The Essence of Adolescence

National Post, January 4, 2006

Michael Cera is awkward. When we meet at a Swiss Chalet near his home in Brampton, Ont., he says hi three times in the first minute, shuffling in his seat. Within a few minutes, he settles in with a chocolate milk and begins chatting excitedly about George Michael Bluth, the character he plays on Arrested Development, the critically adored and perpetually beleaguered Fox sitcom, which airs on Global in Canada.

Now in the midst of a make- or-break third season, the fate of the show is, as per usual, unclear. Low ratings prompted Fox to cut this season’s run from 22 to 13 episodes, and renewal looks unlikely, though the possibility of being rescued by U.S. cable channel Showtime has been floated.

On the show, George Michael is a naive and earnest teen, often bewildered by his extended family — all of whom live together following the collapse of the family’s home-development empire. Cera plays the character flawlessly; his awkward mannerisms and palpable discomfort are triumphs of comedic timing, though perhaps not entirely an act.

The real Cera is much cooler, of course; he wouldn’t be caught dead in the gaudy vintage shirts that George Michael wears, a relic of creator Mitchell Hurwitz’s childhood wardrobe (though Cera says they help his acting: “With the clothes I wear, it’s very easy to be self-conscious”). And while George Michael’s palms sweat when he talks to Maeby Funke, his cute female cousin, Cera holds his own on the Ron Howard-produced program that’s won six Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series in 2004.

Cera started doing commercials when he was eight; his first role was an unpaid gig for Tim Horton’s Summer Camps, followed by a spot in a Pillsbury ad, among others.

But the next year, he auditioned for 200 commercials consecutively without landing a role. As well, the commute from Brampton to Toronto — over an hour in traffic — was taking its toll on Cera and his mother, Linda, who worked at the time as a babysitter. “It’s discouraging,” Cera says. “Commercial producers want you to be really hammy. Finally I said, ‘Can we not go for commercials anymore?’ ”

Cera began to land roles in made-for-TV movies, as well as a few Hollywood features (he was a young Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). At 12, he landed a year-long, regular role on the YTV series I Was a 6th Grade Alien. In the summer of 2001, Cera saw the Arrested Development script. “George Michael’s character was so appealing,” he recalls. “Even making a tape, reading the lines with my mom, was so much fun.” Cera flew to L.A., where he auditioned alongside Alia
Shawkat, who plays Maeby; both nailed the roles, becoming the first two characters cast.

For Cera, whose favourite TV shows include The Office, Family Guy and Wheel of Fortune, the role was more than just a Hollywood break. “I’m glad I get to play a more humble, passive character,” he says. “It’s fun playing a part that’s not a smart-ass kid. I like how George Michael doesn’t know how to react to his family, but doesn’t want to show that he’s weirded out.”

When he began on the show, Cera was enrolled in Grade 9 at Brampton’s Heart Lake Secondary, working in L.A. from March to August. Now, he does about three hours of school work a day online. “You think, ‘Oh, I’m not in high school.’ But doing the show is such an amazing experience.”

Cera works closely with comedian David Cross, who plays his uncle, Tobias Funke, and says, “I try to study him. He’s always thinking.” No doubt, Cera values talent over celebrity. On a press junket to New York, he and Shawkat, mothers in tow, attended a party hosted by Wilmer Valderrama, the hard-partying actor who plays Fez on That ’70s Show. Cera, who abstains from smoking, drinking and drugs, recalls entering “a big gymnasium, and the music was so loud. That guy who played Pedro on Napoleon Dynamite was posing for pictures. It was not my thing.” Does Cera ever like to party? “If by party you mean play poker with a few guys and watch a movie, yeah.” Amazingly, Cera remains single. “All the talk you hear about girls throwing themselves at you once you get a show: It’s not true.” As for co-star Shawkat, Cera insists, “she’s like a sister.”

Since joining Arrested Development, Cera has splurged once, buying a Martin Acoustic guitar for around $1,000. Most of his earnings — Cera doesn’t know how much (“It’s something in the thousands, nothing ridiculous”) — go into a state-regulated fund  that he can access in April, when he turns 18. His family lives comfortably off his Sicilian father Luigi’s salary as a Xerox technician, a job he’s held for more than 20 years.

Cera’s appreciation of Arrested Development is unabashed — he is effusive about the quality of writing and hopes “they don’t dumb it down to try to grab a few more viewers” — but he’s already taking the long view of his career.

“I’m looking forward to my old age,” he says. “To maybe being like Larry David and having enough respect to do whatever you want creatively.”

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