No More Mr Nice Guy: Michael Cera and Sebastián Silva on Crystal Fairy & the Magical Catcus

DiCaprio has Scorsese, Depp has Burton, Gosling has Winding Refn. We speak to a more low-key actor/director team, Michael Cera and Sebastián Silva, who are bringing a pair of excellent movies to UK screens in 2014

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 09 Jan 2014

Of the many fine jokes in 21 Jump Street, the surprisingly sturdy movie adaptation of the Johnny Depp-starring 80s TV series of the same name, the smartest is the running gag that turns supposed social norms on their head. Of the two fresh-faced cops sent undercover to infiltrate a drug ring in a high school, Schmidt (Jonah Hill), a socially challenged and romantically frustrated nerd, is vastly more popular with the student body than his partner Jenko (Channing Tatum), a smooth-operating knuckle-headed jock. This role reversal isn’t just employed for comic effect, though; it’s an act of social realism. Look around you. Comic book movies are hot property, thick-rimmed glasses trump 20/20 vision, and skinny torsos top biceps and brutishness. The geeks have inherited the earth.

These geeks have a king, and his name is Michael Cera. Paler than semi-skimmed milk, 100 pounds when wet, and with a hairdo that cries out mum-cut, Cera is the unlikeliest of movie stars. But he and some other narrow-shouldered young men, like Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, who would have had to vie for roles with Rick Moranis and Martin Short in the 80s and 90s, have carved out varied careers as bona fide leading men.

Cera’s rise to be Hollywood’s chief nerd has been swift. He first came to the public’s attention on TV in Arrested Development as George Michael, the sole redeeming member of the obnoxious Bluth family. On the big screen his big break came in 2007’s Superbad, in which he played the fragile nice guy foil to his two outlandish best friends. In Juno, as the lover of the smart-mouthed pregnant teen of the title, he was even more timid. And in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist he is the straight member of an “all gay band” called The Jerk-Offs. If you need an omega-male, call Cera!

But lately the Canadian actor has been breaking out of this adorkable typecasting. With 2009’s Youth in Revolt he got the opportunity to show his dark side by playing both demure bookworm Nick Twisp and his chain-smoking French alter-ego François Dillinger, who takes over whenever Nick needs to do something badass, like seduce a girl or set his mother’s car on fire. In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World he had fun as a two-timing egotist with superpowers. And his bad-boy rep has been sealed with his anarchic cameo in last year’s This Is the End, where he plays a party animal version of himself, who snorts coke, touches up Rihanna, and has a three-way at James Franco’s housewarming party.

Cera continues to channel his inner douchebag in a brace of films being released in early 2014 from Chilean director Sebastián Silva (The Maid). In April he co-stars in Magic Magic as Brink, a creep in knitwear whose erratic behaviour and eccentric sense of humour are helping send a young woman (Juno Temple) round the bend. The performance calls to mind Crispin Glover at his most manic.

Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffmann in Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus

First, though, there’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, a loose, easygoing road-movie that Silva seemingly threw together when the shooting of Magic Magic was delayed. “I’d left Santiago and lost hope that we would ever make Magic Magic,” Cera says by phone from New York, “but then Sebastián calls me and says, ‘Why don’t we just make this other movie: there’s no dialogue written, we’ll make it in two weeks, and we’ll just be able to work together.’”

In it, Cera plays Jamie, an insufferable thrill-seeking American who’s visiting Chile and seems to be attempting to soak up as much of the country’s illegal substances as he can get his hands on. “Yeah, it sounds like you’ve done a lot of drugs here,” a partygoer sighs at the opening of the film after Jamie complains about the quality of the cocaine and weed he’s sampled on his travels. The next high Jamie is keen to try is a native cactus known for its hallucinogenic properties, which he plans to ingest on an idyllic beach he’s travelling to with three Chilean friends. It’s an odyssey similar to one taken by the director in his youth.

“Thirteen years ago, me and my best friend wanted to go and take mescaline, to do it from cactus preparation, down in the national park in Chile,” explains Silva, who joins Cera and The Skinny in a conference call. “We had it all planned, but the night before I went to a party and met a girl from the States. She went by the name of Crystal Fairy. She was this hippy tree hugger from the West Coast. We became good friends that night and I, in a friendly impulse, invited her to tag along with us and come to this creek up north, and she accepted the invitation.”

“Basically I’m telling a story that I went through, and life contains drama and comedy and surprising things and dullness and all of it” – Sebastián Silva

While high on coke, Jamie extends a similar invitation to an American woman he meets at a party, the eponymous Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann), only this trip proves to be less harmonious than Silva’s. Jamie and Crystal are two sides of a pretty unpleasant coin. He’s an uptight killjoy who manages to take the fun out of partying. She’s a walking cliché of chakra platitudes, who lectures the boys for eating junk food but swigs on a bottle of cola and munches on Cheetos when no one’s looking. Their passive-aggressive journey together blurs genres, weaving from awkward comedy to plaintive drama.

This is the chief characteristic of Silva’s filmmaking: when he sits down to write a film he doesn’t consider the section where it’ll be found on Netflix. “I never think of movies that way, and I hope I never do,” explains the 34-year-old. “Basically I’m telling a story that I went through, and life contains drama and comedy and surprising things and dullness and all of it.” Straddling genres also allows Silva to dampen expectations. “I don’t want to promise anyone that they’re going to laugh or be scared or that they’re going to cry because I’m just setting myself up for failure if they don’t,” he says modestly. “But if I just say, ‘This is the story I’m telling you – you’ll cry or you’ll laugh, whenever you feel like it,’ there’s so much more freedom for me and the audience as an experience.”

Perhaps Cera is trying something similar with his recent career shift? Has breaking from his sweet loser shtick been about becoming freer as an actor? “I don’t see it as more freeing,” he says. “The level of fun for me is always dependent on who I’m working with and how collaborative it is and how much it feels like finding something together.”

Movies don’t come much more collaborative than Crystal Fairy. Shot on a dime and semi-improvised, it brims with energy and a sense of place. It may be a tossed-off project, but beneath its nonchalant exterior lies psychological insight that would make most Oscar-bait dramas green with envy. The shoot was so relaxed, in fact, that Cera and the cast took the opportunity to ‘go method’ and sampled some mescaline brewed from a San Pedro (it feels like having “a few glasses of white wine,” apparently). Crystal Fairy does that trick that so few films manage: it makes the experience of watching as enjoyable as the experience of the people larking around in the beautiful location. “The movie is basically a document of this vacation we all took together,” explains Cera. “We were in this amazing spot, and all living in the same house, sleeping on top of each other, eating bread and avocado and listening to music. It was great.”

And what of the real Crystal Fairy? How did she feel about having her journey portrayed on screen? “I spoke to her not long ago, actually,” Silva beams. “Gaby Hoffmann, the actress who plays Crystal Fairy, got a hold of her. She had a friend who knew Crystal, so because of all this I got to speak on the phone with the real Crystal Fairy after 13 years.”

Has she seen the movie? “Yeah, she really liked it. She’s living in Vermont now and I’ve invited her to have a pyjama party at my place. You wanna come, Mike?”

“Sure,” says Cera, dryly. “We can get together and watch the movie.”

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus is released in UK cinemas 17 Jan and available on VOD from 24 Jan

Magic Magic is released 18 Apr