June 7, 2009|Meeting him at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston to discuss The Hangover, it was almost immediately apparent that Ed Helms is right in the middle of a difficult transitional period between television and film: "The Daily Show" is long behind him, "The Office" is opening up countless new avenues, and Judd Apatow is referring to him as a national treasure. The Hangover isn't exactly the kind of film you can discuss at great length--you either pass the jokes amongst your comrades or simply dismiss its juvenilia out-of-hand--but it features enough depth in its performances to jumpstart a conversation about this actor, his talents, and the circumstances that brought him here. Zach Galifianakis may be the one you end up quoting after the end credits roll, but as Stu Price, a worrywart dentist who wakes up from a drug-fuelled night in Vegas to find that he's missing a tooth, Helms is the most nuanced member of the cast, capturing the essence of The Hangover's most delirious highs while keeping himself--and the movie--grounded in a bewildered reality. Helms admits that he's not entirely comfortable with the subject of himself, but he's a good sport about it nonetheless, keeping you at a somewhat businesslike distance from his early career but still game to reflect on where he's been and where he's going.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: After playing authoritative jerks like your correspondent on "The Daily Show", these characters with the pretense of knowledge, what's it like making the transition to a character who's so clearly defined by how little he knows?
ED HELMS: ...I think Stu is in a tremendous amount of denial, but he ultimately interacts with the world with a decent amount of awareness. He's just in denial about himself, and some of his peculiarities, and certainly in his relationships. I love those characters, because I love the characters who are really earnest, but very misguided--and in spite of everything, continue to make wrong decisions, even though they kind of try to do it right. And Stu has the best intentions when he wants to propose to Melissa, but he's just not doing the right thing, and his friends call him on it, but...it's a fun thing to play, as long as I feel like a character has a good heart, I tend to have a lot of fun with the bad decisions that they make.
There are obviously a lot of holes in The Hangover as per what actually happened that fateful night--did [Todd Phillips] ever tell you anything beyond what was in the script?
We all had the same information, which was just the script. We would joke about it on set a lot...and kind of fill in blanks. And how I lost my tooth, by the way, was not even explained in the initial script. It was over the course of shooting that I sort of leaned on Todd and was like, "Come on, we really have to explain the fucking tooth, all right?" That's when we just came up with that story of how it happened, and it comes up in the dialogue with Heather [Graham]. But no--I mean, part of the beauty of the movie is that you never know what happened, and you never see it. The only bit that you see was at that security footage at Mike Tyson's house. That's the only moment from that night, final credits notwithstanding--'cause that's not really part of the narrative of the movie, it's just a little Easter egg at the end. So it really wasn't relevant to shooting for us to bother to try and piece it together, to bother and try to figure out what happened. I think, if you really pay attention to what unfolds over the course of the narrative, you can piece together a pretty good idea of what happened. It's just that the visuals aren't there.
You came to New York to get into comedy--but what was it like being an aspiring filmmaker?
You know, it was all about comedy for me. I wanted to--what made you ask that question?
I read an interview in NEW YORK magazine that described you as an aspiring filmmaker.
I started out in college. I really wanted to make--I mean, I've always just had a real, genuine love for the entire process of moviemaking and television, and I love every side of it. In school, academically, from a coursework standpoint, it just made sense to get into production...and study screenwriting and stuff like that. Once I was out of college, it really became about comedy. That was me sort of going back to my childhood dreams of being on "Saturday Night Live" and all that stuff.
So does that label misrepresent you, then?
An aspiring filmmaker? You know, I guess it's just incomplete. Again, I do love all aspects of this business, and I certainly wouldn't rule anything out. If getting behind the camera becomes an opportunity at some point, I think that could be a lot of fun. And for a little period, certainly around college, that was a real focus for me, was, like, actually making short films... But I love creating comedy. And if it's as an actor, or a director, or even a producer--or a writer--they're all fun avenues.
What do you prefer, in that sense? Do you prefer something carefully structured, or do you like playing off of people, like in "The Daily Show"?
Gosh. Y'know, the interviews for "The Daily Show" were so hard, 'cause there's so much pressure to generate comedy spontaneously--as you know, if you've watched a lot of "The Daily Show", those interviews are extremely painful and awkward. People ask about, "Is that real?" or whatever, and I always just say: as awful and painful as it looked, that's how awkward and painful it was. But what you're not seeing is the additional two hours of awkwardness that I sat through to get those two or three minutes that you see in the final segment. So that stuff just wore me down, and it was really hard--and after five years, I think I kind of hit a wall with that. That said, I loved being a part of it, and I'm extremely proud of my work on that show. But now, when you're on a set, and you have a script, and there's a story in place, it's way more playful, it's fun--it's a different kind of pressure. You don't feel like you have to conjure comedy out of thin air, because hopefully there's a good script that's already there and you just sort of play around. It really takes the pressure off. I feel like doing those "Daily Show" segments was like swinging three bats in the warm-up cage, and each bat had those warm-up weights on them--really heavy, really trying to get a good swing in there. So to get onto a normal narrative set, it's just a lot more playful and fun.
|Fowl play: Helms in The Hangover|
|"[There's] almost a sense of brotherhood with 'Daily Show' alumni."|
What's it like with the shoe on the other foot, now that you've started doing these press tours?
