‘Office’ star gets new job, makes the grade

By Drew Hunt

Ed Helms made a name for himself appearing on “The Office” as the loveable loud-mouth Andy Bernard. After co-starring in the comedy “The Hangover,” Helms takes on a leading role in “Cedar Rapids,” a film about a Midwestern insurance agent named Tim Lippe who finds himself in way over his head when asked to represent his company at a prestigious regional conference. The Chronicle had a chance to sit down with Helms and director Miguel Arteta to discuss the film, its casting process and treading the line between lighthearted and mean-spirited comedy.

The Chronicle: How did the idea for this film come about?

Ed Helms: [Screenwriter] Phil Johnston came to me before he wrote anything. A mutual friend introduced us, and he had all the building blocks of this story in mind already. We just sort of collaborated and turned it over for a month or two about exactly who the character is and [what] the world is and all that. It wasn’t just about a naive guy getting in over his head and getting blown away by this experience. It was also about—and this is a real tribute to Phil’s nuanced writing—creating a character who, by just being who he is, affects the people around him. John [C. Reilly] and Anne [Heche’s] character[s] are sort of morally ambiguous people, but because of their interaction with Tim, they become these incredibly gracious and warm people. So that was just a compelling story to tell.

The Chronicle: What did you think of the script when you first read it?

Miguel Arteta: What I really want from a script is one that has fun with the characters but also has genuine affection for the characters. It never crosses that line of making fun of the characters. It’s [a] tough line to ride. And [“Cedar Rapids”] definitely had it. From the way [Johnston] even named the characters, there was music to the character’s names. He clearly has such affection for them. That was

the main thing.

EH: I love stories about characters who are trying hard to do the right thing and who want to believe in the goodness of people around them but make terrible decisions and take awful, painful stumbles along the way. That is such a heartbreaking, hilarious and poignant story arc to me.

The Chronicle: Once the script was ready, how did you go about casting? There are a lot of funny people in the film, like John C. Reilly and Thomas Lennon from “Reno! 911,” so I imagine it was an interesting process.

EH: Well, it’s not a cast a studio executive would say, “This is a homerun movie!” [laughs]. But it is a cast any fan of good acting and good comedy would say, “Hell yes! This is a cool little crew here.” And everyone from Lennon … to Stephen Root, Mike Birbiglia, Mike O’Malley, Rob Cordry. It really made it feel special and cool because these were casting decisions made purely on, “Who can we get [who’s] great?” [and] not “Who can we get [who’s] going to raise the profile of the movie?,” which is how a lot of decisions in Hollywood

are made.

MA: It’s very hard—casting is 95 percent of a director’s job. And it’s a job that, if you use your brain, you’re not going to do well. We saw more than 60 people to find the role of The Ronimal, and it was fantastic when [Isiah Rockwell Jr.] came in. Rarely does that happen when someone auditions and you go, “Oh, my God, this person is perfect.” But it was incredibly fun to put [everyone] together. We wanted to make the “Wizard of Oz” of insurance. We had to make sure those four people were different and it would be a surprise that they got along so well. If we didn’t have that chemistry, we didn’t have a movie.

The Chronicle: The film has satirical tone to it. Were you ever worried Midwesterners would see this movie and feel offended?

MA: The people in the movie were very concerned about it. Reilly is from Chicago; Anne Heche is from Ohio. They all kind of said, “I’ve been dying to do a movie where I can show my affection for where I come from.” I think that was [our] intention from the beginning. Johnston came from a small town in Wisconsin, but he worked as a [weatherman] in Des Moines for many years and was a field reporter in Iowa. I think he fell in love with that region, which is how this script came to be.

EH: If I genuinely like a character and respect them, then I think that will come through no matter what the character’s going through or how ridiculous or

humiliating a scene might be. I don’t particularly like comedy that’s rooted in ridicule. I treaded that line on “The Daily Show,” and it was sort of an ongoing struggle for me. I’m enormously proud of my work on “The Daily Show,” but it was a sort of constant monitoring of “Am I being silly, or are we getting into ridicule territory here?” I just always found what I enjoyed the most and what I found the most fun is comedy that starts with affection. Then you can have fun and humiliate the character and do ridiculous things and never feel like you’re lampooning a stereotype.

The Chronicle: Speaking of your television career, your role as Andy Bernard on “The Office” feels like a complete 180 from Tim Lippe in “Cedar Rapids.” What is it about these polemic personas that interests you?

EH: Are you saying Andy, personality-wise, is different?

The Chronicle: Yes, exactly. He’s much more pompous.

EH: He’s certainly a more aggressive personality. He sort of wears everything on his sleeve and gets in your face a lot more. But what Andy and Tim share is a kind of desperation to do the right thing and an inability to make the right decisions. So that really is the core of what appeals to me about those guys. I’m actually really grateful you see distinctions between the two because people have been pointing out similarities and I do think that personality-wise, they would hate each other! But there is a hopefulness in both of them I really respond to because I wish I had more hopefulness. I’m too jaded and cynical

now [laughs].

The Chronicle: As far as the humor of the film goes, it’s very broad but has an air of sadness to it as well. How do you achieve this balance?

MA: There’s something subversive in a very subtle way about this comedy. It’s meant to make you laugh, but at the same time it goes against the grain of a lot of comedies. For example, Lippe does drugs in [“Cedar Rapids”], and we don’t punish him for it; Heche’s character cheats on her husband, and we don’t take a judgmental stance. I made a very un-hip comedy in some ways I adore. That’s why I wanted to make it. When everything makes too much sense, I’m not as interested. Life is filled with contradictions. Part of that is not being afraid to go from something funny to something touching or vice versa. Pedro Almodovar is one of my favorite filmmakers, and he will do that beautifully. I think the most important thing to ask your actors is to never try to get a laugh, never try to get sympathy. Just be in the scene.

EH: It’s about learning the script backward and forward, and understanding what every scene means and what we’re trying to convey in the context of the story. The more you know the script—the more you understand what’s going on beneath the scene—to me, that’s the most meaningful preparation. It really was about just digging into the script.

“Cedar Rapids” premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and is currently playing in Chicago at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., and the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.