While Ed Helms is well-known to audiences from both his film (The Hangover) and TV (The Office, The Daily Show) work, his charming performance as guileless Wisconsin insurance agent Tim Lippe in Cedar Rapids still ranks among the most pleasant discoveries of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Tim has never left his hometown of Brown Valley, never been on a plane, and never stayed in a hotel – so when he travels to the titular metropolis for an insurance convention, it rocks his world.
We see this new world through Helms’s eager eyes, and he makes the character believably innocent and naïve, making for hilarious encounters with his fellow sales reps (Anne Heche, John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and a local call girl (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development), who’s working the convention.
Even though we discovered that we attended rival high schools in Atlanta, an affable Helms sat down with yours truly in a replica “BrownStar Insurance” office at Sundance to talk about Cedar Rapids' journey to the big screen and about all that is new and different in the world of Dunder-Mifflin.
Movies.com: I don’t throw the word “Chaplin-esque” around willy-nilly, but Tim Lippe had the feeling of those innocent doofus characters that Chaplin and Harold Lloyd used to play.
Ed Helms: Oh wow. That’s the second Harold Lloyd compliment that’s come my way, actually. [Producer] Alexander Payne said that, which is probably the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten.
Movies.com: Where did you find that source of naïveté?
Helms: I’m kind of a cynical guy, but I wish that I wasn’t. And I love the idea of a character who isn’t. And it’s almost like a fantasy fulfillment to be a person who doesn’t know all the evils of the world and assumes the best out of everyone around him. It’s so delightful. So I guess it’s not something that comes from personal experience as much as a way that I wish I could be more.
Movies.com: If you scratch a cynic, you find an idealist. So for you, in this case, what does being an executive producer mean?
Helms: It’s funny, someone the other day asked me if I thought I’d made a good investment in this movie, and to be clear – I’m not an investor. In this particular case, it means that I have spearheaded this project from the very kernel of an idea. Phil Johnston, the writer, and I met through a mutual friend, and he had this idea for this movie and wanted me to be a part of it. So we talked about it, and we were instantly on the same page. We kicked it around and hashed it out for a month or two, and Phil wrote this amazing script. We then took it to a number of producers, and our dream came true: we got Alexander Payne onboard. Then we took it to a whole bunch of directors, and another dream came true, we got Miguel on board. And then, well, who’s going back this thing up? And then Fox Searchlight stepped up. But I’ve been a part of it from the very beginning, and really pushed with a lot of passion to get this thing done, and I’m so proud of it. So I think that in many respects, “executive producer” is often a vanity credit. But I’m proud to say I think I kind of earned it on this one. [Laughs]
Movies.com: So many terrific comic actors have come out of The Daily Show, and I’m wondering if that has to do with what happens there or if it has to do with the kind of people they were hiring in the first place.
Helms: It’s a combination of both because Jon [Stewart] has a great eye and great instincts at picking people, but I feel like it was where I cut my teeth. It’s where I learned the discipline of just putting it out there all the time, and really trying to generate material every day. It’s literally a daily show [laughs] so we were working our asses off. You generate so much work, and you just can’t be too precious about it, and that was a huge lesson. You wind up throwing out about 80% of the work, because it’s not good enough, but it’s all for the sake of that 20% that does work and does get on the air. That was something I really didn’t appreciate. I was very precious with my material and my writing before I went to work on a show, and you kind of learn how the sausage is made—you get in the trenches and you see that discipline really is the key.
Movies.com: I’m assuming that to go into that position, you really have to have your improv chops down. It’s so much about being in the moment and staying in character and all the stuff that Sasha Baron Cohen does in his films, where you’re the only one who’s in on the joke and you have to be ready to respond to everyone else.
Helms: Well, yes and no. We did our homework on that show, so before we ever went out on a field shoot, we did a tremendous amount of research on the interview subjects. The producers would do pre-interviews with the subjects, so we generally would know, like a good lawyer, what someone’s answers were going to be, or we had a good idea. But once you’re trying to inject curveballs, that’s when being present and in the moment is critical, and responding to these crazy moments and taking them to another level, going in directions you never expected. Those are the best moments on that show, when something spontaneous and bizarre happens.
Movies.com: Although I think people always wonder, Why do people go on this show? Don’t they realize they’re going to make asses of themselves?
Helms: That is an endless subject of debate, both in the halls of The Daily Show and with everyone I know. I have my own theory. I don’t know if I’m right about this, but my take on it is that people watch The Daily Show and they watch people get interviewed and they watch people look foolish, and they think, What a fool. That would never happen to me. What they don’t realize is that the whole mechanism of making those field segments is designed with meticulous precision to make someone either look foolish or goofy or whatever. It’s kind of a pride thing; people don’t think they are vulnerable. They think, I will stay on message, and I won’t give in to their crazy questions. But they’re just wrong. We have the upper hand! We sit with the footage for two weeks after they’re gone.
Movies.com: So what do you guys think that the post–Steve Carrell The Office is going to be like?
Helms: I don’t think that anyone knows exactly what post–Steve Carrell Office is going look like. In other words, the show will find a kind of equilibrium again, but I don’t know what that is, and I’m not sure anyone does. But what we all know, and what everyone is in agreement about and excited about at the show, is that getting there and finding that equilibrium is going be one hell of a ride. We’re going to go down some crazy avenues and, I think, surprise the fans with some cool exploration of who might fit that position and how that position might change description. It’s just an incredible opportunity for the show and a really fun way to have a rebirth of sorts.
Movies.com: Cedar Rapids is the first project you’ve nurtured along. Are there more in the drawer?
Helms: Yeah! I mean, they’re just sort of things incubating, probably not worth talking about now. But I like participating in something from very early on, because it makes me feel just more comfortable with the actual material and more invested in something. If the right script comes along with the right director and actors, then sure, I just might jump into something. The Hangover is a great example of that. I had nothing to do with that, but I was so psyched to get onboard. Otherwise, I like to have the sense of at least the illusion of some control over my destiny, and in that way I like to be involved with projects from the early point.
Movies.com: And I’m assuming The Hangover kind of gives you the chits for that sort of thing.
Helms: Sure, but to be clear, the inception of Cedar Rapids started well before The Hangover, and I think what’s so special about Cedar Rapids is that everyone who got on the team at every stage got on because they loved it and were passionate about it. That’s kinda rare—a lot of times it’s a business decision, or a practical move, or let’s bring this guy in because he can get financing from that guy. It’s kind of a puzzle piece to make movies, and you can’t be precious about it. A lot of the decisions are practical, and made with an eye to getting the movie made, and that’s completely legitimate. We got lucky on this project in that everyone jumped in out of a real passion and a belief in the project. I hope you feel that watching it.
Movies.com: It’s the kind of movie where I kept thinking it was going to go to that place of L.A. people making fun of flyover country in a snotty way, but it never goes there. It’s never condescending toward your character or the situation or the lives these characters lead. But it finds the humor in it, anyway.
Helms: I’m really glad to hear you say that, because that’s exactly how we all approached it. Phil, the writer, is from Wisconsin, I’m from Georgia, Alexander Payne is from Nebraska, and this is a movie made by people of this world, in a way, with a tremendous amount of affection and compassion. If anything, I think Phil – and maybe Alexander and I – kind of feel like fish out of water in Los Angeles, and so this is a celebration. It’s a new genre of movie: the Midwestern! [Laughs] And I hope that people in the Midwest feel the kind of affection with which it was made.
Cedar Rapids opens in select cities on February 11.