Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
In my mind Ed Helms is one of the reigning kings of mild-mannered comedy geniuses. He doesn't go out of his way to get the biggest laugh in a scene, and that often results in him getting the biggest laugh. When you meet him or hear him interviewed, he comes across as the kind of person that wouldn't dare use a four-letter word, much like his character Tim Lippe in the recently limited released CEDAR RAPIDS, but right when you start to assume that, he launches into a matter-of-fact discussion laden with hilarious vulgarities.
Helms has a lot going on in his film and television career that have made his fans especially excited. First off, his NBC show "The Office" is about to lose its captain when Steve Carell leaves later this season, setting up the show's single most interesting set of opportunities. Helms told an audience at a Q&A screening held the night before our interview that it was his understanding that the show runners had decided how replacing Michael Scott would be handled, but they had not told the cast yet.
Helms has also finished shooting THE HANGOVER, PART II, due for release May 26. And I made a point to mention during the Q&A that I could not recall a comedy release in recent history that has garnered this much scrambling for little bits of information about the plot, potential cameos (we joked about the Bill Clinton rumors), and just how outrageous the behavior gets. We'll soon see, but the directive has been put forth that Helms and his co-stars cannot reveal any details beyond what is being released by the studio. The mystery deepens.
It should come as no surprise that Helms is one of the easiest and most fun people to talk to. He's every bit the nice guy you'd expect he would be, and he's as eager and willing to talk about just about anything as he is to be entertaining with his replies. He and CEDAR RAPIDS director Miguel Arteta (I'll have my interview with him very soon) were in Chicago last week, fresh from the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Please enjoy my talk with Ed Helms…
Ed Helms: Did you record the Q&A last night?
Capone: I always want those Q&As to be places where people can feel like they can say whatever they want, and they don’t have to feel like they're on the record quite as much, so if you did decide to spill something vital…
EH: That's cool. You're right. Of course, there’s no such thing as “off the record” anymore. It’s crazy. As soon as you say something, it’s Tweeted and it’s out there.
Capone: I went to journalism school, so I actually try to respect someone who requests to be off the record.
EH: I know, right?
Capone: Obviously anyone in that audience can write whatever they want about what happened last night. I just know that I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to hold back. And when there's a recorder is in the room…
EH: I feel like that’s a noble thing. I’ve had a number of moments that I assumed were off the record quoted as a story, quoted where that is the story, and the interview becomes a different story later on. Someone will ask me something, I’ll be like “I don’t want to get into that, because of blah blah…” and then “blah blah blah” becomes the whole thing. "What the hell?"
Capone: You’ve probably been getting a lot of questions recently, either the changes on "The Office" or about THE HANGOVER, PART II, where that would probably happen if you said the wrong thing, if you revealed something about either one that maybe the general public did not know, it would become a story.
EH: Yes. This is a learning process for me, too. It really is. How to interface with journalists and so forth.
Capone: Well, this has certainly got to be the most you've had to deal with the press on that level, starting with Sundance. Your picture is on the poster and your name is at the beginning of the cast list.
EH: Well, to be fair, this is a Fox Searchlight movie, and THE HANGOVER was Warner Brothers with an international component. We had a huge junket in Las Vegas, so this is not quite that intense. But no one cared what I had to say and there weren’t these sort of like mysteries looming, like HANGOVER and "The Office." Yeah, so it was a different situation.
Capone: I don’t know if this is the first time you’ve been at Sundance, but it probably was the first time you had been where, like I said, your name is at the top of the cast list. What was that experience like, premiering this movie at Sundance?
EH: It was just about the coolest thing you could imagine. [Laughs] Were you at Sundance?
Capone: No, we had other guys there, but not me.
EH: Sundance is so cool and intoxicating. If you love movies, Sundance is the most exciting place to be. I have loved movies since I was a teenager, and when I was a senior in college took a trip to Sundance just because I was so excited about indie filmmaking. It seemed like the place where you could make a movie on a shoe string and actually get it seen by Robert Redford or whoever. So me and a buddy took this trip to Sundance, and it was everything we had hoped. We saw BIG NIGHT. We saw the first screening of BIG NIGHT and felt like we were at ground zero with this great movie that people were talking about. That buddy actually is Mark Webb, who is a director now.
Capone: Oh sure.
EH: Yeah, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and…
Capone: The new SPIDER-MAN. Sure, I met him when he came through Chicago with (500) DAYS OF SUMMER.
EH: Yeah, SPIDER-MAN, which I hope gets better reviews than the musical [laughs].
Capone: I don't think he has anything to worry about there.
EH: So Sundance has been for a long time been this mystical, wonderful thing and to have a movie premiere there and to get the warm reception that it got just meant the world to me.
