It’s been seven years between the movie Napoleon Dynamite and FOX’s new animated series Napoleon Dynamite, and the original movie isn’t even streaming on Netflix Instant. “It’s not?” asked the once and future Napoleon, Jon Heder, before mock-expunging any self-doubt: “Whatever, dude. Everybody owns it already.” We talked to Heder about revisiting the role, how being Mormon has held him back from being a raunchy comedy star, and his feelings about Mitt Romney.
How many years has the cartoon been in development?
I guess you could say seven years, since the movie was made. But it really was probably over a year since I first got the call. I think it was FOX that came to Jared [Hess, Napoleon Dynamite’s director] first, and said, “I think it’s time. What do you think about doing an animated series?” And Jared was onboard, and then they came to me, and of course I was onboard.
So this was a no-brainer for you?
Way back when the movie came out, there was talk about a possible sequel. But Jared was busy, so FOX came to me and put it out there: “Would you be willing to do a sequel with another director?” And I said that made no sense. It was his story, so to pawn it off on some guy we don’t know … I went to college with Jared, we invented the character for a school project at BYU. It was just too weird of a situation. I couldn’t do Napoleon without Jared. But now, we’re able to give fans what they’ve wanted for a long time.
This was such a defining role for you. Was there ever a point in your life when you resented him a little bit?
No. I never resented him. I loved the character from day one. I get asked that a lot: “Oh, I guess you’re over it.” And I was like yeah, I want to do other things. But I definitely feel like being so close to a character and being able to help create that character and bring him to life, there’s just … It really seemed to affect — I don’t want to say “touch,” in a way that’s too sentimental — but it really affected a lot of people. It has a big fan base. And that was such a big thing to me: I always dreamed of being in the entertainment business and entertaining people. I look at other instances in the past at other actors who have portrayed certain characters, and again of course I want to continue to try to do other things, but I know that that may be the role that I become known for. And hopefully I will expand my skills [snickers at his own Napoleon joke] and my horizons in the acting and entertainment field, but there’s no bitterness towards the character. If it was “I’m just trying to get my foot in the door, I’m just going to take a paycheck and play a goofy character in this movie” — completely different story. But no! I was completely onboard; this was the kind of film that I would’ve made. I loved it.
In real life, you’re a nice guy who never swears.
Well, you’ve never seen me play video games.
But I have played Hacky Sack with you — on the set of Benchwarmers, when I was doing a story on Nick Swarsdon. You complained about me “self-serving,” but you really are a sweet guy who doesn’t swear. Honestly, you seem to have a lot in common with Napoleon.
Ha-ha. That’s funny. Absolutely. It’s true. It wasn’t based on me, but when Jared brought me the script, I read it and I was immediately like, “Yeah.” Jared and I come from very similar backgrounds. Both of us being LDS and having been raised in big families with lots of brothers. We grew up catching crawdads and picking each other’s butts with samurai swords. I was like, “Yeah, I get it, he knows my younger brothers.” And I know his younger brothers. Since 2001, we’ve never had any major disagreements about the character.
You do close your mouth a lot more in real life. Why did you make Napoleon such a mouth breather?
As soon as we realized this is a character who’s so unapologetically clueless … he’s not so much a dweeb, but he seriously lives in his own world. Some kids live in their own bubble. They like the world, they like what the world produces; they like ninja swords, and they like Labyrinth and Star Wars. They like cool things, but their world is just their small little family bubble. And they don’t step outside much. And to me, it felt like exaggerating the traits of my younger brothers and myself. I remember them as really nasally, like they all have some allergies or something. I just remember mouth breathing a lot when I was a kid. So I thought, What would be an unattractive feature that would be funny that a kid would have no idea what he was doing?
It kind of suggests a clinical lack of self-awareness, like Asperger’s or something.
Exactly. Without being medically diagnosed. And it’s all heightened and exaggerated by living in a small town. I didn’t grow up in a super-small town. It wasn’t metropolitan, but there was some connection to the rest of the world. But Kretz, Idaho, you had access to the local video rental shop and that’s it. They didn’t really watch MTV. This was grandma’s house. He just had a VHS player. It’s the most like a postapocalyptic scenario. It’s like a Wall-E! They’re running around this world full of leftovers and junk with nobody to explain or put him into perspective.
You’ve had success, but you really haven’t been able to match the success of Napoleon Dynamite. Why do you think you didn’t become like another Jonah Hill or something?
Because I was picky. And I still am. I enjoy success and I certainly want the projects I did to do well. But I realized how happy I am trying to be somewhat normal without becoming huge. And not so much normal, but grounded, down-to-earth. I grew up in a family where my dad is a family doctor. And I didn’t want to do that, but I wanted a life like he had, which is a somewhat quiet, humble existence. Now, Blades of Glory is unlike anything my dad has done. [Laughs.] But I did get a lot of offers, especially back then, of stuff that I’m not comfortable with. A lot of the projects just seemed too raunchy. Quite honestly, a lot of it was that: the raunch factor. I’ve never been interested in doing those kinds of projects.
Is being a Mormon why you avoid raunchy material?
Absolutely it comes from how I was raised. It’s just kind of who I am. These are the standards I live by and whatever comes my way in the future, whether filmmaking or animation or whatever, I’m going to do my best to live by those standards.
This was a huge year for Mormonism: Jimmer and The Book of Mormon swept the Tonys, and now you have Mitt Romney and Napoleon Dynamite is back. Are you proud of your people?
I’m always proud of my people. But I don’t watch much sports. Sports and politics are the two things that I’m not huge into. I guess I follow politics more than sports. But I’m proud of those guys for upholding the parts of American culture that I’m not into.
Is Mitt Romney your guy? Are you rooting for him?
Yeah, sure I’m rooting for him. Again I’m still taking my time in looking at all the people. Obviously there’s the Mormon connection and yeah, good for him. But looking at all the candidates, there are certain stances that he takes that I don’t agree with. But you can’t be 100 percent with any one person.