Fox Searchlight took its indie comedy Cedar Rapids all the way to the Sundance Film Festival last month to show an eager audience what producer Alexander Payne, director Miguel Arteta and star Ed Helms had cooked up. Luckily for you, the studio had always planned on giving the rest of the country a look at the film just a few weeks after the Park City, Utah festival concluded.
Cedar Rapids is now playing in limited release and I was fortunate to get the chance to talk to some of its cast and crew at a recent New York press event. Click here for my review of the film and read on below for exclusive interviews with Arteta, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr., who play strong supporting characters in the crazy convention comedy.
Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Ronald wasn’t really the funny character in the film, but I found it really ironic and quite hilarious that he kept referencing the The Wire, which you had a recurring role in. What was that like for you?
You know, when I got the script and I first read that in there, it did run across my mind as “how do you go about making this work” without it coming off as a “wink-wink” moment because I didn’t want to be part of that. As far as I was concerned, The Wire for me is done. That’s not something to carry over; we were off into something totally different. That being said when you put it in the context of the character – who he is and where he’s from and what he is all about – then you begin to see how it works. So trying to stay focused on that, “it’s the character doing it, it’s not me,” is not something I’ve done in the past. Then it begins to work and I think one of the great things for me is that if you know The Wire, the moment really works. If you don’t know The Wire and you don’t know me, the moment still works. It just works in a totally different way, but the effect is still going to be there because people are so blown away and shocked that that’s what would happen with this character when he tries to rescue them out of the meth house. By knowing The Wire, it’s kind of a treat to see it in that context and it still works. I’m happy, I know Ed had talked about wanting to get rid of it when I came on board and that I understand because the movie is not about that, but I’m glad they kept that moment in because it’s sort of that final piece to the arc for that character.
The tone was perfect, it was not mocking but it was just sort of a nod, it wasn’t a cheap.
And right before that moment, I peak in to see what’s going on and there’s that slight moment of “oh my god, what do we do” and this is the only thing that we can do thats going to get us out of that and back into the van.
Now you just talked about how this came up while you were shaping the character. Can you talk a bit more about how you created the character? I couldn’t help but think of Cleveland from Family Guy because Ron was very mellow. I don’t know if that went into your mind, but what did?
This is going to sound really bad, but I’ve never seen Family Guy.
He’s totally a non-confrontational character, so much so to the point that his wife cheats on him with his best friend and he lets it go. He’s a passive guy, uber-friendly almost to the point that it’s not healthy. That works against the character but it made him more endearing. I got a similar feeling from Ron, and now that I know you’ve never seen Family Guy I’m curious to know what your influences were in shaping him?
A lot of that has to do with the script. Phil Johnston’s writing; there were times when I would want to go off in a different direction that I really needed Miguel’s help to guide me back to make sure I stayed on point. It’s like, “This is the character we’re trying to create here. You can do that; you can do the character but you have to make sure you stay on point. We can’t have him reveal this inner thing too early on.” I was really thankful that Miguel would reel me back in. Sometimes, in like the bar scene, we’re doing shots and I kind of go to the way I would take a shot. And he would say, “In this next take, I want to calm him down a little. You’re having too good of a time. Sometimes you start coming off as Deansy (John C. Reilly’s character)”. I’m going to do shot the way I know how to do shot and have a good time. I had to keep pulling him back in. After a while now I begin to see how we’re going with this guy. The other thing, I know so many guys who are like Ron in this movie. And I remember this one time I was telling a friend how people always see west coast, east coast, especially for African American guys with attitudes and I know so many guys that are just not like that. So one of the things I wanted to do was break that a little bit. Because growing up in Indiana and going to college in Minnesota, I’ve come across a fair amount of, it’s almost like, theres no word for it, but I can play it and I can put my finger on it and say this is what it is. And I felt that way with Clay Davidson. I dont think I can label it but I can show you what it is.
You came into a production filled with some comic geniuses. Was it a fun film to make?
Well you know, that kind of helped my character in a way. One – I’m gonna be on the set, I know I can’t compete with their ability to do comedy. I don’t want to sell myself short but they’re geniuses. What they could do at times off the cuff and make it look so effortless it would take me a day to think about.
Did it help you define the character, being able to work off them?
It did, because I would sit and watch and enjoy what they’re doing. But that’s kind of what the character does in the movie. He’s reactionary. You’re just hanging back, you have your moments. But it was a joy to watch and be around. Just the way they work. I got an incredible education in comedy while they were just doing they’re thing. There was no showing up and saying “we’re going to be doing a comedy,” it was like “we’re going to do business as usual, but on top of that we’re going to be funny.”
