Interview Date: 02/90/2011
Run Date: 02/15/2011
It only made sense that a movie like “Cedar Rapids,” the indie comedy about a small town insurance salesman who gets his world turned upside-down at a convention in a certain Iowa city, would do a press junket in the Midwest. And of course, the day they selected would turn out to be the coldest day of the year. But inside the gorgeous Elysian Hotel in Chicago, Ed Helms, star of “Cedar Rapids” and a regular on “The Office,” was as warm and gracious as any actor we’ve ever met. Bullz-Eye sat down with three Chicago writers to talk with Helms about doing a sex scene with Ellen Ripley, the importance of being earnest, and the indignity that is the nudity clause.
Bullz-Eye: You must have gotten tons of lead offers after the success of "The Hangover." What made you decide to choose this one as your first?
Ed Helms: (Chuckles) Well, I appreciate that assumption. It's not entirely accurate, but…I certainly got more attention after "The Hangover," but this project was a no-brainer because I was a part of it from the very beginning, even before the script existed. So I am very personally invested in this project, and it's something that the writer came to me with when it was still just an idea. I had a lot of input with Phil [Johnston, "Cedar Rapids" screenwriter] before he wrote the script, so this is a very personal project for me, and not something that was offered or fell into my lap.
Locke Peterseim (Redbox): What about it made it so personal? What about the story or the character did you really want to get on board with?
EH: I love characters who want so desperately to do the right thing, and to be good, and make horrible choices along the way, and suffer some horrible consequences. I just feel like...[Helms looks at the giant poster for the movie next to him, featuring him in full dork regalia, and starts laughing]
Rachel Gillman (Cheeky Chicago): My father had that suitcase.
EH: My grandmother had that suitcase. There's something sympathetic about a character that desperately wants to do the right thing. When you're talking about a fish out of water story, or a country mouse/city mouse kind of story, it's hard to pave new ground. And Phil's idea is pretty fresh and interesting because the character Tim, it's just a small town guy who goes to a big city and gets freaked out and overwhelmed - that's the one we've all seen a million times. This is a character that happens to be from a small town, but is really, in a lot of very unusual ways, tragic and stunted. You learn about his family and his parents, and that was a concerted effort to make this character plausible. And then, we don't take him to a big city; we take him to Cedar Rapids. And there's something very poignant about that being overwhelming for somebody, something that's mundane or run-of-the-mill for most of us is just utterly, stupefyingly terrifying to this character, because of who he is.
Cheeky Chicago: I love how he reacts to the hotel.
EH: Yeah. Hey, can we back up and tell me where you guys are from?
[Note: At this point, the writers introduce themselves. We go last]
BE: I write for Bullz-Eye, an entertainment site. Pretty girls are the bread and butter.
Nick Allen (Scorecard Report): Speaking of pretty girls and pretty women, what is having sex with Sigourney Weaver like? And how does that compare to having movie sex with Anne Heche?
EH: Well, just to be clear, it was movie sex, not actual sex.
Redbox: This wasn't "Last Tango in Paris"?
EH: It was my first love scene ever in a movie, so it was utterly terrifying just because of that. And then to have it be with someone so venerated and fantastic as Sigourney Weaver just added to the pressure. But of course, once I met Sigourney, she's the most gracious, elegant, lovely person you will ever meet in your life. And she's so experienced, she's such a professional, and brings this calm gravitas to the work. She made it very easy, and instantly reassured me that I was in good hands. It was daunting, but ultimately, it was just silly. And what was the other part?
Scorecard Report: How does it compare to Anne Heche?
EH: I'll just say they were both heavenly. One more heavenly than the other.
Cheeky Chicago: What sort of research did you have to do to prepare for this part, and what do you and Tim [Lippe, his character] have in common?
EH: I didn't do a whole lot of research about the insurance industry, or any of those things you might expect. But having played a hand in the very creation of Tim Lippe, that served as a lot of my homework, because I knew this character so intimately by the time we started production, and I injected a lot of my own thoughts and opinions about who he should be. And a lot of that stuff were things I wanted to do as a performer, and felt played to my strengths. I guess you could say the preparation for Tim Lippe was in many respects also the creation of Tim Lippe. What was the other part, how is he similar to me? I think that maybe I'll speak to the differences first. He's a much more hopeful and un-jaded person than I am. Of course, I have had a lot more life experience than Tim Lippe has had. But I think that's also what makes him so beguiling and wonderful. His values haven't been challenged, and when they do get challenged, he comes out feeling like they were always in the right place to begin with. I share his hope, but I'm far more jaded and cynical than he is. I also share his lack of understanding of the world around him. (Laughs) I feel like I'm constantly trying to understand why people are mean to each other, why do people do what they do. Why is the world like it is? I'm maybe a little better at hiding it than Tim Lippe.
