Words & Interview

Simon Bland


‘It was hard to hit me in the face with the steak’ – Jon Heder on 20 years of Napoleon Dynamite

Two decades on from an unlikely cultural phenomenon, the star of Jarred Hess's lo-fi cult classic talks Moon Boots, Jamiroquai and doing his own stunts.

Actors can go entire careers without creating characters that withstand the test of time but what happens when they achieve that goal straight off the bat? That’s what happened to Jon Heder, star of Jarred Hess’s 2004 word-of-mouth megahit Napoleon Dynamite. Turning 20 this week, Heder’s wholly original portrayal of a high school oddball with a tight blonde ‘fro, scuffed Moon Boots and slick dance skills was so instantly memorable, his life – and our relationship with Jamiroquai earworm ‘Canned Heat’ – were never quite the same again.

“It was the first movie I ever made and we didn’t even know that it would necessarily be seen by anyone,” says Heder of Hess’s scrappy first film. Thankfully they were way off the mark: “Word of mouth got around and we soon started realising that people were loving it,” he adds, remembering its surprise success. “Suddenly, I had this huge opportunity. I didn’t want to pass it up but I also realised there’s a good chance I’m going to be remembered for Napoleon for the rest of my life.”

Heder and Hess first met as film students in 2002 and quickly found they had a shared sense of humour and a fascination with small-town obscurities. Not long after, they made Peluca, Hess’s student short in which Heder played Seth, an overly-confident nerd who would eventually become Napoleon Dynamite.

“[Jared] just said ‘Hey, do you want to make this short with me?’ and I was like ‘Let’s do it,’” says Heder, who at that point had zero acting experience. “It helped us establish the pacing, cadence, sound and look of Napoleon and everything about him. It wasn’t until after the short that [Hess] said ‘I’m thinking of making a movie based on this character, what do you think?’” Undeterred by the pressure of carrying an entire feature film, Heder wasted no time signing up: “I was like ‘Yes. I’m totally game.’”

Cribbing from real things they’d experienced in small-town Idaho, Hess and his wife Jerusha wrote a story unlike any other high-school movie. Heder played its eponymous star, a teenage outsider who lives with his grandma (Sandy Martin), dweeby brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and Tina the llama in the middle of nowhere.

Despite frequently bragging about his sick bō staff skills and ability to catch delicious bass, Napoleon struggles through high school, with his life made worse following the arrival of his sleazy Uncle Rico (Jon Gries). However, when his new best friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) decides to run for class president, Napoleon spies a way to support his pal while showing the popular kids exactly what he’s made of.

“We both had a very clear idea of the world, who this character is and what he’s about,” says Heder on building the film’s off-beat vibe and Napoleon’s thrift-store aesthetic. “Jared pulled so much inspiration from himself and his younger brothers and when I read [the script], I was like ‘Oh, there’s stuff about me and my younger brothers here too,’” he says of Napoleon’s distinctly insular awkwardness. “There was also a loneliness to the character, something that made him a bit of a lone wolf. He’s a one-man band who marches to the beat of his own drum.”

With high school hits like American Pie and Old School still very much in the rear-view mirror, Heder was convinced that pop culture needed Napoleon at that particular moment. He wasn’t even put off by his strange dialogue and monotone line delivery. “While it was weird, it all made sense,” he tells us. “The way he brags and pushes the truth to look cool and gain acceptance but in an innocent way… it was time for this character to be on screen so I was 100% in,” smiles Heder. “I was going to get a perm, wear the Moon Boots and fully commit. I wasn’t going to hold anything back.”

And he didn’t. Heavily quotable dialogue aside, Napoleon Dynamite features plenty of memorable moments and strong visual gags. Heder put his head through three perms to secure the right look (“My hair had so many chemicals in it, it was almost about to fall out,” he admits) and even did his own stunts – including being on the receiving end of a steak to the face.

“It was hard to hit me in the face with the steak,” says Heder of the scene where an angry Uncle Rico whips a cutlet at an unsuspecting Napoleon. “Jared wanted it to look as good as it could and [Gries] was the one who was actually throwing it, which speaks to the nature of independent filmmaking,” he adds. “Typically, you’d have someone else throwing a fake steak.”

After failing a number of times, a determined Gries made a small change and finally secured the perfect shot: “He switched to an even bigger steak, something with girth that he could really aim and throw,” reveals Heder. “His first take nailed me and it hurt. It ripped my glasses off but inside I was thinking ‘That’s the shot.’”

Meanwhile, other scenes spoke to the characters’ determination to escape their small-town lives, like Napoleon’s unfortunate experience with Uncle Rico’s internet-bought ‘time machine.’ “That was based on a true story that happened to Aaron Ruell’s younger brother,” says Heder, revealing how Kip’s real-life sibling inspired the scene where a fake time machine electrocutes Napoleon. “That scene or the scenes on the chicken farm – you just know they’re based on real things. They’re weird but I love how they added to the craziness of how these characters actually believed this might work,” he laughs. “Napoleon, Kip and Rico especially are all desperate to get out of these lives.”

Of course, this weirdness culminates with a real showstopper when Napoleon helps Pedro land the class president job by busting out his best dance moves to Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat.

“That all came from me,” says Hader, telling us how Hess wrote the film’s climax after hearing his star liked to dance. “There was pressure, for sure. I was like ‘Should I choreograph it?’ but Jared was like ‘What do you normally do?’ and I told him I normally just freestyle so he said ‘Just do that.’ I kicked everybody out,” he continues, remembering how the sequence was shot. “It was just Jared, the cinematographer and the producer. When I was done, it wasn’t like in the movie where suddenly there was raucous applause. It was more like: ‘Did that work?’”

Thankfully, it did. Nobody saw Napoleon’s impromptu dance moves coming and they were an instant hit. For Heder, it was validation for the underdog: “I can’t think of anything more raw than putting yourself out there in front of all these students he was trying so hard to look cool in front of,” he reasons. “Being as socially awkward as Napoleon is, dancing just felt like the perfect thing for him to showcase because audiences just didn’t know what to expect.”

20 years later, Napoleon Dynamite has bonded with fans in many unexpected ways – and Heder has heard about them all “It’s incredible that this movie has soared for this long and solidified its place in pop-culture history. I’m now getting fans who say they grew up on this film or that it made their sense of humour,” he smiles. “People have told me how it helped them through dark times and lots of soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan told me their unit would watch it on repeat. It’s really cool to think we were with them.”

Meanwhile, the journey of creating a memorable performance straight out of the gate has been just as personal for its star: “Casting directors sometimes think ‘Well that’s you, isn’t it? Wasn’t this basically just a documentary?’ It’s always been tough to break that mould,” admits Heder of Napoleon’s larger-than-life endurance, “but I’m very grateful for that role. I’m still remembered mostly [for Napoleon] and that’s not such a bad thing because I love that movie,” he smiles. “If I’m going to be connected to a character or project, it’s a pretty good one.”

Published 14 Jun 2024

Tags: Jon Heder Napoleon Dynamite

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