With no fewer than three acclaimed Broadway productions of plays written by Kenneth Lonergan to his credit – This Is Our Youth, Lobby Hero and The Waverly Gallery –actor Michael Cera seems the playwright’s ideal, go-to stand-in, an embodiment of the confusion, awkwardness, deadpan humor and sly charm that helps give Lonergan’s work its punch.
This Sunday, Cera adds another Lonergan work to his resume with a livestream table read of Hold On To Me Darling, a benefit project directed by Neil Pepe that will bring Cera together with two other Lonergan veterans: Mark Ruffalo, whose breakthrough performances arrived with the 1998 Off Broadway premiere of This Is Our Youth and, two years later, the film You Can Count On Me; and Gretchen Mol, who appeared in 2016’s Manchester By The Sea.
A benefit for Los Angeles’ Stella Adler Academy – Ruffalo’s alma mater – Hold On To Me Darling will stream on the new platform In.Live.
In this interview, Cera spoke about the project (and it’s possible future), his collaborations with Lonergan, and his post-pandemic plans (and whether they’ll include another chapter of Arrested Development).
And we had to ask about Wally Brando, the eccentric leather-jacketed bad(ish) boy of David Lynch’s 2017 Showtime series Twin Peaks: The Return. The Marlon-obsessed character’s cameo was as unforgettable as it was all-too-brief. Read on to learn how Wally came into Cera’s life, like a gift from a god.
Hold On To Me Darling, which also features C.J. Wilson, Adelaide Clemens and Jonathan Hogan, will stream on In.Live this Sunday Oct. 11 beginning at 4 pm. PT/7 pm ET. General admission tickets are $10, with $100 getting access to a Q&A session with the cast, playwright and director.
This interview has been edited and condensed for lengthy and clarity.
DEADLINE: How did the reading of Hold On To Me Darling come about? I’m curious about the role technology played.
MICHAEL CERA: We did a reading of this play about two years ago with this same cast, and the idea then was to try to get it going someday. It’s always kind of mercurial how and whether a play actually comes together, but it was so much fun with this cast, and it’s such a fun play, that we all just freaked out about it. I had seen the original [Off Broadway] production of this play with Tim Olyphant a few years ago, and always loved it. So just a few weeks ago, Mark Ruffalo reached out and said he was bringing us all together to do a reading of it, and yeah, it was just a no-brainer.
DEADLINE: Had you worked with Ruffalo or Gretchen Mol other than that one reading?
CERA: No, actually I’ve never worked with anybody in this cast. Adelaide [Clemons], who’s also in the play, was in a movie [Avenues, 2017] that I did some music for, that a friend of mine, Michael Angarano, directed a few years ago, but that’s the closest I’ve come to working with anyone in this cast other than the reading.
DEADLINE: You clearly have some sort of sympatico thing going on with Kenneth Lonergan. What do you think it is? What meshes so well with the two of you?
CERA: To be honest, I think that any actor feels very lucky to have any opportunity to do Kenneth’s material, because it’s very elevated material. I guess I’ve just had the opportunity multiple times because I always let him know how enthusiastic I am about getting to work on his stuff, and always jumped at the opportunity. With Lobby Hero, I don’t know how it came together, but I think I was lucky to be sort of right for that part. And then, while we were doing Lobby Hero, I heard he was bringing together Waverly Gallery with Elaine May, and I would’ve completely died if I wasn’t involved in that in some way. I mean, just to be around Elaine in that way, and work with Elaine. I had met her a couple times, but never thought I would have a chance to really work with her. It’s such a rare opportunity and rare event that Elaine comes to do a play. So, I sort of harassed Kenny about that…
DEADLINE: Would you call it a high point of your career?
CERA: And of my life.
DEADLINE: You said that you were sort of an avatar for Kenneth in the [semi-autobiographical] The Waverly Gallery. It strikes me that there are several avatars he uses frequently: You, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Lucas Hedges. What is it that you all represent for him?
CERA: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think Kenny actually makes a habit of working with a lot of actors repeatedly. He likes actors a lot. I mean, he works very, very well with actors, and has friendships with actors, and writes to performers. Every time I’ve done one of his plays, which has been three times now, there’s always an atmosphere of everybody being so honored to have such strong material. Justine Bateman came and saw Lobby Hero and afterwards we were talking, and she said, you know, a lot of these plays of Kenny’s are standard fare in acting classes, like This Is Our Youth, and it’s really not a good idea to have students read these scenes because they’ll be spoiled. They’ll think all material is this easy to perform and bring to life. She’s, like, they should actually stick a failed pilot script in front of the class, and say, try and make this good. Because Kenny’s material is just teeming with little gifts.