And that’s the great thing about the dramedy. Independent film has become a melding of genres, which is a good thing. You can’t put a label on everything. Can you clarify Ron’s relationship with Tim? They alluded to a closeted homosexuality with Tim, I don’t know if it was intentional. I read it as jealousy, like he wanted something more with the guy. Maybe I read it wrong.
I don’t think it was that. What I do feel that Ron wanted to, it’s kind of like, I like him and I don’t want to see him get hurt or corrupted or go down this sort of path that I know he’s sorely lacking in the skills to do that. I know he’s sorely lacking in the skllls to do 20 shots or hang out with prostitutes, so I was kind of like it’s more like a big brother. And then Deansy comes in and trying to balance it out. “Calm down, calm down, we don’t have to get into that.” I could handle it, but I know right off the bat that Tim is out of his league.
That speaks to the character, more like a big brother. Deansy was a bad influence, as was Joan to a lesser extent.
He needed to be anchored because you get in with the wrong crowd, the next thing you know you’re doing meth. The fact that it happens to him quickly is funnny, but you see him spiraling out of control. I was trying to be the guy holding things down. And still be at the convention and have all the fun that everyone else is having. I want to get up and go to the breakfast and have a few drinks at the bar. You’re at a convention. I said it reminded me of guys who play golf, but I remember when I started playing, people would ask how is it playing golf and I would say I never knew people acted in such a juvenile way. It’s always like you want to say, “do you really act like that in life, do you really cheat like that? When is a four foot putt a gimme?” I’ve seen Tiger Woods miss those. People come to a convention and want to cut loose and act silly and say all kinds of things, it’s kind of like people going to a super bowl party. People getting wasted. But I just found that if Ron was a little bit controlled, I would be happy with him.
Do you think Ron missed his calling as a gangster?
Not any more than we all did. We all live vicariously through the gangsters. I think that’s what fascinates people with the mob, The Sopranos and Goodfellas, and the great one The Godfather. We live vicariously through them. And I could see why people would live vicariously through characters in The Wire. No one would do that, but he says “I’m a big fan of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire.”
Have you kept up with any of the HBO shows since The Wire ended and, if so, what do you like?
I did watch Treme because one, the show is terrific and two, it’s David Simon’s new show. Boardwalk Empire, I like. I try to watch as much as I possibly can. And then I was on Rubicon which was on AMC.
I loved that show too. What was your experience with that like?
One of the things I loved about it, it didn’t shoot in the major NY locations. It shot in the back alleys. But people would come up and say, I really feel bad the show is canceled. You know it’s part of the game. You do the good ones, you do some that dont make it. You move on. You accept that it’s part of the game. Things are not always going to be like The Wire. But you need to be thankful you got a chance to do that. I can say I was apart of something really really good and that will carry me through the rest of my life.
Is it easy reuniting with actors you’ve worked with previously? In this case, John. What’s that like after so many years?
Well John C. Reilly and I have been looking for something to do since The Good Girl but it’s hard to find a character that John hasn’t done already. But when this Deansy character came up it was awesome because here’s somebody who has to be a complete loud mouth but also feels the pain of his divorce and is poignant. And those extremes I hoped John would react to. This is going to be a fun character to play. And it’s not just a cartoonish character at all; the bitterness of that divorce is behind every line in the film.
It grounded the character and obviously you needed something to ground Deansy because otherwise he was just spewing raunch and debauchery the whole time. Switching gears really quickly, what was it that drew you to the project?
It was Ed and the script. The script had genuine affection for its characters. He’d have fun with his characters but never make fun of them. Which as a director is what you want. You do not find this every day. You can tell by the way he names the characters, Bill Krogstad, Dean Zeigler, he really loves his characters and that was the reason I wanted to sign in. But Ed in this part was really exciting. He has this quality almost like a Jack Lemmon, of being an everyday guy, wholesome, but also has a comedic edge. You don’t see that often. And the story was perfect for me. Particularly the art of being kind underneath not being a chump.
There was a lot of morality and themes in it; not like some conventional comedies. Ed’s man-child growth, corporate corruption, seperation of church and career, was that all from the script or did you balance it yourself?
It was there in the script and I loved all of it. Find out what the priorities are and look deeply into people and see what their priorities are because appearances are misleading. What I loved about it was that he looks at these people that are so different from him, it’s like the Wizard of Oz of insurance. He goes and finds these three motley characters, he needs them and they need him. And they’re all so different but they become friends because he’s able to look and realize these people have the same priorities, even though one is foul mouthed and one is a very confused house wife and one is extremely timid. They all share the same priorities and I love that about the film. It’s a movie about recognizing, being able to look deeper into people and recognizing what’s really important.
