A Chat with Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”)

Although Jon Heder has rarely been without work since making his cinematic breakthrough in 2004, it would be fair to say that, no matter how many films or television appearances he may have made, people’s first thought when they see him remains “Napoleon Dynamite.” And, really, why wouldn’t it be? Even Heder himself admits that the distance between himself and Mr. Dynamite isn’t exactly the longest trek in the world. Still, if you thought he’d be hesitant to reprise his role for Fox’s upcoming series based on the the character and his adventures, you would be wrong. Heder doesn’t consider Napoleon to be an albatross around his neck. To the contrary, in fact, he’s loving every minute of his prime-time experience, which begins this Sunday evening with two episodes: one at 7:30 PM, one at 8:30 PM.

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Bullz-Eye: So this is a pretty sweet gig you’ve got here.

Jon Heder: Uh…doing all these interviews? [Laughs.]

BE: Well, not necessarily that. I really meant you’ve got a gig where you don’t even necessarily have to wear pants.

JH: Oh, right! Which is appropriate, since Napoleon hardly ever wears pants on the show, either. [Laughs.] But, no, you’re right: this is a sweet gig. And I’m hoping that it continues and finds success. That’d be awesome.

BE: Well, I watched the first two episodes, and they were fun.

JH: I mean, it could possibly be the best job ever, because I love the work, I love the material, it’s, not, like, “Oh, all right.” I love “Napoleon.” And you’re going in, you’re recording, it’s easy scheduling…it could be the best job ever.

BE: Obviously you know the character pretty well. How much in terms of voice acting did you learn from doing films like “Surf’s Up” and “Monster House”?

JH: I’ve learned a lot, but…I don’t know if they necessarily prepped me for this, because…I was trying to create new, different voices and things for “Surf’s Up” and “Monster House.” This was a character I already knew and I knew what I was doing. I suppose doing all of those days of ADR on those films helped.

BE: Was it any trouble to find the Napoleon voice again?

JH: It took maybe five seconds. [Laughs.] It wasn’t too bad. I mean, at first, I definitely felt like one of the many college students who’ve done impersonations that I’ve seen on YouTube or whatever. Or just heard. Like, “Eat your freaking tots!” And as soon as I said it, it was, like, “Oh, uh…” And then I went, “No, no, no, I can own this. I mean, this is me! I am him!” [Laughs.] So it wasn’t too bad.

BE: How many horrible impressions of Napoleon have you heard over the years?

JH: Well, I was telling my wife the other day, “Is this horrible to say?” And it must be because it’s me, because it’s my voice, but…they’re all horrible. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s funny, but if you’re talking in terms of how good they are, none of them come close. And I would know, because it’s me! [Laughs.] But if I tried to take a more objective point of view, then, yes, I’ve probably heard a lot of good ones, too.

BE: When I talked to Diedrich (Bader) earlier, he said the moment he realized the movie was starting to become a phenomenon was when he was doing a recording session, a kid came in, and the kid’s jaw just dropped. And then the kid started reciting lines from the film, saying that he’d seen it, like, ten times already.

JH: Oh, my gosh.

BE: Did you have a similar moment, where you were, like, “Hey, this is a thing”?

JH: Oh, there were so many moments like that. You know, every single time a moment like that happens, you’re, like, “Oh, my gosh…” And then another one happens! Aaron (Ruell) brought up one earlier, talking about when we were body-scanned for “Napoleon Dynamite” figurines. [Laughs.] For me, though, I think it’d have to be when we were at the MTV Video Music Awards, because it’s such a pop cultural…the significance that it has in pop culture, saying, “This is the coolest of the cool, this is what kids of this young generations loves and thinks is awesome and kick-ass.” And “Napoleon Dynamite” won that year. It was, like, “Really?” None of those big-budget movies. No “Spider-Man,” nothing like that. And when we won it, it was, like, “Geez, okay, I guess people like it!” [Laughs.]

BE: And yet it’s a film that inspires a love-it-or-hate-it mentality. You’ve got people who swear by it, then you’ve got people who simply do not think it’s funny, no matter how many times they try to watch it. Does that surprise you, or can you see that?

JH: That they don’t understand it? Yeah, I can see that. I mean, it feels naïve to say, “I don’t know what they’re talking about, because you can’t argue with millions of Americans.” But I have met a few of them. And I’m sure there are more of them who are keeping their mouth shut. [Laughs.] But I guess it makes sense. It’s like with any comedy or character. Not everybody’s going to connect. If you grew up and had a completely different childhood and upbringing, then I could see it not making sense at all.

