The first thing we noticed about Jon Heder — star of the current indie comedy Napoleon Dynamite — is that he looks nothing like the title character. Heder's improbably named high-school outcast (with a heart of something resembling gold) sports thick glasses, droopy eyes and a hairstyle that would worry even Ted Koppel. In real life, the 26-year-old actor-animator looks like a normal guy. Get him talking, though, and you'll see where his wacky character comes from...
Like Napoleon, Heder sprinkles his sentences with exclamations like "Sweet!" and "Gosh!" "Growing up, I totally said a lot of the things he does," Heder admits. "And I have memories of very Napoleon-esque moments. I was freakin' 15 years old when I did a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stop-motion animation on my video camera. I was like 'Dude, I'm supposed to be hooking up with chicks! This isn't going to help me score!'"
Heder spent his own geeky teen years in Salem, Ore., before enrolling in film school at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City. It was there that he met his pal, Napoleon writer-director Jared Hess. In fact, Napoleon Dynamite made his first appearance in one of Hess' student films, Peluca. The short was so well-received, Hess decided to turn it into a feature. So with little to no acting experience, Heder suddenly found himself starring in an independent film that had audiences rolling in the aisles at this year's Sundance film festival.
Heder is also the focal point of the movie's elaborate Internet ad campaign, which has plastered his mug all over the Web. "It's cool," Heder says nonchalantly. "It'll be weird if the character becomes a cultural icon like Shrek, and I'm plastered over stuff. I kind of get nervous, and at the same time, I don't. I don't have much of a career yet, so I don't have a lot riding on this film. It's just nice that people like the movie. Even the bad reviews say I did a good job."
Heder's next gig is receiving his MFA in animation from BYU. After that, he'll go after an acting career. "I'd like to strike while the iron is hot," he says. "Napoleon might be hard to top, but I'd hope to find another character I can portray convincingly. I've never really been destined to be an actor, so ultimately, it wouldn't bother me that much if nothing comes up."
If acting doesn't pan out, the practical-minded Heder — who cites The Nightmare Before Christmas as his favorite animated feature — has his drawing skills to fall back on. "Even while I'm acting, I'm going to be working on my animation stuff. I actually see animation as more of a grounding for me in the future." What about stepping back into Napoleon's shoes? "I'm almost 100-percent positive there won't be a sequel, but we have talked about a TV series," Heder reveals. "Napoleon is one of those characters you could write in so many situations."