Viewers of TV and movies who are familiar with Ed Helms know him as an actor who usually plays a supporting character. But in the comedy film “Cedar Rapids,” Helms takes center stage as the main character, Tim Lippe, a sheltered and naïve insurance agent who works for Brown Star Insurance in the small town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. Tim’s life changes when he goes to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for his first business convention.
Tim, a bachelor with a romantic view of life, thinks Cedar Rapids is a huge, intimidating city, and his convention trip is the first time that he has stayed at a hotel. So when he meets three convention regulars — boorish Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler (played by John C. Reilly), fun-loving Joan Ostrowski-Fox (played by Anne Heche) and straight-laced Ronald “The Ronimal” Wilkes (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.) — they each affect Tim’s convention experience in different ways.
At the New York City press conference for “Cedar Rapids,” Helms (an executive producer of the film), director Miguel Arteta, Heche, Whitlock and Alia Shawkat (who plays Bree, a prostitute who does business at the convention’s hotel) all gathered to talk about the movie with assembled journalists. The press conference room was cleverly set up to look like a Brown Star Insurance business conference, complete with a table that encircled the room and Brown Star Insurance posters. After the press conference, the journalists got to mingle with the film’s talent in a reception area, so I asked Helms some questions about “The Office” and “The Hangover Part II.” That separate interview with Helms is at the end of this article.
Anne and Alia, what did your “Cedar Rapids” characters find appealing about Tim Lippe?
Shawkat: Bree’s a prostitute, so I think it was refreshing to her that [Tim Lippe] would seem that genuine. She probably made a lot of money that day, so she was probably like, “Oh, I don’t need to charge him too much.” And I think she had fun with him. He called her “beautiful.”
Heche: And I think Joan comes to the conference to have an adventure, to kind of step out of her life as a mom and a wife for a brief moment — and [Joan] is surprised by what she initially thinks is a man she’s going to maybe take on a ride a little bit. And what surprises her is the genuineness and the sweetness of Tim. And I think, in a way, he takes her more on an emotional ride. And she finds a genuine friend through their fun romp.
Were you influenced by filmmakers Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges in making “Cedar Rapids,” since this film has a morality message behind the comedy?
Arteta: Well, I am a complete movie geek of the golden era of Hollywood. I, sadly, spend more time than I care to admit watching old movies. I’m delighted that you’re bringing those references. But also, I recognize something classic in Ed [Helms], and that’s part of the reason why I got attracted to this [movie]. Those Billy Wilder comedies, the Jack Lemmon comedies — a Jack Lemmon doesn’t come very often: somebody who can do a wholesome character and looks like an everyday man, but also have a great comic edge. It’s very rare.
I was very excited, actually, about “The Hangover” when I saw Ed’s character. He gave it such an artful arc in a pretty broad comedy. I saw that movie and I told my girlfriend, “I wish I could do the first Ed Helms-starred indie movie.” And three months later, it fell in my lap. I don’t know how that happened, but I’m attracted to the idea of making more wholesome comedies than most of the comedies today.
Helms: It’s very humbling to be brought up in that context. I don’t feel I can comment much further.
Miguel, your 2000 movie “Chuck & Buck” also had hotels as a big part of the story. Is that a coincidence?
Arteta: To me, it’s like if Buck had gotten a job in insurance and then continued on his journey a little bit. I’m attracted to people who are stunted, who have a lot of emotional damage. And I love comedies about characters who are extremely emotionally handicapped, and they have the courage to lead with that handicap. “Cedar Rapids” falls beautifully into the kind of movies I like to do.
Ed, were you aware of “Chuck & Buck”?
Helms: Yes, of course. Deeply disturbed by it. There’s sweetness and integrity with some really dark edges. That’s the only real way to portray sweetness or kindness. There’s always an equal and opposite work in force at the same time, so that’s a real strength in Miguel when we were seeking out a director.
Do you have any insurance stories that helped inform how you played your “Cedar Rapids” character?
