For nearly 20 years, This Is Our Youth has been a beacon for beautiful young people looking to show and prove. Kenneth Lonergan’s play, a scuffed-up three-hander about destructively coddled uptown rich kids in Reagan ’80s New York fumbling through drug deals and make-out sessions, debuted in New York in 1996 with Josh Hamilton, Mark Ruffalo, and Missy Yager as the leads, before moving to London’s West End, where it cycled through a remarkable string of OTP-fan-fiction lineups: Casey Affleck and Matt Damon and Summer Phoenix!1 Jake Gyllenhaal and Hayden Christensen and Anna Paquin! Um, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Chris Klein and Heather Burns! But this August, when it comes to Broadway for the first time, it’ll do so with a cast that may yet be unparalleled for sheer pop-culture Madlibbing.
In one corner, we have Tavi Gevinson, 18, the forcefully tiny fashion world wunderkind turned publishing powerhouse turned — yep — Broadway actress. In the other corner, we have Kieran Culkin, 31, a onetime bright young thing himself with a forever-heavy last name and a deep, abiding passion for staging the work of his buddy, Kenny Lonergan. And between them, we have Michael Cera, 26, who shrugged his way to leading-man status by 19, gave us inarguably this generation’s greatest high school comedy, and then dipped out to Chile to make micro-budget drug movies and teach himself Spanish.
And before they make their dramatic New York debuts, they’re all living in the same apartment building in Chicago. Tavi even keeps a spare toothbrush at Kieran and his wife’s place. They’ve been spending their spare time together playing spirited games of Disney Villains Monopoly.
“Should we get a bottle of champagne?” Michael Cera deadpans. “Just to have? To feel comfortable? We don’t even have to open it.” We’re across the street from the Steppenwolf, the cornerstone Chicago theater where Youth is having its pre-Broadway run, at a corner table in a cordially chic restaurant with alternative bruschetta and deeply bitter greens and very high ceilings.
In a couple of hours, Cera will be onstage in Chucks and baggy corduroys as Warren, the awkward fuckup at the heart of the play. The plot kicks into motion when Warren shows up at his sorta-buddy Dennis’s place with a suitcase full of memorabilia and the $15,000 he‘s stolen from his lingerie magnate father. The whole show takes place in that stuffy, detritus-riddled apartment as Dennis, a self-aggrandizing, two-bit dealer, treats his ostensible pal like a bothersome tick before Jessica, a spry if tentative city girl, shows up to provide Warren with a glimmer of hope.
Right now, though, Cera’s closely shorn head and light stubble are nicely complementing his slim, tan pants and vaguely British track jacket. Only when he removes it is the sly hipness undercut: Underneath is a black T-shirt commemorating the Eradicator, the ski-masked squash maniac from Kids in the Hall.
Cera was 19 when Superbad announced him as our conquering nerd-hero. It was the rare, perfect mind-meld of subject and star, and he spent the next few years judiciously knocking out roles — the fumbling impregnator of Juno, the anguished Lothario of Youth in Revolt — that brought him forth as a very particular type: the thoroughly modern milquetoast. And through his ubiquity, a certain wariness set in, best captured by New York Magazine’s cataloguing of “the many hoodies of Michael Cera.” For Cera, the wariness manifested in different ways.
“Life becomes a series of transactions that you haven’t signed up for,” he says. “There’s weird shit out there. Really weird shit.” Recognizable enough to have movie quotes shouted at him on the street, Cera had a wide and discomfiting range of personal interactions in these years. “The mentality is so imbalanced to me,” he says. “When people come up to you, it’s up to you to determine how you’re both going to feel when you walk away. There was like a three-year period where I was just not built for that kind of social interaction. I had a million bad ones.”
Eventually, a kind of low-simmering paranoia set in. “Several times a day, you’d see a not-so-discreet picture being taken,” he says. “And then, if I’m just imagining that they’re doing that? That’s the worst part.” For Cera, it became a question of “how much you want to invite in. How much you want to be out there.”
