The arrival of Ed Helms’ first lead performance, in this month’s film Cedar Rapids, shows that his career arc is right on track. He started doing stand-up in New York in the mid-’90s and trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater there, which led to an audition for The Daily Show, where he was a correspondent from 2002 to 2006. That, in 2006, led to a recurring role on The Office, where he eventually became a full-time cast member. When Helms appeared in a supporting role in Todd Phillips’ 2009 comedy The Hangover—opposite longtime friend and colleague Zach Galifianakis—it wasn’t necessarily surprising. But that film’s mega success as the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time was a surprise, and it undoubtedly helped Helms land Cedar Rapids, which was written for him (and with his input) by Phil Johnston. Directed by Miguel Arteta (Youth In Revolt, The Good Girl), the film stars Helms as naïve insurance salesman Tim Lippe, whose character gets tested during a business trip to the eponymous city for a convention. There, he forges a friendship with co-stars John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire’s Clay Davis), who encourage outrageous behavior while protecting his sensitive nature. Just before the film opened, The A.V. Club spoke with Helms about making insurance salesmen heroic and dealing with the high stakes of a starring role.
The A.V. Club: You’ve mentioned you wanted to make sure this film wasn’t mean to Midwesterners. It’d be really easy for your character to slip into caricature. Did you have any sort of threshold in mind, like “That’s too much”?
Ed Helms: No, to me it’s not about any specific piece of material in the movie or the script, it’s just about how we approach it. It’s where our heads are at while we’re making it, and what our approach is. I think that if you come at it from a genuine place of affection, you can’t go wrong. That’s not to say affection in the sense of “Look how adorable these characters are!”, but a really respectful and abiding appreciation of who they are. I think in the case of Tim Lippe, to say that he’s a stereotype of a small-town person is to miss who he is, to miss the complexity of who that character is. He really has a rare and singular backstory that is not typical of anyone. It’s not a story that’s automatically small-town or big-city. It’s just a tragic childhood. And I love how elegantly the writer, Phil Johnston, sprinkled it into the script that he lost his parents at a very young age, both in different ways, and there was no one to fill the void. He sort of built this cocoon around himself, and he’s as much to blame for his stunted view of the world as anyone else. He happens to be from a small town, but he’s also a very odd, weird guy. I love that painful backstory in Tim, and it gives me a lot of sympathy for him as a character.
AVC: The location isn’t necessarily intrinsic to the story itself, because it’s basically someone going from a smaller place to—
EH: A marginally larger place.
AVC: Yeah, and discovering who he is. It could’ve been anywhere. It wasn’t like, “Oh, look at these dumb Midwestern hicks.”
EH: Yeah, and it would be one thing if he went to New York City and all the New York City people are crazy and freaking him out. But he goes to Cedar Rapids, and it’s his fellow Midwesterners that are all different kinds of people—that are sort of tragic and/or hopeful, and/or sweet or whatever it is. They’re all just real, flawed characters. I think it’s really how this movie treats the characters. It’s up for an individual viewer to decide for themselves, and I think a lot of people—we all bring our own baggage to movies and interpret them accordingly—but all I can tell you is that, in making it, we loved this world, and we loved these characters dearly, and we’re all of this world. I’m from Georgia; I went to college in Ohio. Phil, the writer, is from Appleton [Wisconsin]. Alexander Payne is from Omaha. I think it’s more offensive to say Midwesterners aren’t savvy enough to laugh at themselves. I feel like that is condescending. We can celebrate what’s good about ourselves and what may be flawed about ourselves at the same time.
AVC: Phil Johnston wrote the script, but you were pretty involved in the process. How much input did you have?
EH: Phil came to me before any script was written, and we collaborated very heavily on the characters and the world, and then he went off and put this incredible script together. In terms of who’s responsible for what, it’s hard to say, but I’m proud that my energy was in there from the beginning. I really also want to make sure we give Phil proper deference, because he is an extraordinary writer. You can take a lot of great ideas and still write a shitty script, but Phil wrote an amazing script.
