Taking a decidedly more dramatic turn than fans might expect, Ed Helms stars opposite Jason Segel in this Friday’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home, written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass (whose past films include Baghead and Cyrus).
Helms plays Pat, a stressed-out working man whose marriage is on the rocks while also looking out for his brother Jeff (Segel), whose own life is falling apart because of his carefree belief that the universe will sort everything out on its own. Opposite both of them is Susan Sarandon as their mother Sharon, who has still not quite found her own life’s path.
“I think this movie might surprise a lot of audiences,” Helms says of the Duplass Brothers comedy, “because Ed Helms and Jason Segel kind of conjures a very specific thing and this is not that thing.”
Speaking with ComingSoon.net, Helms talks about his personal approach to the role, working opposite Segel and Sarandon and playing a brother in a film directed by brothers. Check out the full interview below and catch Jeff, Who Lives at Home in theaters this Friday.
ComingSoon.net: You tend to play characters that come off as very familiar to audiences as people we know; friends, co-workers or neighbors. This is a really a role, though, where the audience is sort of forced to admit that they have elements of Pat within themselves.
Ed Helms: Yeah, I think Pat’s just a very flawed guy and probably one of the most “real” characters that I’ve played. It’s unusual, especially in my experience doing comedy. You’re generally doing characters that are likable and sort of fun and ridiculous in some way. This is a character who is kind of hateful early on. I think he’s someone who is kind of in an ongoing war with his own pettiness and insecurity. He’s losing that war but, through a sort of complicated and very poignant redemption, he starts to get the upper hand in that war. I just think that’s a very great story and I totally relate to it.
CS: Which is not to say that other characters you play are not relatable, but I think that audiences have the advantage of knowing you and liking you in other things. It takes a fair amount of charisma going in to not hate Pat outright.
Helms: Yeah, right. I was anxious about doing the character. When I first read the script, halfway through I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like Pat. It’s a perfectly good story, but I thought, “Give this to someone else. I’m not into this.” Then I got all the way through to the end and I thought, “This is actually very poignant.” There’s something sweet about Pat because he wants to be a better person. Even though he’s kind of reprehensible, even Pat doesn’t like himself. That little bit of self-awareness is what really made me feel for him in a way. It allowed me to wrap my head around it and get in there. Kind of like Danny McBride in “Eastbound and Down.” I would never compare myself to Danny because we’re very different, but I’m a huge fan of his. His character on “Eastbound and Down” is amazing because he’s kind of an awful guy, but there is a sweetness in there. There’s a desire to do the right thing that’s sort of tangible. I think I was sort of going for the same thing in Pat.
CS: You and Jason Segel are playing brothers in a film directed by brothers. Are there specific elements of the Duplass’ brotherhood that they specifically asked you to bring to the screen?
Helms: Yeah, no doubt. There was a very brotherly context to this whole production. I have a brother. Jason has a brother. We’re both pretty different from our brothers. We all love our brothers. Obviously, Mark and Jay are brothers. It’s a context that we just all understood. We were speaking in the same language the whole time. We just kind of implicitly understood the way these scenes were written and how the brotherly dynamic plays out. In my first meeting with Mark and Jay, talking about Pat and talking about his relationship with Jeff, I got so excited. It just felt, “Wow, we’re on the same page here. This is gonna be cool.” Still, at the time, I don’t think I knew quite where we’d wind up tonally with the movie. I think this movie might surprise a lot of audiences because Ed Helms and Jason Segel kind of conjures a very specific thing and this is not that thing. This is not a Judd Apatow or Todd Phillips kind of free-for-all. This is a very specific Mark and Jay Duplass movie that takes place in a small word and deals with a very contained universe and has a very specific tone that I was surprised by and thrilled by. I just hope audiences have the same response.
CS: There’s also a commentary in the film — while it has nothing to do with religion — about faith and the pros and cons of different levels of belief in the meaning of things.
Helms: It’s interesting. I think Jeff is someone who is aimless and desperately seeking guidance. He’s looking outside of himself for the world around him to tell him what to do. That’s a charming thing, but it’s also sad. I really think that we all need to look inward for those answers and to ask ourselves the hard questions. To find clarity about what we should be doing and where we should be heading. Jeff is someone who is kind of incapable of doing that early on. Pat is doing that, but he’s just coming up with these very superficial answers. He’s just grasping onto these very obvious markers of success like his Porsche. These two guys are just both going at it wrong. If they do the work towards being good brothers for each other, they’re both better off for it. They’re better versions of themselves. Even though they don’t see eye-to-eye and don’t quite click. But I’m not one who believes in signs. I’m much more about personal responsibility in life. But I love the question of it and I love the exploration of it. Is the universe kind of tweaking us in some way? I think it’s a sort of beautifully curious area that there is no answer to. That’s kind of what’s wonderful about it.
CS: Both of these brothers are in their own worlds but, at the same time, there’s Susan Sarandon playing the mother and she sort of acts as a bridge at times even though there’s very little shared screentime. Did you have time as actors to work out that dynamic anyway?
Helms: It’s funny. You learn so much just in the phone calls. There’s just a couple of quick phone calls that she has with both Jeff and Pat. Then she says to Rae Dawn [Chong], “I don’t even like my children. When did that happen?” It’s incredibly poignant and you can see her sadness about the way that her family has kind of dissolved. You don’t need to see a lot of it and that’s what’s kind of compelling about Mark and Jay as writers and directors. They can really communicate so much so quickly and efficiently. Probably when there is this redemption, you see the threads of this family start to weave back together. It makes sense and it’s incredibly gratifying because of the way that Mark and Jay set up these relationships and conflicts.
CS: You’ve got a beard in this, which is kind of unusual for you. How much does having a very different look help you get into character?
Helms: You know, I never really had a goatee as an adult. I had one in college for a little while. Everybody does. But it does help. Any kind of little physical tweak that makes you feel a little bit different from yourself. I can look in the mirror and be like, “Hi, Pat! How’s it going?” I thought that was really fun. I think it was a very deliberate choice because I think that, to Pat, it represented something cool. It represented something that he had lost or that he used to identify with or desperately wanted to. That was something that we talked through ahead of time. “Let’s give Pat this very specific facial hair that, for him, he has it for the wrong reasons.” It was a fun thing. I actually loved having it because we were shooting in New Orleans and New Orleans is a place where goatees are pretty damn cool. I loved kind of rolling with it on the streets of New Orleans.
CS: At this point in your career, you can do a voice in a huge animated film like “The Lorax” while also appearing on “The Office” and then also doing something smaller and more dramatic like “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” What’s the next step or sort of dream project that you still want to do?
Helms: I love a good costume comedy. An “Austin Powers” or an “Anchorman.” I’m working on a few things in that area and I’m very hopeful. Those are the kind of movies that really excited me as a little kid and kind of got me into this to begin with. So I’m hopeful to get something like that going. But really any project that has inspiring people involved and a compelling story is a great project. I don’t care if it’s a movie or a TV show or a YouTube video. If it has those ingredients, I’m on board.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home hits theaters in a limited release this Friday, March 16th.