'Napoleon' has put him in comedy's big leagues
Updated 4/7/2006 12:43 AM
By Anthony Breznican, USA TODAY
Jon Heder stands on a sunny sidewalk outside a Los Angeles novelty shop, staring through his own reflection in the store window with an expression that is partly amused and partly mortified.
The star of the 2004 cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite has heard of this chain of gag stores called Aahs, but he has never been to one before. On the other side of the glass, a mannequin in a rubber, empty-eyed Napoleon mask gapes back at him, wearing a T-shirt, hat and slippers emblazoned with the movie's famous phrase "Vote For Pedro."
All around the dummy are trinkets and dolls with that face — you know the one. In fact, as he surveys the merchandise, Heder is making it now: eyes at half-staff, his full lips hanging open limply until they spring back to life and say: "That is a creepy mask."
[PRESTON HIGH REUNION: What's become of the Napoleon Dynamite cast?]
Like many fans of Napoleon Dynamite, Heder is glad to see a part of himself in the character without really wanting to be him. With The Benchwarmers, opening Friday, Heder (it rhymes with "leader") will try to break away from the character that launched his career. This Adam Sandler-produced movie is about three grown losers who take on Little Leaguers at baseball. Heder plays a paperboy whose skull is thicker than his crash helmet.
Heder enjoys his pop-culture niche. He points to the window display to the left of the Napoleon tchotchkes: a heap of toys and clothing from Tim Burton's animated The Nightmare Before Christmas, and on the other side, collectibles from The Simpsons.
"You know what's cool, though?" Heder says, breaking into a grin. "We're right next to my favorite movie of all time. We're there between The Simpsons and Nightmare. That's a dream come true."
Three movies to come
Heder is 28 now, and it has been two years since Napoleon premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and over the course of the summer became one of the biggest sleeper hits in movie history.
Made for $400,000, the movie earned $45 million at the box office, became a DVD hit, collected assorted MTV and Teen Choice awards and draped kids across the country in a fresh batch of ironic T-shirts.
For the uninitiated, Napoleon Dynamite is about a hopeless Idaho teen who campaigns to elect his monotone pal, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), class president. He feuds with the family llama, slap-fights with his miniature older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), and tries to escape from it all by wiring himself into a "time machine" purchased by his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), which only paralyzes him with an electrical shock.
Heder has done several other movies, most awaiting release. Last fall, he was the spaced-out psychic in the Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy Just Like Heaven.
Other Heder films coming soon:
• In the computer-animated Monster House (July 21), he voices a chubby pizza-delivery guy who tells neighborhood kids the secrets of a haunted mansion.
• In School for Scoundrels (Sept. 29), he's a meek meter-reader who takes a confidence-building class from Billy Bob Thornton, only to find himself competing with his teacher for the same woman.
•Blades of Glory, now shooting and due in 2007, has Heder as the rival of a disgraced Olympic skater (Will Ferrell). They team up for one more shot at gold.
Gold is one thing he didn't get a lot of from Napoleon. As he looks over the toys, T-shirts, action figures, lip balm, wigs and other items at the Aahs store, Heder says he didn't get rich off the movie.
Napoleon was made by director Jared Hess, Heder's classmate at Utah's Brigham Young University. Heder starred mainly as a favor and was paid $1,000.
"Technically, that's what I was paid," he says, though Fox Searchlight gave him an unspecified bonus when the movie became a hit.
"Anything after (the original $1,000), which wasn't much, was Fox saying 'Oh, you put a lot of work in for us through promotions, so basically here's a gift check,' " Heder says. "It wasn't that much. But it was the most I'd ever seen, so I'm not complaining. I could never complain because it was a boost. I didn't have a career. This started it."
In Aahs, a television plays the film continuously, and a man and his two children stand transfixed. When the father tries to move them along, one little girl protests: "Let's see what Napoleon says!"
Heder whispers: "It'd be great to just lean down and say, 'Kids, buy my stuff!' "
But he doesn't. Now, Heder looks so different from Napoleon, maybe they wouldn't believe him anyway.
No bones about it
Movie stardom is an unlikely arc for a Mormon kid from Oregon, who started studying film to become an animator, not a leading man. Napoleon Dynamite is no pin-up material, with his throaty Beavis and Butt-Head voice and donkey-sized choppers, but Heder is far more handsome, though more Tom Hanks than Tom Cruise.
He and his wife, Kirsten, have been married for three years, and he spent two years in Japan on the traditional proselytizing mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He's a twin from a family of six children, though he doesn't have any kids yet.
Napoleon has led to a first-look production deal at Universal Pictures for Heder, his twin, Dan, and their older brother, Doug, who will craft movies for Jon while producing their own animated features.
Gil Kenan, the director of the upcoming Monster House, says Heder's subtle facial expressions and unlikely limberness add a dangerous intensity to his performances.
"I broke his foot in the first take of the first scene," the director says. Heder also recently fractured his ankle working with Ferrell on Blades of Glory and wears a brace.
Kenan compares him to Monty Python's John Cleese: "As soon as you let him move his limbs, he's a big guy, but it feels like he doesn't have any bones. And it turns out he doesn't — in his feet."
But there's more to his success than slapstick. Heder and Hess (who directs Jack Black in the upcoming wrestling comedy Nacho Libre) presented a slice of life in Napoleon that is unique to rural Mormon culture in states like Utah and Idaho.
"I think that (Mormons) definitely see some correlation between the Napoleon character coming up with creative alternatives to swear words" like "Gosh!" "Dang!" and "Frickin' idiot!" Hess says. "In Mormon households, that's what kids have to do."
Robert Kirby, a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, has seen Napoleon many times and has some lines of dialogue as his cellphone ringtones. He says Heder provides Mormons with a cultural caricature they can embrace.
"If you weren't (Napoleon), you at least knew him, these hicks who thought they were really with-it but were about two years behind the times," says Kirby, a Mormon humorist who has written the books Sunday of the Living Dead and Wake Me for the Resurrection. "(Heder) promises real hope for the way Mormons are regarded in film. What we're looking for is our own stereotype. And without doing it in an overt or in-your-face way, he brings the Mormon character to the screen."
Heder says that because of his religious beliefs he won't take roles that have cursing, excessive sexuality or violence. In Benchwarmers, he says he tried to make his role more kid-friendly, though there are still plenty of gross-out gags.
Laughing, not preaching
He makes it clear that he's a comedian, not a preacher. "It's tough now, because am I like an ambassador (for Mormonism) now? I was representing the church on my mission, and now I'm representing the church again in some ways," Heder says. "Sometimes I downplay it. 'I'm a Mormon. This is what Mormons do.' — That's not my thing. I want to get up there and tell entertaining stories but that are also to a certain extent clean."
Walking this Saturday morning around Westwood near the UCLA campus, Heder remains unrecognized. At the nearby Bruin theater, he was mobbed by fans nearly a year ago when he and his brothers attended one of the first public showings of Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. He says he should have known better. "Bad idea," he says now. "It was like geek central. Everybody was coming up, left and right, bugging me for autographs, pictures, cellphone messages, cellphone pictures. It was out of control."
But inside Aahs, surrounded by merchandise and admirers glued to the movie, he is tickled to be undercover. Still ...
As Heder stands in line to purchase a Napoleon MP3 cover, Napoleon lunchbox and Napoleon flip-flops, he watches the family seen earlier watching the movie leave the store. He laments, "I should have said something."
Or, as his alter ego would say: Dang it!
Posted 4/6/2006 9:50 PM