AVC: The scene that sticks out is when Anne Heche asks you why you became an insurance salesman, and you tell this story that makes the job sound heroic. How much did you work on that scene? Or was it all pretty much done by the time you shot it?
EH: That scene, like every scene, is a process. Even once you’re on set shooting it, it’s changing, and you’re feeling each individual beat and “Eh, this doesn’t work,” or “This undermines that,” or “Let’s change this.” I remember on set that day, sitting on that swing set, there were a lot of iterations. It wasn’t necessarily improvisation, although there was a little bit, but it was also constantly stopping and talking about it with Miguel, and reassessing what’s meaningful in the scene. Ultimately, it’s really the explanation for Tim’s bizarre passion for the insurance industry. [Laughs.] But it’s also a testament to his undying eagerness to find goodness in everything around him, and the people around him, and even the insurance industry, which most of us think is horrible.
AVC: Can you talk about those iterations?
EH: I can’t really remember specifics; this was over a year ago. But I do remember this was a hard one to pin down, because of its meaning to Tim’s character… What changed was the language about the story about insurance agents coming out after the flood in Cedar Rapids and saving people’s lives. That’s a hard concept to sell, because most of us think of insurance agents as corporate automatons that are out to not pay you, out to protect the corporate interests, and not the interest of the paying client. To sell that in a way that would make sense to somebody, even if it is some slightly flawed logic, you want to frame it in a way that makes sense to Tim and means a lot to him. Those were the areas of exploration.
AVC: A lot is being made of this being your first starring role, your jump from TV to film. But you said in an interview that it’s not so much the medium as it is the project. Could you elaborate on that?
EH: The value from a career standpoint of television vs. movies has, I think, over the last 10 years, become harder to distinguish. I don’t want to be too precious as to say the scale of the project doesn’t affect your decisions. It certainly is a factor. But I think that to really have an eye on a consistent and long career, you have to follow and fight for the best material and the things that play to your strengths. If that happens to be a TV show where I just love the characters of the world, then that’s pretty cool. I would go for it. When that comes up in a movie situation, that’s great too. There’s so little truly great television and cinema out there that it’s worth fighting hard to get to be a part of the good stuff.
AVC: The stakes are certainly higher. Are you able to get in the headspace where you’re able to push that out of your mind?
EH: I want it to do well. [Laughs.] But the most you can hope for is… there are a lot of phenomenal movies that don’t do well, but everyone involved is still proud of them, and the people who see it, love it. If you can have that plus a financially successful movie, then you’re really in great shape. But if the financials don’t work out, you still ultimately want to be proud of the work you did. You can’t ignore the money in any business situation. These are ultimately, at the end of the day, business decisions about your career, and they shouldn’t be guided by the money, but you can’t be too precious with this concept of artistic integrity and everything having to be perfect, because it’s so hard to get a movie done. It’s so hard to get a TV show off the ground. It’s not all gonna be perfect ever, but you just sometimes have to bite the bullet and commit, and once you’ve made the decision to do it, make it right to the extent… Whatever’s in your power. And it’s not a lot. You just have to do that to the best of your ability. [Laughs.] And in a way that’s comfortable with your own conscience. But it is a crazy matrix of variables that go into all these decisions.
AVC: Was this movie screen-tested?
EH: A little bit. This isn’t a giant studio movie, so we didn’t have the resources to do that sort of thing. If it tested terribly, it’s not like we could have changed much. [Laughs.] So that’s a dodgy business, all the testing. How do you deal with that data? And the marketing is such a variable, too. A lot of times, great movies never see the light of day, and you look at the marketing campaign and say “No wonder! That looks terrible.” It might be a brilliant movie. So it’s hard. But I do think that in a lot of ways, show business… It might seem counterintuitive, but there is a kind of meritocracy thing going on, where good products, things that are proven to be good, tend to be rewarded.