”) and animation voice-over performances (“The Lego Batman Movie,” “Paws of Fury,” “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off”). Elaborating on his role-picking instincts with knowing self-deprecation, Cera says he’s “never been one to take a job — and this has probably not been smart — just based on financial reasons.” In his mind, compelling collaborators and a distinct vision take precedent over a project’s plotting or profile.

“The world was really being offered to Mike,” says actor and filmmaker Jake Johnson, Cera’s co-star on the 2009 movie “Paper Heart.” “I know that firsthand because I would be in his house and hear on his old message machine directors calling him and offering him stuff. But Mike has never been somebody who is just chasing fame or money or the next big hit. He always has a certain level of integrity in what he wants to do.”

When Cera signed on for his supporting part in “Barbie,” he couldn’t have expected the movie to become a $1.4 billion box office behemoth. But this time around, he wasn’t a lead actor at the center of a pop culture maelstrom. And it helped that the curly-haired, typically bearded Cera is clean shaven with a stiffly styled hairdo in “Barbie,” altering his appearance enough that his young nephew couldn’t even spot him. “At the end of the movie, he started crying,” Cera says. “He was like, ‘I thought we were going to see Uncle Michael.’”

While Greta Gerwig acknowledges she has always admired Cera, the “Barbie” writer-director says it was his humanist turns in three Kenneth Lonergan plays on Broadway — “This Is Our Youth” in 2014 and “Lobby Hero” and “The Waverly Gallery” in 2018 — that inspired his casting as Allan, the sensitive sidekick who gets lost in the fantastical Barbie Land shuffle.

“He always captures something utterly human and strange in his performances,” Gerwig writes via email. “We always talked about how Allan is a tragic Mike Leigh character trapped in a Barbie movie. We didn’t want his ending wrapped in a bow. We decided this together. He always somehow knew just what I was thinking. In an early conversation we had, he said he wanted Allan to be in the back of a lot of shots, brooding, yearning and out of focus. And I thought YES. That is EXACTLY IT.”

Although Cera is more comfortable in the public eye as a 30-something adult, he has gained a reputation for being guarded about his personal life. Asked about that perception, he expresses bemusement and retorts, “Do you find me private?” Reflecting on his decision to not publicly announce his first son’s birth — the news got out when Schumer mentioned it offhand in an interview — he marvels at his own naiveté about others’ curiosity.

“It would never occur to me that anybody who doesn’t know me would care that I had a kid,” Cera says through embarrassed laughter. “I mean, maybe a lot of people are quite public, quite into sharing, and I just don’t engage with social media in that way. Maybe that’s why I seem private? But then I will say, honestly, I do also value not having my personal life being overly taken from me.”

When it comes to fatherhood, Cera’s “Life & Beth” character approaches the idea in Season 2 with matter-of-fact assuredness. The actor, however, needed time to make that leap. Looking back on his 20s, Cera says, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted a family. After getting married, he began to embrace the idea, but still required convincing.

“I really could have seen either path working and being great and being appealing, and then I just kind of turned the corner with it,” Cera explains. “But the character is a guy who, it’s so obvious to him. I envy that in people, when they’re so assured about what’s right for themselves.”

Discussing what makes Cera right for a character inspired by her husband, Schumer first points out his passive role in that real-life love story: When she and Fischer were falling for each other, they bonded over a shared love of “Arrested Development” and Shouts & Murmurs, a New Yorker comedy series in which Fischer’s favorite essay happened to be the Cera-penned “My Man Jeremy.” As for Cera’s performance, she applauds his naturalistic take on John’s autism, which doesn’t define the character, but manifests in his intense fixations and absent social filter.

“I love how he views playing this character and knowing that autism is just one aspect of him,” Schumer says. “He didn’t take that and just run with it in a sort of stereotypical way we’ve seen before. He did it in such a loving way.”

End of carousel

When Cera hasn’t been on set or recording lines — he has parts in the upcoming films “Sacramento” and “Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point” and the animated series “Sausage Party: Foodtopia” — he’s been busy seeking financing for several projects he wrote or co-wrote with an eye toward directing, including a limited-series adaptation of the Charles Portis novel “Masters of Atlantis.”

Having read Cera’s scripts as a friend, Johnson feels that he’s sitting on a secret. “They’re the kind of movies,” he says, “that if I was sent as an actor, I would be thrilled to jump in.” Discussing his entertainment idols, Cera fittingly name-checks actor-turned-filmmaker Michael Showalter. (Cera also has an online chess rivalry with Showalter, though he concedes that the “Big Sick” director “kicks my ass.”)

Amid his work and familial obligations, Cera has been short on free time lately. He admits he hasn’t caught many recent movies or shows — including “Barbie’s” summer frenemy “Oppenheimer,” which he’s waiting to see in Imax 70mm — though he has started “The Curse” and expresses unflinching affection for Todd Haynes’s “May December.” When Cera gets back on set, traveling to Germany to work with Anderson, it’ll double as a family adventure as he’s joined by his German-born wife and their sons, whom the couple are raising as bilingual.

On-screen, Cera long maintained a boyish persona. But off it? The millennial icon’s day-to-day life is evermore entrenched in adulthood.

“It’s new,” Cera says of playing more mature parts. “But for me, it’s intuitive because the characters are lining up more with what’s going on in my life. And it feels right.”


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