Helms: I was in a fender bender when I was 16 years old. It wasn’t even a fender bender, because there was no damage; it was just a ding on the bumper. And I still got a letter from the victim’s insurance company or her lawyer — I don’t remember. Anyway, it was like an episode of “The Brady Bunch.” She showed up in court with a neck brace and all this stuff. So I’m freaked out by auto-insurance issues.
My dad was also a lawyer who consulted with insurance companies, so he always says, “Come on! The insurance are the good guys!” Of course, he’s being sarcastic, but what’s funny is in the movie, Tim Lippe really believes that! And that’s a really unusual and striking point of view. And it’s a fun story to tell with a guy who is just that bright-eyed and optimistic about such a weird job.
Have you had any weird experiences at conventions?
Arteta: Well, we’ve all been to Sundance many times, and that’s a convention for independent filmmakers. I’ve had many experiences like this at Sundance.
Ed, what is most challenging about playing a character who is so overwhelmingly positive and innocent?
Helms: It’s really fun to get into a character like that because for me I guess there is some ideal — he’s kind of the last idealist and so un-jaded and so un-cynical, and so it’s a bit of fantasy fulfillment to step into that role and pretend that I’m that guy. I’m not like that at all. I’m a deeply jaded, cynical person, and I think the world we live in is, for the most part, pretty corrupt and degenerate. So it’s exciting and it just sparks something in my core that’s still a little hopeful for mankind. If we could all just be a little more like Tim Lippe, maybe the world would be a better place.
Ed, how challenging was it to do your nude locker-room scene with “Cedar Rapids” co-star Kurtwood Smith?
Helms: Why would that be a challenge? What’s the challenging part? I believe, as a comedy actor, dignity and pride shouldn’t get in the way. So you really have to start from a place like, “I’ll do anything!”
That said, we wrestled with the studio for some time about the specifics of my nudity waiver in my contract, which actually stipulates how much of my scrotum, or whatever — the most detailed description of how nude I will be. But here’s the thing about Kurtwood Smith: He is a veteran, he’s seen it all, he’s been through it all. And he’s supremely confident as an actor, as well he should be; he’s earned it.
And it made it easier to be naked in a locker room with him, because he had such a benevolent energy. With that said, it’s an unusual circumstance, and there’s just no way around that.
Miguel, can you talk about your fascination and dissection of macho culture, especially as it pertains to Middle America?
Arteta: As a Puerto Rican man working in a Midwestern genre, I had a lot to say on this topic. I don’t really know. I think a lot of my heroes in my films aren’t even recording anything macho in that scale, which is something that I really like putting out there in the world. But I’m not self-aware, but thank you for the question.
Ed, what are the challenges of playing a simple-minded character without being condescending to the character?
Helms: That is a huge compliment, and I appreciate it, because that was the goal from the outset — even from the very first conversation that Phil Johnston, the writer [of “Cedar Rapids”] and I had about this world and these characters. Before the script was even written, it was always about coming from a place of affection for these characters.
And as far as I approached portraying that, I think it was really just a matter of trying to go for his earnestness and how much he believed in these values, as stunted as they were and kind of untainted by experience. I think you can kind of get away with just about any point of view in a character if you can sell how earnest they are about it — even if it’s a villain or someone with horrible character traits. If you can sell that it’s intrinsic to who they are, and that they can’t really understand other points of view, then that’s the main goal, I think.
I also share with Tim Lippe — although, like I said before, I’m much more jaded and cynical than he is— I do share with him a sense of wonder about the world, in that I just don’t feel like I ever understand what’s going on around me. I don’t understand why people behave the way they do. I don’t understand how this building got here. How did they make that library, dig up that marble? I feel like that is something that I really synced up with Tim on.
If you could pick anyone, real or fictional whom you wouldn’t know very well, to share a hotel room with on a business trip, who would it be and why?
Whitlock: I really couldn’t say who I’d room with … but there are some people whom I would. I’ll leave it at that.