The answer arrived after wrapping Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He was 22 and coming off an arduous eight-month shoot with nothing lined up next. “I didn’t really know what it was like to have free time,” he says. “It was terribly uncomfortable. I felt like I was totally drifting. And then I went into it, and I had to build that [comfort].”
Soon after came his Chilean sojourn. It was the summer of 2011, and Cera headed south, hoping to shoot a quasi-horror movie with the director Sebastian Silva. But when the funding didn’t come together, Cera didn’t sweat it, instead “taking advantage of the opportunity to go learn Spanish and be in South America for a while.” All in all, a year passed without any significant work.
Eventually Silva decided, funded or not, they’d shoot something, and whipped up a semi-autobiographical tale of a road trip to find a mystical, hallucinogenic San Pedro mescaline cactus. The resulting film, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, finds Cera curdling his trademark sweetness, spraying darts of pettiness and empty chatter. And whatever the hell Crystal Fairy is, it certainly is not another “Michael Cera hoodie” joint. When I ask if there’s one thing in his career he feels most proud of, he hems and haws before cautiously settling on Crystal Fairy.
Cera temporarily left Los Angeles for New York last year to direct a short called Brazzaville Teen-Ager, based on a short story by the beloved cult novelist Bruce Jay Friedman. He Airbnb’d a place in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and spent days in a café on the Upper West Side with Friedman, adapting the text. “They hated us,” he says. “But it was great: You really couldn’t feel this 70-year age differential between us.” In the short, Cera plays a young man who’s convinced he can save his ailing father — played by another hero of his, Charles Grodin — if he can get his stodgy boss to record backup vocals for a track by Kelis.
Arrested Development also returned last year, with a particular twist for Cera: He got the green light from creator Mitchell Hurwitz to join the writers’ room, a place he’d revered. Growing up obsessively listening to Mr. Show DVD commentary tracks and reading about the legendary writing staff of The Sid Caesar Show, the chance was a dream come true for Cera.
It’s “honest work,” he explains, and a bit terrifying: There was one legendary writer, Jim Vallely, an “intensely funny guy who’s always on the attack — you’re either watching him go on these runs, or defending yourself against the shitstorm that might come toward you.” But if you get a guy like Vallely to laugh, “you can live on that for a month.”
So you got comfortable by the end?
“No,” he laughs. “Like, ‘brimming with self-confidence’ — that would be a misrepresentation of my feelings, I would say.”
Arrested Development and This Is the End — in which he cameos, wonderfully, as a coke monster with a distinct lack of Rihanna-ass-slapping privileges — kept him on the pop-culture radar, obscuring the fact that he hasn’t taken on a Hollywood leading role since Scott Pilgrim.
To various degrees, Fake Coked-Out Michael Cera, Crystal Fairy’s Jamie, and even grown-up George-Michael are all characters that find him running away from the warmhearted civility he’d become known for — whether it’s desperate or fierce or mean, there is an edge to him now. Last year he starred in a short, Gregory Go Boom, playing a lonely, horny kid in a wheelchair who lashes out and weeps with righteous, feckless anger. It’s one of the best things he’s ever done.
It’s not clear where the turn will lead him. Along with John Hawkes, he was booked for FX’s Charlie Kaufman show; the network passed, though the project may still find a home somewhere. Otherwise, there’s not much on the horizon. “I guess I’ve made peace with not working,” Cera says. “It’s a luxury, because I don’t have a kid or a family. But I don’t know if I’m as hungry as some people.”
There are other things on his mind. This year, Cera moved to Brooklyn for good, nearly fulfilling a childhood promise: “I always told myself I would live in New York by 25. Since I was, like, 4. It was romantic to me.” His girlfriend is from Germany, but she’s living in Paris — well, “all her stuff is in Paris,” at least. He doesn’t have a smartphone, and doesn’t really know who Macklemore is; he has strong opinions on Kurosawa’s best stuff2 and Shark Tank and the inherent goodness of Gordon Ramsay.3
And he gets particularly animated when discussing his recent victory in a cast game of the aforementioned Monopoly. “I crushed the group,” he says. “I only say that because I find you have to weather a storm of friction to beat Monopoly, and the only way is just push through that. I think that’s the major achievement.”
