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By Ben Larned · March 19, 2019
There are few figures in modern comedy more recognizable than Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Both actors have proven their worth in other fields, genres and levels of complexity, with Hill premiering his directorial debut, Mid-90s, with A24 last year. Having known each other for 13-plus years, they have plenty to talk about together – from the pitfalls of fame (Michael Cera recounts a story in which a man almost beat him up at a party – but once the man realized that Cera was an actor, he tried to befriend him), to the principles of Buddhism. From a dialogue between old friends, us civilians might glean a few poignant bits of life advice.
Advocating for yourself, according to both actors, is something that creatives have to learn. Cera always had more defined boundaries of comfort, Hill notes, but Hill himself wasn’t always so certain. Often, for Superbad, they were asked to do ludicrous and uncomfortable things for publicity. Even so, telling publicists and photographers that you disagree with their choices will cause tension; “I used to feel at war if I had a boundary and needed to protect it,” Cera says, and as an example brings up a publicist who responded to a police objection with, “What the fuck is your problem?”
It’s an unfortunate truth of the film industry, that people will throw their weight around at any given chance, lashing out at anyone “beneath” them in an attempt to maintain power. That doesn’t mean one has to endure it. Maintaining boundaries in a calm, but firm, manner can ensure that one doesn’t get taken advantage of, or allow uninformed suggestions to muddle their vision.
In discussing his current play, Wavery Gallery, Cera admits that he feels out of place; unlike some of his co-stars, he doesn’t know the “language of theater.” It’s a world with its own universe, its own rules and pacing, a unique, deep history. In spite of the endless repetition, the anxious grading of each show against the others, Cera finds it rewarding to perform for a new audience every night. There’s a certain peace to it, that whatever you did, it’s done – and the next show will be different.
Cera compares the “zen” of taking the performance day-by-day to his experience in the Arrested Development writer’s room. Some days the writers contribute genius, he says, and sometimes they have nothing. “You go home and feel pride in that day, or shame in that day, or you say it was what it was” – the act of writing, acting, or any other craft, is just as important as the result. It might not always be worth it to judge your worth on this sliding scale; rather, step back and look at the whole. Bringing it back to theater, Cera describes nights where he has hated his performance, but later heard genuine praise; no matter how much you think you messed up, the perception of one’s work is never quite accurate.
This letting go of self-critique is difficult, especially when one is starting out and doesn’t have consistent or knowledgeable feedback to work with. That doesn’t mean one can’t start practicing a certain principle. Hill brings religion into it to highlight this point, that the goal of life should be to move beyond the self and focus on others. This is a surprisingly self-aware and self-removed thing for an actor to believe, maybe; but maybe it’s part of the craft as well. If one is always stuck in their own head, it might be more difficult to create or portray something that reaches others.
Mindfulness and meditation are two of the most under-discussed creative tools, but they’re also two of the most vital. If your mind is jumbled with myriad stresses and conflicting intentions, your work will reflect that: it’ll come out muddled. Cera recalls his first meeting with peerless auteur David Lynch (before going on to appear in Twin Peaks: The Return), who swears by meditation – and in fact, invited Cera to his house for just that purpose. In an industry that obsesses over personality, stripping yourself of your own can be a healthy thing; if your work and your self remain separate, you can maintain one without it ruining the well-being of the other.
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Do these discussions help you in your own process? Keep up with A24’s podcast, and The Script Lab, for more advice!
BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid