The Nerd Princess

Actress Charlyne Yi has made her career playing excruciatingly awkward girls. Rachel Syme talks to the star of Paper Heart about Michael Cera and why she won’t be anyone’s “girlfriend.”

08.06.09 10:52 PM ET

Actress Charlyne Yi has made a career of playing excruciatingly awkward girls. Rachel Syme talks to the star of Paper Heart about Michael Cera and why she won’t be anyone’s “girlfriend.”

“I have this phobia of becoming someone’s ‘girlfriend,’” says Charlyne Yi, swiveling around on her chair inside the glass fishbowl office of a Manhattan high rise. The comedienne is wearing low-top sneakers, a scraggly ponytail, and a baggy T-shirt—one of many outfits in her tomboy oeuvre.

“I have guy friends who have been dating a girl for six months and our other friends don’t know her name. They just ask, ‘Hey, where’s your girlfriend?’ And I want to scream, ‘OK, her name is Sally, and she’s awesome, and you’ve known her for months. Where did her identity go?’”

It’s no surprise that Yi, 23 years old, should feel vexed by this classification. Although she is certainly rising as a writer and actress in her own right—and her debut film, Paper Heart, out this weekend, should cement that—the reason we are sitting together in a sterile glass box is her various stints as someone’s “girlfriend.”

First there was Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, in which she came out of nowhere to play the adorable stoner girlfriend hanging around Seth Rogen’s apartment. Then came the Michael Cera rumors.

When Yi and Cera started filming Paper Heart, they both played fictional versions of themselves—falling in love. With almost every teen in American harboring a secret crush on Cera, the tabloids couldn’t help themselves; they proclaimed Yi and Cera an item, rocketing Paper Heart from a tiny DIY film to a Sundance catchphrase.

“We were never together,” Yi says. “If we were, I’d like to know when that was. And thank God, because it would be devastating to promote this film if I was heartbroken.”

“We were never together,” Yi says of Cera. “If we were, I’d like to know when that was. And thank God, because it would be devastating to promote this film if I was heartbroken.”

While the Cera rumors may not be true, Yi—who got her start as a performance artist and goofy standup comedienne on the L.A. circuit—acknowledges that being considered “the girlfriend” has done her plenty of favors. And yet, she says, she doesn’t know the first thing about love.

“That’s why I decided to make this movie,” she says. “I was working at a Wal-Mart in Fontana, California, and commuting to Los Angeles to do shows. And I was hanging around with all these older men who hadn’t really found love yet and it depressed me. And I don’t drink or go to bars, so I remember thinking, how am I ever going to meet anyone? You can’t exactly clink a Shirley Temple and meet guys.”

So Yi started asking strangers in Los Angeles about love (“a result of a quarter-life crisis and extreme overreaction”) and realized she was getting incredible stories. “I met this one couple who had been married for years and discovered an old picture in an attic,” she says. “They had been at the same party when they were young and never met! I got all kinds of amazing anecdotes, and I thought, so many movies about love are fictional, what if we went on the road and made one that is real? I originally intended to make a simple documentary, just full of interviews.”

This is where the premise of Paper Heart starts to get a little complicated. Yi took the idea to her filmmaker friend Nick Jasenovec, who agreed to direct, but suggested that the film might need a more personal arc. So he proposed that Yi put herself on camera as the interviewer, and that she also fall in love over the course of the film.

“Because of lack of time and lack of interest of exposing my love life or dating on camera, I agreed to do it, but had to be the character of ‘Charlyne’ rather than myself,” Yi explains. “We cast Michael—it was all improvised. When we are going on these awkward dates, it wasn’t intended that way, we just didn’t know what to say so we talked about mundane stuff like food. Like what real people do.”

The resulting film is a confusing mashup of fiction and reality: Real stories from Americans in love—made more farcical by the fact that Yi later acts out these tales with handmade puppets—combined with a fake love arc, played by real actors with fictional alter egos. It becomes very difficult to tell what Yi wants to reveal, and what she can excuse the imaginary “Charlyne” for saying or believing. It’s almost as if she wanted to make a documentary about a topic that embarrassed her—her difficulty finding love—and to lessen the blow, put a narrative distance between herself and the material.

