A decade on from the release of Napoleon Dynamite, the title character still feels like one of the most defiantly odd characters ever committed to film. With his tight perm, awkward mannerisms and serial killer glasses, Napoleon is one of cinema’s most enjoyable weirdos. For Jon Heder, who played the role, Napoleon was his first major acting job. “To me, it wasn’t just any other gig,” he explains with a laugh. “I had nothing to compare it with at all. When I stepped onto the set, it really felt like my destiny.”
Even though Napoleon was created by writers Jared and Jerusha Hess, Heder felt a strong personal connection with the character. “I really felt close to him,” he says. “I immediately felt like I saw eye-to-eye with this character, and a lot of him comes from me when I was growing up.”
When the film came out, Napoleon was celebrated as a champion of freaks and weirdos, and I ask Heder how he feels about this continuing legacy so many years on. “I think it’s great,” he says. “I mean, the fact that I’m able to do conventions a decade after the movie came out shows that people are still talking about it, they still love it and feel very passionate about it.”
Personally, Heder most enjoys seeing the movie’s appeal extend across generations. “I talk to people who didn’t have kids when it came out,” he says, “or whose kids were too young, and they now say that they’ve been able to show it to their kids, that they watch it together. I think that’s really great.”
Napoleon Dynamite has permeated pop culture in a way that few other films manage, and I wonder if Heder still sees a lot of “Vote For Pedro” shirts when he’s out and about. He laughs at the thought. “To be honest with you, I hang out at home a lot, I have kids, so I don’t see much of what anybody is wearing. I don’t get out very much.” Having said that, Heder is still approached a lot about his role in the film. “That happened a lot when it came out, and these days it’s a different conversation, because these days, people come up to me and say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember growing up on that film.’ I’m always like, what do you mean, ‘growing up’? It was only ten years ago!”
For many people, Napoleon Dynamite is a pick-me-up, a film they come back to and watch again on down days for lines like, “Tina, come get some ham!” I’m interested to know if Heder himself has a movie like that, one he returns to when he needs a little cinematic boost. He ponders this for a while.
“You know, I think that if I had to pick one of those for myself, it would be the comedy series Kids In The Hall,” he says. “Whenever I need to kill a half hour during lunch, or have some quiet time, I go back to that. I don’t know that I use movies or TV shows as pick-me-ups, but if ever I need a good laugh, I always go back to that. It speaks to me and I love it.”
Heder’s accomplishments in comedy go well beyond Napoleon Dynamite – he even had the chance to star alongside Will Ferrell in the ice skating comedy Blades Of Glory. “That was amazing,” he says, “a dream come true. I spent a lot of my formative high school and college years watching Will Ferrell, and I never would have imagined a few years later we’d be doing a movie together. It was quite a shocker.”
The experience of working with Ferrell taught Heder more about his craft, though he finds it hard to quantify. “You always soak something up from the people you work with,” Heder says. “It’s hard to put in words, but it was great just watching him improvise, watching him think, and I took a lot away from that, as I do from each project and each actor I work with. He definitely helped me a lot, that’s for sure.”
Heder also hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in 2005, the one that featured the return of Ashlee Simpson, having a second crack at being musical guest after her stunning lip-syncing debacle. Heder says he just tried to keep his head down and get on with things. “That didn’t really affect me too much to be honest,” he says. “I figured she had her own stress to figure out, so I just focused on not screwing up on live television on one of the most popular shows of all time, and I was working alongside incredible people like Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg right as they were getting their start. I thought it would be stressful, but it was a real rush, and I’d go back and do it again any time.”
Two years back, Heder revisited the character of Napoleon Dynamite in a short-lived animated series, and I ask how he feels now looking back on that experience. “It was great,” he says. “In some ways, the series was our answer to a lot of people’s questions about whether there’d be a part two. I always wanted to do that, but it’s a matter of waiting until the stars align and everyone’s in the right place. It might be too late for that now, but it was very cool to be able to do the animated series, to bring all the old people back together, to bring the characters to life again in a different way, and to be able to see all the incredible stuff the animators brought to the table. I was really bummed that we only got one season, and I guess there’s still a chance we might be able to do more, but it was a great experience.”
This week, Heder is in Sydney for the Supanova convention, meeting fans and talking all things Napoleon, Blades and beyond. Though conventions are a relatively new prospect for him, he is still excited. “I haven’t done many things like this, to be honest,” he says. “I just started going to things like this last August, and I’ve done a few since. They’re a lot of fun. It’s a great way to connect with fans. I’m not that good with social media – I’m not into Twitter or Facebook, so I like doing conventions, because they feel very old-fashioned. They take you back to the days of fan clubs, and they offer you a great way to talk with the fans one-on-one. You connect with people, and they’re usually really cool and you have a great conversation. I love it, it’s great, and it’s definitely fun because it’s something way out of the ordinary, it’s not something I’d get to do on a normal day.”
See Jon Heder at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo from Friday June 13 until Sunday June 15 at the Sydney Showground. Also appearing will be Stan Lee, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, George Lazenby, Ming-Na Wen, Rose McGowan and heaps more.