In his latest comedy, Ed Helms (The Hangover, "The Office") plays Tim Lippe, a small town Wisconsin insurance agent who is struck with bewilderment when he journeys to the big city, also known as Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I spoke with Helms in a roundtable interview about his influence on the clean-cut conservative character, what it was like to have (movie) sex with Sigourney Weaver, the movies that influenced his love for comedy, and more. Cedar Rapids opens in Chicago on February 11th.
You must have gotten tons of lead offers after The Hangover. What made you decide to choose this one?
Well, I appreciate that assumption. It’s not entirely accurate. I certainly got more attention after The Hangover. This project was a no-brainer because I was apart of this from the very beginning. It was something that I pushed forward from even before the script existed. I am very personally invested in this project. It’s something that the writer came to me with, when it was just an idea. I had a lot of input with Phil [Johnston] before he went off and wrote the script. It’s a very personal project for me, not something that fell in my lap.
What made it so personal for you?
I just love characters who want so desperately to do the right thing and to be good, and to make horrible choices along the way and suffer horrible consequences. There’s something so sympathetic about a character that wants to do the right thing. When you are talking about a fish out of water story, or a “country mouse, city mouse,” kind of story, it’s hard to pave new ground. And Phil’s idea with this story is pretty fresh and interesting. The character of Tim is not just a small town guy who goes to the city and gets freaked out and overwhelmed. That’s what we’ve all seen a million times. It’s actually the character happens to be from a small town, but is really in a lot of unusual ways tragic and stunted with the very kind of tragic background. You learn about his family and his parents, and that was a concerted effort to make this character plausible. And then, we don’t take him to a big city; we take him to Cedar Rapids. There’s something very poignant about that being overwhelming for somebody, something that’s been mundane or just sort of run of the mill for most of us is just utterly stupefyingly terrifying because of who he is.
What is it having movie sex with Sigourney Weaver like? How does that compare with movie sex with Anne Heche?
Yeah, okay. Just to be clear, it was movie sex. It was my first love scene ever in a movie, so it was utterly terrifying because of that. And then of course, to have it with someone so venerated and fantastic as Sigourney Weaver, just added to the pressure. But of course once I met her, she’s the most gracious and lovely person you will ever meet in your life. And she is such a professional that it brings a sort of calm gravitas to the work. She made it kind of easy, and instantly reassured me that I was in good hands. But it was daunting. But ultimately sort of silly. Sigourney and Anne were both heavenly. One more heavenly than the other.
Aside from the sex scene, what other research did you have to do for this part, and what do you think you and Tim have in common?
I didn’t do a whole lot of research about the insurance industry, or any of the other things you might expect. But having played a hand in the very creation of Tim Lippe, that served as a lot of my homework. I knew this character so intimately by the time we started production, and I had injected a lot of my own thoughts and opinions about who he should be. A lot of that stuff were things that I wanted to do as a performer, and felt played to my strengths. And I guess you could say that the preparation for Tim Lippe was in many respects the creation of Tim Lippe, and that collaboration with Phil Johnston. [To answer the other question], Tim is a much more hopeful and unjaded person than I am. Of course, I have had a lot more life experience than Tim Lippe has had, but I think that’s also what makes him so beguilidng and wonderful. His values haven’t been challenged, and when they do get challenged in the movie, he still comes out feeling like they were always in the right place to begin with. I share his hope, but I am far more cynical than he is. I also share his lack of understanding of the world around him. I feel like I’m constantly trying to understand why people are mean to each other, why do people do what they do, why is the world like it is. I’m maybe just a little bit better at hiding it than Tim Lippe.
What was it like playing someone so naïve? Was it simple, or did you find yourself fighting against your own impulses?
To me it was really straightforward. As long as a character is unearnest, they are unimpeachable. If they are steadfast, know their values, and know what they are trying to do and trying to be intrinsically good, that to me was something very straightforward that I could understand that I could play. The naivete I guess is sort of a more … I was able to tap into my goofy wonder at the world around. I walk into a hotel lobby like this and I wonder, “How did they build this? How does marble get chopped up from a quarry and trucked over here? How did that happen? And it’s so smooth, what’s that process?” If you look closely at the world around us, it’s unbelievable. I was able to tap into that for Tim, I guess.
You've made your bread and butter doing the “holy fool” in all of these films. A lot of comic actors especially sharp ones, often want to move into drama. This seems less spoofish than other work. Do you have any inclination towards eventually doing straighter drama?
If it’s the right thing, absolutely. But I’m not seeking it out. The reason I do what I do is because I fell in love with comedy as a kid, and movies like Fletch and Ghostbusters, Vacation, Animal House, Caddyshack, Raising Arizona, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, these were the movies I wanted to do, and kind of why I got into all of this. It seems to be working for me. So I’m not really looking elsewhere. But I think a lot of the best comedies do challenge that dramatic angle as well, so there’s some crossover. Tom Hanks had one of the most elegant transitions from comedy to drama.
Well there’s this 70’s revival feel with films like Cyrus. It’s really deadpan, almost human studies.
Like a Harold and Maude kind of thing. I just did a movie with Mark and Jay Duplass, with Jason Segel. I loved Cyrus. I think it’s a very special movie. Pain, in the right context, is hilarious. And there’s something really emotionally gratifying about laughing through something that is so awkward or painful. Those guys, the Duplass Brothers, are really extraordinary in that way. I’m excited about this movie, Jeff Who Lives At Home.
Being an insurance salesman isn’t the most exciting job ... what are some abysmal, soul-draining jobs that you’ve had?
When I was a teenager, I worked in a concession stand at a community pool. You just felt like one of those dummys in the dunk tank, because you can’t go anywhere and you’re just sort of there as an object of ridicule. People get to walk by and make fun of you. You’re in this window, handing out candy bars, and it is impossible to feel cool.
Do you have a clause in your contract that states, “You will not do a movie unless the character gets his ass kicked?”
No, but I should add that, because it seems to be working. There is a nudity clause. You have to spell out exactly the parameters of the nudity that you’re comfortable with. It’s utterly humiliating. In this case, you take it from the script, so it’s like, “This is how it should be, and we will not shoot any part of the scrotum, and there will be no frontal side with Ed Helms or his stunt double.” It’s really spelled out. It’s the most humiliating aspect of showbiz.
At least you get to keep all of your teeth in this one.
Yup, so far.