Even the director of the film is veiled—Nick is played by an actor, Jake Johnson, removing yet another level of reality from the scenes. As “Charlyne” travels the country and speaks to children and adults, awkwardly falls for Michael, performs puppet shows, sings a twee love song into her computer, and finally has a meltdown in Paris about her inability to open up and fall for someone, the audience is never sure how much is coming from Yi and how much is conjecture. It can feel a bit like a bait-and-switch; are we seeing Yi’s true search for love? Or just a finely crafted mockumentary?

This line-blurring is intentional, says Yi. “I would never film myself, or feel comfortable exposing my life,” she says. “So I had to become someone else. The screen Charlyne doesn’t talk about how she feels, and I think I talk too much about how I feel, and I think I’m very transparent. She’s very closed off and I’m very effusive. I had to play deadpan and cut down on doing this sing-song thing with my words.”

Still, a lot of the “real” Charlyne does come through in the film. Almost all of Yi’s friends in the movie are male—Rogen, Martin Starr, Cera—and they call her “Chuck” for short. She says this mirrors her offscreen life: “I think a lot of girls are very catty and just weird and sassy. I prefer to hang out with guys. I like calm hangouts like playing instruments and talking.”

It is Yi’s ability to become one of the guys that has brought her career to this point—she won the affection of Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, at one of her comedy shows, and landed the part in Knocked Up as a result. She then fell in with the so-called Hollywood Frat Pack, earning friends like Rogen, Jason Segal, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and other alums of Freaks and Geeks and other Apatow projects.

“I actually hadn’t seen Freaks and Geeks or any Apatow movies when I met those guys,” Yi says. “And then I did, and it was so strange, because I didn’t know how to confess to my guy friends that I also happened to be a super fan. It was awkward.”

Awkwardness is certainly part of Yi’s primary charm as a comedienne—she isn’t brash or sharp-tongued. Instead, her power comes from being odd; she’s a guy’s girl with a nervous laugh and a penchant for weird experiments: “I did a show once where I used these really tiny puppets,” she giggles. “You almost couldn’t see them and had to squint. And the audience was like, ‘Oh, we get it, it’s funny because you can’t see them.’ But then I let it go on for another half an hour.”

Paper Heart is full of pregnant pauses and smirky exchanges between Yi and Cera—each trying to top the other with clumsy gestures. At one point on a date, Cera pretends to leave the restaurant, leaving Yi sitting despondent for a full minute. Paper Heart is full of such moments; jokes that go on a little too long, with underwhelming punchlines that, taken as a whole, are actually very funny.

Yi and her ilk are on to something: that discomfort can be as entertaining as slapstick, or at least cut closer to the bone for most of us. Yi’s inability to find love is hard to watch; she is self-defeating and often says exactly the wrong thing. The audience really wants to root for her, but she keeps getting in her own way.

It was precisely because I was rooting for her that I was disappointed to find that Yi and Cera were never a real item; I hoped at the end of the film that she had transcended her insecurities and made romantic progress. But after meeting her, it is clear that Yi is not the timid girl from the film. She is a self-made comedienne, with another script for Apatow in the works and a viral video with Channing Tatum making the Internet rounds. She is also a working artist, putting together an upcoming comic book for Oni Press. Best of all, Yi is so aggressively open and normal that she could be anyone you know—quiet, creative, strangely funny—who just happened to make a film with her friends as one of many projects. She’s just lucky that with her friends, the film will put her, “girlfriend” or not, at the center of Hollywood’s comedy universe.

And now, Yi says, she finally understands love: “I don’t think I was ever bitter or skeptical, I was just stupid and naïve. But now I think love is when you’re comfortable with someone and you can wash clothes with them, or fart in front of them. Once the lust is gone, you either have something real or nothing at all. But relationships are worth fighting for.”

Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.