Napoleon Dynamite star reflects on film’s success
TORONTO — Of all the memorable lines in Napoleon Dynamite, the quirky comedy that introduced the world to “ligers” and “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts, there is one that gets hollered at star Jon Heder more than any other.
“Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner,” says Heder, easily adopting Napoleon’s indignant, breathy voice after all these years.
The line — directed at his grandmother’s pet llama, Tina — perfectly captures the offbeat tone of the 2004 film. Made for just $400,000, the movie was picked up by Fox Searchlight and Paramount after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and made $46 million worldwide.
Heder, now 36, celebrated the film’s 10th anniversary this week with other cast members in Los Angeles, where a statue of Napoleon was unveiled on the Fox Studios lot. In a phone interview with The Canadian Press, he said the film’s cult following continues to this day.
“I think people really related to Napoleon, whether they felt like him growing up or knew someone like that,” he said. “Even though it’s kind of over the top and funny, he’s trying to get skills, he’s trying to figure out what he’s good at and everyone can relate to that.”
The bizarre comedy set in a rural Idaho town follows Napoleon, a frizzy-haired teenager with a permanent slack-jawed expression, and the unusual characters around him: his shrimpy brother Kip; football-obsessed Uncle Rico; and shy, crafty friend Deb, played by Tina Majorino.
Director Jared Hess took inspiration from his own rural upbringing while writing the film with his wife, Jerusha. His brothers even worked at the chicken farm where Napoleon toils, and the llama actually belonged to his mother — although her real name was Dolly, not Tina.
“After the film screened for the first time at Sundance, my mom came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Well, that was a lot of embarrassing family material,”’ said Hess with a laugh.
“The character of Napoleon especially — I come from a family of six boys and just about everything that is said in the film or happens in the film, my brothers either said or experienced firsthand.”
Hess wrote a short film featuring the Napoleon character about a year and a half before the feature. He was struggling to find the right actor to play the central role, before he remembered Heder from one of his classes at film school.
“I acted out for him the voice and some of the mannerisms of how he was supposed to sound and look, but then Jon took it and . . . he just became the character and totally brought him to life,” Hess said.
When Heder read the script for the short film, he said he immediately identified with the Napoleon character because he also grew up in a big family of boys.
“I got it right away,” Heder said. “I knew exactly who that person was because so much of Napoleon was in my younger brothers and in myself. We had very similar experiences. I loved it. I was like, ‘This is genius.”’
Neither expected the film to go on to be a smash hit or attract a cult following that has lasted a decade. Heder, who later appeared in the Will Ferrell comedy Blades of Glory and Kristen Bell romance When In Rome, said that at first he struggled with the spotlight.
“Getting recognized, I got used to it, but it was weird. It changed everything. I’ve forever got this thing — it can either be a cloud or a rainbow — just hovering over you that is the movie Napoleon Dynamite,” he said.
Asked whether he ever gets tired of being so closely associated with one character, Heder said: “I would, if I really didn’t like him.”
“But I love the movie. I’m so blessed that it was my first film,” he added. “It’s very close to my heart . . . I was kind of moving on with my life (at that time). I got married. I was starting my career, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to do it.”
Over the years, the film has spurred countless fan tributes — a YouTube search for “Napoleon Dynamite dance” reveals just how many people have dutifully learned and recreated Heder’s improvised boogie to Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat.
But Heder says the strangest fan request he ever received happened while he was speaking at a college several years ago. A fan wanted Heder to recreate a scene where Uncle Rico throws a steak at Napoleon’s head.
“This kid came up with a steak and he wanted me to throw the steak at him as part of a retribution act for what Uncle Rico did to me,” recalled Heder.
“So I got to throw a steak at someone and I nailed him and it felt great,” he said.
“He loved it. Everybody was cheering him on. He felt like a rock star. I felt like a rock star. It was a win-win.”