It’s possible: Michael Cera can be an insufferable dick. Directed by Sebastian Silva, Cera’s latest role is Jamie in Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus, a cross-genre comedy about the quest to finding the San Pedro Cactus – a brew with hallucinogenic properties – and ultimately, the quest to self-discovery and compassion. Jamie is an American gone travelling in South America and finds himself at a house party with friends in Chile where he meets Crystal Fairy (played by Gaby Hoffman), an eccentric pseudo-hippie who he invites on his road trip to find the cactus in a coked-up haze – an impulse that later finds him at odds with his decision until they drink the brew on a desert beach.
Throughout the film it seems like there is no substantial plot besides finding this cactus – something Jamie is incessantly trying to achieve at all costs – but as the film continues, the cracks in his character begin to shine through. Jamie embodies an arrogant, self-important prick, but it’s clear that there is a heavy awareness of feelings of confusion, self-doubt, internal struggle, and above all: his deep craving for approval and validation. The most appealing aspect of Crystal Fairy that makes the film so likeable is the fact Jamie is an extremely relatable character – a character who’s trying so hard that it actually makes you recoil in second-hand embarrassment. Cera captures the cringeworthiness and sadness that's easy to see through in someone you probably know who acts like they have some sort of authority on life for the sake of acceptance.
It seems like the goal of the film was to achieve a dark comedy but the aesthetic overpowers the theme and we’re left with what looks like a video journal, improvised by a talented cast. This ultimately was a huge hindrance in the quality of the narrative and left you feeling like you saw nothing at all.
I spoke to Michael about speaking Spanish, actually drinking the San Pedro cactus brew and what it was like to play an irritating asshole.
To start off, how was it working with Sebastian Silva?
It was amazing. Sebastian’s a really great director – it’s really amazing to watch him work and I’d say he’s one of my closest friends.
The movie seems really improvised and natural – do you know how closely you stuck to the script, if at all?
Well the script didn’t have any dialogue – it was a very rough outline. We would then go and say the dialogue in the moment that felt natural. That’s probably why it feels like this, because it was really conversational.
It definitely seems more visually led, anyway – do you think it turned out how you expected it to?
Yeah I would say so, more or less. I didn’t really know what we would be able to do in terms of the spirit of the movie. I think that really worked out a lot better than I anticipated because we were all having such a good time and we were all so enthusiastic about what we were doing, and I think that really just said it.
Yeah, it seemed totally unrefined. Have you ever filmed in a Spanish speaking country before, or in South America?
No, not at all.
I bet it was really sweet to film there. I actually lived in Venezuela for a year as a teenager and it was pretty intense, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences ever.
Oh, did you actually learn Spanish?
Yeah, I learned Spanish fluently since I went for that purpose – to learn to speak, read and write in a different language.
That’s really awesome. I'd love to hear more about that.
I read that you guys used real locals in the film, like the trans sex workers – how did you manage to get them to participate?
That was Sebastian. He’s really good at that, just really good with people and he’s persuasive, you know – non-threatening. I don’t think the people felt like they were being exploited or something. Somehow he won them over when he was over in that town on location and then they auditioned. And the people who we asked about the cactus in this little town – those are all real people that just lived in the town.
So the cactus, by the looks of it, is a real thing, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s totally real.
Because I heard that you actually drank the San Pedro juice – did you feel anything?
No, I didn’t really feel anything because we just kind of had this really big build up and were really anticipating its effect. It felt like having a few glasses of wine.
I imagine the environment is pretty easy going but you also feel the pressure since ultimately you’re making a film. It also looked like it was gross.
Whatever it was – maybe it was the way we made it or something – it wasn’t what we expected.
How does it feel to play a character that was a complete dick in such a direct way?
It was fun. Really, really fun. It’s fun to film when there are tensions and there’s some sort of compatibility. I mean, he’s a psychological dick – he’s not really there himself much. He has a hard time hiding it, like he’s kind of masking it with something. He wants to be himself more, but the situation occurs and it’s kind of a really subtle battle of will.
Was it a conscious decision to stray away from something less commercially accessible like other films you’ve done in the past?
I mean, I don’t know, it was available at the time, you know? There wasn’t another job that made as much sense as this one. It was really exciting to work with Sebastian because I really love his style and I really just wanted to work with him, so the opportunity came along and it seemed like the best thing to go do at that time.
Weren’t you going originally supposed to make another film with him or was this after?
We were originally supposed to make Magic Magic and then it just didn’t come together and it seemed like it might never, so we kind of lost hope. Instead of just focusing on that and just waiting around, we decided to take it into our own hands and make this movie for no money. It was just a really great visitation to go out and do those road trips, make this movie and work with him – it’s just really exciting.
Did you live in Chile for the film?
Yeah I did. The first time I went was to study Spanish for the other film we were going to make. I went and lived with Sebastian’s family and learned Spanish, you know, not speaking English for three months. It’s weird when you feel like a caveman. It was really nice – I think it was a good experience living in their house.
I think it’s always good to be bilingual, anyway. Have you actually held on to the Spanish you’ve learned? Are you now fluent?
Yeah I’m pretty conversational, especially when I was there.
Good for you, Michael. I think your character was very realistic to a lot of people I know – the whole drug boasting and sense of entitlement aspect. Did you draw inspiration from people you personally knew or was it just from what you’ve seen?
It was more about the story, and what the story needed. I mean, there are a few things in that character that I know in some people, like you just said – the boasting and the academic authority on drugs. I know people like that. That’s why I picked this character as outwardly annoying, unaware and, you know, just ugly. I know people like that who don’t know their drugs too well or want to be liked and they don’t know how. I feel like this guy is on a very sad and lonely journey. You know, he leaves to South America by himself and compulsively is trying to do this drug, thinking it’ll mean something. I can feel for this guy.
Yeah, totally. In that sense you can feel the meaning of journey and him trying to find himself in naivety as he realizes what he should be and shouldn’t be, but at the same time he obviously comes off as the new ego that’s sprouting today. Do you think it’s a commentary on our generation?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s hard to tell. I feel like this type of character is probably not so new. Yeah, the details of it are specific to this generation, but that sort of conflict of finding himself, repelling people and not quite knowing why, having feelings that he just can’t sort out on his own, and his pride – I think that’s his main problem.
Crystal Fairy is available to buy now.
Words by Rachel Grace Almeida