Kieran Culkin greets me in his dressing room after the show with a bottle of Lagavulin single malt Scotch and pours us each a generous offering. “You get the fancy glass too.” He’s still in costume as Dennis: baggy, frayed jeans; blue polo; black headband holding back his tufting hair. He easily props up his small frame on the counter, cross-legged, almost flush with the mirror, into which he steals a glance here and there. And he huffs that this was his worst show yet. “It was garbage.” Then he grins. “I don’t know how many annoying fucking actors you talk to … ”
Admittedly, Culkin explains, this is exactly the point in a production in which all the actors usually decide the whole thing’s a goddamn disaster. “Sometimes the stage manager asks, ‘How does it feel out there?’ And I’m like, Don’t fucking ask me how it feels out there.” Newbie Cera, though, has proven unfazed: “Michael is onstage the whole time, so he doesn’t get to come back here and sulk. But he wouldn’t always because he is like Captain Fucking Positive the whole time.”
Meanwhile, there’s all the little prep details and theater idiosyncrasies. The show’s vocal coach has mandated one post-show drink and half a cup of coffee in the morning. And absolutely no drinks with bubbles. On Mondays, giving the vocal cords a day’s rest, Culkin and his wife communicate via dry-erase board. If the voice does go, that either means a steroidal injection — “which I am refusing to do” — or letting the understudy take over. Theoretically acceptable, though the backup Dennis hasn’t quite mastered how to roll a joint, which Kieran does ably throughout the play. “[The understudy] was like, ‘Can you show me?’ I told him the way I learned was I was given a pack of papers and some pot and was told to go to my room and practice. I was, like, 14?”
Culkin goes way back with Youth, to a West End staging 11 years ago,4 and his love for the play is deep and true. He speaks of it like a sacred text. At some point since his original run, he and Lonergan became great pals. “I love the guy, personally, and I think he is fucking fantastic, but those always don’t go hand in hand,” he says. “I’m friends with people who are total hacks.”
Culkin had dreamed for years about doing another run with Youth; then, in 2010, while doing reshoots on Scott Pilgrim, he gifted a copy to his new pal Cera.5 “I’m thinking, He’d enjoy reading it, like, one day. But he came back the next day and was like, ‘I love it. Do you think we can do it?'” Two years later they were in Australia, on a limited run at the Sydney Opera House.6 Then Scott Rudin, the Hollywood mega-macher who has long cultivated a flourishing relationship with the theater world, came onboard and decided that this bare-bones thing could hold up against the goddamn Lion King.
“This, to me, is a life goal,” Culkin says. “This has nothing to do with my career or any of that shit. My wife and I have talked about if we are gonna have kids, or start some kind of business, because I am not sure if this is what I want to do. But all of that comes after doing this play. It’s actually happening. That was a life goal. And come January fourth” — when the play closes in New York — “I don’t know, comes the next phase.”
Hold on. A business? You’re considering not acting anymore?
“Yeah, well, the problem is by the time the play is over I’ll be 32,” he smiles, “and I have no skills and I can barely type and I’m bad with emails. But I’ve been unsure [about acting] since I was, like, 18. I’m always like, ‘I’ll do this, but then I’ll move on to something else.‘“
Going markedly past the one-drink rule, the Scotch has agreeably warmed us both, and Culkin gets chattier. He talks about his and his brother Mac’s lifelong love affair with pro wrestling, and happily displays a photo of him and Cera at a WWE event. (“I took Michael and his girlfriend, and he put on a Rey Mysterio mask.”) He tells an elaborate story about his horrible 26th birthday, which ends with the punch line of a cabdriver in Shreveport telling him, “There’s a woman in the Dumpster around back of the Wendy’s who’ll give you a blowjob for five bucks.” And he gets animated about a coffeeshop in town that has a full-on “Nintendo couch,” tragically taken up the other day by “four fucking coffee hipster douchebags writing their fucking screenplays. I’m like, ‘You assholes! Give me the seat! I have to play Contra!”
