Charlyne Yi, Jake Johnson featured in Nylon Magazine's Young Hollywood issueMar 6, 2015
And what is real, for that matter? In her new film, Paper Heart, comedian-actress Charlyne Yi asks the big questions.
In this era of scripted "reality" television (surely docudrama is a contradiction in terms, anyway?) made up memoirs, and real people inserted into fictional situations, the line between fact and fabrication is growing ever more blurry. Consider these examples: this year's finale of The Bachelor, anything on VH1 involving Andy Dick, James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and Sacha Baron Cohen's entire body of work. Nevertheless, it's into this somewhat dubious territory that Paper Heart, a new faux documentary starring the endearingly geeky, bespectacled comedian Charlyne Yi, blissfully waltzes.
The premise of Paper Heart is that 22-year-old Yi (who prior to this, had small roles in the comedies Semi-Pro and Knocked Up) has never experienced love and doesn't believe it exists. So she decides to make a documentary on the subject -- traversing the country on a listening tour, gathering people's romantic histories and words of wisdom on l'amour. "The leaves looked brighter," an Atlanta woman reminisces about falling in love with the man she is still married to after 30 years. "Nobody has what we have, and it's worth fighting for," adds her husband.
Intercut with the interviews are improvised scenes in which Yi starts dating Michael Cera (playing himself) who she purportedly meets at a house party. The result is a semi-scripted, boy-meets-girl romance -- featuring the tongue-tied suitor, Cera, and his reticent object of affection -- tucked inside a real, honest, and at times touching documentary. Adding further to the film's complex layering is the fact that Cera and Yi are actually in a relationship. They even composed the film's winsome musical score together.
At first, according to Yi (who co-wrote the film with director Nicholas Jasenovec), selling Cera on the idea wasn't easy, partially because nobody was really sure what the idea was, exactly.
"I tried to pitch it to him like, "Yeah, we play characters, but they would be our names!" Yi recalls over pizza in the back of Palermo's restaurant in Los Angeles. "He'd be like, 'What?' and I'd be like, 'And it would be a documentary!' So I did a horrible job pitching it to him, and I was really nervous because I knew it would be really cool for him to play that part."
"I don't remember ever being hesitant about it," Cera says over the phone a few days later. "I remember her describing it and me not being able to picture it. I find when I try to describe it to people I don't do a good job, either. It's still hard to describe it... even after it was made."
Eventually, Jasenovec stepped in with a more cogent explanation of the concept, and Cera happily climbed on board.
In the film, slated for release sometime this year, Yi serves as a deliberately naive interrogator -- posing questions about the nature of love and relationships to newlyweds, bikers, romance novelists, kids, fellow comedians (including Demetri Martin and Seth Rogen), a smattering of scientists, a gay couple, and a divorced hunter (who, surrounded by looming taxidermy, conjures a less-creepy Norman Bates). Some of the most poignant scenes involve reenactments of their stories using puppets and sets handcrafted by Yi and her dad.
Like the interview portions of When Harry Met Sally..., the film's documentary subjects lend verisimilitude to the fictional storyline. "That got us a little excited," says Jasenovec. "We felt that maybe if an audience was watching the film and wasn't sure if it was real or not they might be a little bit more invested in the characters and the relationships and where things are going to end up."
Actor Jake M. Johnson, who skillfully plays the role of the film's director, points out that blending the real and the staged required a delicate balance on the part of the cast and crew. "We didn't want people to think we were making fun of them," says Johnson, referencing Borat as a paradigm they deliberately wanted to avoid. He also notes that even in situations where he felt slightly out of his element playing the director (when, for example, an Elvis impersonator asks him how he wants a shot staged), Johnson still had to maintain the guise. "It just would've been confusing if I said, 'Hey I'm Jake, but I play Nick. Now, open up and tell us your love stories, assholes!"
