June 2009

Higher Ed

From Westminster Schools to The Office to The Hangover, catching up with Atlantan Ed Helms.

Q&A: Ed Helms
(extended from the June 2009 issue)
Interview by Amanda Brown Heckert

A quote from Andy Bernard—Ed Helms’s preppy-pathetic, a cappella–loving character on NBC’s The Office—could be a metaphor for the comedian’s own career: “I’m always thinking one step ahead. Like a . . . carpenter . . . that makes stairs.” Step by step the Westminster grad has built his fame, from spending years as a Daily Show correspondent to developing The Office’s Bernard into a full-time character to costarring in this month’s Vegas-bachelor-party escapade, The Hangover. But really, Helms is just getting started.

Is your portrayal of The Office’s Andy Bernard based on anyone in particular? He’s more of the Connecticut blue-blood douche bag, if you will. And I relish playing that character because as a Southerner I just like to make fun of that guy. He’s just kind of a contemptuous guy, and yet I also sort of adore him because he’s insecure and vulnerable at times, so I try to give him a heart. There are certain archetypes that are not region-specific that apply to frat boys or a cappella nerds or whatever, and I think that’s something that everyone just gets. And Andy is part frat boy, part a cappella nerd, and I think it doesn’t matter where you’re from, where you went to college, if you went to college—you kind of just get that.

Speaking of the South, when was the last time you were in Atlanta? I get back three times a year, probably. Usually a couple of holidays, something or another, bring me back. My parents still live there. And I do miss it. Los Angeles doesn’t have a lot of seasonal variety, but I think Atlanta is at a perfect latitude for having a protracted autumn and spring, and a pretty serious summer, and a very nice winter.

I was there [in February]; I did a benefit for [Atlanta actor, playwright, and Theatrical Outfit executive artistic director] Tom Key at the Theatrical Outfit in Downtown Atlanta, and it snowed that weekend as well, which was crazy. Tom invited me to be a part of the benefit, and I was very flattered and excited to participate. Growing up I saw him in various productions at the Alliance Theatre. And I saw him in the Cotton Patch Gospel, which he cowrote. And then when [Westminster] did a production of the Cotton Patch Gospel, that’s when I learned to play the banjo. So my banjo playing is kind of, in some respect, owed to Tom Key. In a more macro way, any chance I can get to contribute to the artistic community in Atlanta, I’m thrilled to do it; it just really has a vibrant creative community and I’m excited to support that.

Speaking of high school, I spoke with Brian Baumgartner last year and he recalled that you two were in some productions together when you were both students at Westminster. Yeah, at least a couple!

Was Westminster when you first got into theater? Yes. Well, to be clear, it was the first place that I kind of did any acting. I’m not so much a huge theater fan—I mean, I’m a fan of theater, but as far as what I enjoy doing, it’s more specific than that. It’s comedy. So if I’m in a comedic play or something, that’s how I would do theater, then you know, improv and all that. Westminster was the first place I was in a couple of comedic plays, and that’s really where I tapped into comedic performing for the first time.

And music, too? I’m actually primarily a guitar player. And I’ve played piano my whole life but never really got great at it, but I can noodle around. And then as a huge bluegrass fan my whole life, I’ve been playing banjo kind of all along as well. It’s funny, actually, in the last couple of years, banjo’s kind of taken the front seat, I’ve been really working on that more. I just love it so much, I don’t know what it is!

Are you in a band now, or is it mostly solo banjo-ing?I was in a band—I lived in New York for almost ten years, and I had a trio called the Lonesome Trio there, and all three of us were buddies from Oberlin College. And we were in a band in college and then reconnected in New York, and we all like to think that the Lonesome Trio is kind of like a lifetime gig, in that we’ll always be together, in a sense. We’ll always play together from time to time. The last couple of years we’ve done a reunion show between Christmas and New Years in our favorite New York bar, and so yes, I’m still in the Lonesome Trio. But since I’ve moved to L.A., I have not found a really consistent outlet. I mean, I play from time to time, and I go to jam sessions or whatever, bluegrass pickin’ parties, but I haven’t found a consistent place to play.