DEADLINE: Describe Hold On To Me Darling and your role.
CERA: I play Jimmy, the assistant to Strings McCrane, an enormous country singer-crossover star, who is Mark Ruffalo’s character. The central drama of the play is around the recent death of Strings’ mother, and he’s returning to his hometown for her funeral with a sort of extended mid-life crisis, and he’s taking everyone on that ride a little bit, like an expression of his narcissism that he doesn’t even understand. And he’s deeply suffering and so destructive at the same time. And pound for pound it’s the funniest play that Kenny has ever written. I think I would call this play a comedy, because it’s just so screamingly funny, an insane rate of laughs per page. Yeah, I’m an enormous fan of this play.
DEADLINE: You’re doing the reading remotely, all of you in different places. What will it look like?
CERA: It’s challenging. The thing about Kenny’s writing is that it’s very overlap-y, it’s very lifelike in that way. Conversations are very live. In Waverly Gallery there would be two separate conversations going among four people at a dinner table. That’s difficult when you’re doing a reading and you’re not in the same room, because it’s all about finding a rhythm with the actors, and playing the room. So it’s going to be an interesting thing to see how well we do that. But think everybody watching kind of understands we’re working with limited capabilities.
DEADLINE: Are there rehearsals? I have no idea what the sort of ground rules for something like this are.
CERA: I don’t know if there are ground rules. I’ve done two or so of these readings, and it’s been different every time. With this one there’s a lot of care being put into the production, clearly. We did a rehearsal, and there have been a couple technical rehearsals. There’s more care about the presentation of it, which is nice. It gives it a feeling like, we’re trying to make this as special as we can. It has an event feeling to it.
DEADLINE: How do you plan a career – stage, film – at this point?
CERA: Yeah, there are projects that are kind of, like, nebulously placed in the future, that are a bit of a moving goalpost or a bit of a tentative wait-and-see situation. But that’s fine with me. I’m not in a hurry. I almost jumped into a production this summer that was going to be a sort of trailblazing thing, like let’s see how we do this with COVID restrictions and a very skeleton crew and being tested three times a week, but it just wasn’t the right time. I think now people have found the framework of how it works on sets, how to zone properly and what to do. There’s kind of a map for it now. And I know some friends that are working on things even though it’s not the most comfortable thing.
But as far as theater goes, that’s a big question mark for me, and I’m hoping that it’s not too long. I would love if somehow a production of this play [Hold On To Me Darling] came together. I’m not sure how practical it is with everybody’s schedule, and with what’s going on with theater in general, but it would be great.
DEADLINE: You have the animated Blazing Samurai set to come out next year. Any other projects you can mention?
CERA: I’ve been developing a project that I hope to try and get going, but it’s probably too early to talk about since it’s not anything official. I wouldn’t want to jinx it. And I’m supposed to do a movie hopefully this winter, or next year, which is a very funny comedy with John Early and myself.
DEADLINE: I have to ask, is there any possibility of more Arrested Development in the future?
CERA: I haven’t heard any mention of that. I don’t know. I mean, it’s a very difficult thing to do. You know, it’s kind of an enormous cast which is spread all across the country, and we all have different commitments. So I don’t know. Nobody’s mentioned that to me. We’ll see.
DEADLINE: One last question, and this one’s for me. How did Wally Brando come about?
CERA: I’ve been really lucky, I guess. I’m such a fan of Twin Peaks, and I especially loved that last season, The Return. It was such a little amazing miracle: I met David Lynch years ago, in a very fortuitous, unexpected way, which was that I did a transcendental meditation lesson where you go and learn how to do it. I was curious, so I went with a couple friends, and on the fourth day this young woman introduced herself and said she works for the David Lynch Foundation and did we want to meet David? And we were just all totally gobsmacked, like, what are you talking about? And she’s like, yeah, give me your information. Then a month later, she called and said, How’s Thursday at David’s house? Just me and my three friends, and one of them was Eric Edelstein, who’s also ended up in Twin Peaks: The Return [as Detective ‘Smiley’ Fusco]. And Eric was completely freaking out.
So we went to David’s house and met David and hung out with him in his little art studio, and he was completely sweet and welcoming. I couldn’t understand why he was being this gracious and generous, or why we were given this gift. So then we meditated with David, and we sat around and talked with him for a bit. And then, a few years later, I got the phone call for this part. Like, Would you want to come do this part, which was already very fully realized on the page. I think the same thing happened to Eric, that David remembered Eric and his energy from that encounter, and he cast him.
DEADLINE: That’s a perfect David Lynch story.
CERA: Yeah. It just dropped down from the sky.