It’s February in Berlin and Michael Cera is dodging bullets. What’s it like, one reporter asks, to be a new dad? “It’s like a new obsession,” the actor explains, “it’s all you care about.” Filming Juno? “My memories are very nebulous, but it was fun!” Keeping in touch with Elliot Paige? “We don’t speak very often, but it’s always nice when we get together.“ Can he talk about Barbie? “I’ve been told I would be punished.” Working with Greta Gerwig? “A really confident and very fun and collaborative director.” Being mistaken for Jesse Eisenberg? “He told me he gets that, too!” His dream role? “Zuckerberg?” Dustin Guy Defa chimes in, getting a big laugh, “That would be the best.”

The director and star are seated at a roundtable for their new film The Adults. It’s Defa’s first as director in six years, the last being Person to Person, a sprawling Brooklyn portmanteau in which Cera appeared as a goofy reporter. In The Adults, Defa puts Cera center stage as a young man who returns home from Oregon to the leafy North East––“a place called Newburgh,” Defa explains, “It’s across from Beacon. Beautiful“––to see his sisters for the first time in three years. His youngest, played by Asteroid City’s sprightly Sophia Lillis, is ecstatic. His elder, played by Hannah Gross, perhaps less so. The film, a nicely sweet and sour family drama, is as much about the complex dynamic of their relationship––fleshed out in the film through some infectious, theatre-kid play-acting (characters, impersonations, musical numbers and such)––as it is about the pains of returning home and feeling all that carefully constructed adulthood melt away. Of course, it’s also about poker.

Amongst the hubbub, we got some questions in about the sting of regression, card movies, and shifting from Person‘s interweaving narratives to a more focused approach.

The Film Stage: To go from Person to Person, a film with five separate arcs and an ensemble of actors, to this more intimate project is an interesting switch. Was it part of your thinking when you wrote it, a desire to focus in?

Dustin Guy Defa: Definitely. I mean, that movie was very hard to do. We were in New York City, so there were many locations, many characters. I did the best I could, but it was really like my mind was in a lot of different places. What I learned from that was that I wanted to be more relaxed and focused, and be very present with the actors. Person to Person was sort of like a rush––just like, GO. So yeah: it was a very intentional thing.

We had an amazing production. It was so special and it was built to be calm and focused. I went from ensemble thinking with all these characters to, like, okay, I’m gonna hone in and get very intimate with these characters––basically these three people. I needed to go deeper and it was the way to go deeper.

When you were filming Person to Person together, did you start to have a future collaboration in mind?

Defa: I sort of hoped that we’d do something but we didn’t know what it would be.

Michael Cera: Yeah, me too. But also, like: since then you worked on so many scripts. I didn’t know what you were gonna do.

Defa: [Laughs] I know, I didn’t know what I was going to do.

The film kind of presents regressing to childhood roles as being not always necessarily a negative thing. I was wondering what kind of experiences you were drawing from.

Cera: For me, going home is similar in a lot of ways. You know, going back to people that knew you when you were little and trying not to become your little baby self again. It’s very relatable. But everything that’s in the movie was fully developed in Dustin’s writing, and there’s nothing really particular to my relationship with my own sisters which is reflected that I can think of––other than the general feeling of reconnecting with your siblings that you’ve known your whole life and checking in with them at a new moment in your life when you’re a different person.

I’m also a middle sibling and we’re just a few years apart. I kind of feel like, in a family dynamic––at least in my family––you kind of fill in whatever role is needed in a certain situation. Like: if people are arguing, maybe you try and lighten it up, or if people are too happy, maybe you bring a bad mood just to mix things up. You know? You kind of find your lane.

Defa: I was definitely inspired by my own childhood, my own relationship with my sister. My sister and I loved each other so much when we were kids; we really were each other’s world. When we were children I think we just knew each other. And now she’s had so many different experiences and I’ve had so many things that we don’t know about at all. And she’s her own person and we still haven’t figured each other out as people. So that is sort of the place I was coming from, a desire to try to understand that a little bit more.

The dynamic that’s represented in the movie is similar. We really had our own world in our own bubble. There was nobody else there. And she looked up to me in a way that is very similar to how these sisters look up to Eric and how much love there was before and how that love is either no longer possible or being retained by Eric.

Photos by Jen Koch at Berlinale 2023

We learn about their shared history, in a way, through the songs and characters that Eric and his sisters perform together. Michael, you have a background in Second City in Toronto. Did that experience help in developing these sequences?

Cera: To be honest, I didn’t really go very deep in Second City. I did weekend classes where you play improv-based games with other kids. I had so much fun doing it but they were just fun classes. It wasn’t with any kind of purpose of going onto the stage or anything. But it teaches you to listen, so it’s a good class for people who want to become actors in any way––just because you’re making everything up on the spot. You have to listen to what other people are saying or else you get lost.

The characters and songs in the film was stuff that was very scripted, but we all worked together to flesh it out and make it very distinct so that we didn’t have two characters that occupied the same kind of energy or anything. We just needed to lay everything out very technically.

Defa: Writing them was actually sort of easy for me, just because I did it so much as a kid. With my sister, we didn’t have a whole locker of characters that we would break out, but Sesame Street was a fundamental thing for me. I was really attached to it, so I think the influence of that really seeped into me. The truth is, still as an adult I constantly make up little songs about things at home. So actually it’s sort of natural for me, and I don’t take it too seriously so there’s no pressure of like making something good. If it’s a child it just needs to be. It’s just stuff.

Poker plays a big part in the movie. Do you play?

Defa: [To Cera] Are you a good poker player? You are.

Cera: It’s very subjective. I don’t know. We’ve played poker together for a long time and it just became part of the language of this character and this movie in a very organic way. It was a big part of our life during lockdown, playing online together with other people. You know, very small stakes, just a way to spend time together. So that kind of seeped into this, it made a lot of sense.

If you have a very overactive brain or if you like puzzles or that kind of thinking, it’s just so rich because it’s constantly changing. One hand will end and a new one comes in––it’s a completely different set of circumstances. So if you have a brain that just needs food like that, it’s like a beaver chewing on wood, it’s just a way to just get your brain relaxed.

Defa: I mean, it’s weird. There’s a part of poker where you learn how to deal with the pressure. I mean, you learn that if you get emotional when you play poker you will run into trouble. That’s a very interesting part of yourself to develop. It’s not that I don’t want to be emotional, but there’s something very interesting about honing that.

For the film, it really became very helpful to have this other part of Eric’s life, like transferring the play and games to an adult place where he can use that same energy. Like he’s using that energy over here with these adults and at the same time, in another way, over here with his sisters.

Did you watch any poker films for inspiration?

Defa: There aren’t many poker films. I mean, I don’t want to say Rounders is, you know, not a good movie. [Laughs]

California Split?

Defa: I mean California Split is amazing.

Cera: Yeah!

Defa: I love California Split but I didn’t watch it for the movie. We wanted to get something about poker that wasn’t in a movie before. What was helpful was watching Daniel Negreanu. I don’t know if you know who he is but he’s a very good person to watch. He talks a lot at the tables, about what he’s thinking, what other people are thinking. And that helped, because if you have a character speaking about what they’re thinking or what other people are thinking, it often won‘t work. But it works because you’re at the poker table and Eric is able to say things that you normally wouldn’t say in a movie.

Cera: I think that’s probably the other aspect of it that really felt like it would be good in the movie: how people interact at the poker table and what we experience playing with these people. It was fascinating, kind of seeing certain personalities cornered in a certain situation and seeing how people react.

The Adults opens in theaters on August 18.

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