Michael Cera having very good year playing very bad characters

The Canadian Press
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Michael Cera appears in the film “Crystal Fairy” in this undated handout photo.  — Photo by The Canadian Press

Michael Cera has branched out

from his typically mild-mannered role.

Thus far, the Brampton, Ont., native has played a cocaine-huffing caricature of himself in “This is the End,” a malevolent creep in Sebastian Silva’s “Magic Magic” and, in his second Silva collaboration “Crystal Fairy,” the typically mild-mannered actor is cast as an insensitive, drug-addled traveller trying the patience of his infinitely tolerant Chilean hosts.

Some critics have delighted in watching Cera transform himself from the usual humble mumbler with hands-thrust-sheepishly-in-pockets to these ugly new creatures. Cera, however, found it more difficult to appreciate.

“My character, he’s really annoying. When I watch the movie, I really squirm watching how annoying he is,” Cera said down the line from New York of his latest role in “Crystal Fairy.”

“But that’s just because he’s an annoying person, (and) I don’t really fault him for that. It’s the kind of person that you spend time with and you’re annoyed with him in the beginning and you come to rely on him being annoying. And he doesn’t let you down.”

Perhaps it helps that Cera’s Jamie has a perfect foil in Gaby Hoffmann’s titular bohemian flower child, a fellow tourist in Chile and a naturalistic free spirit who spouts off hippy-dippy philosophy.

Jamie meets Crystal Fairy at a party and disingenuously invites her on a road trip he’s taking with a group of impossibly good-natured Chileans (played by Silva and his real-life brothers) with the goal of locating a rare, mythical hallucinogen.

When Crystal Fairy actually takes Jamie up on his offer to tag along, he’s mortified — first by her forwardness, and then by her behaviour. That’s the source of all the freewheeling film’s tension, Cera pointed out.

“She kind of starts directing the trip in a way and imparting her own role on how to do things, and he thinks she should just act like a thankful guest,” Cera said.

A gossamer adventure, “Crystal Fairy” had humble roots. The project was born from delays on “Magic Magic” with dialogue that was mostly improvised and a brief shooting schedule. But Cera’s deep connection with Silva and his family helped.

He lived with them for three months in Chile, and actually still keeps in touch with Silva’s parents.

“They were incredibly kind and so gracious and they were really taking care of me in every way. And they were helping me learn Spanish,” said the 25-year-old. “I was only speaking Spanish when I was there. So to them, I was this cave man version of myself.

“By the time I left there, I felt like I integrated with them,” he added. “I feel like they’re a second family.”

While Cera seems to have little in common with the domineering, painfully un-self aware Jamie, some material in the film was derived from his fish-out-of-water stint in the South American country.

For instance, Jamie’s rather rude aversion to a roadside empanada was based on an unpleasant experience Cera had with the traditional meat pie.

“He talks about how he got sick one time from an empanada — that really happened to me,” he said with a chuckle. “Me and Sebastian and a couple of his friends went to this beach house ... so we got some empanadas. And for a whole day I was lying in bed. It was bad. I was really badly sick. Someone put a boiling pot of water and then some bay leaves in the water and had me stick my head in that with a towel over it to like, breathe in the vapour with the bay leaves in the water.

“That really didn’t help either.”

For the climactic narcotic showdown, Cera and his co-stars decided to consume some real mescaline on camera.

But only after an agonizing series of discussions that had Cera worrying.

“It had been a big, big, big buildup. I mean, I was nervous. I had nerves. We had been driving for 10 days and talking about whether we’d do it on camera or not, and how we would handle it if someone was feeling uncomfortable while we were filming. It was nerve-racking. Because who knows, maybe one of us could have had a really bad reaction to it and would not been feeling good and you have a camera pointing at you.

“Sounds like a nightmare.”

Ultimately, the slender actor found the effect of the psychedelic “way less significant than having a glass of wine.”

“I was more relieved than disappointed,” he said with a laugh.

In addition to his film work, Cera’s 2013 has included the return of the show that provided his breakthrough as a deadpan comic actor — Netflix’s zombiefied “Arrested Development.”

He found himself in the writer’s room for the fourth season of the breakneck comedy, something he said was an “amazing opportunity.”

He’s further branched out by directing a series of short films that have won critical plaudits and more than a million combined views on YouTube.

Now, however, he joked that this period of furious activity will be followed by a “major lull.” He’s just recently moved to New York, a shift that has proven “really exhausting” and has consumed pretty much all his time.

Reached during a heat wave, Cera wasn’t thrilled about his un-air conditioned digs.

“It’s just so terribly hot here,” he said with a soft chuckle. “I’m up on the third floor. It’s been like, psychedelic at night. It’s impossible to sleep. It’s impossible to stay cool. I have a fan by my bed that I have as close to my face as possible. It makes some difference, but not a big difference.”

And yet, going to uncomfortable places — onscreen and off — is seemingly just starting to suit Cera.

“Crystal Fairy” opens Friday in Toronto and Vancouver.

Geographic location: New York, Brampton, Chile Toronto Vancouver

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