“This isn’t aimed at the 65-year-old Jewish lady on the no. 10 bus with the NET tote bag,” Rudin tells me on the phone from New York. “That Kenny Lonergan, one of the two or three major American playwrights, hasn’t had a play on Broadway is crazy.”
We quickly hit on the topic of Margaret, Lonergan’s much-anticipated follow-up to his lovely, heartbreaking film debut, You Can Count on Me, which endured development, editing, and distribution hell. Shot in 2005, it was then jammed in a showdown between the director and the financier, Gary Gilbert,7 and the studio, Fox Searchlight, over running time and final cut, before finally being released in 2011, where it was greeted with a strange swirl of “This is a mothafucking classic” raves and viewer indifference. “I know! I know! I was the producer!” Rudin cracks, before admitting that one of the reasons he wanted to push forth a new Youth was to groove his buddy Kenny a pitch down the middle.
When I catch Lonergan, he’s a bit harrumphed: The hose faucet is leaky, the drain in the bathtub is clogged, and the plumber has just shown up. “I was about to look at the bathtub myself,” he says, with the melancholy air of a man forever prepared for a clogged drain. “Although I wouldn’t have been able to fix it, of course.”
This is the first time since the original New York run — which he loved, Lonergan says — that he’s had a hands-on role in a production of Youth. He sat in with director Anna D. Shapiro during rehearsals, and was blissed out to find himself falling in love with a cast all over again. With Cera, he offered a specific line of advice — “Notice the way the other characters describe you” — to pull Warren along into a more abrasive, more provocative rendering.
“Michael has a tremendous combination of sensitive and post-teenage obnoxiousness,” he says. “Seeing him recoil when bad things have an emotional impact on him, seeing him be hurt and keep his forward momentum, even though it’s not even forward momentum in a good direction — I think it’s a wonderful performance. You find yourself saying, ‘Please don’t say that, please don’t say that.'”
Youth is Cera’s first stage work, and it seems obvious from certain physical choices he makes. Shapiro, who has also worked on stage productions with James Franco and Chris Rock, points to the fact that as Warren, Cera is constantly having his hands “in the waistband of his pants. It’s so something a younger person would do; they’re not even conscious they’re sticking their hands in their pants. But Michael Cera does not stick his hands in his pants.” On the night I see him perform, Cera seems to have made the conscious decision to avoid bending his elbows or knees.
Even if Cera’s not yet an accomplished theater actor, there’s a particular thrill in watching him break down a comedic persona into the gangly and ungainly. It’s the same thing, presumably, that has drawn decades of young talent to this show: the chance to bite into something bitter and raw.
“I find I can still watch it with pleasure from the outside,” Lonergan says, “though I’m that much more hard-pressed to describe it from the inside. And I’m glad of that immense difference. Because I’m glad I’m not that age again. I feel bad for them and I’m interested in them and I wish them well. But I would do almost anything to avoid being in that room with them.”
Tavi Gevinson is that age. But she’s somehow more advanced, now miles away from her plucky beginnings as a peculiar kid with a good eye and a precociously adept writing style: With her web magazine Rookie, she’s created a distinctive, familial cultural space that matters a whole lot to a whole lot of young people.
When Gevinson was 16, the talent agency UTA came to her home turf of Oak Park, Illinois, to sign her: “They said, ‘We just want you to have resources for what you want to do for Rookie or whatever,’” she explains. Then she told them she wanted to start reading scripts. Then she started booking roles. She did commended spot work in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said and romanced Haddie on Parenthood. Now — three years before she can legally have a beer! Seven years before she can legally rent a car! Twelve years before she can legally wage a campaign for U.S. senator! — she’s about to make her Broadway debut.