It's really fun. I get a little self-conscious just talking about myself ad nauseam--and I frankly get a little bored talking about myself. But I've met a ton of cool people, and it's funny, because when I used to do "Daily Show" interviews, a lot of times the people I was interviewing were really fascinating people. Even if they had a crazy point of view, or a crazy perspective on some issue, they were fascinating people. I always wanted to, like, just ditch the segment and really talk to these people and interview them and find out where they were really coming from. That was the other hard thing--it was always a game. Those interviews were never straight. I had an angle, it was always about attacking that angle. And usually the angle was very silly[,] not objective and not fact-based. I couldn't really get into these conversations with people, so it's kind of fun now to be--even on this side of it--just to be a part of interviews are genuine and we can just sort of shoot the shit and not have all this pretext that typified those "Daily Show" interviews.
It sounds like it could become a project for you, these straight interviews.
Well, I didn't tell you... There was a little while, while I was on "The Daily Show", I sort of thought about it--going into journalism, just because I'm just so fascinated by people. I love learning from people, and you just meet some of the weirdest, most intriguing personalities when you're working in television like that, and you're seeking out these crazy stories. I flirted with it in my head, and just realized that I'm much better at just being a jackass. (his cell phone rings) Sorry.
No worries. 'Was trying to identify the ringtone.
...Oh, it's a band called Extra Golden. There's a band called Golden, which is some buddies of mine from college, actually, from Oberlin, and one of them is getting his ecology PhD in Kenya, and he's studying this pop music in Kenya. And he formed the band Extra Golden with this pop star in Kenya, and they're awesome. I can't remember what the name of the musical style is, but they're pretty badass.
I was just about to say, actually, you've got quite a musical background as well.
Oh yeah. Huge. Music's a big thing for me, for sure, always has been. That's part of why Oberlin was so fun. There's a conservatory there--and music was just everywhere, huge part of the culture on campus.
So the "Tiger" song (a brief piano piece that Helms performs in The Hangover about the events of the film)--I saw from the credits that you and Todd Phillips had written that. How did that go, music and lyrics?
It was really fun, actually. Actually, I think that the movie credits--what do the movie credits say?
I'm pretty sure it said "written by Todd Phillips and Ed Helms."
Yeah, okay, so the actual credits on that--'cause our lawyers were calling...they have to hammer out all that bullshit. They had already done the film credits, so it doesn't reflect this, but I think the official credits are, "Music by Ed Helms, lyrics by Ed Helms and Todd Phillips." But that was really fun, because that wasn't in the script--you can't put something like that in a script. It wouldn't make sense. The piano was not even a part of Stu's character. So I just would sit around and diddle around on that piano, which was part of the set, and I would make up stupid songs and try to make the crew laugh between takes or whatever. And Todd was like, "Hey, we should really put a song in the movie. There's a great place for it, right when the tiger falls asleep." I was like, "Great, what should the song be about?" He was like, "The tiger." So I went off and wrote the song, and came back, and then Todd and I tinkered with it a little more. We shot it that afternoon--it all happened in a day. I love it, I'm so proud of that moment in the movie.
[And] now you've got Judd Apatow calling you a national treasure. How does that happen?
Yeah, that's pretty insane. Judd and I had a little project that we were developing, and that doesn't look like it's getting legs right now--but what an incredibly flattering comment that was. I mean, Judd is just... He's the man. And already--he's a young guy, and he's already contributed so much to the world of comedy. So, yeah. That was really, really cool.
So that's all you can tell me about A Whole New Hugh, then?
Yeah, there's not much story there. It was something that we kind of kicked off, and we were talking about it for a while, and then it found its way onto IMDb--I think a little prematurely. So I get asked about it a lot. But that project notwithstanding, it was a great initiation into getting to know Judd and I just love his work so much.
"The Office" has been the catalyst to bigger things for you.
Yeah, there's no question. And, actually, I have to credit Steve Carell with breaking the mold for all of us, because it wasn't until he really popped out of Bruce Almighty and then later, of course, 40 Year Old Virgin, that suddenly people were like, "Hey, who are these 'Daily Show' correspondents? Maybe they're capable of something more than just snarky commentary." Steve's incredible success just kind of put a greater spotlight on all of us, and really laid some track for everyone else to follow. Then "The Office"--that was initially just eight episodes, but I had to do it, just because at that point, I had been on "The Daily Show" for five years, and I really felt like I needed to change the perception of myself and just mix it up a little bit.
You're also working with a lot of these guys again in the movies--how is the dynamic different from the days at "The Daily Show"?
Well, Rob [Corddry] and I shared an office, and we saw each other eight hours a day--but all the correspondent segments are separate, we very rarely collaborated. Now it's just such a joy to reconnect and do little bits in movies or whatever. Rob and I used to joke sometimes, when the "Daily Show" grind--we were having a rough day or whatever, 'cause it was really hard work--we'd joke around and just say, "Y'know, in a few years, hopefully, you and I will be sitting on a movie set laughing about these days..." And lo and behold, it happened! Harold and Kumar [Escape from Guantanamo Bay] was a fun chance for us to do something together, and I'm sure there'll be more, and I look forward. It's really a joy to have that connection, and almost a sense of brotherhood with "Daily Show" alumni.