A sequel to your newest movie, The Hangover, was announced before the original even premiered. Is there any bigger jinx? That’s a very interesting announcement. I’m really proud of it, and I think it’s just really crazy and funny and entertaining. It’s gotten good reactions in test screenings and in some press screenings and so on, so it seems to have some nice momentum. But it’s really too early to make a call on how the movie’s going to do. But however it does, at the end of the day, I’m proud of it.

Another upcoming project is your as-yet-untitled comedy, about a time-traveling Civil War reenactor, that will be produced by Steve Carell. Did your time growing up here lend to that script? Yes, my script partner, Jake Fleisher, and I are writing it right now. I would say that growing up in the South, there is a much greater awareness of Civil War history than in most other parts of the country. And this is an interesting statistic I read: After the Civil War, the North was inundated with immigrants, so it diluted the population in terms of Civil War veterans. The South had far fewer immigrants, so just by the math, there are presently many more descendants of Civil War veterans in the South than there are in the North. It was just that in the North, it’s not as present in the consciousness, because it’s not as personal anymore. So yes, absolutely. Growing up in the South, having an awareness of the Civil War and the story behind it has always informed my passion for this project. It’s a real thrill, and I also hope it’s going to be a really fun, crazy movie.

In the comedy, there will be a black professor protesting the reenactors. Will race relations play a part? It’s complicated. A lot of the fun of this movie is social satire. And as much as I love the South—it’s where I’m from and it’s who I am—I also love making fun of it. But it’s not just the South that the movie undermines; there’s a lot of humor at the expense of Yankees as well. But we just wanted to mix up the perspectives. In the same way that Monty Python and the Holy Grail undermines all of the aristocracy of British culture, that’s sort of the fun we wanted to have with this movie. And race is a big part of that. The movie is not about race relations by any stretch, but it’s certainly something that is a very serious subject that we’ll be addressing hopefully with some enlightened satire.

The other fun part of this movie is that the reenacting community is a rabbit hole of fascinating personalities and really passionate people. And there’s something innately beguiling about people who are passionate about something. So we’re not making fun of reenactors, because I’m actually pretty enamored with reenacting; it’s more having fun with reenactors.

Are you at the point where producers come to you, or is it still a matter of putting yourself out there? It really depends on so many factors. In the case of The Hangover, Todd Phillips knew me really well; he’s the director and just really wanted me in the movie. In the case of most other things at this point, I fight for things. Your job is never done, you know? You can never sit back and let things come to you, because you’ll never grow that way. I try to be proactive and stay on top of whatever projects are brewing and go for the ones I want. If that means I audition or interview or whatever, I’m game!

Are there any other upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Between The Hangover, this Civil War script, and The Office, that’s really where my focus is going right now. And really there actually is another movie. I have a supporting part in a Jeremy Piven comedy called The Goods, which will be coming out in August, and that’s a really fun, broad comedy produced by Will Ferrell’s company. So that’ll be fun, too. But right now, it’s all about wrapping up The Office season in the next couple of weeks, and trying to get the word out about The Hangover.

Do you still do much stand-up? I don’t do that much, and I’ve been really missing it lately. I do occasionally. My buddy, Zach Galifianakis, he’s one of my co-stars in The Hangover, is one of my favorite stand-ups, and I’ve done a couple of random shows here and there with him lately. But The Office production schedule is very, very demanding; I’m usually at work at six or six-thirty in the morning. So it’s really hard to be out late. But I sort of have this fantasy that I’ll get back on track with that, maybe this summer.

