Jon Heder is not uber-geek Napoleon Dynamite. He does relate to the triumph-over-your-own-inner-loser tenacity for which Napoleon stands, though.
Heder so far has stuck closely to that theme in the handful of characters he’s played since becoming an icon for outsiders with the title role in the low-budget sensation “Napoleon Dynamite.”
His latest: “School for Scoundrels,” with Heder as Roger, a pathetically meek parking meter man summoning the fortitude to battle a con man (Billy Bob Thornton) who teaches a guerrilla course in confidence building for nerds.
Though he does not share Napoleon’s outrageously frizzy hair or Roger the meter man’s submissive demeanor, Heder empathizes with such fringe characters.
“I relate to most of the characters I play, because I do feel like an outsider,” Heder said in an interview with The Associated Press, noting that growing up a Mormon who has an identical twin brother automatically set him apart. “And I wasn’t into sports like all my friends were. I was into art and drawing and making movies. On top of that, I liked all the traditional geeky stuff. I was into ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars.’
“Coming to Hollywood, I definitely feel like an outsider. I know at some point I would like to take on more dramatic roles. OK, here’s a character I don’t know or relate with at all. Here’s this person doing something different from what I know.”
The quotable ‘Napoleon’Heder, 28, is one of the great outsider success stories in modern Hollywood. An unknown less than three years ago, Heder trudged to the ski-resort town of Park City, Utah, in January 2004 for the premiere of “Napoleon Dynamite,” directed by his Brigham Young University film school classmate Jared Hess.
Amid bleak, sober dramas about adultery, drug abuse and pedophilia, “Napoleon Dynamite” was a blast of sweet, giddy fun, a tale of misfits finding kinship and acceptance. Heder’s Napoleon was a prince among geeks with his breathy, exasperated exclamations of “Gosh!” and quirky dialogue such as “Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner” and “I caught you a delicious bass.”
By summer 2004, fans were quoting those and other lines as “Napoleon Dynamite” became an independent-film sensation.
Agents and managers courted Heder, scripts came his way, and he followed with roles as a spacy occult bookstore clerk in Reese Witherspoon’s “Just Like Heaven” and as Rob Schneider and David Spade’s teammate in the baseball comedy “The Benchwarmers.”
Along with Thornton in “School for Scoundrels,” Heder’s upcoming co-stars include Will Ferrell in “Blades of Glory,” the two playing rival ice skaters who team up as the first competitive men’s pair, and Diane Keaton in “Mama’s Boy,” in which he plays a slacker whose cozy home life is threatened by his mother’s new romance.
Heder still marvels over his progression of cast mates.
“I was like, ooh, Billy Bob. Then it was like, wow, Diane Keaton. Then I was like, Will Ferrell? Me and Will Ferrell?” Heder said. “No, no, no, no. You’ve got to pinch me. This is not fair. I’ve done something, I feel like a fraud in some ways, and I’m going to be exposed at some point.”
His co-stars say Heder’s no fraud. Though a newcomer with little training or experience, Heder already has the goods to make it in Hollywood, Ferrell said.
“He just kind of has everything,” Ferrell said. “He has this persona that comes through that’s extremely likable, and it’s really funny the different ways he observes the world through his characters.”
Jacinda Barrett, the object of affection over whom Thornton and Heder tussle in “School for Scoundrels,” said the two actors were an ideal match, Thornton the devious wolf, Heder a saint who does not drink or swear (in real life, Heder really does say “Gosh” as an exclamation).
“He’s got such a great moral code. It’s very important for him to uphold those qualities in the parts he takes,” Barrett said.
“School for Scoundrels” director Todd Phillips, who adapted the movie from a 1960 British comedy, said the story hinged on the chemistry, or anti-chemistry, between the characters. Once Thornton signed on, Phillips went searching for his “180-degree opposite.”
“If Billy Bob’s the anti-Christ, who is on the opposite of that? And that’s Heder,” Phillips said. “Jon comes with so much innocence, and he really is like that in every way. From the first frame of the movie, the audience is on this guy’s side.”
Heder and his twin brother grew up the middle children of a family of six siblings, the two developing an early interest in drawing, film and animation. At Brigham Young, Hess cast Heder in the lead of a short film, a character who became the prototype for Napoleon Dynamite.
Animation remains a passion for Heder, who was among the voice cast for “Monster House” and the upcoming cartoon flick “Surf’s Up.” Heder and his brothers have formed a production company, and he said he someday hopes to direct an animated feature.
With Heder and his wife next spring, the actor is mindful of the types of characters he’s willing to play. He’s already said no to some scripts because the content or language conflicted with his upbringing.
While he hopes to branch out to more dramatic parts, Heder said he’s comfortable specializing in upbeat stories such as “Napoleon Dynamite,” where an unlikely hero makes good.
“That’s what protagonists do. They work hard, they have a conflict, they overcome the obstacles,” Heder said. “They get to the climax and they win. Or they lose. Just as long as something is gained, a lesson is learned. I do like those. The more quiet victories are always great. In ‘Napoleon,’ that was very much a quiet victory, you know? He learned something, and he gained a little something. ...
“I don’t ever see me doing a really dramatic role in a feature that’s, like, really depressing. I love those kinds of movies sometimes, but still, being brought up the way I was, I have no problem teaching those kinds of principles in films.”