Helms: It depends on what kind of hotel. For me, it would be probably Barack Obama. I think he’d be incredibly interesting. We’d have some late-night chats about current events. And that would be really fun. He seems like a pleasant-enough guy. We’d have our own small spaces. The Secret Service might get in the way.
Heche: Oh, I can’t say anything in the press that would get back to my husband, so I’m just going to stick with my husband.
Shawkat: Well, I’m rooming with my friend Roz [Music], who did the makeup on the film. She’s a great roomie. Really fun. She brings great music with her. Good vibes all around.
Arteta: I would room with Rachael Ray, if I could, for obvious reasons: good food and lots of other good things.
In “Cedar Rapids,” there are some great inside-joke references to “The Wire” (whose cast included Isiah Whitlock Jr.), so were there any thoughts about putting any of those types of jokes about “The Office” in “Cedar Rapids”?
Arteta: Phil Johnston wrote the lines about the Ronimal’s lines about “The Wire,” I think in the first draft. And we were so happy but also intrigued when we saw Isiah’s audition, where Senator Clay Davis is doing these references from “The Wire.” We had discussions about what to do with that, but I don’t think we had any discussion about making any references to “The Office.” I think we were already nervous about treading on a little surreal, too-ironic ground already with this
Helms: That was sort of a happy accident, because, as we said, it predated Isiah’s casting. I even fought that joke. I thought it was too “meta.” Thank God I lost, because it’s the biggest laugh in the whole movie.
What are the basic elements that turn a comedy into a classic? And what are some of your favorite comedies?
Arteta: I like Howard Hawks’ definition of a great movie, which is: “Three great scenes and no bad ones.” It’s harder than you think. I really do thing that’s true. Three memorable scenes and none that suck make a classic. That’s my definition. “The King of Comedy” is my favorite comedy of all time, because there’s never been a movie that traffics in embarrassment heavier than in that movie. I love it.
Helms: My favorites as a kid always were “Vacation” and “Fletch” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and “Ghostbusters” and “Animal House.” It’s the most generic list, but those were very formative movies for me, which I saw on cable when I was too young, and set me on this bizarre path that I’m on.
Whitlock: I would say Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is my favorite.
Helms: Oh, please! So pretentious!
Whitlock: Usually when you laugh at comedies — you go to movies and you laugh — and I always found that I would always laugh because somebody else was there, and I wanted to show them I was really enjoying the comedy and how funny it was. But it was the first time I had gone to a movie by myself and laughed out loud and didn’t care who heard me or who was at the movie or whatever, so that always sticks in my mind.
Heche: I like “Twentieth Century,” and I got to play Carole Lombard on Broadway, so I have a great affection for that. I love screwball comedy. And my other [favorite] is so bizarre: “What About Bob?,” and I think it’s because I relate to the main character.
Helms: That’s a great movie.
Heche: And “The Hangover” is another one.
Helms: “Groundhog Day.”
Shawkat: Yeah, I was going to say “Groundhog Day” or “What’s Up, Doc?.” I really like that.
Helms: “Raising Arizona.”
What was the atmosphere like on the “Cedar Rapids” set, with a bunch of comedians in a hotel?
Helms: It wasn’t a very big hotel. I think it was 400 degrees below zero outside our hotel. So it was a tight cluster.
Heche: But when it’s cold, you laugh a lot, because you’re already giggling.
Helms: I’ve been on a lot of comedy sets with all varieties of people. A lot of times, there’s a competitive energy. There’s a little bit of an edge on a comedy set, and there’s kind of a struggle to find your place and find how you fit in the matrix in a cast. But in this case, because we’re all so different, I think it was like puzzle pieces. And maybe it took a week or two to see how things fit together, but it was a remarkably easy and rapid gelling process in this cast — [he says jokingly] with the exception of Isiah, who we all could not stand for the entire shoot.
Whitlock: Well, you did tell me that you think I was weird.
Helms: I do think you’re weird!
