Michael Cera's voice had only just broken when Arrested Development was cancelled after three seasons in 2006. Here he was, a child actor on a TV show canned for poor ratings whose most noteworthy movie credit was playing a pre-teen incarnation of game show impresario Chuck Barris on George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. At the age of 17, his career looked as though it had run its course.
For most child TV stars, this would be the moment to fade into obscurity, only to be briefly remembered when the inevitable reunion episode airs. Last Sunday Arrested Development was duly resurrected on Netflix, the online movie delivery service which moved into original content with David Fincher's American House of Cards last year. Arrested Development was a logical next step. Over the past seven years the sitcom had gained cult status fuelled by DVD sales. The Bluth family had finally found its audience and they wanted more.
In the meantime, Cera had become a movie star. Last week, as the fourth series of Arrested Development premiered, he was busy promoting a new film, Magic Magic, at Cannes. Nevertheless, the decision to return and play George-Michael Bluth for first 10, then 15 more episodes of the show he describes as “the turning point of my career and full of funny people”, was an easy one.
“We shot for six months and it was fast. It's bizarre how big the expectations for the show are. It was fun. It was very unexpected and so great to be around these people.” The big change this time round, no doubt in recognition of his star status, was that Cera was asked to join the writing staff. His character George may be at university now but it was being in the writers' room that Cera describes as his “graduation”. Might he also help to write the long-rumoured Arrested Development movie? When asked if the film will happen he responds, somewhat contradictorily: “I don't know. I don't have any ideas. Yeah I guess so!”
George set the template for the movie roles that followed. Cera quickly became the go-to guy for directors in need of an awkward American teenager who looked like he had spent his high-school years giving his lunch money to bullies and struggling to connect with girls.
In the Judd Apatow-produced Superbad he plays a high-school teenager trying to lose his virginity in order to improve his status among his classmates. In Juno he gets the first girl he sleeps with pregnant, yet still manages to live under a cloud of unrequited love. In Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist he begins heartbroken and then has to pretend to be another girl's boyfriend. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World saw him beating up a series of ex-boyfriends in order to date the girl of his dreams.
They are the type of characters who would have been a sideshow in teen dramas of the 1980s, but Cera, more than most, is an actor who has benefited from Generation X's penchant for cool geeks. No wonder he fully embraces being typecast.
“Look at me, I'm a dweeb,” he says. It's hard to argue with him. Today he is wearing a blue polo neck over a white shirt and brown trousers. Lean as a high jumper, baby-faced and with hair that looks like it was stolen from a statue of a cherub, it is hard to believe that he turns 25 next week. Then again, given the breadth of his CV, it is equally hard to believe that he is still only 24.
“I was young when I started,” he says. He was born in Ontario, to an Italian father and Canadian mother, both of whom worked at Xerox. “I was nine years old and acting just felt like a game. I was following this impulse and it was fun.” It was while watching Ghostbusters that he decided he wanted to act. “When I saw Ghostbusters for the first time, I realised that these guys were playing a game and it was a job that you could have.”
He can recite every single line of the comedy and still holds that Bill Murray is the funniest person in the world: “He was someone I loved from three years old. He was like Father Christmas or something. Ghostbusters shaped my world-view. I think the truth is, for anyone born after 1985 – he is the guy!”
Has he ever met his hero? They say you never should. “I met Bill very briefly, it was great. We had a five-minute conversation. It was right before I went to make a movie called Crystal Fairy. I told him I was going to Chile to make a movie that involved taking mescaline and being in the desert and I was really nervous about it. He said to me: 'Don't worry about it, if you get arrested, it doesn't mean anything.'”
Crystal Fairy is one of two films that Cera made with the director Sebastian Silva in Chile. The other was Magic Magic. As part of his preparation for the part the actor moved into the Silva family home to learn Chilean Spanish, which he speaks in the movie.
“We only planned to make one movie,” explains Cera. “Then our plans changed and we spontaneously had this opportunity to make another movie and I'm so happy we did. I love both of those movies. It's nice to work on something you are proud of.”
Both films premiered at Sundance, but it is the psychological thriller Magic Magic that has been getting the louder buzz, and the Cannes berth. The film marks a departure of sorts for Cera. His character is still awkward and insecure around girls, but this time he plays dark and complex too, as he sets out to freak out a young American tourist, played by Juno Temple.
“When you are playing scenes that are tense, or where there is an extreme incompatibility, it's fun,” says Cera. “You are finding this specific weird energy and I always relish that. Conflict is so much fun to play.”
He now plans to work on more films with Silva, one of which, he says, will see him play a lesbian.
Next time we will see Cera on the big screen, he will be playing Michael Cera in This is the End. The spoof film about a party at James Franco's LA pad on the night of the Apocalypse has a plethora of stars as themselves. He has played himself before – in Mark Webber's drama about fatherhood, The End of Love and in Paper Heart, in which he and actress Charlyne Yi play versions of themselves based on their rumoured relationship – which he denied. Cera lives in LA and for the most part manages to keep out of the gossip columns (although he was also romantically linked with Youth in Revolt co-star Aubrey Plaza).
“I don't really feel like I've ever done that [played myself]”, he argues. “It's just characters with the same name as me, which tries to make you do something different. In This Is the End I'm playing Michael Cera, the character and he's just the craziest person. He is a cokehead doing weird stuff in the bathroom. This is just an added element of fun, a strangeness to what I'm doing.”
'Arrested Development' season 4 is on Netflix; 'This Is the End' is released on 28 June
*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine