Fifteen years ago, a low-budget indie film from an unheard-of husband-and-wife duo asked this question, and the bet paid off in spades. Napoleon Dynamite, the debut film from Jared and Jerusha Hess, arrived with cult acclaim, and its following has grown slowly and steadily ever since. Its staying power and relevance are simple matters. The movie is the perfect love letter to youth searching for a place in the world and turning it, no matter how singularly, into a stage.
For this reason, Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Jon Gries haven taken the film on the road for an anniversary celebration. Following almost 20 dates in 2019, the trio make their way to Phoenix this week for a screening and a conversation at the Orpheum Theater. The Phoenix New Times had the great pleasure of catching up with Jon Gries — Uncle Rico himself — about the tour and his recent work as Dr. Roberts on Adult Swim’s Dream Corp, LLC.
Phoenix New Times: So much of the cast has jumped in to celebrate the 15th anniversary — even Tina. What are you looking forward to for this round? Do you have any expectations? Any trepidation?
Jon Gries: Every audience, they’re all very positive. There’s something about the film that allows people to shed whatever they’re going through in their life. Audiences start out from such a positive place, so there’s never a sense of trepidation. We’re so off the cuff, we just kind of go wherever the show takes us. Sometimes it gets very raucous — [in] Austin, they were really letting it loose. Sometimes we get into arguments on stage, but it’s all in fun.
I feel like whatever people take from this movie, it has to be positive.
I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people in the military. There was a guy who said, “I was in submarine duty, down there for 14 months. We watched this movie every day. Talk about raising your spirits. When you’re in a metal tube under the water! Everything was so serious, but we’d put it on when we were eating. It just made us happy.”
Napoleon Dynamite is a really interesting film to me because it’s very free interpretation. My dad likes the movie because he sees it as kind of an '80s college comedy. I liked the movie when I first saw it in high school because I thought, wow, that’s me. That’s me and my weird interests and my peers who don’t understand anything I do.
There’s a sense of timelessness. There’s a computer in the movie, but other than that connection between Kip and LaFawnduh, it would have felt like an '80s movie. The film is inherently nostalgic. Even if you are 85 years old and you went to high school in the '40s, there’s something about how people interact that spans time.
And there’s always something to be said for finding your place in the world, even if it’s lonely at times.
There’s nothing greater than true social interaction. Even though Napoleon is a loner, he’s not really affected by that. Everything he deals with, he’s very confident about. He doesn’t seem to have moments of doubt or self-reflection. And so here is this guy who, by all measures, is socially awkward or had social anxiety. But he doesn’t really care. He just says what he thinks. And even if he is fabricating his story, it doesn’t feel like lying. It’s just like the video game in his mind.
Napoleon isn’t the only one.
Uncle Rico is representative of nostalgia. Maybe regret, but remember the things in the past and wishing they could have gone a different way, but still making the best of what he’s got.
What draws you to screening the film this way? What makes this interaction special?
With movies, it seems like there’s a separation of the characters and the audience. They see us on screen, and then they read about bigger-known people, and they are these kinds of iconic carvings on a cliff. It’s almost like they aren’t even real. I was in a film years ago called Jackpot. Sony Classics was putting it out, and I was like, “Let us have a print, and we’ll do a college tour and show this movie.” I was trying to do this back in 2000. When Fox Searchlight did Napoleon Dynamite and did a college tour, I was like, “This is what I was trying to do years ago!” It’s an amazing experience for both sides. I always get stories from audience members who, in some way, say, “Hey, this movie saved my life. It gave me a spark of hope.”
That's what it's all about.
Sometimes as an actor, I feel like what I do for a living is kind of superfluous — it doesn’t have any substance. It’s just my job. I don’t think a lot of times in terms of how people will take it. I just think people want to be entertained. But meeting people in the last year and a half, getting a lot of letters, hearing how people are talking to us saying, “You don’t know how this film affected my life ..." It’s profound. I feel honored to be part of it. It engenders a common good, which, in this day and age, is huge. We need to be more accepting of each other.
What’s the 10,000 foot view fly-by story of how Jon Gries got involved with this film?
I had a wonderful agent, one of the old school amazing agents in Hollywood, a woman named Susan Smith. She had Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham — a lot of really good people. I called her up after filming that show The Pretender. I said, “Susan, I really just want to write and focus on that — I think I’m going to throw in the towel.” This is around 2002. And she was just like, “I support you." So I fell off the face of the Earth. Then one day, like 10 months in, Jory Weitz was casting a movie. He called me and was like, “Where’ve you been? You quit acting?” He said he had an actor drop out, and Daryl Hannah had recommended me. So I went out and did [Steve Anderson’s] The Big Empty.
When Jory got involved as the casting director in Napoleon Dynamite, they needed an office to cast in L.A., and The Big Empty had taken a lot at 20th Century Fox, which was kismet because we eventually became a Fox film. Jory showed [The Big Empty] to Jared, and he wanted to make an offer. So a manager came to me and said, “There’s this script, but we don’t know who these guys are. Let’s just say no.” But I wanted to see the script, and by page 15, I was howling it was so funny. I got it immediately. To me, it leapt off the page.
Ten years after Napoleon Dynamite, and after a variety of other notable roles include your stint as Roger Linus on Lost, you make a pilot for Dream Corp, LLC, which I think is one of the smartest shows in some time. What drew you to this project?
The showrunner, Daniel Stessen, I met through an ex-girlfriend. I used to shoot and direct music videos back in the late '80s. I did rap videos and stuff. He was filming a competition thing for MTV, just trying to make his name, and I helped him. He was shooting, and I got him a location that was nearby. I shot it and lit it, and we worked for 18 hours, and he was like, “Dude, you’re the only person that has the same amount of energy as me!”
That comes across on screen.
There was a party at Val Kilmer’s house, and there was Daniel with Stephen Merchant on the stairs. And he came up to me and said he was doing a pilot. Next thing you know, I was in the room for the Randy role. And he was like, “Would you be willing to play the Doctor instead?” Then, of course, Adult Swim immediately signed off.
In a lot of ways, I feel like Dr. Roberts’ relationship with 88 [Nicholas Rutherford] is not unlike Uncle Rico and Napoleon. You are there to help, but … you also have ulterior motives.
I think that there’s a similarity in that Uncle Rico was all about his intended goal, whether that’s to be a football player or an entrepreneur. I told Jared [Hess], if we ever did a sequel, Uncle Rico would have his own production company filming backyard wrestling and selling it to YouTube. With Dr. Roberts, it’s all about the science. That’s all it’s about.
This is your first venture into the Adult Swim world, which is a super-interesting creative group. They do things like music festivals and screenings and outdoor picnic events all over the country, and have this feeling of cult status from the get go on all their projects. Has this been fun for you?
Adult Swim is the embodiment of how I’ve aspired for my career to go. I’ve been in a lot of independent films, but they represent the plenum in the television market of doing something irreverent and iconoclastic. I told Daniel, if this goes for 10 seasons, I’m happy. I’m happy to burn out into the ether of show business. I feel honored to be part of the family — to be enshrined in the Adult Swim pantheon.
All of these things, really ... Napoleon Dynamite, I got nominated for a Spirit award. I got to sit down and be a dude in the room. I never thought that’s something I’d get to enjoy.
Napoleon Dynamite: A Conversation with Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Jon Gries is scheduled for Friday, January 17, at Orpheum Theatre. Tickets are $25 to $75 and available via EventBrite.