The very funny Ed Helms followed in his 'Daily Show' colleague Steve Carell's footsteps by joining 'The Office,' and thereafter branched out into films. 'The Hangover' helped make his toothy face recognizable to even more people; now, in addition to 'The Hangover 2' (due May 26), Helms has 'Cedar Rapids,' in which he is not a supporting player but the star. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and Fox Searchlight will release it theatrically Feb. 11.
I met with Helms on Jan. 24 at a venue in Park City, Utah, that had been made to look like the small-town insurance office inhabited by his 'Cedar Rapids' character. As he sat down, he cautioned me that despite the setting, he didn't actually know anything about insurance. I threw away all my insurance-related questions, and here's what followed.
Cinematical: First of all, happy birthday, am I right?
Ed Helms: You're exactly right! Thank you very much!
I looked you up on the Wikipedias, and today's your birthday. You were born in 1974, right?
So, when you were 10 years old, watching 'Ghostbusters,' did you ever imagine that one day you would have a sex scene with Sigourney Weaver?
Oh my God, that is a fabulous question. That's when the fantasy first started. Of course, I never, ever would have imagined that it could actually happen. She was ... she's just a remarkably sexy woman.
She is. She's one of those that people mention as being "of a certain age" yet still really attractive.
She exudes confidence and gravitas and feminine elegance.
Is it weird to be in a movie with someone you watched in movies growing up? Does one get starstruck, or is one enough of a professional not to?
At this point, I rarely get starstruck in a work environment. At awards shows or that kind of thing, that's when I can get a little -- clam up, get a little wide-eyed. But when everyone's showing up to work, it's kind of -- and Sigourney in particular is such a seasoned vet, such a professional, she's prepared, she's gracious as an actor, she just kind of wants to explore it with you. She was so kind to me, right away, she put me at ease.
I guess on a similar note, when you were in your 20s, watching 'That '70s Show,' did you ever imagine that one day you'd have a nude scene with the dad from 'That '70s Show'?
[laughs] No, no, no, you should go further back! When I was watching the bad guy in 'Robocop,' did I ever think I'd have a nude scene with him?
He was the bad guy in a lot of movies back then, wasn't he?
Yeah. Kurtwood Smith. He's just the greatest. For some reason 'Robocop' was one of my favorite movies of ALL. TIME. And that's one of my biggest Kurtwood Smith associations. Of course, Red on 'That '70s Show' is one of the great sitcom dads, but yeah, we had a nude scene. And it was the same thing, actually. Kurtwood is the most seasoned vet, and the most gracious and wonderful actor that you could ever hope to work with, and certainly put me at ease. But most actors, I think, subscribe to the philosophy that dignity really doesn't have a place on a film set.
Especially in comedy.
Especially in comedy. Dignity is the enemy.
This is the kind of thing that you'll probably get tired of talking about, but, you know, you're kind of naked in that scene. We see your naked butt.
And people want to know: How naked were you? Do they have those special "socks," or whatever? Or were you just lettin' it all hang out?
I was completely naked.
Good for you.
Yeah, just so you know. You don't actually see my genitals, but ...
We can imagine.
You can imagine. The thinking was, you know, with John C. Reilly and me in the movie, they felt pretty good about the young male demographic, but they really wanted to get the women into the movie as well, so let's get a close-up of Ed's tush.
This one's for the ladies.
This one's for the ladies!
The script was written with you in mind -- is that right?
It wasn't just me in mind, it was me involved. Phil Johnston is the writer, and he is a genius. And I don't use that word casually. He had this idea for this movie and had me in mind for it, so a mutual friend of ours introduced us, and we just immediately clicked on this idea. It was just an idea at the time. And we were instantly on the same page, riffing on the same jokes, loving the same kinds of character choices, painting this world in just perfect synchronicity. And so it was really a remarkable creative fit, the two of us. We kind of jammed on it for a long time, and then he went off and wrote this script in like two weeks. It was crazy. That is the draft that got Alexander Payne on board [as producer]. And so then we just kept steadily growing the team with like-minded people. First it was Alexander, and then Miguel [Arteta, the director], then of course John C. and Anne [Heche].
It's a good cast, a really good comedy cast.
I think that we surprised ourselves with this cast. Everyone is sort of a homerun in that I'd kill to be in a movie with any one of these actors, but if you had asked me three years ago, "How about a movie with these four actors?," I'd have said, "Well, what the hell context would THEY all fit together?" [both laugh] And then this script and this world just sort of got conjured up, and everyone just fit so beautifully together. It was a blast.
Did you always want to get into comedy when you were young?
Who were your comedy idols growing up?
[just as immediately] Eddie Murphy is my number one comedy idol, especially from a very young age. When I was 8 years old --
When he was on 'SNL'?
