Ed Helms, a veteran correspondent on “The Daily Show,” catapulted to fame with recurring roles on “The Office” and “The Hangover.” With his new film “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” Helms explores his comedic range in a more realistic setting. He spoke to The Daily Aztec about his criteria for choosing a project, his improvisational skills and how working on a TV series is similar to going to school.
The Daily Aztec: How did you get involved with “Jeff Who Lives at Home” and what has the project been like?
Ed Helms: “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” was a script that got floated my way by Jason Reitman, who was one of the producers on it. He’s a friend and we worked together on a couple of “Office” episodes. And then Mark and Jay Duplass had written the script and Jason jumped on to produce it. They thought I might be a good candidate for it, so Jason just sent me it directly and I loved it right away. I watched all of the Duplass brothers’ movies and said, “Sign me up. Let’s do this.”
DA: How are you similar to your character in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home?”
EH: Well, I think that character wants to do the right thing. He wants to be a good guy. And I certainly share that. This guy gets in his way a lot and I certainly get in my way a lot. I don’t think I’m quite as dysfunctional as this guy. At least I hope not. But I do share that struggle to be a better person. And then, of course, we both look alike and we share the same voice.
DA: What are the differences between working on a TV series versus working on a film, and which do you prefer?
EH: I love them both equally. The differences are when you work on a movie it’s a summer camp feeling. Because everyone just comes together for this one event. And you’re there for six weeks, eight weeks, whatever it is, and it’s all kind of run-and-gun. There’s this exciting energy to get this one thing done. And a lot of times, a movie might be on location somewhere and you have that added exotic feeling of being away from home. This movie is shot in New Orleans, which is one of the greatest cities on planet Earth, and so that added to the excitement and fun we had.
On a television set, it’s sort of like going to school. A school that you enjoy. Because it’s regular and it’s all familiar people. It’s a regular schedule. It’s an ongoing process year after year. It has a very comfortable feeling that way. The actual work itself is very similar, obviously, but there is a little bit of a different energy and a different approach to it. You can have a normal life happening during television production. It’s much harder during movie production.
And I was joking at first, but I really do love them both. I love the comfort and the fun and the familial vibe of “The Office” and I love the excitement and derring-do of a movie. I’m lucky that I get to do both.
DA: How does starring in an indie film compare to working on a major studio film and are you open to working on more indie films in the future?
EH: “Cedar Rapids” was an independent film and that was one I spearheaded as an executive producer. I love the genre. I actually love all outlets for storytelling. Internet, radio, a major studio motion picture, an improv sketch on a live stage somewhere or a TV show, I just love to be a part of fun stories no matter what the medium is. I’m always openminded. I’m always looking at material and deciding based on whether or not I think I can contribute or bring something to the table or have a lot of fun doing it.
It’s funny, when you work on a lot of movies you realize quickly that it’s insanely hard work. And whether or not you’re actually going to enjoy the process of making a movie starts to become a major consideration, because it takes three or four months of your life. And life is short. So you look at everything like the people you’re working with. Is the script funny? Are you going to be laughing while you’re making this movie? Is it in a neat place like New Orleans? And then does the story resonate on any kind of emotional level? Even if it’s a really silly story or silly movie you still have to connect to the material somehow. So those are the criteria more than any specific medium or scale of production.
DA: You have mentioned that the film isn’t as comedic as you’re used to. With your improvisational background, how much freedom did the Duplass brothers give you with the script?
EH: It’s funny because they wrote a fabulous script. Down to the word it is a wonderful, compelling, hilarious and moving script. With that said, they were the first ones to say “Don’t say a word of this.” So we improvised almost every line of that movie and it was really exciting. The filmmakers, Mark and Jay Duplass, really love that collaboration. And that’s kind of a rare thing in writers and directors.
It was really exhilarating, I know, for Jason (Segel) and myself to just be into the scene. We would read through it and understand what needs to happen in the scene, what it’s about, where it takes us, and where it goes. And then just do it over and over and over again. And keep finding new and different versions of it and new ways to express the same things. You find these authentic moments and it feels real when you’re doing it. I can’t explain it but it’s real exciting and I’m stunned by the results. I think Mark and Jay got something of me that I didn’t necessarily know was in there as a performer. And I know Jason brought his A-game all over this movie. It’s a fun and exciting and really gratifying process, and I’m super proud of the product.