Whitlock: [He laughs.] So it wasn’t a comedy set to me.
Helms: I think “weird’ is a compliment.
What was it like working with John C. Reilly?
Arteta: The man can improv … almost from an orifice. Literally, if you don’t talk for a millisecond, something terribly inappropriate will come out of his mouth. It was a real joy to work with him. I think he had particularly good time. He paid us a really good compliment. We were shooting the bar scene, and he turned around and said, “You know, I’ve played a lot of stupid characters, but this is the stupidest of all!” And that made me feel very proud.
Shawkat: It was the stupidest character. He is so much fun to watch.
Arteta: I think what he did was really brilliant, which was that …he said, “Let’s make a comedy about this character that we love. I understand this guy’s pain.” I like the pathos that he brings to Deanzie. When he calls his wife an asshole, you can actually feel the pain that he has, when he’s looking at the picture of her at night. I think behind the whole character that wants to party and is so loud, he really got the painful part of the party animal. I thought that made the comedy even better.
Shawkat: I think he [John C. Reilly] was really great. He had a soiree at his house. He played the banjo for us. He has an amazing voice. He’s like a funny guy on the outside, but then really sad on the inside.
He liked to gossip. He was like a little teenage girl sometimes. He was like, “So, what’s going on? Who are you with? What’s going on?” I was like, “I don’t know, John C. Reilly. I don’t know you that well.” But he always [had] so much energy. He was fun to be around.
Helms: Yeah, I would totally echo what Miguel just said. There are so many close-ups of Deanzie in the movie, where you can see that vacant smile that’s so forced. And his eyes are just so pleading and hungry for affection.
I love that scene where we’re all sitting around the bar, and I think [someone says], “What’s wrong with you, Deanzie?” And he’s like, “What isn’t wrong with me? I drink too much, I talk too much, I’m fat,” and he goes through this whole list. He’s got this sort of fake smile going. And it’s just totally heartbreaking. And it’s a straight-up tribute to John C Reilly for pulling that off.
What do you think of the theory that a movie that is being advertised as a Sundance Film Festival movie scares off unsophisticated moviegoers and hurts the movie’s box-office potential?
Arteta: Well, I take offense at that. I’ve been to Sundance four times. There’s every kind of movie at Sundance. I don’t know if that [Sundance label] necessarily scares people away. “Little Miss Sunshine” premiered at Sundance. “Napoleon Dynamite” premiered at Sundance. I don’t know if I would buy that [theory]. [He says jokingly] There are a lot of little satellite festivals. Maybe we can put that [on the advertising], and that will improve our chances, like Scumdance.
Can you talk about how TV changed your careers, and how you feel about doing TV versus movies?
Helms: I can say, for me, it 100 percent put me on the map. It’s actually what I always wanted to do: comedy television. I got into this, like a lot of comedy nerds, through a bizarre fanaticism over “Saturday Night Live.” I’m just grateful to Jon Stewart for kind of plucking me out of nowhere [to be on “The Daly Show”] and letting me be silly. And then [executive producer] Greg Daniels over at “The Office” letting me show people that I had a little bit more to me than this smarmy newscaster.
Shawkat: Yes, I did do TV. When I was on television, I was part of a big cast. And I was technically a child, so I would work three days out of the week and be forced to do schooling. So now when I’m on a movie set, it’s a lot more smoking cigarettes and hanging out with people a lot, so it’s definitely a different vibe.
Heche: You’ve matured.
Shawkat: Yes, in more ways than one or two. It’s kind of like camp when you’re doing movies. You get really, really close with everybody, and it’s a short period of time. Usually, you’re outside of your home, so when you wrap, you’re like, “Let’s go hang out,” and you get a lot closer. And then on sets on a TV show, you get a longer period of time. But I just like working as an actor, as long as it’s good and funny.
Heche: It’s never really been about which medium for me. It’s been about the joy of working, certainly, and the characters and the people and the story that’s being told. I was fortunate enough to start in soaps. Anything to anybody else seems up from there, although it was amazing training ground for me, and I loved it. So I never had any judgment about going from movies back to television.
