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Heder is riding high thanks to 'Napoleon Dynamite'

By Barbara Curtin

Salem (Ore.) StatesmanJournal

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 7:59 p.m. MST

Jon Heder signs autographs during a Napoleon Dynamite soundalike contest in Hollywood, Calif., to promote the animated "Napoleon Dynamite" series airing Sundays on Fox.

Phil Mccarten, Fox

Enlarge photo»

PORTLAND, Ore. — A lot has happened in the 7 and a half years since Jon Heder hit the screens in a low-budget indie film called "Napoleon Dynamite."

Then, he promoted the film at a few small theaters out of love for the project that had earned him just $1,000. Fox Searchlight Pictures gave free screenings and passed out bags of props in hopes the film would become a cult classic. (It did, grossing $46 million.)

Now, Heder has just wrapped up a five-day tour to promote Fox's new animated series of the same name. He hop scotched from Boston to Chicago to Dallas to his hometown Salem and Portland to promote the TV show, which airs at 7:30 Sundays, between "The Simpsons" and "The Family Guy."

"This is more like work," he says. "I mean, it's fun, but … you're hitting up radio stations, five in a hour. I'm a little more used to it, but it's hectic."

But hectic has its rewards. He's greeting the reporter and photographer in a very nice suite at Portland's Vintage Plaza Hotel. And those flights across the country? First class.

"First class rocks," he says. "I told myself I should not fly first class, I should get used to coach. … Most of those Hollywood luxuries I am not privy to, but man, first class is nice."

He's casually dressed in dark blue denim shirt, dark green pants and hiking boots. His wavy brown hair is a little past due for a haircut, but nothing like "Napoleon's" wild blond locks. He talks very fast and uses his hands. Asked to pose for a photo in a "menacing but flirty" posture, he plays along (and nails it).

In between the two "Napoleons," it's been an exciting ride. Heder has appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman" and hosted "Saturday Night Live." He's starred in six films, the most recent of which, "For Ellen," just opened at Sundance.

Fox may pick up the animated "Napoleon Dynamite" for a second season. And Heder hopes to appear in another feature film this summer.

"It's called 'Alive and Well.' It's about Buddy Holly," he says. "It's kind of sci fi-slash-comedy. It's a very weird movie, but it's a great script, and I hope we can get it made."

Along the way, Heder has had opportunities to pick up what both he and the fictional Napoleon refer to, reverentially, as skills.

Heder learned to ice skate for "Blades of Glory" with Will Ferrell (a project that got derailed for months when Heder broke his ankle). He studied magic for his role as a street magician in "When in Rome." He hoped to get some baseball coaching before "The Benchwarmers" but was disappointed.

"They're not supposed to be that good," he says. "Sorry, no training."

When he comes back to Salem, usually about once a year, he hangs out with family and looks up scenes from his youth.

"I'm a very nostalgic guy," he says.

He enjoys the process of making the animated "Napoleon," despite the fact that his role is mostly sitting in a recording booth voicing his lines in between beeps he hears on headphones.

"It's pretty simple and it's really pretty cool," he says. "When you make an independent feature, you don't have a lot of money, and you try to do everything in two to four takes because you don't have a lot of time.

"When you're in a studio, in a sound booth, they have more capability to finesse it. … The directors don't have to worry about anything; it's just the sound and the performance and the voice. ... you get down to syllable work, and there is room to ad lib and they can animate to that.

"It's a different process but it's really fun, really nice."

His regular voice is several steps removed from his "Napoleon" voice, which he described as "very relaxing, a tired waking-up sound."

Heder slumps in his elegant upholstered chair and his chin sags. "No, I don't want to do that," he whines.

"It's like slipping back into my childhood," Heder adds in his own voice.

A big goal of his has been to work with his twin brother, Dan, and older brother, Doug, on developing film projects. But those efforts are on the back burner for now while Heder rides acting for as far as it will take him.

Even at 34, he doesn't find it hard to channel "Napoleon."

"It's the work I was most proud of," he says. "I feel like I owned it."

But he gets a little tired of walking down the street and having people ask him to do a line or shouting lines back at him.

"It's good that they love the show … but I've done other stuff," he says ruefully.

He voices what he'd like to say but doesn't: " 'Aren't you curious about who played 'Napoleon'?' "

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