Capone: So was it difficult playing a character this self-isolated? Tim never left this town basically, he's never been on a plane before. How was it identifying with a character like that? Can you imagine the life of a man under those circumstances?
EH: Well, I certainly understand the impulse to isolate yourself. I think Tim is a tragic character, because he has allowed a kind of mild agoraphobia to really dictate how he interfaces with the world, and you're right, he has built this cocoon around himself, and it’s really fear-based. He’s terrified of leaving this small town. He’s terrified of branching out. He’s had this job at Brownstar Insurance for 20 years, ever since he was 15. I can relate to the impulse, because I’m often scared by the world around me and I very often feel like I just don’t understand what’s going on around me. So, I relate to that. I’m much better at coping with it and dealing with it than Tim Lippe is, but it gave me something to tap into, I think.
Capone: Some of his word choices I think are great, or some of the dialog choices really tell us a lot about him. He doesn’t "have sex" with a woman, he has to "make love" to her. It’s always about that, or when he says, “I’m not a philanderer.” Who uses that word? That really gives a sense of just how he sees the world. Casual sex, he doesn’t even know what that means.
EH: Yep, you are right. He has no life experience to build on and he has no life experience to contextualize these things, and what he’s maybe seeing on TV or in movies to him is not real and only fantasy. Phil Johnston, the writer, gave him this language that reflects that. One of my favorite lines from Tim is “My foot!”
EH: I forget what Joan [played by Anne Heche] she says that triggers that, but it’s so intense and then all he says is “My foot!” Like that’s the dirtiest thing he can come up with.
Capone: It is like he learns to swear in this experience. He does learn to feel more comfortable using some of those words.
EH: It’s a big moment when he makes a blow-job joke, you know? I don’t know, I just think he’s a compelling character. Hopefully, if we did our job right, it’s plausible. It’s hard to make a character that isolated and that kind of stunted seem realistic, and I hope that we have done that. That was certainly the effort.
Capone: Certainly of all of the characters, he seems the most like someone you could very easily run into in certain circumstances, in certain places. Watching this film, I couldn’t get out of my mind that this is almost the polar opposite of a film like UP IN THE AIR, which is about a who deals with his desire to be self-isolated by always moving and never settling down, as opposed to Tim who is so ingrained in his life that he has to learn to just open up to the world around him a little bit. And in both films, you have this woman who is attached, who is married and unattainable, drawing something out of him in both films.
EH: Plus, everyone tells me that I’m exactly like George Clooney.
Capone: Looks, physique, like to be naked a lot, yeah.
EH: Yeah, that is a really cool connection I had not thought of. I loved UP IN THE AIR. You do have two very isolated heroes, but for very different reasons. One is sort of running from everything and just constantly in motion, and the other is completely static and unable to move around, and there’s a bit of an awakening for both of them.
Capone: We talked last night about how undressed you are in this film, and Miguel told me last night that you actually had a fairly detailed nudity clause in your contract. Can you talk about that?
EH: Any time that you appear nude in a movie, you have to sign a nudity waiver, and your lawyer goes back and forth with the studio about the language of that waiver, and it is the most humiliating document you could ever read, because it delineates exactly how and where and in what context what parts of your body can be exposed when and where. And you have to set these things in advanced, because once you get on set, it’s very easy for a director to try to push you into a different direction, and this gives you the legal legs to stand on to just sort of say, “No, this is what I’m comfortable with and that’s it.” That said, it’s so ridiculous to think that I pay a lawyer to discuss my genitals.
Capone: Some of us only dream of that. In terms of the individual scenes, obviously when you are working with John C. Reilly, I’m guessing, there's a sort of free-floating, unscripted comedy happening. Do you remember any particular scene about as loose as it got and containing the most amount of unscripted material? Where everyone felt free to cut loose a little bit, and that version made it into the film?
EH: Well, the scene in the bathroom, when he walks in on me in the bathroom… Basically, we maybe did the scripted version once, and then it was kind of like, all we needed to do is sell the fact that this bathroom really stinks and that Deanzie [Reilly] wants to talk to Tim in the stairwell. That’s really all we needed out of that scene.
Capone: Right, it’s basically just a transitional moment.
EH: Right. And so we just had a ton of fun going all over the place in that scene and some versions were like fiver minutes long and others that were just incredibly indulgent. He kept changing up his physical response to the small, and I kept changing up my excuse for why it smelled so bad.
Capone: I was going to ask you if the "tainted yogurt" line was yours.
EH: Yeah, absolutely. I will take full credit for the tainted yogurt, and there were a number of different triggers for my intestinal issues in that scene that we explored. I mean look, that’s like the most straight-up bathroom humor…
EH: Very literally, and I love that even in a movie like this we can just go there with no shame.