The roles I’ve been able to play, especially on “Hung” now, have been such a blessing for me. And I think maybe people started to see me more as a comedian, which maybe opened up a little bit more the door I’ve been able to explore, certainly with this film. I feel so grateful, like Ed, when somebody asks me to do anything, it’s wonderful. So whatever the medium — theater, film, television — I’m lucky to work in all of them.
Whitlock: I never really spend too much time thinking about what it’s doing for my career. I have to agree with everyone else. I really just enjoy the pleasure of working. As long as I can work, I feel really, really good. Working on “The Wire,” I had a great time, and to no longer be doing that television show, and to do a film, has been such a blessing. But as far as saying what it does for my career? Who knows? That I won’t know for years to come, but up until this point, I’ve had a great time.
Arteta: I’ve been very blessed to move back and forth. To me, there’s no difference either. Television attracts the greatest writers, like Greg Daniels and David Simon and Mitch Hurwitz. It’s incredible … I understand why writers want to go to television. If you’re attracted to character-driven stories, you have 10 hours to develop your characters, rather than 90 minutes. So I just chase the good writing wherever it goes.
Have you found it more challenging in comedies to tap into hidden personality traits of a character?
Helms: I think it’s less about what you choose to portray on a screen and more about what gets written from the get-go. So Phil Johnston, with John C. Reilly’s [“Cedar Rapids”] character, Dean Ziegler, wove him into the story so that you see Dean Ziegler at various points at various times of day, and lots of different facets of Dean Ziegler. Depending on which moments of characters you choose to depict in a story, you’re going to get Ogre from “Revenge of the Nerds” or Dean Ziegler or someone even more tragic, and just depict those moments.
I always feel like if I’m thinking about a character, it’s usually evident in the script; the script tells you so much of the choices you should be making, because it’s those moments that tell the story you’re trying to tell. I don’t know if I’m getting a little too obtuse, but it seems like the character of Deanzie could’ve been in a really broad movie, but because of the moments that Phil Johnston chose to share with us, he’s kind of poignant and heartbreaking in this context …
I certainly was aware of — and it’s fairly brushed over in the movie — but Tim has clearly had a fairly heartbreaking existence. He lost his father in a saw-mill accident at 4 years old or 6 years old. And Stephen Root’s character lets you know that even [Tim’s] mom died also when he was very young. And he was just kind of on his own. And I think that’s what’s kind of special about his relationship with [his former teacher played by] Sigourney Weaver.
And even later with [Joan Ostrowski-Fox], it’s kind of this quest for a mom and someone to kind of take care of him. So all of those things were just ingredients. And I felt those were really sad, poignant things that informed Tim’s understanding of the world and justice and what’s right and what’s wrong. He just hasn’t had the experiences that expose him to corruption and the darker side of humanity — yet.
Heche: I always approach a character as if it’s a whole human being, whether it’s a comedy or a drama. “Who is she?” And the fullness and my love for women and human beings. So I don’t often look at them in terms of whether or not they’re comedic character or dramatic characters.
But when Miguel and I met, he really wanted to make a movie about kind people. So that being the foundation for approaching a character, when you come with such a big heart to a film to all of the characters, that gives you a real, wonderful ground to grow a woman who is maybe morally complex — certainly, a woman who is a mother and a wife and a businesswoman who wants to take a step out of her life for one moment a year. I’ve got a lot of compassion and understanding for any woman who wants to do that or any person who wants to do that.
So that’s kind of the [more] fun side of approaching it: Hey, here’s a moment to look at a fantasy. And also the human side that says, “I love this woman, and this woman is a kind woman and a true woman.” And the person she finds her affair to be with is grounded in so much humanity and truth and kindness and warmth, that that journey can grow and build into what the final thing was, which was a friendship. So she has a very clear, human, loving journey.
How do you find humanity in your characters?
