BY HENRY SAVAGE When the world seems to consistently take a crap on you, it can feel as if there’s nothing left to do than to practice a few moves from your “D-Qwon’s Dance Grooves” VHS tape (for all you Napoleon diehards out there). Almost 15 years after it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Napoleon Dynamite has become an American comedy classic. What started back in 2002 as a class assignment for BYU’s film school (originally titled Peluca) went on to become the acclaimed indie comedy Napoleon Dynamite. Since then Napoleon Dynamite has become a comedy lodestar for a generation of tater-tot-loving mouth breathers and aspiring Kung fu enthusiasts, who see the world through the perpetual lens of a little brother trying to manage bullies, llama farms, and broken-down time machines.
Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite’s titular star, met the co-writer and director Jared Hess at Brigham Young University in the early 2000s. Together, along with Hess’ wife Jerusha, they would create a short film that would serve as proof of concept for the feature length version of Napoleon Dynamite. Recently, Heder took some time to talk to Phawker about his new film When Jeff Tried to Save the World and the 15th anniversary tour for Napoleon Dynamite going around the country right now. Heder, Efren Ramirez (Pedro) & Tina Majorino (Deb) will be on hand at the Merriam Theater this Sunday for a screening of the film and a Q&A with the audience.
DISCUSSED: Working with Billy Bob Thornton and Will Ferrell, dancing to Jamiroquai at college parties, trying to score chicks with a perm, finding the “moon boots”, producing Peluca which became Napoleon, Voting for Pedro in 2018 Elections, younger brothers, and his new film “When Jeff Tried to Save the World.”
PHAWKER: Growing up my brother and I used to watch your films like Blades of Glory, Benchwarmers, School For Scoundrels, and they will always be in my go-to collection for laughs. Can you tell me something about working with co-stars like Will Ferrell and Billy Bob Thornton.
JON HEDER: Billy Bob, he kind of had this southern gentleman vibe about him. He was very different from some of the other co-stars I’ve worked with. [Laughing] When we did School For Scoundrels he would sometimes show up late. Now when you hear about actors who show up late you kind of feel this sloppiness or laziness, and think “Oh, he’ll just show up when he wants.” Somehow, he’d get away with it!
He’d always show up in a suit and tie, which was his wardrobe. That said, he had this air about him, like everyone liked him. He was extremely nice and hospitable, ya know, he was always talking to everyone on set and he had stories. Just always had stories. He’d loved telling jokes, really dirty jokes, but he was a very genuine nice guy.
I grew up watching Will’s stuff as well, like in college I watched Saturday Night Live and all of his movies, so that was a dream come true working with him. I would say it was humbling for both of us, me working with Will, but it also kind of put us on equal ground, literally, because the first time I met him, we met on the ice for training. You could see it in his eyes, like my eyes had a twinkle of excitement and disbelief, like “Oh my gosh I can’t believe I’m working with this guy!” [Laughing] He had the look in his eyes like, “Holy crap what am I doing on the ice, I don’t know what I’m doing at all,” there was fear there.
So that really kind of, no pun intended, helped break the ice a little bit. It was awesome because he was kind of like the big brother in that, he was the cool high school senior helping me, as the nerdy high school freshman. He was very nice and easy to get along with, very down to earth. He wasn’t like some crazy comic that was constantly trying to crack jokes and make everyone laugh, he was just naturally funny, but chill and laid back.
PHAWKER: You’re new movie Jeff Tried To Save the World is about an arcade manager trying to break the cycle of his mundane existence. How much of Jeff is in Jon Heder — in other words, where does Jeff end and John Heder begin?
JON HEDER: Jeff was a really great role because it’s more of a dramatic role, more serious. It was nice, I’ve done a lot of comedies and projects that call for trying to make people laugh. I was interested in this role because I liked the story, understood this character, and felt like there was a connection there for sure because a lot of him I could relate to. He deals with anxiety, and I’m generally a little bit more of an easy going person even when I push myself or there’s stressful times, but I don’t get too bogged down. It doesn’t make me lose sleep and have hallucinations like it does with Jeff.
I think Jeff is this guy who’s had a lot of expectations put on upon him by family and people around him, and even by himself. That’s something that a lot of us, especially I can relate to, what the world expects of you. That’s definitely where I was able to step into his shoes easily. Then there’s elements of living alone, this guy is getting out there and championing his next path completely on his own. I’ve always had a great support group, I’ve had family, my wife and my kids, so I’ve always had a lot of support. Jeff has the support, but he just doesn’t know it or looked for it yet, he just kind of assumes that everyone around him in his world is going to be let down by him, which necessarily isn’t the case.
PHAWKER: I read somewhere, when you first got started working on Napoleon Dynamite the budget was so limited you were originally only paid $1000 bucks for the role. Is that true?
JON HEDER: Getting the role was not like your typical film, it was essentially a college project. We started with the short film first, and we were both students when we made the short and the film. Back in 2001, Jared approached me about doing this little short film and that was an actual assignment that he wrote a seven page script for his class that we were taking in the film program. We just happened to be in some of the same classes, I knew him a little bit and knew he was very talented. I knew there was a lot of promise there, I was like “This guy’s funny, he’s got an interesting eye.” I had seen another one of his projects and the things he would do in our directing class. I was very excited when he said “I got this thing, what do you think?”, and I said, “Yeah, I’m totally up for it.” I read it and immediately got it, and understood exactly who this character was. I was like, “This completely makes sense that you came to me, because no one else can do this.”