When we sit down, in the sun-drenched back offices of the Steppenwolf, Gevinson — elegant, pocket-size, and a possessor of a deep and firm voice — had just attended her high school graduation. (She had to skip the last few weeks of school. Play rehearsals beckoned.) “I walked down the aisle almost embarrassed because I felt that I was smiling really big,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh no, I am showing all of my cards. I am supposed to not have a soul.’ Then some girl told me, ‘You looked like you hated all of us.’ So I guess I just have no self-awareness in my face.”
That night, she went to her first and last high school party, where she and a friend were “trying to put on music that would not allow for any sexualized dancing. But dancing like robots to Talking Heads was not what other people had in mind.” They left, which Gevinson was proud of. “I learned, now, like at a weird party in New York, that you can go home and watch TV and be even happier.” Another recent rite of passage she’d suffered through: a breakup with her high school sweetheart.
Even without the play, Gevinson would have been in New York soon enough: She was accepted at NYU. She’d applied there and to Barnard, for which she wrote her application essay about a fantasy sit-down with Holly Hunter’s character from Broadcast News. (She was accepted there, too.) She’s moving to a place on the Lower East Side with her friend the 21-year-old photographer Petra Collins; Gevinson’s dad has already had the talk with her about “behavior and health and whatnot.” Getting psyched up for New York, she explains, has involved watching a lot of The Last Days of Disco.
She works on Rookie during the day and performs the play at night, and tries not to think about which one’s the priority. “Definitely at times it feels like I have trouble reconciling all of it,” she says. “Not only because of time and energy but because I just have these ideas of what makes someone, like, an ingénue, and so I am just trying to debunk all of that for myself.”
Oh, and by the way? She’s now officially declaring herself a young woman. “Adolescence goes until 25 now,” Gevinson says, “but for the purpose of being able to grow up and move on from my life, I don’t really think of myself as a teenager anymore. And it’s nice. I love going to my apartment every night and putting on a nightgown and sitting on the balcony and listening to Stevie Nicks. When I told Michael and Kieran that, they were like, ‘So you just aged 60 years and you’re gonna have a fig tree very soon.'”
Gevinson is actually younger than her character, Jessica, but a lack of maturity, as you may have guessed, has never been an issue. “The only minor obstacle was her incredible confidence and sophistication,” Lonergan explained, with a dry laugh. “It’s much greater than that of the character, who’s sort of the most consciously thoughtful of the three. We had some fun working on her being insecure.”
“I don’t really get impostor syndrome anymore,” Gevinson says. “I’m not gonna get myself into the crisis of ‘Do I have a right?’ I mean, I auditioned. I got it.”
Though the youngest, least experienced, and arguably least famous of the three, Gevinson was the only cast member with telltale fans: Sitting in front of me at the play were three girls in high-waisted denim and polka-dot rompers, nudging and poking each other with barely contained glee as Gevinson made her entrance.
Compare her to Culkin and Cera, two actors passively suggesting they’d be cool not working again for a while, or ever again, and you may conclude that those two are now old enough to know that they don’t know anything. Which may well be true. But it doesn’t take long in Gevinson‘s company to start believing she may just have this all figured out.
In the last week of July, the production wrapped in Chicago. Now they’re restaging, regrouping, and plotting for Broadway. The stage won’t be in the round, which is nice, because now no one in the audience can accidentally walk across it; also, the crowds will be roughly three times bigger. But the triumvirate insist they’re not sweating it much. As Gevinson says, “The best is when we have a weaker crowd and you just go, ‘Eh, fuck them.’ And then this is just, like, me and Michael and Kieran.”
Gevinson mentioned she’d theorized a 16-year-old girl, one who feels just like Jessica, who comes to the play and locks in deep. Back at the restaurant, Cera also discusses the idea that some nice girl from the hick lands of the Midwest, in New York on vacation with her parents, will skip the candy-colored song-and-dance spectacles and stumble onto the quiet greatness of This Is Our Youth, where her still-gestating world will be fundamentally rocked.
“Or she might be like, ‘Let’s not go to New York again?'” Cera adds, stifling a smile. “Or, like, ‘That was … cool. Um. Can we do Jersey Boys tomorrow?'”
Illustration by Alexis Ziritt.