Everyone brought a different comedic style. Ed is the sheltered man-child, then John’s Deansy, the insurance all-star differed from and Isiash’s sensibilities, which was very reserved and calm. How do you balance a scene, like some of the bar scenes, and comedy in them when you have all these different styles.
Well the contrast makes it really fun, the fact that you can’t imagine they could find common ground then they do. the more different they are the more exciting it is, just to see them find common ground. Ed had something interesting, he told me three years ago that he would be in a movie with John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr. That’s a pretty strange cast and that’s the loveliness of the movie; it finds this motely crew on the ground. I wanted to capture what it’s like to have that moment of surprise when out of nowhere you make a lifelong friend. It can happen at any time and when it does those first few days when you connect with that person and realize this person is going to be a friend for life, there’s madness and fun and those memorable first few days are what I wanted to capture.
The film is loaded with cameos, Rob Corddry, Thomas Lennon, and more. How did it all come together? I almost wanted to see more Corrdry’s drug pushers.
Ed has a lot of fans and John as well, and Ed knew Rob from The Daily Show. And he said let’s have Rob do something a little different. He came out and hung out with us for three nights and it was awesome to see him do a scary guy. And Tom and I were friends with someone so it was nice to bring him in and do something different. He usually doesnt play the alpha male.
That was definitely a departure for him. Humor from an unlikely place.
It’s kinda like things are big for Tim, someone so sheltered and afraid to leave home. The fact that having a red car blows his mind, the little thigns are huge for him.
Speaking of sheltered, there’s an innocence about small town USA wouldn’t have been in the film if it was set in NYC. One of the benefits of having a film set in and about Main Street America.
I think it cuts away some of the bullshit. I’m kind of personally tired of super-hipster comedies that try to shock people. Comedy has become almost too hip and I love the idea of doing a wholesome comedy with a little foul language and little sex, but generally speaking not your super hip-comedy and if I see another comedy set in LA I think I’ll shoot myself. I think going into another world is very refreshing and it takes a bit of the hipness out of it. I may be against the norm, but things are working out for me. You need to make movies for the things you need. It’s like cooking. You cook and make it taste good for you and hope people like it.
This is definitely not a mainstream comedy, being set in Cedar Rapids and about insurance salesmen. What challenges did that present?
You have to get to know the world and it helped to know the place and what it’s like to be from the midwest. Reilly is from Chicago, Anne is from Ohio and the writer is from Wisconsin; he was a meterologist in Wisconsin. So I had a lot of help keeping it in that world. We did shoot in the midwest, we shot in Ann Arbor. The conventioneers, a very important part, they were wonderful and added a distinct midwestern flavor to it.
Can you give some updates on developing projects. Most recently we heard you were attached to Fat Man with Adam Sandler…
Not attached. I was given the script and think it’s wonderful. It’s hilarious. The character is super-intelligent and funny and a most unlikely character. I’m in love with it and I hope he has the gumption to do it, but I’m not doing it. I spent last year working on a TV show with Mike White that he wrote for Laura Dern and Luke Wilson called Enlightened that will premiere on HBO this summer. Mike White is my favorite writer and wrote ten episodes. I’m really jazzed about that. It’s a real, original TV series. I’m very excited about it.
You’ve been working on projects with very specific alternative settings for a while now. Men In Trees, Hung, now this. What is it about enclosed communities that is so attractive to talent and what makes them endearing?
I think that any time you take a big concept and put it into a small group it’s an easier way to digest the human story. None of these are big action romps, these are human stories. Hung, certainly Detroit, was a very particular desired look, with what was going on with the economic crisis so that backed it up. To play those small town characters, I loved talking to people who have a dream to get out of the small place and to play a person who had such a dream and got stuck. And it’s just wonderfully complicated. She’s again, a woman who is in a place of her choice. John has a strength that my character doesn’t have and it’s one of the reasons I love going from the innocence of the girl I play in Hung, who doesn’t have a choice to look at the world any other way.
She looks at the world and what’s happening and absorbs it and deals, thats how Jessica deals with it. Joan on the other hand is a very strong woman who knows exactly what she’s doing and she’s made her choices and she knows how to survive them. I thought that was an amazing way to approach someone who could have some judgment, but I found her to be very centered and very strong in making choices that may not be right for anyone but her family. And the way she survives it and makes her world work was very interesting to me. She’s still a woman who lives within her boundaries and the context of her rules. Playing characters is always so wonderful because they all have different shapes and forms, literal boundaries around their emotions and boundaries around their physical being. So to play an insurance salesmen, a committed mother and wife, a person who is in the MidWest who’s morally bound by her land, I do feel like women in the MidWest are centered in their faith, centered in their roles for themselves. They’re appropriate.
Their rules or societies rules?