For the sake of the documentary, the crew decides they must scrutinize Yi's and Cera's every move -- even when the camera's intrusive presence begins to stunt the blooming relationship's growth (one of the more hilarious examples being when the couple walks along a beach at sunset, and Johnson runs after them with a megaphone pushing for a picturesque kiss). Yi and Cera then begin to try to escape the crew -- behaving like those self-conscious couples with cameras in tow trying to fall in love on a reality show, or like any relationship under the media microscope of Hollywood. The director and actors admit it became an unintended, but obvious subtext.
"These shows where people are falling in love, and it means something?" says Johnson about reality TV romance. "They're in a bathtub -- and there's a boom right above the bathtub! That's so weird! And people are like, 'That was the most romantic night of my life.'"
"How could you have a relationship on camera?" asks Yi, questioning the veracity of reality TV romances. "It seems impossible."
An ironic statement, perhaps, considering Yi and Cera have encountered bothersome cameras together in their off-screen lives. "We ran into some paparazzi at Sundance (where the film premiered in January)," recalls Yi, "and one woman was yelling, 'He's a fucking movie star!' And I'm like, 'He's a fucking human being!' You know? They're people. They need their space. They're not just things you magnify and watch."
The invasive relationship between the camera and its subjects emerges then as one of the film's most compelling themes. "That was the strongest example of a conflict that could help drive the story forward, and it came out naturally," says Jasenovec. "Which is funny. There's definitely a lot of art imitating life in this film."
Godard once said, "Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world." And in the end, Paper Heart feels a lot less like its pseudo-reality genre cousins of today and more like the playfully romantic mixture of artifice and documentary that someone like Godard might have made -- if only he had been a young L.A. alt-comedy geek living in 2009.
Upright Citizens Brigade Featured In Amtrak's Arrive MagazineMar 6, 2015
Forget Stand-Ups, Sketch and Sitcoms, improv is the king of comedy
It's Sunday night in New York City and the line of new recruits for the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) stretches around the block. Many have been in line for hours, afraid to budge lest they lose access to ASSSSCAT, the improvisational comedy group's Sunday night spectacular. The show would be popular for its cheap--and sometimes free--admission alone, but it also features regular impromptu visits from stars such as UCB troupe cofounder Amy Poehler and Saturday Night Live cast member Seth Meyers. Tonight will be no exception. Moments after our descent into the underground, black box theater, Poehler emerges with Meyers, 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer and John Lutz, and former SNL cast member Horatio Sanz. The show is a magical blur--fast, funny, full of audience participation and gone in a blink of an eye.
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Aubrey Plaza featured in Nylon Magazine's Young Hollywood issueMar 6, 2015
In Hollywood, there is a light that never goes out. The 39 young actors over the next 30 pages are carrying the torch. Meet the new class.
It was in a "really shady basement bar" in Queens, New York, before an audience of 10 or 15 people drinking in the dark, that 24-year-old comedic actress Aubrey Plaza secured herself a role in Judd Apatow's star-studded upcoming film Funny People. The part that she was auditioning for was that of a stand-up comedian, and being most experienced in improv, she thought it might help Apatow make his decision if he saw a video of her taking a stab at it first.
"People were like, 'Don't send that, it looks like shit,'" she says, smiling. "But in my head I was like, Judd Apatow is all about real people. I think he would dig it."
And he evidently did, because shortly after the YouTube link reached him she was booked, alongside the likes of Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, and Adam Sandler. " the only not-famous person," she says with a laugh. "I have a memory of being on set and watching it like I wasn't a part of it. I had to remind myself, like, 'You know, you're in this, too.'" Plaza, who seems to fit quite nicely as the little sister version of other pretty, funny girls like Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey will also be seen alongside the former in the eagerly anticipated new TV show Parks & Recreation.
"If I can make Amy Poehler laugh, that makes my entire day," she says, her eyes lighting up behind shaggy brown bangs. "If I say something and she laughs, I'm like, 'OK, I'm done now.'"