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Home / See the stars of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ at Cedar Rapids screening at Paramount Theatre
Gosh. It’s not every day you’ll see two llamas outside the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids — or tots being sold for munching — by people, not the woolly even-toed ungulates Simon and Earl.
But then again, it’s not every day Napoleon Dynamite, Pedro and Uncle Rico come to town.
Actors Jon Heder (pronounced HEE-der), Efren Ramirez and Jon Gries are ending their pandemic-interrupted tour in Cedar Rapids on Sunday night, Sept. 26, 2021. Festivities start with a VIP meet-and-greet, followed by a screening of the 2004 cult classic film “Napoleon Dynamite,” wrapping up with a Q&A with the actors onstage.
“We have a really fun time,” Heder, 43, said by phone from his home in Vancouver, Wash., part of the greater Portland area. “It’s a Q&A, but I wouldn't call it what you typically think of. It’s more of an interactive Q&A, which I guess is redundant. But we have a good time.
“We play around with the audience and we mess around. We might get more craziness on this tour because we haven't done this in so long because of COVID. So you might see some pent-up energy being released through some harmonica playing, or stupid, impromptu fights for dances.”
Even before the pandemic set in, the tour was more like a series of mini-tours that started at the end of 2018 and ramped up in 2019, Heder said, so it’s been about a two-year trek.
What: VIP meet-and-greet, film screening, audience Q&A with Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries
Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021
Tickets: $35 to $160 VIP, creventslive.com/events/veue/paramount-theatre
He confessed they may sneak out of the theater during the screening, to catch a bite to eat.
“We all love the movie, but, you know, we’ve also seen it a hundred times,” he said. “Every now and then we'll come back a little bit early or we’ll be just backstage. Depending on the venue, if you hear the audience laughing, it's contagious, and we go out and we'll watch some of it with them or just see their reactions. So sometimes we'll do that, but more often than not, we'll just kind of hang out because we have the movie memorized.”
For those of you who don’t have it memorized, it’s the less-than-typical tale of high school misfits just trying to survive. Here’s the Searchlight Pictures description:
“From the rural town of Preston, Idaho, comes Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder). With a red 'fro, his moon boots, and illegal government ninja moves, he is a new kind of hero. His family consists of fragile brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who's seeking his soul mate in online chat rooms; Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who is stuck in his ‘glory’ days of high school football; and Grandma (Sandy Martin), who enjoys going out to the dunes on her quad-runner. Napoleon spends his days drawing magical beasts, working on his computer hacking skills to impress the chicks, and begrudgingly feeding his Grandma's pet llama. When his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) decides to run for class president, it is Napoleon to the rescue to help him triumph over adversity.”
It started as a short film for a school project by writer/director Jared Hess, who attended film school at Brigham Young University with Heder. They were acquaintances who “barely knew each other,” but did work together on a couple of projects, Heder said.
“He just approached me and said, ‘Hey, I think you’d be right for this. Give this a read and let me know what you think, because I think I can see you doing this.’
“I’d done a little bit of acting — enough that I think he felt comfortable with me (and) my level of comfort doing something like this,” Heder said.
He read it and was immediately drawn to the project.
“It was kind of meant to be — written in the stars,” he said. “This is certainly a world that I understand. And this character is someone I feel has never really been on screen, but everybody knows this guy. We need to see this guy on screen.
“And so we did a seven-minute short film and then that kind of inadvertently turned into a feature, because Jared always knew he wanted to do a feature-length film within the next year or so about his growing-up experiences in Preston, Idaho, which is where the short film took place.
“But I think he had some other characters in mind and just a little bit of a different approach.”
When Hess saw people loving the short film, he realized he had a character he could build a feature-length film around, and bring in other characters he had in mind, Heder noted, including Kip, Deb and Uncle Rico.
“(Hess) always knew he wanted to make it about awkward youth, but we literally took basically the exact same character from the short film, and (said) all right, let's just do him — moon boots, perm and everything.”
Heder’s cinematic hair color was natural, the curls were not. He said Hess, his wife and co-writer Jerusha Hess, and Heder all wanted the film to “feel very raw and natural and real.”
“We don't want it to feel like we're slapping a silly wig on someone, or that we're doing a weird caricature. (Hess) wanted this to feel almost documentary-like,” Heder said.
When the Hesses asked him what he thought about getting a perm, Heder said he paused for a second.
"I was a single college student. I didn’t have a lot of prospects in terms of dating, in terms of, like, cool factor,“ he said. ”But then this film student in me — the artist in me — kicked in.“
As he mulled over the prospect of getting a perm, he realized he didn’t know any other students and actors going to such lengths for their short-film projects.
He decided, “I’m going to show the commitment. I’m going to do this — this is gonna kill it. I really did feel that kind of pride and it totally, completely paid off. We did it, and the short film is incredible. I love it, and it feels real. And I think that set the tone — it would not have been the same without the perm.”
“Napoleon Dynamite” jump-started his career.
“There was no career before,” he said. “I was a college student. We shot the film in the summer of ’03, I had one more year of college left. I was actually an animation major. My plan originally was to graduate with a degree in animation, move down to L.A., and find work there as an animator. That was the hope, but doing acting on the side.
“People seemed to like me in the acting world. And when I say ‘people,’ I mean fellow students casting me in their projects. I did not have an agent, nobody knew me outside of Provo, Utah.”
Everything changed when “Napoleon” premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and was snapped up for distribution.
“I got an agent, and suddenly, everybody knew who I was,” he said. “It really timed nicely. I was able to finish up my last year of college while I was reading scripts and putting myself on tape. And then I moved down to L.A., which was already kind of the plan.
“That’s how it happened, and I thought I would be a fool not to strike while the iron’s hot, and take this opportunity, which is once in a lifetime, and turn this into something and see where it goes.”
He’s gone on to star in such comedies as “Blades of Glory” with Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, “The Bench Warmers” with David Spade and Rob Schneider, and played a bookstore owner in the romantic comedy “Just Like Heaven,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. He’s also become a producer; has done voice-over work for animated films and series; and appeared in music videos.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a married father of four, he sets boundaries on the kind of movies he’ll do, to make sure they align with his faith life. He’s turned down some projects that made him uncomfortable, but added that luckily, most of those weren’t very well written.
And while no “Napoleon Dynamite” sequel is in the works, he’s just finished filming “Tapawingo,” an independent film he hopes will make it into theaters. He said it’s hard to describe, but it’s about “a thirty-something-year-old burned-out loser who lives with his mom, helps protect a local nerdy high school student from the town bullies.”
“There’s a lot of similarities in the vibe,” he said.
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