BE: This feeds into one of my questions: what was it like playing someone so naïve? Was it simple, or did you find yourself fighting your own impulses?
EH: To me, it was really straightforward, because as long as a character is earnest, they're unimpeachable. If they're steadfast, and know their values, and know what they're trying to accomplish, and they're trying to be intrinsically good, that was something that I could understand and I could play. Like I said, I think I was able to tap into my goofy wonder of the world around me. I'll walk into a hotel like the Elysian, and I'll think, "How did they build this? How did this marble get chopped up from a quarry and trucked over here? How did that happen? And it's so smooth! What's that process? How do you smooth marble? What kind of sewing machine makes this seam?" If you look closely at the world around us, it's unbelievable. And I was able to tap into that for Tim, I guess.
Redbox: You made your bread and butter so far playing this holy fool. We were talking about comedic actors wanting to move into drama. Do you have an inclination toward eventually doing drama?
EH: If it's the right thing, absolutely. But I'm not seeking it out. The reason I do what I do is I fell in love with comedy as a kid, and movies like "Fletch," and "Ghostbusters," and "[National Lampoon's] Vacation," and "Animal House," and "Caddyshack," and "Raising Arizona," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." These were the movies that I wanted to do. And it seems to be working for me, so I'm not really looking elsewhere. But I think a lot of the best comedies do challenge that dramatic angle as well. Tom Hanks had one of the most elegant transitions from comedy.
Redbox: There's a bit of a '70s revival in films like "Cyrus" -
EH: How is that a '70s revival?
Redbox: In that you can do deadpan, almost painful human studies.
EH: Like a "Harold and Maude" kind of thing.
Redbox: Yeah. I was trying to find a class for ["Cyrus"] at the end of the year, and I said it was a comedy. But the others said it was just too painful.
EH: I just did a movie with [“Cyrus” writer/directors] Mark and Jay Duplass, and Jason Segel. I loved "Cyrus," I think that was a really special movie. Pain, in the right context, is hilarious, and there's something emotionally gratifying about laughing through something that is so awkward or painful. And the Duplass brothers are extraordinary in that way, and I'm excited about this movie, "Jeff Who Lives at Home."
Cheeky Chicago: I have to ask you one thing for my site: what is the cheekiest thing you've done lately?
EH: (jokingly lewd) Ooooh, cheekiest...that would have to be my locker room scene with Kurtwood Smith in "Cedar Rapids." It's pretty ridiculous. It's literally cheeky.
(Note: At this point, we're getting the signal to wrap it up, even though we were expecting to have another five or six minutes. Let's go to the big finish.)
Scorecard Review: Being an insurance agent isn't the most exciting job in the world. What are some jobs you had that were draining or soul-destroying?
EH: When i was a teenager, I worked at a concession stand at a community pool. You felt like one of those dummies where you throw the baseball and dunk them in the tank, because you can't go anywhere; you're just there as an object of ridicule and people get to walk by and make fun of you. You're in this little window handing out candy bars, and it's impossible to feel cool.
BE: Do you have a clause in your contract that states you will not do a movie unless your character gets his ass kicked?
EH: No, but I should add that, because it seems to be working. There is a nudity clause, and before you appear nude in a movie, you have to spell out the parameters of the nudity that you're comfortable with. It's utterly humiliating.
Cheeky Chicago: What are your defining lines?
EH: In this case, you take it from the script and say, "This is what it will be, and you will not show any part of the scrotum, and there will be no frontal shot of Ed Helms and his stunt double." It's all spelled out. It's the most humiliating aspect of showbiz, the legal work.
BE: But at least you got to keep all of your teeth in this one.
EH: Yep, so far.
Cheeky Chicago: We all really enjoyed the film.
EH: I'm touched by the response so far, thank you.(And with that, we were whisked away for our interview with “Cedar Rapids” director Miguel Arteta. The seriously funny Miguel Arteta, we might add.)