So that’s really how it happened. I did the short, and it was the same character, so after we did the short he came to me and said, “Probably in a year or so we’re going to make a feature, and we’re going to make a feature version of this.” We were still students, but by the time we made the movie it was all of our friends in the film program and people who had just graduated worked on it, but it wasn’t an assignment for a class or anything. It felt like it though, and it was great.
PHAWKER: How did you go about creating the character of Napoleon? The clothes, the glasses, the hair, the speaking style, the moon boots, the dancing. Presumably this was a collaboration with the director and the producers, but what did you draw on personally people you know or went to school with, or from other movies or tv shows, to create the character?
JON HEDER: This was a character that Jared had in his mind. Most directors and writers have a very good idea in their head and Jared’s very particular, he has a good idea of all the characters in his head because he’s a very character driven writer and director. I remember when I read Napoleon, it fleshed out this person who was me. It was weird, but it was me when I was younger and it was my younger brothers. We both realized we were pooling kind of from our younger brothers. Whenever he described him he kind of did his version. It was me and my brothers when we were in high school and middle school. We were all frustrated and annoyed. That’s what Napoleon is, the perpetual younger brother, always feels like the world is his older brother crapping on him.
There wasn’t a ton of workshopping, except for when we took a trip to the local thrift store. We started looking for his clothes. Jared and I were looking through shirts and pants thinking, “Oh, he would totally wear this,” and “Yeah, he would wear dragon t-shirts tucked in to these sweet acid wash jeans.” We either both or he came up with the idea of the moon boots. We joked around like, “Dude! I totally used to wear moon boots in the winter,” and “I think my grandpa’s got a pair that we can borrow!” It was a few days later, when we were working on the short, Jared said his wife Jerusha (who co-wrote the film) thought I should get a perm.
I immediately knew the look and thought it was amazing, but also thought, “I’m a still a single college student, not a full-time actor. I’m a dude who’s still trying to score with chicks and at least just get some female companionship.” I remember thinking my dating game wasn’t that big of a deal anyway and pondered it all for about two seconds. Within those two seconds, I remember thinking you gotta do it for the art, this is going to look incredible, no other actor or filmmaker in this university will do this. It was true commitment, this is how we do it and get it right. One of my good friends was a hair stylist at a local beauty school and she did it perfect. So we did the same thing for the feature, and I thought, “Time to get that perm again.”
PHAWKER: How did the epic dance at the end of Napoleon Dynamite come together?
JON HEDER: When we shot the short film, Jared and his wife had similar friends who were friends of mine as well, I lived in a small area south of campus. They heard I liked to boogie and just dance in front of people. I guess you could say it was my thing, I loved doing it. I lived in a basement with seven other guys, it was kind of a really crusty living arrangement, but I would dance to Jamiroquai, disco, and whatever funky grooves were out. I’d put it on my CD player, and just kinda dance. So word got out and he heard about it, and he wanted to put it in the short. I danced in the short film but it didn’t make sense to the story so he took it out. So when he came to me about the feature, he said for the climax or finale of the film he wanted me to dance. Sort of like everything hinges or rests on this dance scene.
I was like, “Is it supposed to be good?” He said, “It’s supposed to be you, just do you, I’ve seen you dance and if you just dance, it’ll be awesome.”
I was sweating bullets the entire production. The way I danced I just played music and danced it out. So the night before production, Tina Majorino who played Deb, we went to the studio where we shot the Rex Taekwondo scene and we choreographed the first eight counts where Napoleon leans back and forth. That was the only planning I did. Then we filmed me dancing through three different songs, and they took the best bits and put it together.
PHAWKER: Perfectly, it’s with Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat.” Are you still a fan?
JON HEDER: I love them, and it was a shared love that Jared and I had for their music. I choreographed and danced it to the same song, not knowing what we could get the rights for. We were just a small independent film project.
PHAWKER: How come there was never a sequel and is it possible that there still might be one in future?
JON HEDER: We never thought about that. Most movies nowadays in Hollywood, you make a movie hoping it will do well enough to make a sequel. We made it hoping someone would see it, because we didn’t think anyone would see it. I don’t think anybody considered it that kind of movie to make a sequel from either. Not to say a sequel couldn’t happen.
PHAWKER: Do you think the people need a Pedro to vote for this time around in current elections? What is your take on people getting active and trying to change the political climate?
JON HEDER: [Laughing] Oh wow that’s a big question. Do we need a Pedro? There’s something pure about Pedro, and I think it would be nice to have someone that would be like that, which is almost impossible. Good intentions. Maybe he didn’t have the experience or the complete know-how but he had the determination. There was something special about Pedro. He always had good intentions, and he also fought for what he wanted. He wanted to take Deb to the dance and was pretty forward about it. Actually he asked Summer first and she shot him down, but he had the guts to go for it. Having someone that knows what they want but also have a good heart, and is an actual good person would be great. [Laughing] That’d be a nice change of scenery.