Yes, when he was on 'SNL,' and he was EIGHTEEN years old! And I loved that whole -- those were a weird couple years, the Dick Ebersol years, kind of a hiccup in the history of 'SNL,' when Lorne Michaels was off the show. But they were some of my favorite years because it was when I first got addicted, and then just as those people just sort of cycled through, Martin Short, and Joe Piscopo was fabulous, and of course even Chris Guest and Harry Shearer were making appearances at the time...
Billy Crystal. And Dana Carvey, I think, did some of his best work of his whole life on 'SNL.'
And Phil Hartman is, to me, one of comedy's greatest performers, and most tragic losses.
I completely agree.
He was such in his prime.
He was the glue that held the show together.
Many shows. Even 'The Simpsons,' he just sort of spackled things together. I was so heartbroken when the world lost Phil Hartman, because he was one of the few people -- and I didn't even realize this until he died -- he was somebody that I always believed or hoped that I would have an opportunity to just tell him what his career has meant to me, and what ... I don't know, I still get misty thinking about it.
I know, you're making me kind of sad now! [both laugh] There aren't very many celebrities that die that really affect me, but that was one where it was genuinely sad. By all accounts he was a great guy, too.
But going into this business, and feeling like here's a guy that's a reason why I want to do this, I just really always thought I'd have a chance to tell him. You know? And so it was a very personal loss, even though I never met him. It's a weird thing.
Who are your comedy idols now? Who do you admire now? Not Eddie Murphy anymore, I assume. [laughs]
Yeah, he is someone I've met. I worked with him on a movie called 'Meet Dave,' and I was able to tell him what he's meant to me, which is great. Um, let's see. For stand-up comedy, Brian Regan is to me the world champion. Just one of the greatest of all time. I love ... I would say Will Ferrell -- it's kind of an obvious list, but I don't care. Ben Stiller, 'There's Something About Mary' was so formative to me, as was 'Anchorman.' And Zack Galifianakis. It was such a privilege to be in scenes with him. His energy -- he's just a special person.
Were you a fan of his before you did 'The Hangover'?
Well, I've known Zack for a number of years, so I was a fan and a friend. But even the more I've gotten to know him personally and the more I've watched him do, from a strictly comedy standpoint, he's really in a league of his own. [Thinks some more.] Larry David is fantastic. I could go on and on.
Are you a fan of Steve Carell at all?
I LOVE Steve Carell. I mean, we overlapped on 'The Daily Show.' Not for very long, I think for about six months, and he was even away for a lot of that. But I was such a fan. And Colbert. I mean, 'The Daily Show' --
It was kind of a training ground for a lot of people, wasn't it? A lot of people came out of there.
Yeah, and I'll include Jon Stewart. Jon and Stephen and Steve are some of the people I feel the most privileged to call colleagues. To just sort of learn from those guys is incredible.
Can you give any spoilers about the end of 'The Office' this season?
Hmm, I don't have anything to give you.
Can you make something up?
Yes. Sure. Steve Carell becomes ... goes to space camp and accidentally gets launched into space.
And that is why he's no longer on the show. But then, for the next five seasons, there will be a radio box on his desk, where he's sort of giving us our marching orders from outer space.
I like it. Now, you've finished 'The Hangover 2,' right?
Yeah, we just wrapped it.
There's always the worry with sequels that it's just going to be doing the same thing again. Do you feel like you were able to break away from just repeating the jokes of the first one?
I'm not particularly worried. You always ride that line making a sequel. How much do you celebrate the first one, versus how much do you go in an entirely different direction?
You want to give them what they want, but you don't want to just repeat yourself.
You want to actually celebrate what people responded to in the first one, and I think that this script and the way this movie has been executed has enough of what's familiar that fans will feel anchored, and enough insanity -- I mean, it goes -- it just -- it goes to such a more insane extreme.
Even more insane than the first one?
Not even comparable! Just like from the very get-go, when the s*** hits the fan in the story, it's just off to the races.
Is this your first time being at Sundance?
It's actually my third, technically. My first time, I came in college, with a buddy. I was a film major and a big film nerd and was totally intoxicated by the independent film spirit. And then I came two years ago, I had a small part in this movie with Tea Leoni and Billy Bob Thornton called 'Manure,' which ...
Oh, I remember. I didn't see it, but I remember that movie.
It kind of disappeared.
Are you enjoying the experience, all the hoopla, and on your birthday, even?
It is so frickin' cool. I mean, just to be here, you know, there's such a mystique around Sundance, and it really feels like a privilege to be right in the heart of it, right in the middle of it, to have a movie that has pretty high awareness around the festival. And both positive anticipation, and now that it premiered last night, some really positive responses. Which is -- I mean, already it's been more than I think you could reasonably hope for, in terms of the positive energy of the experience.