Ed Helms’ career path is one many actors and comics would kill for, from his early days as a correspondent on “The Daily Show” to his introduction on the third season of NBC’s hit sitcom “The Office” playing Andy Bernard, Jim’s new co-worker at the Stamford branch of Dunder Mifflin, Helms’ pleasant nature has always been embraced by viewers. After Andy was brought over to the Scranton branch on “The Office,” his character has played a bigger part on the show with each successive season, often having his own storylines, but things really exploded for Helms in 2009 when he was cast as one of the key players in Todd Phillips’ The Hangover. That became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, making Helms an even more visible presence, and it was only a matter of time before he would get his own starring vehicle.
In Cedar Rapids, a movie the actor developed from the ground up with screenwriter Phil Johnston, Helms plays Tim Lippe, an idealistic insurance salesman from Wisconsin sent to Cedar Rapids to represent his agency at the annual convention and trying to win the coveted Two Diamonds rating. Once there, Tim finds himself spending much of his time hanging out and drinking with a group of veteran salesmen, played by John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr., each with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Cedar Rapids had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival just a few short weeks back, and ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down to talk to Helms (on his birthday, no less!) and director Miguel Arteta, who we had previously spoken to about his film Youth in Revolt.
In person, Ed is a lot like his character, whether it’s Andy or Tim Lippe, just a really pleasant straight-shooter who you wouldn’t figure to have a bad bone in his body.
ComingSoon.net: So Miguel, last time we talked you were in Toronto for “Youth in Revolt” and you mentioned doing this movie with Ed Helms, and it was just a few months after “The Hangover.”
Arteta: Not too shabby.
CS: Right, I figured that would made it easier to get this movie made.
Ed Helms: It’s never easy to get a movie made.
CS: Well, I guess that’s true, but how did you both get involved with this and who got involved first?
Arteta: Ed and Phil (Johnston, the screenwriter) birthed this thing together I think more than a year before we got going.
Helms: Yeah, I don’t actually remember quite the timeframe, but the rough timeline was that Phil approached me with this idea. We were introduced by a mutual friend and then we just kinda were instantly on the same page and hashed it out. Then, he went off and wrote the damn thing in like two weeks, and that draft I believe is what got Alexander Payne on board (as producer). Then it was just a sort of process of accruing like-minded passionate people like Miguel and our cast and Fox Searchlight even.
Arteta: Yeah, that’s right.
CS: Did you or Phil have any kind of knowledge or background of the insurance conference or have relatives in that business?
Helms: I think Phil had attended some conventions for some reason, maybe when he was a reporter. He was actually an on-camera reporter for a local news station in Wisconsin or in Minnesota. I can’t remember. I think he’s from Wisconsin.
Arteta: It was in Iowa actually that he was a reporter.
Helms: Oh, okay.
Arteta: Yes, but not in Cedar Rapids, but he did the weather and then he did reports from the field.
Helms: Yeah, and he had been to some conventions, so there was some awareness, but the movie’s not about insurance, so it’s really just a backdrop, and the world of convention-going is also not particular to insurance. But, yeah.
CS: Miguel, I remember you mentioning last night at the premiere about being from Puerto Rico and I’d imagine not being from the Midwest, this sort of material wouldn’t be very familiar, so what was it about it that grabbed you that this was a movie you wanted to direct?
Arteta: Well, there was so much affection for the characters in the script I really like that happens very rarely. I wanted to make a movie about kind people, and it’s been the goal in my life. You want to be a kind person, but you don’t want to be a chump. It seems to me like that’s the Tim Lippe trajectory. Everybody in this movie is kind, and here was a script that was very clever about people who were very kind.
Helms: It’s damaged people who maybe made some terrible choices, or gone down some weird roads, but you’re right. Actually sort of through interface with Tim, their kindness emerges.
Arteta: I was thrilled to work with Ed; I think he’s an amazing actor. When I worked with him on “The Office” in 2005, I actually didn’t get a chance to talk to him. He just came in and did his scenes, and basically said “hello,” and I thought he was Andy. I remember turning to Greg (Daniels) and saying, “You found this guy. He’s the guy.” He’s such a terrific actor. When I saw him in “The Hangover,” he gave such a thoughtful arc to that thing. Anyhow, I’m very, very, very excited because it’s very hard to find someone that can play these parts, someone like Tim Lippe who is kind-hearted but has an edge with comedy at the same time. It’s easy to be mean or ironic, but to do that from a place of wholesomeness, I haven’t seen that done well since Jack Lemmon, so that’s the reason I was here.
