When “Napoleon Dynamite” went from Sundance sleeper to art house curiosity to mainstream sensation in 2004, it elevated its star to that pantheon of actors who are unavoidably and inextricably linked with a single role.
Eight years later, Jon Heder’s name and the character of Napoleon Dynamite are still tied together. Since “Napoleon Dynamite,” Heder has had some small successes (“Benchwarmers,” “Monster House”) and at least one big hit (“Blades of Glory”), but there’s only one “Napoleon Dynamite.”
“Yeah. I go to Disneyland and people are like “Freakin’ Idiot!” and I’m like, “What’d I ever do to you? Oh. Oh, you’re quoting the movie,'” laughed Heder when we spoke last summer following a table read for the first season finale of the FOX animated comedy adaptation of “Napoleon Dynamite.”
In the interview, Heder and I discussed the positives and negatives of the “Napoleon Dynamite” phenomenon, the spirit of the new animated series
and the challenge of finding that Napoleon Dynamite voice once again.
HitFix: So did you think you were done being Napoleon Dynamite? Or did you assume he was coming back?
Jon Heder: You know, I always kinda felt like… There was never a time when it felt like it was just the end, because there always talk about doing a sequel. Maybe the talk was straight from the fans, but we talked about a sequel, we talked about a live-action television show. I think we always felt like, “Well, this can’t be completely it,” because fans really did want something more. They wanted a sequel. They wanted something. And it felt like a franchise that hadn’t really branched out into a franchise. It was waiting for something. So no, it wasn’t a big surprise.
HitFix: Do you have a sense of why maybe the sequel or the live-action show didn’t happen and why this ended up being the right way to branch out the franchise?
JH: I think when it would have been, time-wise, appropriate for a sequel, it just, at that point, everybody was doing other projects. And you know, to be honest, we were all like, “Well, we never saw this as a sequel-type movie.” It was an independent, small project. We had that small story. We weren’t really Hollywood business mind-oriented. Everybody else around us was like, “Oh, you’ve gotta do a sequel. You have to!” And we were like, “OK. Well. Maybe we will?” But Jared was directing other stuff. I was doing other things. I would have been up for it, but we all believed that everybody from the original project had to be working on the sequel, if we did it. I didn’t want a different writer. I didn’t want a different director. I didn’t want them to recast. It was just that to do it, you had to get everybody back together again and everybody was just doing different things and then it got too late for a sequel, maybe? But this feels right. Now it’s a lot more. It’s not just one movie. Hopefully, it’s an ongoing series of capturing that town. We’re older now and we’ll look older, I’m sure, on screen, but in animation, you can capture youth and beauty.
HitFix: Do you think it might be a little appropriate that with a movie as off-kilter as “Napoleon Dynamite,” you maybe aren’t striking while the iron was hot and you’re making striking while the iron is…
JH: Cold? Maybe that’s why it’s appropriate. We were so different and, look, we’re in our own timeframe and kinda doing our own thing and hopefully people still like it. I still hear it all the time, like “Oh my gosh! I love it.” I still get people going, “Are you ever going to do a sequel?” And now I get to finally give them an answer like, “Well this is the next best thing.” I think it’s pretty awesome, because it was a family movie and for television and as an animated show, it captures a lot of the same humor. It’s adding different elements, but I don’t think it’s taking away from a lot of the essence that we tried to capture in the film.
HitFix: Is there anything else that you’d compare the animated version to?
JH: Well, when you compare it to any animated half-hour TV show, like “The Simpsons” or “Futurama” or “Family Guy”… I mean, “King of the Hill,” I guess you could compare it in terms of its sensibility. it’s about small-town America and it focuses on some of the quirkiness and eccentricities of small-town American folk. So it kinda captures some of that, but it still has a lot of the same kind of humor you’d see on “The Simpsons.” It’s heightened. It’s animated, so therefore you have heightened reality, where even though there are a lot of moments where you’re like, “OK. This feels kinda real,” in the world of Napoleon, things blow up, animals talk, there are ghosts in one episode, so we’re able to push the reality a little bit more.
HitFix: You’ve had a lot of years to see how people react to you and how they react to this character. How much do you feel like people are laughing with Napoleon and how much are they laughing at him?
JH: I don’t know. Since he’s a made-up character, everybody feels it’s OK to laugh at him, because he’s fictional. But I think a lot of people, since the beginning, have felt like “We think it’s funny, because we all knew that guy” or “We were all kinda that guy at some point.” That’s what everybody says and everybody’s able to connect, because we know these characters. We all grew up with them. They were a part of our life, somewhat. I mean, that’s how I was: I knew people like that, but I was also a lot like that growing up. So it’s people laughing at themselves, like “Oh my gosh. I totally get that. That’s me and that’s my family and that’s kinda what we’re about.” And I think it’ll just be more of that with the TV show.
HitFix: How vividly do you remember the night the movie premiered at Sundance?
