After playing a string of sweetly disaffected teenagers in films like Superbad, Juno and the TV series Arrested Development, Michael Cera may have found the perfect role for his Broadway stage debut. He’ll co-star in a revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 slacker comedy This Is Our Youth, which opens on Sept. 11. In the part that launched the career of Mark Ruffalo, Cera plays Warren, a nerdy Manhattan rich kid who steals $15,000 from his father and seeks refuge in the apartment of his manic, drug-dealing friend (Kieran Culkin, who starred in Igby Goes Down at the movies and a revival of subUrbia off-Broadway). Rounding out the three-person cast is another novice, not just to Broadway but to acting altogether–Tavi Gevinson, the 18-year-old fashion blogger and editor of the online magazine Rookie.
Call it stunt casting or just the latest step in Broadway’s ongoing effort to reach out to new audiences. Hot young movie stars like Scarlett Johansson (who played Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), James Franco (George in Of Mice and Men) and Bradley Cooper (coming later this fall in a revival of The Elephant Man, which begins previews Nov. 7) are being lured to Broadway in ever growing numbers.
Cera, a 26-year-old Ontario native, had never acted on the stage before This Is Our Youth (not even in a high school production of The King and I). But he was introduced to Lonergan’s play by his friend Culkin–who had played Warren in a 2003 London production and wanted to do a revival so he could perform the other male role. The pair first starred in a 2012 production of the play in Sydney, but it took producer Scott Rudin to put it on the fast track to Broadway, starting with a well-received run in June at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Lonergan, a prolific screenwriter (You Can Count On Me, Gangs of New York) as well as playwright (The Waverly Gallery, Lobby Hero), knew that the only way to get This Is Our Youth, his biggest off-Broadway success, to Broadway was to play the commercial game. “Most producers don’t want to do a play if there’s not a big star in it,” Lonergan says. That often means taking a chance on movie and TV actors who are high on name recognition but light on stage experience. “It’s always something of a gamble,” he says. “But Michael takes to the stage beautifully.”
Cera, who can list all the Broadway shows he’s seen on the fingers of one hand, is laid-back about his impending Broadway debut. The Chicago production, done in a theater-in-the-round space with the audience nearly on top of him (and directed by Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro), went a long way toward eliminating any jitters.
“It helps you get your sea legs,” he says. “You shed a layer of self-awareness.” He’s committed to doing the show at least until January; what happens after that–more theater or back to movies–is up in the air. “I’ll have to see. I don’t know what it’s like to come out on the other side of this.” Broadway audiences will tell him soon enough.
This appears in the September 08, 2014 issue of TIME.