CS: Obviously you were able to develop the character with Phil and Tim shares some elements with Andy. How did you want to work on it so it was a different character than Andy?
Helms: Well, I think what makes Andy so special on “The Office” is that he’s kind of aggressively emotional, like he wears his heart on his sleeve. If he has a crush on somebody it’s out there and he’s ramming it down their throats. There’s something very beautiful about that. It’s almost like he’s almost sort of a dorky Latin lover in a way, like Pepe Le Pew who just won’t take “no” for an answer. I think that’s very different from Tim Lippe who is very sort of stunted and fearful of expressing himself, and afraid of making – I don’t know, let’s see…
Arteta: He hasn’t learned to trust himself. I mean, that’s the journey of the movie. He has to get wiser and be able to say, “You know, what I believe is right.”
Helms: Yeah, it’s sorta like he knows what he thinks is right, but he really has never been tested until the story in the movie, and that’s when he kinda realizes that he likes himself and trusts himself and it’s a good point. It’s interesting to see Andy as very different, as something a little brighter and crispier. Andy’s more gregarious, and he also is wrong about a lot. He doesn’t read social cues very well. (Laughs) But, he’s not quite as kind-hearted. I do believe that Andy is intrinsically good, which is what I love about him, but he just is wrong more often, you know?
CS: The thing about Tim is that he seems to hook up with pretty much every woman he meets.
CS: Was that something you made sure Phil put in the script? That you hook up with any actress that comes along whether it’s Sigourney Weaver or Anne Heche?
Helms: Oh yeah, of course, woo hoo! Tim is so needy. That’s the other thing is like… If you kind of look at his choices and the way that he interacts with these romantic interests, there’s really a hunt for a mom. He needs someone to tell him what to do, and to guide him and to sort of coddle him. I think that’s what leads him to make some dysfunctional choices.
Arteta: We have to find a way to make insurance sexy so…
CS: That’s true. You guys have a bit of a ringer in John C. Reilly. I don’t think there are many actors who can pull off the craziness of Dean Ziegler (or “Deanzie”) but how hard is it to reign that in and not make it overshadow the story?
Arteta: Ed, what you were saying was really interesting and I noticed watching the movie is that when John improvises a line–and he made us all laugh every day, it was fantastic–but when he improvises a line, he’s always doing it right into your eyes. I mean, he’s in the middle of a conversation. A lot of time when people improvise, they take the stage and do something funny, you know? But he’s always in the conversation. All those zingers are done right into people’s eyes. He’s like right there with you doing it, so his batting average of being able to come up with something that’s working in the scene is really good.
Helms: Yeah, it’s sort of like… I don’t think you want to reign in John C. Reilly, that’s why you hire him.
CS: Right, but this is Tim’s story, so you kind of have to make sure that…
Helms: Yeah, I mean, but it’s really an ensemble group and a kind of crazy dynamic. I mean, he to me is like so transcendent in this movie. I think he sings because he’s so heartbreaking.
Arteta: Right from the start.
Helms: There’s something about Deanzie that is just like so sad, and that speech about his daughter being pregnant and him being the one that’s actually looking after her and all that stuff is, I don’t know, it’s heartbreaking. Then I love the thing – I didn’t really remember it until last night where at the bar one night Ronald says, “What’s wrong with you, Deanzie?” He’s like, “What isn’t wrong with me? I drink too much. I weigh too much. I talk too much.” There’s like, this self-awareness of like, “I’m an @$$hole. I’m a loser.” (Laughs) But, he’s still trying, he’s still trying to be happy.
CS: This movie looks like it might have been more fun to make than actual work at times, or at least it looks that way on screen. How is the dynamic as far as when you were working with different actors like Anne and Isiah and John, all of you coming from different backgrounds, and trying to create that camaraderie of a convention setting and not lose sight of the fact that you’re making a movie and there to work?
Arteta: It’s like “The Wizard of Oz” of insurance, you know? He goes into this journey where he meets all these motley characters that are so different, but yet there’s the joy of realizing that he affects them and they become lifelong friends. But yeah, you hope for the chemistry, you use your best hunch, gut instinct, but you don’t get it every time, and there really was magic on the set between these four guys. It was pretty interesting to see the four of you coalescing and coming together in the parts. (laughs)
Helms: Yeah, it’s a movie about people coming together and becoming tight friends and that was also the experience of making the movie for everybody, so there was something kind of real happening that was getting captured as well.
CS: As I mentioned, you’re all from different backgrounds so was it easy to find some some form of middle ground between your different styles to improvise and make it feel natural?
