Those who tour Twentieth-Century Fox Studios in California will see murals of famous actors spread across buildings or immortalized in bronze statues. On one street corner, Napoleon Dynamite stands as a tinted bronze figure playing a never ending game of tetherball.
It’s a permanent reminder of the 2004 cult comedy movie classic that prompted BYU animation major Jon Heder (BFA ’04)) to switch gears to acting after playing an aloof and socially awkward high school nerd growing up in rural Preston, Idaho.
After the success of “Napoleon Dynamite,” many other roles followed, including five movies in 2015 and a number of voice-over movies, including the current “Pickle and Peanut” television series for Disney. In his most recent motion picture release, “Christmas Eve,” scheduled for release Dec. 4, he plays a worker trapped overnight in an elevator with the crass HR manager who has just fired him.
“I heard about the role because my youngest brother is close friends with director Mitch Davis,” Heder says. “My brother told me about the movie and said Mitch was interested in casting me in something. I read the script, and it looked fun. Besides I got to spend a week in Bulgaria and also see Ty Arnold, the cinematographer, who was my friend at BYU.”
He was even more interested in “Christmas Eve” when he learned Patrick Stewart was going to be in the film.
“For a long time, I’ve had a dream of working with him,” he says. “I was thrilled to play his son. But it was weird. I don’t share a single scene with him and didn’t meet him until we had a mini-cast screening in Los Angeles. That was pretty awesome; I just hope we can work together in the future or become friends.”
Although he makes his living as an actor, Heder originally planned to be an animator with his twin Daniel (BFA ’04). But a filming opportunity changed his focus. Student filmmaker Jared Hess (’02) cast Heder as Napoleon Dynamite in “Pecula,” a black and white comedy short so well received, it became the basis of the full-length motion picture.
“The cast and I were the original fans of ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ and we started quoting lines after we shot scenes,” he says. “We thought the film had potential but didn’t know if it was ever going to be seen. When it was selected for the Sundance Film Festival, we started believing it could become a reality.”
He remembers thinking the movie would probably be a small cult film in a few theaters across the country. No one suspected a runaway hit.
Because of his success as Napoleon Dynamite, Heder received multiple film offers, but turned away many of them because the content was not in line with his values.
“I’ve been blessed with a set of standards,” he says. “Those guidelines come from my faith because I believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It has been a challenge figuring it all out in this industry, and I guess I’m writing my own handbook. I would never, for instance, do a sex scene. My parents, my wife, my children and my fan base would be watching. I want to be a director someday and I remember the standards I was taught at the Y. I want to know what the artist is saying, how well he is saying it, how well he is getting his point across, and finally, I need ask if it was worth it.”
He credits his BYU experience for launching him, because it says everything literally started at BYU. “Being in movies has been a great way for me to talk about BYU’s film program, and by extension, my LDS faith. I mention BYU a lot. Hey, maybe BYU should give me a commission. I have a very warm fondness for BYU, and the opportunities I received there.”
He planned to learn animation with his brother, and says Daniel often encounters fans who think he is Jon. “People stop him a lot, because we are identical twins. He can’t enjoy complete anonymity, but he’s cool about it and even signs a lot of stuff for people when they think he is me. My telepathic skills as a twin tells me he’s got a great perspective, and we do lots of things together.”
His favorite film remains “Napoleon Dynamite.” And he says remains in love with the movie. “I know I’ll never get another movie like it. I was lucky because Fox Searchlight was smart how they marketed it and the movie was released just as the geek culture was gaining in popularity.”
He is frequently asked it a sequel is in the works, but he doesn’t think it is likely.
“People don’t want to see high school people looking older, and I was already 25 when I played Napoleon. What made him so endearing was that he followed his own rules and went by the beat of his own drum. What would he be doing today? Working in the food industry? But if Jared comes up with an idea that worked, well, I could change my mind.”
Although Heder is best known for comedy, he says he spends nearly every day figuring out his forte. He loves independent films, and he looks for absurdity in the real. He also enjoys drama opportunities that take him out of his comfort zone.
Heder considers himself kind of a private guy who works hard and plugs away at his work but doesn’t take himself too seriously. He does not do a lot with social media and enjoys being with family and friends. In the ward from which the Heders just moved, he was the Young Men’s president. He now teaches Sunday school to 12- and 13-year-old children.
“I like living a normal life, and hope to continue that way. It’s my family, my church, and my career. It comes down to those basics.”