Helms: To me, any movie is either trying to be real or not. And they’re both great. I mean, “Anchorman” isn’t real at all, but it’s one of my all-time favorite movies. This is a movie where we wanted everything to be very plausible. And Tim is a rather extreme character with an extreme background, but I always wanted to make sure in portraying Tim that his behavior was justified and that you could believe this guy could exist in the world. And so I think when you speak about humanity and things like that, it’s just a choice about trying to make it real, trying to make it seem plausible. And that’s where humanity is sort of a by-product of that.
Arteta: I concur. I think one way you can bring humanity to comedies is by what you don’t show. The things that you don’t show trigger the audience’s imagination and experience.
For example, in this movie, I love that we find out that Tim has lost both of his parents — and very gingerly; we don’t hit that very hard — and let the audience fill in the gaps, rather than let Tim go on and on about that pain of losing those parents was. We kind of let it be, and I hope that triggers people’s imaginations or experience of what it’s like to be alone. And I hope it informs the character.
I would say that what you don’t show almost more important than what you show sometimes. I always tell young filmmakers, “Stop laying pipe with your characters. If you lay too much pipe, you take the humanity out of the piece.”
INTERVIEW WITH ED HELMS
“Cedar Rapids” is your first movie where you play the lead character. Do you want to do more of these starring roles, or do you feel more comfortable being a supporting player?
This all came together before “The Hangover.’ For all actors, there’s the struggle to find that next thing. I like to be at the generation of an idea, as early as possible, or you can lose control. Some things percolate here and maybe I’ll have a job in a month or two. [“Cedar Rapids”] just felt like something that was a great fit. It wasn’t timed in a strategic career way, other than just it was a really fun script and a really fun story to tell.
What can you say about the wild party scene in “Cedar Rapids”?
The story needed to have some dark edges to it to really challenge Tim Lippe’s character, Actually, in the earlier drafts, it got a lot darker than what you saw. So it was just a matter of finding the right balance and what the ingredients were. Like how much of an ingredient do you need to make it work. Yeah, [Rob Corddry, who plays a thug in the party scene] was such a fun addition, because he was a scary, weird, dark guy. He’s just game for anything and an old buddy, so I just like roping people in.
Did you see Rob Corddry’s movie “Hot Tub Time Machine”?
Will Ferrell is doing a guest stint on “The Office.” How did he get involved in the show, and are they going to let him do a lot of improvisation?
We always improvise on “The Office” when we can. I don’t actually know the back story of where the idea [to have Will Ferrell on “The Office”] originated, but obviously, he and Steve [Carell] are pals from “Anchorman.” So I guess that must be from where it started. We just had table read with him on [February 4, 2011], and he starts shooting with us on [February 14, 2011]. And I cannot wait! It’s going to ridiculous!
Do you want to put to rest any rumors about who will replace Steve Carell’s character as the boss on “The Office”?
No, I’ll just let the rumors zing all over the place. Have at it! I’m not putting anything to rest.
How far in advance do you get the scripts to “The Office”?
The cast will read the script for the first time on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and then we start shooting that script on the following Monday.
Would you want your Andy Bernard character to become the new boss in “The Office”?
I think Andy, just like everyone else in that office, is really going to try and get that job. I’m not actually sure how he’s going to go about it. I haven’t seen that script yet. But what’s so fun is that every character has such a specific personality that everyone’s going to be jockeying for the job in their own crazy way, and hijinks will ensue.
“The Hangover Part II” is going to more “fill in the blank,” compared to the first “Hangover” movie?
Heather Graham played your character’s love interest in the first “Hangover” movie. Can you clear up any rumors about why she’s not in “The Hangover Part II”?
What else can you say about “The Hangover Part II”?
It’s in Bangkok, so let your imagination run wild.
For more info: “Cedar Rapids” website
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Interview with Ed Helms for “The Hangover”
Interview with Ed Helms for “The Hangover Part II”
Interview with Ed Helms for “The Office”
Interview with Ed Helms for “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”
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