A combination of both. Midwesterner’s are centered in their faith in a good way. I really wanted to portray that. I grew up a little town in Ohio. I see it in my sisters. My oldest sister is a very very centered, grounded, midwestern woman that made choices not everyone would necessarily agree with. I liked Joan’s strengths within the boundaries. She’s the wild woman in the movie but she’s not an actress that goes out on a Saturday night. She’s Joan Ostrowski-Fox, she has a containment that I thought was really interesting to play.
Shes living a life that she can’t escape.
Not fully, but I never wanted Joan to want to fully escape. She doesn’t want to leave her life, she has a way that she deals with her life and it’s this one weekend every year. It’s a little bit of a play on gender and an understanding that men go away and it’s ok if they have affairs. We somehow accept that, strangely. I don’t even know why our society is like “oh yeah, that happens but we don’t think that way about women” so we wanted to play with that.
This isn’t your first time working with Alexander Payne, who produced this as well as Hung. What’s that relationship like?
Well Alexander directed the pilot of Hung as well as produced it, and I wasn’t on board with the intial pilot. I was off shooting a movie and then I came on after and they replaced the girl with me and Alexander and I got to work in a really amazing fast-paced environment. We put these things in the pilot with Tom in that story and he and I had so much fun really playing together. I was so moved by the fact that they asked me to do it. I met them and I was nine months pregnant and was going to give birth in two days and I said I could do it and I don’t know how they believe me, but everyone somehow supported me. I could work things off after I gave birth so when I came waddling on to the set seven days after and Thomas and I were doing these incredibly emotional scenes and Alex had come back to direct them.
Thomas then said he thought they found “the ex-wife” they needed and I felt so great and couldn’t believe the blessing in my life. Alexander was also thinking that the elements of his show were coming together and we were in a celebration. And then this movie came along and I walked into the room with a red wig on to say I think I see this character this way.
Joan is the strongest person in the film, I think. Funny, but not in an imposing way like Deansy. And she’s grounded in her responsibilities. How do you ground her when she’s in this hightened situation and as an actress how do you stay grounded working with Ed and John?
You always have to tell the truth when you’re playing a character, no matter what that character is. I played this character on Ally McBeal that they had written for me, a woman with tourettes. How do you know what she’s going to do or say. You figure out the boundaries first. You can’t curse on TV, you’ve gotta have some physical boundaries and you have to be funny. You have to create the tourettes around these boundaries and that’s what makes it interesting. If you never set your rules, you’re never going to go outside of them. That’s how you shape them, her physicality comes in, the look of her, everything comes in to shpae her from the ground up and inside. It’s the same thing with the other character. She is a person I love and she has a role that suits a story so she is a being within this world who is also telling a larger story but the bigger story of these four unlikely people coming together to touch each other, move each other, and shape something that has changed their lives that they will have forever. Miguel wanted to make a movie about friendship, first and foremost.
Your backstory has a bigger effect on your character than the rest of the cast, except for Ed because we see his. Miguel thinks that Deansy’s history was paramount to the character and I guess I sort of agree but not as much as I think that way about your character. How much of that came in handy during production?
Knowing who she is, once you figure out who you are, you are who you are. It’s funny, younger actors ask me how do you stay in character. Once you figure out who you are you can’t lie. You should never be thinking about how you’re saying a line. No one else knows how you’re going to say your line. If your name is Jane, no one asks Jane if your going to pause before if, and, or but. So if you’re in that truth, you’re in the truth. You’re going to be, it doesn’t matter if the ceiling fell in.
It’s not acting, it’s becoming.
I used that once. You become. Don’t get flightly about it, you’re already doing it. If you’re thinking about it, you’re not it.
Where does Ed rank in your on cinematic love scenes?
That’s a really hard question. I’ve worked with some of the world’s sexiest men and that’s an amazing thing to say. Also some of the world’s greatest comedians. What’s fun and difficult about creating a relationship in front of a camera is removing all of the things getting in the way of being in that relationship. No matter what it is. If it’s Harrison Ford, the first movie i ever saw was Star Wars and I fell in love with movie. The trick to being on screen with him is to remove all of those things that are flying around in your head. Who ever thought in a million years I would be here. The same obstacles exist when you’re in a scene with Ed Helms. “Is this supposed to be a comedy? Wait a minute, he’s an innocent…is it supposed to funny? I thought it was the guy from The Hangover? My son just watched that, he shouldn’t have watched that, it’s rated R.” How do you remove all that and get to these two people in a pool. It was bad, looking into each others eyes to get to a moment where he embraces himself. How do I let him be enough? How do I remove myself enough to get to the final moment of this where he says “I want to make love,” where we break through for his character. How can I remove myself enough to get there?
How does he rank? The same as everyone else. A wonderful partner. It was very fun for me and for everyone.