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Jon Heder Makes a Dramatic Shift in For Ellen

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Though Jon Heder is best known for his comedic turns in films like Napoleon Dynamite, he takes a dramatic shift in his latest film, For Ellen, starring Paul Dano, now in theaters and on VOD.

Jon Heder in "For Ellen"

Jon Heder in "For Ellen" / Courtesy of Tribeca Film

Fans of Jon Heder know him best from raucous comedies like Napoleon Dynamite -- his 2004 breakout hit -- and Blades of Glory, in which he starred with Will Ferrell. In So Yong Kim’s For Ellen, which debuts on nationwide VOD today, Heder switches gears, adding an understated bit of comic relief to this quiet drama about would-be rock star Joby Taylor (Paul Dano) trying to connect with his young daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) during an ugly divorce.

Heder’s character, Fred Butler, is an inexperienced lawyer who lives with his mother in a small town in upstate New York. He’s initially a bit enthralled with what he sees as Joby’s worldliness, but he soon realizes that his sheltered world is much more his speed.

We caught up with Heder in Los Angeles, where he talked about his quirky character, his shift into independent drama, and his eventual plans to direct.

Paul Dano in "For Ellen"

Paul Dano in "For Ellen" / Courtesy of Tribeca Film

Kristin McCracken: Tell us about For Ellen. How do you describe the film in your own words?

Jon Heder: For Ellen is an indie dramatic character piece where Joby, played by Paul Dano, is a bit jaded from life, and a bit of a punk. He’s not the nicest guy. He’s going back home to upstate New York where his ex-wife is, to try and get some more money out of their divorce, and he discovers she’s trying to get full custody of their daughter. So that rocks his boat, because he’s known he has a daughter, but he’s kind of going through the motions of how-dare-you-take-what’s mine, whether it’s a couch or a cat or a daughter.

He hires me -- I’m a lawyer -- but I’m this really sheltered, innocent character who’s only done online cases, and he’s my first live client and I don’t really know what I’m doing. So it’s almost another brick wall that Paul’s character is running into. He’s almost going through the motions until about halfway through the film, when he finally spends a little time with his daughter, and he realizes he’s taken [her] totally for granted. He feels those first feelings of fatherhood, and it really changes him as a person.

KMc: It’s a quiet movie, and it’s quite moving. What attracted you to this part? It’s not your typical role. How did this come about?

Jon Heder: My agents brought it to me -- they’d represented Paul -- and I thought it was great. I love independent films, [but] I haven’t done a ton of them, for whatever reason -- so often I’ve been attached to projects that just end up never getting the funding that they needed, and this one was ready to go. I wanted to do some dramatic work and dip into that side of the business a little bit, and I met with So [Yong Kim], and I thought she was very interesting,

I also thought it’d be a great opportunity to work with Paul Dano, because I’ve always thought he’s done interesting things with his career.

KMc: And the location was so great too! I’m just kidding. It looked cold.

Jon Heder: It was cold. It was up in Messina, New York -- a really small town upstate, close to the border of Canada. But I loved it! I’ve said so many times, “I like movies in the snow.” Something about them -- when I’m in them or when I watch those movies -- I feel like you’re just more alive.

KMc: It would’ve been such a different movie if it were in the sunny sunshine. It wouldn’t have been the same.

Jon Heder: You’re right, you’re right. When you know it’s real and the elements feel so present, it just feels more real, and I’ve always liked that.

KMc: Your character, Fred Butler, is a quirky, simple guy who lives with his mother, and there are some really funny scenes, especially for a non-comedy. What do you think you brought to the role, and how did those scenes come about?

Jon Heder: Well, the role wasn’t necessarily supposed to be comedic at all, but [Fred] is this innocent guy -- and I think I bring a lot to that. The whole point of the character is that he contrasts with Joby, who’s this jaded rock musician who’s seen so much of the world, or at least has lived in the muck for quite a while -- in terms of women and drugs, alcohol, that whole lifestyle -- which Butler sees as crazy, a whole other lifestyle. And [Fred] can’t help but think, “That’s the world! And I’ve never touched that!” because he’s lived at home with his mom.

KMc: But he’s so open to it; he’s so interested.

