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Los Angeles-born comedienne Charlyne Yi seemed so adorably unassuming as one of Seth Rogen’s stoner buds in “Knocked Up,” in which she memorably comments to the pregnant Katherine Heigl: “You must be angry at the baby whenever it steals your food, huh?” But the 23-year-old funny girl couldn’t spend her life as a couch potato if she tried, since she’s also busy as a performance artist, musician, writer and painter — sometimes all at the same time, depending on which of her live comedy shows you’ve experienced. In director Nicholas Jasenovec’s feature debut “Paper Heart,” (which Yi co-wrote, executive produced, composed music and designed puppets for) Yi plays herself, sort of. Not so much a mockumentary as it is a doc-narrative hybrid, the film sees her on a quest to discover if there is such a thing as true love, which she doesn’t believe in. Traveling with her filmmaker friend Nick (as in Jasenovec, but played onscreen by Jake Johnson) to meet real-life romance novelists, scientists, bikers and kids — all of whom have their own interpretations of love — Yi ultimately meets and begins a relationship with “Superbad” star Michael Cera, which gets complicated when the cameras don’t stop rolling. I spoke with Yi by phone, who introduced herself by telling me she had just gotten out of a drum circle.
You were just drumming?
Yeah, we had an interview where part of it was being in drum circles. It’s pretty fun, actually. I didn’t know how it was going to go. I have really bad rhythm, but I tried to play quietly.
In “Paper Heart,” you play a semi-fictionalized version of yourself. How different is that Charlyne compared to the Charlyne I’m talking to now?
The one on screen, she doesn’t really figure out how she feels sometimes. Her actions define her, and she’s more closed off. I think the real Charlyne constantly talks about how she feels. [laughs] Maybe too much. I would never sign up to film my personal life. Also, strangely, in order for me to play myself, Nick — the director — constantly had to remind me to calm down. I guess my mannerisms are too broad in real life. It’s weird, for me to play realistically, I have to not be myself.
The film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, except it’s partly a documentary. Similarly, your comedy career is a hybrid of stand-up, performance art, music and magic. How hard is it to get the word out there when things aren’t so neatly compartmentalized?
It would be easier if it was just black and white — just one thing, you know? But because it’s much more than that, it’s hard for us to talk about. Even [while] pitching our film, people couldn’t wrap their heads around it: “So you’re playing a version of yourself, but you’re really yourself when you make a documentary? And it’s half-true, half-fiction, and everyone’s playing themselves itself except for Nick, who is played by Jake Johnson?” It was difficult trying to convey what our film was, as well as whenever I perform. Sometimes people ask me, “You do stand-up?” I try explaining what I do, and I don’t think they really get it. So: “Yeah, I do stand-up.” I wish there was one word to express what I do — that way I don’t sound arrogant. Whenever I say I’m a performer, people think I’m a performance artist: “She paints herself white and pretends to be a flower.” [laughs]
Are you as jaded or agnostic about love as the Charlyne in the film?
I think the character isn’t jaded — she’s skeptical about love. In the voiceover in the beginning, the point of making the film and capturing these love stories is to maybe find hope. No matter how jaded they seem, that flicker of hope cancels out any harboring of feelings of negativity. It’s not like she’s setting out to make a documentary to prove that love didn’t exist. She’s actually trying to do the opposite of that.
As far as me, I think the difference between [myself and] my character onscreen is more exaggerated. I was questioning myself, not because I’d been hurt or anything. It was more like: “Hmm, I wonder how we know because I’d never been in love.” I was 19, I’d dropped out of college and started performing a lot. Most of my time was invested in working at Wal-Mart and performing in comedy clubs with 40-year-old men, who were my friends. A lot of them are single, and it’s weird how people used to get married at a young age. My parents got married in their early 20s, a lot of my friends’ parents did too, and I was questioning: “Is that what’s going on now? In this generation, people are getting married when they’re older?”
I remember coming home one day, turning on the TV, and there were all these dating reality shows, and you see a man in a jacuzzi, making out with two women. Ew, is that what I’m supposed to be doing? I think I’m more naïve than anything. It was a panic attack for me: am I ever going to find anyone because I only hang out with old people? I don’t think that’s very surprising. Everyone questions love, whether it’s real, and can you still find it in some point in your life. I wouldn’t say I’m jaded.