You got your start doing voiceover work, is that something you still enjoy? It’s how I supported myself getting started in comedy, and I still do that. I see that as very much a part of my business, and I still try to get commercial voiceovers here and there. I did mostly commercial voiceovers, by the way, not character/animation voices. But lately I’ve done a few more, like a character on American Dad, and I had a fun little part in Monsters vs. Aliens, so that’s an ongoing thing, and I hope to always cultivate that.

Is there anything you like to do when you come back to Atlanta? You know, Atlanta is so different than when I grew up there, and I really just like to see my friends and family and hang out in Piedmont Park. I sort of lived close to Midtown as a kid, so that was a destination, and it’s so beautiful in the springtime. That is, if you can get through the traffic. It may be worse than L.A. to be honest. L.A. is bad, but it’s very predictable, so you can really kind of work with it. 


ATLANTAMAGAZINE.COM ONLINE EXTRA

Review: The New Guard?
In The Hangover (official trailer), the director of Old School challenges the Wilson/Apatow/Ferrell crowd for a position at the top of the comedy heap.
By Daniel O’Leary

As an avid fan of Old School, I prayed day and night that The Hangover, the newest full-length comedy creation from the same director, Todd Philips, would refresh an otherwise listless and dehydrated selection of spring and summer comedy features.

The film is unconventional, but the premise is unoriginal. Two friends, Phil (Bradley Cooper), physically a middle-aged school teacher but mentally a twenty-something frat jerkoff, and Stu (Ed Helms), an aptly named pushover of a dentist, decide to take the disturbed brother-in-law tagalong, Alan (expertly portrayed by Zach Galifianakis), and their soon-to-be-married, bland-as-Wonder-Bread friend, Doug (Justin Bartha, in a lackluster role), to the city of sin for one last wild romp. The introduction and opening credits are epic and begin at the story’s climax. Phil stands in the desert, lips dry and bleeding, flanked by a confused Stu and disheveled Alan, and struggles to find words to explain to Doug’s fiancee why this unlikely trio of best men has lost their close friend and groom.

The movie has a somewhat alternative plot structure in that rather than chronicling the night in Vegas, The Hangover follows these three buddies as they attempt to piece together the events of the previous night via a slew of varied and mismatched clues left strewn across the floor of their villa.

The film really hits a stride during the expertly crafted expose of the utter destruction and mayhem visited upon the hotel room, delivered in a swift crescendo. A slow pan reveals a quivering blowup doll floating restlessly atop the murky bathtub water as the remains of furniture smolder in the background. Drinks of all sizes and shapes color the penthouse as the only conscious soul around, a rooster, struts amid the fray. Alan enters the bathroom to relieve himself of the night’s refreshments only to find a massive Bengal tiger. Only the late Mr. Thompson could have rivaled this burning wreckage.

From there on out, loose ends are methodically tied as the day before the wedding becomes the hours before the wedding and these three musketeers stagger through a well-choreographed series of colorful encounters with an even more diverse spectrum of characters. The various chapters range from downright sidesplitting to mildly amusing, but all elicit a smile. One thing is for sure: This film represents a changing of the guard. Throughout this past decade, the Wilson brothers (Owen and Luke) along with Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell have reigned supreme over this particular breed of collegiate comedy. The upstart Judd Apatow Crowd has only recently challenged them. Despite the occasional slow place of the film, Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis are no doubt fresh, new, energetic faces in this scene, and with the veteran guidance of Todd Philips, they managed to halfway answer my prayers, but more importantly, fully piqued my interest in the battle for the next comic dynasty.


The Helms File
Name
Ed Helms
Age 35
Native neighborhood Brookwood Hills
High school The Westminster Schools
Higher ed Oberlin College
Famous classmate Office costar Brian Baumgartner
Favorite Atlanta hangout Piedmont Park
Instruments Guitar, piano, banjo
2009 roles:
The Office—“Andy Bernard”
Manure—“Chet Pigford”
Monsters vs. Aliens—“News reporter”
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian—“Executive assistant”
The Goods: The Don Ready Story (August)—“Rival car salesman”