Jon Heder: He is, because he’s 29 now. He doesn’t have a woman [in his life], except his mother. He doesn’t have a lot of friends. He doesn’t really have anybody in his life. So he kind of wants to [vicariously] be a part of that, and to be invited in, even though Joby treats him like trash quite a bit. Butler sees it, not as a ticket out of there -- he enjoys where he lives -- but as a bit of an adventure.  It brings excitement to this doldrum life he’s living.

KMc: What was So Yong Kim like to work with? Did you rehearse? Was there a lot of improvisation in the movie?

Jon Heder: There was. It was a different kind of improv -- it’s not like when you’re doing comedy and it’s all straight up trying to grab the jokes. Her way was more about trying to feel organic, and I really like that kind of filmmaking. She knows how she’s going to set up the shot and this and that, but she lays it out so it’s like, “You’ve seen the script. This is a scene where they do this and this.” And you can follow the dialogue, but you don’t have to.

So for me, it was just feeling it out and trying to get into that character. And our two [mine and Paul’s] contrasting energies and characters helped [set the stage] quite a bit.

KMc: Did you and Paul hit it off right away? Did you find the energy to feed off of each other?

Jon Heder: Yes and no. I am, by nature, a lot like Butler. And Paul certainly plays a lot of the role “in character,” but if it was strict to the script and so controlled, it would feel like, This is acting. But it wasn’t so controlled, so we could just kind of try different takes and feel things out. So it was him just being very real.

Certainly a lot of times it felt more intimidating -- him keeping in character -- but Paul’s such a nice guy. He couldn’t do that completely; I don’t think he could be that much of a jerk.

KMc: A lot of aspiring filmmakers read our site. What’s your advice for first-time directors in terms of working with actors?

Jon Heder: I’ve seen so many different kinds [of directors]. Sometimes you want to put your full trust into the film director as an actor, so in some ways I say: “Know that an actor should trust you.” But I’ve also been in situations where actors think, “I as an actor am going to do my thing, and you as a director should understand that.” So it’s a mix of the two.

I think directors should know their vision and try to explain it to the actor as much as they can. For me, as an actor, that works. Some actors don’t care about the vision; it’s just [about] the character. And that’s the filmmaker in me: I’d love to direct some day, so I’m giving advice to myself. I tell myself a lot, “Okay, I’ve been in front of the camera a lot, but if I was a director, how would I want my actors to do this scene?”

Paul Dano and Jon Heder in "For Ellen"

Paul Dano and Jon Heder in "For Ellen" / Courtesy of Tribeca Film

KMc: There are some tough scenes in the movie; it’s a sad story. What do you hope audiences take away from For Ellen?

Jon Heder: The movie is an original take on things that happen to people all the time: parents -- in this case a father -- fighting over children who were never a part of their lives. I think a lot of us can’t quite relate, because [Joby’s] a bit of prick; he’s this whiny, struggling rock musician who just wants everything his way. But in the film, there’s a moment where he sees what’s important, what’s truly important, and I think it’s portrayed in a different way than we’ve seen before. I hope that’s what audiences will take away.

And that I look good with a beard. [Laughs.]

KMc: You do! Tribeca is distributing For Ellen in over 40 million homes on VOD, which is such a huge, wide net for an indie film. Have you ever been a part of a release like this? What’s your take on it?

Jon Heder: No, I haven’t. It’s cool, because being on the consumer end, I’ve seen more and more movies being released on VOD before they hit theaters, and sometimes at the same time. It’s the new world we live in, and with some films it totally makes sense.

You know, in the old days before digital content, this movie could have come and gone in a theater and I would have never known. Now I can turn on my TV and become aware of films like this, and I can watch them or put them in my wish list. So I think it’s great that films that may never have been seen by anybody are being seen.

KMc: What would your biopic be called if we were to make a movie of your life? Either now or in 50 years when they’re looking back on the story of your life.

Jon Heder: That’s way too hard. I could be at my computer for weeks trying to come up with the best title. But let’s go with: One Breakfast Burrito with Extra Cheese.

For Ellen is now playing in select cities, with more to follow in the coming weeks, and debuts on nationwide VOD and digital platforms on September 19. Watch now!

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