JH: Oh man. I’m pretty sure it was the first screening. It had to have been. It was amazing. I remember it very well. It was weird, because I was used to, in high school, doing premieres of the videos I made and it was a really cool thing, because yeah, I was in them, but if it’s something you made, it’s your baby. And this wasn’t my baby. I didn’t have a lot to lose. But Jared, he made it, so it was even moreso for him, but for me, it was nothing but good. I had nothing to lose, but saying that, we didn’t lose anything, because it was insane. People were laughing. The crowd was roaring. And afterwards, we did the Q&A and the Q&A was the most memorable part, because we walked out and people were blown away just to see these people they’d never seen before, these completely unknown names. We didn’t look at all like our characters and it was just mind-blowing.
HitFix: Was there a moment when you were watching it with that audience that you realized you had them? That you realized the movie really played and that it wasn’t just something you thought was funny?
JH: There were obviously some physical moments and any form of physical comedy can speak to anyone. Whether or not they get the jokes, when Uncle Rico hits Napoleon in the face with a steak, that was a big laugh. Other things… I remember that from the get-go, people were like, “OK. This is funny.” The opening of the movie, he throws that figurine out of the window and I don’t think there was a huge reaction, but there was still laughter. What was the first big laugh? Jared would probably remember it more. I can’t remember, but I know the dance scene… That’s near the end of the movie, but I think we knew before then, but that’s when we knew, actually, “OK. Now this movie’s gonna go somewhere,” not plot-wise, but as a project and as a piece of product. People are going to buy this. People are going to like this. That’s the make-it-or-break-it moment. The climax of any film is always make-it-or-break-it, but we always felt like it was going to be a weird ride for people to watch this. It was weird. It’s different. But if they really get that dance sequence, if they really get that moment, if they buy into the idea that Napoleon is a hero at the end, then I think we succeeded. And they loved it. And we were like, “Whew. OK.”
HitFix: And how easy has it been to hop back into the character, or at least his voice, for this show?
JH: It’s not very hard. It’s funny and it’s weird. In the beginning, it was really weird, because I hadn’t done the voice and I hadn’t done the character in so long and the only reference I had was all of the countless videos and YouTube links and college tours I did that were college kids quoting the movie and little kids quoting the movie, people quoting it to me. I never had to quote it, they just quoted it to me. And so I felt, the first time we did the little table read, I was like, “I sound like some dorky college student doing a bad impersonation, I guess” — not that they did that, because they were great — but it was weird and I felt outside of my body. I quickly had to remember like, “No, no, no. I did the voice.” And it sounds like it, I think, pretty good. So it wasn’t too bad.
HitFix: Have you had points at which Napoleon Dynamite has felt like an impediment to you?
JH: It’s hard to say. They still say, “From ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ Jon Heder” or they’ll still remember “The guy who played Napoleon Dynamite.” I think more people know that instead of my actual name, but I don’t know if that’s an impediment. It’s still like you’re there and people know who you are, at least, to some degree. It’s awareness. And they’re aware. They know who you are. I don’t know. I can’t really say it’s an impediment.
HitFix: But are there maybe some social circumstances in which you would prefer not to have “Napoleon Dynamite” lines yelled at you?
JH: Well, you know, when you’re having attention drawn to you? Yeah. I go to Disneyland and people are like “Freakin’ Idiot!” and I’m like, “What’d I ever do to you? Oh. Oh, you’re quoting the movie.” Yeah, you know. That’s like any project you do…
HitFix: But like you said, when the movie premiered at Sundance, nobody knew you and now people know you maybe as “Napoleon Dynamite” more than “Jon”…
JH: Yeah, you’re right. You go into a room and you’re like, “Can I do a blank slate here? Can I just be my old, goofy self? Or do I have to be Napoleon?” But Napoleon was kinda my goofy self, so that’s why it’s so hard, actually. It was kinda hard. So often you see — and I’m not a comedian at all — but you see movies about characters and they’ve been developed in sketch comedy, like on “Saturday Night Live.” These comedians will develop a character over however many seasons or sketches and they’ll make a movie based on that character. Everybody knows that character now, but they know the actor before the character. And I feel kinda the same way. We’d done the short film and it was kinda like I knew how to do that and it was really me, but right out of the gate, it was “Napoleon Dynamite” and not “Jon Heder.” So yeah, it’s been a little bit like anything I do that’s somewhat comedic, it doesn’t sound like Jon Heder. It sounds like Napoleon Dynamite.
HitFix: So you don’t think of yourself as a comedian?
JH: I’m not a comedian, but I love to do roles that are comedic. I like to try to be funny, but yeah, I don’t consider myself a comedian. A “comic actor” is what I’ve been referred to and I was like, “Sure. OK. Yeah.”
HitFix: Are there things you’ve done subsequently that you’d want to point to as a “This is what I can do if you don’t want to just think of me as Napoleon Dynamite”?
JH: I don’t know. What else? Hmmm…
HitFix: Well what’s the thing you’re proud of?
JH: I’d say I’m proud of everything I’ve done. Obviously I was being cast and auditioned for just more comedic roles and I did a movie called “For Ellen” last year and they’re still editing and working on it. It’s a small indie film and it was a drama. It was nice to do that, because I want to do a little bit of everything. It’s not just “comic actor,” it’s playing these roles. So that was a really fun project to work on. I loved it. It was cool, because I wasn’t trying to get out there and do something goofy.
“Napoleon Dynamite” premieres on FOX on Sunday, January 15.