Despite what you may assume based on his depiction of the mouth-breathing, tot-hoarding, moon boot-wearing nerd in the 2004 indie film that sparked his career, Jon Heder is not Napoleon Dynamite.
The actor did not grow up in Preston, Idaho. He was never a member of the Future Farmers of America. And he had no prior experience working on a chicken farm. But Heder did have enough in common with the title character to tap into his background—including his upbringing in Salem, Ore.—and infuse the role with a quirky yet tender style of humor rarely seen in the teen comedy genre.
"I mean, I went to Scout camp, and I made boondoggle keychains while at Scout camp," Heder says. "Just kind of that whole vibe very much resonated with my childhood."
WW caught up with Heder, 41, who's taking the film on the road to mark its 15th anniversary, including a screening this week at Aladdin Theater, to look back at the process of shaping Napoleon's persona, how those highly quotable lines emerged, and the places he always visits when he returns to Oregon.
WW: What prompted the movie tour 15 years after it debuted?
Jon Heder: People like anniversaries. You get that feeling of nostalgia, which is weird because 15 years for me has kind of flown by. It's so bizarre to have so many people who are already, like, "This is a movie I grew up on." I'm like, "Grew up? It's only been 15 years!" [in that time] forgetting that a lot can happen. One of the special things about Napoleon Dynamite and what brings out that feeling of nostalgia, it is a film about youth. Everybody has their favorite films—a lot of people's favorite films, especially from their childhood—are films about growing up.
Many of the characters were based on people director Jared Hess knew in small-town Idaho. Why do you think those characters ended up resonating so widely?
It was really just a passion project. It sounds kind of selfish to say—but first and foremost you want to entertain yourself. You hope you make something that other people like. At the same time, we weren't really thinking that when we made it. We were just like, "I hope we like it. I hope it works, and if nobody else likes it, then they're the idiots. We're the ones who get it." But I think, deep down, we all thought, "Yeah, lots of people should like this because we all know characters like this, either Napoleon or Kip."
Describe how the unique style of comedy and pacing developed and your role in shaping that.
All those things, like the pacing, the timing, just came from Jared's directing style. He wanted it to feel very picturesque, not a lot of camera movement. Not a lot of fast talking. He wanted you to pay attention to the visual of each frame shot, how it's very still, and that's kind of the pacing of life there in Preston, Idaho. There are pauses in between a lot of the dialogue. But every line of dialogue was crafted. Because it wasn't going to be quick-paced, a lot needed to be said in every line. And a lot of breathing. I just remember the mouth breathing—this needs to be in a character that we haven't seen before. It became very natural and easy to do. It was like putting on a mask.
How did Napoleon's physical characteristics originate?
It came almost piece by piece. Jared and I workshopped the characters simply by going to a local thrift store, and we started looking at the kind of clothes he would wear. We were almost proving to each other that we knew who this character was. But then it was a few days later that his wife said, "We should give this guy a perm. We should make him look way different." It took me, like, a half a millisecond before I said yes, but I was like, "Yeah, let's go for a transformation. This is going to be incredible. No other student actor is going to go to this length to bring a character to life."
What was your life like growing up in Salem? Did your experience in the Pacific Northwest ever work its way into any of your roles?
I came from a family of a bunch of kids. I have a twin brother and we were right in the middle. There are two older and two younger than us, and so we just kind of had that do-it-yourself, latchkey feel where we would go biking around wherever we wanted. This was the age of not really hanging out on tablets or cellphones and just going out and getting into adventures and trouble every day that we could. So I think that sense of adventure and youth and nostalgia has always seeped into my interests in film, the kind of stuff that I try to develop myself, but the roles that I like to go after, and especially a role like Napoleon.
What do you like to visit when you return to the Salem area?
Especially having kids now, whenever I go back, one of my favorite places ever is Enchanted Forest. That's like the epitome of everything. I mean, I like amusement parks and I love Oregon, and it's kind of like the perfect mix of my childhood and the things I loved growing up. Typically, when I come back to Salem, I'll often just hop in the car either by myself or grab a kid if they're not bored of it and say, "Let's go drive my old neighborhood!" Sometimes I'll even go to my old schools that I went to if it's summertime—they'll be open as they're cleaning—and I'll just walk the halls. Oh, Walery's Pizza. I don't know why, it's the best pizza. It's the local place with an arcade and 25-cent rides that your Little League team would go to whether you had a great season or not.
What do you hope audiences will take away by revisiting Napoleon Dynamite 15 years later or by perhaps watching it for the first time?
The main thing is, introducing a new audience, a new generation. That's how you keep it alive. But also I'm hoping the people who grew up on it—the people who were big fans—a lot of them probably haven't seen it in a while. I hope they come and feel the nostalgia and also think, "Yeah, this is a film that can live on."
SEE IT: Napoleon Dynamite screens with a post-film discussion with actor Jon Heder and llama selfies at Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., aladdin-theater.com, on Friday, Aug. 23. 7:30 pm. $25-$95.