Knowing his limitations has made Ed Helms a star, playing the nerd in The Hangover, The US Office and this week’s Cedar Rapids. Paul Byrne tries not to bully him.
You can tell a lot about a person by the music they like. And even more by the instrument they might play.
Ed Helms plays the banjo. Since he was a teenager. Enough said.
“It is one of those instruments, isn’t it?” laughs the 37-year old comic actor. “I should state though, I don’t sit out on the porch and play my banjo all day long. Even if I do look like I sit out on my porch and play my banjo all day long.”
It’s a look that’s given Edward Paul Helms a niche in the market when it comes to the acting profession.
His doofus dentist Stu Price in 2009’s monster hit The Hangover (there’s a sequel hitting our screens May 27th), the bumbling, would-be bodacious Andy Bernard in the American version of The Office, and now, in this week’s rather fine indie comedy Cedar Rapids, naïve insurance agent Tim Lippe.
The latter sees Helms finally progress to the role of leading man, aided and abetted by the likes of John C. Reilly and Anne Heche to deliver yet another beautiful loser.
PAUL BYRNE: Was there a part of you early on that recognized the fact that playing beautiful losers and likeable nerds was going to be your forte?
ED HELMS: Well, I kinda knew I wasn’t going to be the guy who always got the girl, or who beat up the ninjas. After that, you’re always looking for a role that’s going to give you something to work with. And that means being aware of what you yourself have to work with. So, yeah, I guess I did recognise early on that I was going to play a lot of beautiful losers and likeable nerds. The trick was to make them somewhat real. And I love playing the earnest chump – feels natural to me…
This is your first leading role in a major feature film – feel any different?
It did feel a little different, yeah, but then, when you’re working alongside the likes of John C. Reilly, you know that this is never exactly a solo gig. When you have great people around you, it’s much easier to shine, much easier to have some fun. I think that was the secret ingredient of The Hangover – we all gave each other this room to move, and we kind of inspired one another.
Your latest is a movie that’s currently got 84% approval on rottentomatoes, meaning the bulk of the critics out there loved it. These indie comedies can be hard to sell though. I’m guessing the marketing budget for Cedar Rapids is about 0.001% of that for The Hangover 2…
If even that [laughs]. It’s a hard sell, sure, because people will always be drawn to the biggest noise, the brightest light, but the fact that this is a good movie, and that it’s getting such a positive response, you’re always hopeful that people will find you. Of course, going out like this and talking to the good people of the press, that all helps too.
Over in The Office, Will Ferrell has arrived, to help smooth over Steve Carell’s departure. Inevitably, there was a boost in ratings – feel like a new dawn, or maybe the end of an era…?
It feels exciting, but there’s definitely a degree of sadness that Steve is gone. You become a family of sorts, even if it is just a circus family, when you’re shooting a series over a matter of years. But, you know, Will’s incredible, and for those of us who love our comedy, it’s something of a wild thrill to be working with him.
It’s amazing the show has lasted as long as it has, and I think that’s largely down to the fact that we’re still having fun.
Talking about still fun, can you tell us anything about The Hangover II beyond the fact that you guys head to Bangkok, Mike Tyson is back, Liam Neeson’s replacement cameo for Mel Gibson has now been replaced, with Nick Cassavetes, and there’s a chain-smoking monkey involved?
I cannot tell you much more than that, otherwise I might be taken to a remote spot by Warners, from where I would never re-emerge. What I can tell you is that we had a blast making the film, because we made it knowing that there’s a whole lot of people out there who love these guys. That’s very inspiring, knowing that you’ve already got an audience…
You’re a man with deep Southern roots – you’re mum being from Nashville, your dad from Montgomery…
Yeah, those are deep Southern roots. I’m guessing that must be where the love of banjo came from. I guess too there might a degree of my on-screen character coming out of that too – the hillbilly in a suit kind of thing. The guy who doesn’t quite know where it’s at. That’s me.
And the music – where did that come from? A family tradition?
Not really. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and the music around me would have been the likes of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen – all the usual American teen sounds of the 1970s and ‘80s.
Those early steps into comedy – was there a plan?
I basically wanted to go to New York and try to do comedy. I wanted to go in an indie filmmaking direction, writing and directing, and becoming an auteur – all that romantic notion stuff of being an artist. But I found myself doing well every time I acted like a jackass. It’s where I shine, you know [laughs]. Doing stand-up in New York in those early days, that was the real spark. I found it such a rush. I was aiming for a Saturday Night Live audition at that point, and when my friends started getting them and I wasn’t, I began to feel like I might be left behind. But then I got a gig on The Colbert Report, and everything changed.
And now that you’re finally that leading man, are your earnest chump days over?
Oh, not by a long shot. I don’t think you can shed that skin, no matter how successful you might become. On some level, we’re all our teenage selves all the way through our lives. I’m not complaining – I’m a very lucky, very happy guy – but I don’t think my inner me is going to change all that much over time. I’m a sensitive guy, and I’m happy with that…