Capone: I liked that you're not making fun of any of these people, even with their Wisconsin accents and buttoned-up lifestyle. Any of the great comedies that I’ve liked in the last 10 years have been ones where it’s not about mocking people, it’s just about laughing with them, a little bit at them, but not making fun of them and not being mean. I don’t think there’s anything mean about this movie. Really there aren’t even “bad guys” in this movie; there are just people with different moral issues.
EH: Orin Helgesson [played by Kurtwood Smith] is probably the worst.
Capone: There are people like that, for sure…
EH: Yeah, but you are exactly right. That ambiguity about who's bad and who's good was really one of the great themes that Phil wanted to tackle in this--that subversion of expectations. You get Stephen Root saying, “Avoid Dean Zeigler; he’s a poacher.” Then you see Tim write down “poacher” next to Dean’s name, and then of course Dean is like the most benevolent, wonderful human being underneath all of that bluster, and that’s something that Phil just executed beautifully. I’m sorry, you were talking about how condescending or not the movie is?
I also think that to call Tim Lippe a stereotype of a small-town person is to misunderstand the complexity of him as a character, because he’s not who he is just because he’s from a small town. He’s who he is, because of these unusually bizarre tragic circumstances of his childhood and having lost his dad in a sawmill accident at five or six years old, and then he looses his mother shortly after--we don’t even know how--and no one stepped in to fill the void except for Stephen Root, who clearly doesn’t even really give a shit about him. There’s something a little dark and sad and very rare and weird about Tim’s background, and that’s what I think is why I don’t think we're doing this goofy small-town guy going to a big city story; it’s more of just a damaged stunted guy confronting reality.
Capone: We touched on it a bit last night--he film you made with the Duplass Brothers last year. When is that ever coming out? What is that about? It seems like they made it right after CYRUS was released, because it was just there and done. Right when that film came out, I started hearing about JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME. This might be the only thing you're involved in that isn't shrouded in secrecy.
EH: Yeah, right. It’s actually top secret. We shot that movie last summer. I’m not sure where that fits into the CYRUS timeline, but it was kind of the beginning of last summer and we spent six or eight weeks in New Orleans. It’s kind of a really beautiful and weird caper movie about two brothers trying to uncover the truth about something going on in their family and…
Capone: That’s you and Jason [Segel]?
EH: Yeah. Jason plays Jeff, and he’s like this kind of looser who lives at home, and I’m his older brother who’s just marginally more successful in that he actually has a job and a wife and lives on his own, but there’s tremendous tension between them. It’s really cool. Susan Sarandon is our mom, and Judy Greer is my wife.
Capone: Wow, good for you. I love her.
EH: I can’t believe my good fortune to have Anne Heche and Judy Greer as back-to-back ladies to play off of; it’s just incredible. And Heather Graham, of course. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know when it’s going to come out other than it’s still in sort of polishing mode, and I’ve seen a rough cut and I am insanely excited about it. It’s really, really a cool movie.
Capone: I do want to ask one question about THE HANGOVER, PART II, and I realize there’s very little you can say about it. But I do want to tap your brain about why do you think people are scrambling for this information about a comedy? It doesn’t ever happen that way.
EH: Do you mind if I sort of recap my answer from last night?
Capone: Of course.
EH: I hadn’t thought about it until you asked that question last night and I think I answered it beautifully. [laughs] THE HANGOVER is, at its core, a mystery movie, and the movie itself is about finding out information and uncovering and digging for information. So, what that information is is what makes the movie so exciting. It’s the reveals. It’s the mystery. I think it makes a lot of sense that fans of the first movie are dying to know what those little nuggets of information are in the second one.
It also has this sense of like, “Oh my God, what have these guys gotten themselves into?” kind of thing, and the first movie just went to such crazy extremes, it makes sense that it would kind of stimulate curiosity about what other new extremes could this new one go to? All I can say to that is, we have built on the first one, and it goes much further.
Capone: Wow. And real quick, THE MUPPETS, are you in this or not? I keep hearing “maybe.”
EH: I don’t think so. That’s what I’m hearing too, so I don’t think so. I just talked to Segel the other day, and I’m not sure how that’s going to play out.
Capone: I know you wanted to be.
EH: My schedule has been just so bananas between "The Office" and this kind of stuff.
Capone: I realized last night as I was talking about how much analysis there was about the first HANGOVER II photo that was released, and I started listing micro-details that I'd noticed about it, and then you were all like, “Wow, look at him going off on that photo.”
EH: [Laughing] That was really funny. You were just rambling off questions.
Capone: I have become what I have beheld.
EH: That was a great Q&A, thank you.
Capone: It was definitely a lot of fun. Good to meet you, sir.
EH: Yes indeed, likewise, Steve.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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