Helms: Yes, because I think everyone brought a lotta respect to the table for everyone else, and each other’s backgrounds and bodies of work. When you’re sort of excited to be acting with people, I don’t know, it comes together pretty quickly.
CS: What’s the most difficult part of making a movie like this?
Arteta: That’s a good question. Probably editing the movie was the hardest part.
CS: Really? Getting the funniest stuff and making it work?
Arteta: Yeah, I mean, there were a lot of wonderful things, and you have to always be finding that balance, because we want to keep the momentum going forward. So it’s like you know you’re gonna have to take things that you love out of it at every point, and hoping that you’re making the best choice possible, that you keep that genuine. I want it funny, but I want it genuine. Storytelling is like flirting with an audience and when you’re editing you’re trying to say, “Okay, which things am I going to omit that are going to make the audience more excited to be there?” And that was very hard.
CS: There’s a lot of anticipation for “The Hangover” sequel, and I was curious if there was more or less pressure doing the second one after the first? The first one was such a huge surprise for everyone, but you were all already friends and knew each other from making the first movie.
Helms: Sure. I think this time around, because the first one did so well, everyone felt like they could phone it in. (Laughs) No, you know what? There’s a tremendous amount of pressure I think as the pieces are coming together, the story’s coming together. You really want to feel like you’re kind of celebrating the first one, but also cutting new ground. That’s all a balancing act and it’s tricky, and there’s a lot of strong opinions at play on how it should be done. I would say as that script came together, there was stress and tension about a lot of that, but once we started making the movie, it just was a matter of showing up to work every day and trying to make each moment the best it could be, and that is really the most fun part of the job. I feel like the cleanest execution, the part that’s where everyone really is on the same page to make every day count and everything as good as it can be. I don’t think we felt more pressure than just what we were putting on ourselves, everyone, to bring your A-game every day. It was a hell of a lot of fun.
CS: Which is crazier, Vegas or Thailand? I remember Todd telling me that you lost crew members on the first movie.
Helms: Oh yeah.
CS: Everyone got through this one okay?
Helms: Well, this was way more intense, yeah, way more intense, and I think you’ll see that on screen.
CS: Has anyone started talking about whether this one does well if you’ll do a third movie?
Helms: I haven’t heard any discussion about a third one yet, so we’ll see.
CS: I’m sure these four guys can go anywhere. They can go to Cedar Rapids!
Helms: I mean, Vegas was pretty dramatic. Bangkok, I think will be extremely dramatic as a backdrop. Yeah, it’s Bangkok specifically. Where do you go from there?
Arteta: Costa Rica.
Helms: Puerto Rico, yeah.
CS: And then you can bring Miguel on as director? So what are you doing next? Are we going to see you a little more regularly now?
Arteta: I spent this year working on an HBO series that’s gonna premiere, I think at the end of the summer. It’s called “Enlightened” with Laura Dern. Mike White wrote it and was the show runner, so yeah.
CS: So you’ve directed a bunch of episodes already?
Arteta: Yeah, I was a co-executive producer and did four out of the 10 episodes, and I was there helping out with things, so I’m very excited.
CS: You’ve been bouncing back between TV and movies quite a bit, so are you finding you enjoy one more than the other?
Arteta: I’m chasing the good writing. Writers are really attracted to TV, because they get a lot of freedom and I feel like independent film audiences have gravitated to cable nowadays. Someone like Mike White doing an HBO show, he is elated.
Helms: Someone asked me the other day if I prefer doing TV or film, and it’s the same thing, just whatever the best project is, the format is kind of secondary consideration.
CS: This was great because you developed it yourself, and I remember actors who worked with Judd Apatow telling me that you basically have to write your own material if you want to get better movies for yourself. Is that true?
Helms: Well, I don’t know. I just like to have at least the illusion of more control over my destiny, so I just like to be involved as early as possible. I have very strong creative opinions. I like to be in a situation where they matter and they count and they’re considered. If I’m spearheading something or on it from the get-go, then I guess I’m more comfortable, more invested and more excited about it. There is no project I have ever felt this invested in, like just from a conception, to execution, to the final steps.
Arteta: I know. It really was your baby. You could feel there was so much love for this project by the time I arrived, it was like being really taken care of.
CS: It’s also nice you have distribution for the movie already because you’ve had movies at Sundance before which haven’t, and you’ve had to deal with all that stuff. This one, that’s all set and you have release date in less than a month, which is great.
Helms: Yeah, it’s very exciting, yeah, yeah. We’ve raised this pony and now we’ve gotta just put him in the gates and watch him run.
Cedar Rapids opens in select cities on Friday, February 14.