BE: I like that you own the fact that Napoleon’s voice is not so terribly different from your own.

JH: Uh, yeah, it wasn’t a stretch. [Laughs.] I definitely felt like I was putting on a voice, but it wasn’t like a crazy cartoon voice or anything. I so remember clearly when I read the script for the very first time, and it was, like, “This is my younger brother. This is how I when I was younger.” Just that angst that you feel when you’re younger. And when you’re a younger brother, and you feel that your older siblings are the world, and the world is against you.

BE: At one point during the panel, you commented on how you get to stretch your emotional range with Napoleon in the series. I think several people were surprised to hear that. [Note: I was one of them. I actually Tweeted it at the time.]

JH: [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, I’m surprised to see it again. All through the recording…I mean, it’s all done on a sound stage, and you forget about a lot of it, but it was very weird at times where it was, like, “Okay, he’s got to laugh or giggle here. How do I do that? Let’s work on it a little.” Or, like, having him cry. These moments, they’re so quick, but it’s, like, we never did anything quick in the movie. Everything was so thought out and so important, and it was, “This is this, this is that.”But even in the last recording session we did, which was earlier this week, there’s a scene – it’s a joke, really – where he’s coming out of a theater and he’s crying, even though it’s, like, “Three Amigos” on the marquee. But he’s crying, and I was just, “Oh, you guys are probably used to telling Dan Castellaneta or the rest of the ‘Simpsons’ guys, ‘Okay, we just need a quick cry.’” [Laughs.] But I’m, like, “Wait, this is a serious, emotional moment? Napoleon’s crying…?” I didn’t know he could cry. Or would cry. So, yeah, that was fun.

BE: Had you ever considered what happened to Napoleon after the movie?

JH: Uh, yeah, we’ve been talking about that a lot today. [Laughs.] And it typically went pretty depressing. But then I came up with a good scenario. I could very well see him, like, maybe doing a little bit of community college and not having a lot of success with finding satisfying work there, just always, ‘Oh, this is lame.’ So he moves to the jungle. Maybe the Congo. Or South America. Somewhere like that, either with Greenpeace or some non-profit organization. Or becoming a cryptozoologist, hanging out with these underpaid guys, working off of government or city grants. He’s, like, “Okay, we’re going to catch the next giant fish monster that lives in this lake. We’re going to prove it exists.” I could see him doing that.

BE: Have you been back to Preston since you shot the movie?

JH: Well, we went back there a year after we originally shot the movie to shoot Kip and LaFawnduh’s wedding. But that was it. I mean, I know they were doing some “Napoleon Dynamite” festivals, and I was always curious to see one. I’d love to go back, though, festival or no. I’d just like to see the town, see what’s changed and how they reacted to the movie. It’d be cool.

BE: I know I’m going to have to wrap up in a moment, so I just wanted to ask you about a couple of your other films, the first one being “Benchwarmers.”

JH: “I love beef stew.” [Laughs.] Working with those guys was great. That was probably…I mean, next to “Napoleon,” it’s one of the most fun films I’ve made. It was all outside, and…it was a treat. Because it was easy. I mean, it was very laid back. But they had a big enough budget that they could treat us right. We played hacky-sack all day long. If we weren’t on the field throwing balls, we were playing hacky-sack. We joked around a lot, too. David Spade and Nick Swardson I became pretty close with. And just working with these guys who’ve been in the business so long…they were humble and so easy to work with. It really felt more like I was giving to the kids. There were kids in it, and kids loved it. It was great.

BE: What’s your next favorite film beyond that?

JH: “Blades of Glory.” In fact… [Hesitates.] It’s probably my favorite film since “Napoleon.” It was fun to make, but it was hard work. And I absolutely loved working with Will Ferrell. That was a dream come true. I love making films where you learn a skill. I love learning to ice skate.

BE: Did you learn any magic for “When in Rome”?

JH: I did take some magic training. Magic was harder. [Laughs.] You know, I learned enough for the film. But ice skating definitely became more of a passion. It’s not the easiest hobby to keep up. But I went roller skating the other day, and what I learned on the ice has served me well. [Laughs.]

BE: Lastly, how was the experience of hosting “Saturday Night Live”?

JH: I loved it. Again, that was a dream come true. I’ve had a lot of dreams come true. [Laughs.] But, I mean, “SNL”? It still boggles my brain that I did it. I thought it was going to be nerve-wracking, and it was, but, honestly, although I thought my feelings afterward was going to be, “I never want to do that again,” but I would totally do it again. I was worried I’d be scared, but I had such a blast that I’d totally do it again.


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