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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Jon Gries, a character actor who's been everything from a lab rat on TV's The Pretender to a brilliant recluse in Real Genius to a hair-metal-worshipping alien snack in TerrorVision. Most recently—in spite of his humble assertion that "every role that I've done has done nothing to further my career"—Gries achieved a late-career boost thanks to his turn as Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite.
Joysticks (1983) — "King Vidiot"
I remember the director, Greydon Clark, saying, "Jon, I'm not gonna be sitting near you while you're filming. I'm gonna be in the other room, watching you on a monitor." That was the first time I'd ever seen video. Clark was very much an old B-movie director. He was like, "No one really cares about what you're saying. Just pan to the cleavage. You want to sell tickets, you gotta show tits!" It was a great thrill for me, because I was barely getting by. To have this film come along, even though it was only paying me a few hundred bucks a week, was manna from heaven. Actually, it seems like every time I'm about to pack it in, that's when I get a job.
Real Genius (1985) — "Lazlo Hollyfeld"
I remember shooting that first scene where Lazlo comes in and talks to Val Kilmer and the kid, "Mitch." The scene went beautifully, and as I was leaving, one of the second assistant directors pats me on the back and says, "I hope the lab doesn't burn the film!" When I came back on Monday, they told me the film had been burned. It was such a letdown, because everyone felt like we had nailed it, that it was one of the classic scenes of all time. Val, I tried not to talk to him too much while we were filming. He would go and watch dailies, and he would walk by me and whisper, "You're a star!" It was subversive, in a strange way.
TerrorVision (1986) — "O.D."
The director, Ted Nicolaou, said to me that I wasn't over-the-top enough. I kept saying, "I don't want to go over-the-top. Everybody's gotta be on the same page here, or else it's gonna be really stupid." He was guaranteeing me that everyone was going to be over-the-top, which wasn't true. Diane Franklin, who was playing my girlfriend, she started doing this much more subtle performance. It was aggravating the crap out of me.
AVC: Were you actually a metal fan?
I am a closet metal fan. A very good friend of mine is in a mock metal band called Wounded Cougar—they're actually Beck's backup band—that is so awesome. I love Megadeth and Metallica. I like Velvet Revolver. Believe it or not, I really liked Twisted Sister.
Get Shorty (1995) — "Ronnie Wingate"
I was probably the 250th person they saw for that. They saw Matthew McConaughey, Steve Buscemi, a lot of people. Getting it was kind of an anomaly. It's very difficult being nobody and getting a part in a movie like that. My personal feeling is that what I did in the audition didn't translate on film, and part of that was Barry Sonnenfeld's insecurity. There was so much dialogue, so he thought everything should be sped up. He kept saying, "Make it faster," and I think it lost something. When we had the cast and crew screening, there wasn't a peep from the audience. Barry was sweating profusely. He thought everyone hated it. I walked out of there thinking it was gonna be a big flop. Of course, seeing it now, I think it worked just fine, and we were all being too hard on it.
AVC: Did John Travolta discuss Scientology with you?
I did say to him, "John, you seem happy and glazed over a lot, like you're stoned. What is that?" And he said, "Scientology." Beyond that, I didn't ask any questions. I didn't want to go get a Dianetics test or whatever. [Laughs.] I don't care what your religion is, as long as it doesn't chastise anybody that's not part of it. If we descended from space aliens, that's just as viable as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as far as I'm concerned.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) — "Uncle Rico"
When Jared Hess was first talking to me about the role, he took me outside and said, "Here's how he runs," and ran down the block as Uncle Rico. He came back and said, "He kinda runs like David Hasselhoff in Baywatch. He's Hasselhoff meets Elvis meets Burt Reynolds." I said, "Say no more," and went out and bought the wig.
AVC: Part of Napoleon Dynamite's appeal is that it feels like a bunch of friends goofing off. Is that how it was?
Absolutely spot-on. The first time I saw anybody laugh out loud when we were filming was when Napoleon got hit by the steak. I actually threw that, by the way. I played baseball, so Jared asked me to do it. I threw it soft the first few times, but I kept missing. Finally I said, "I can hit him, but I gotta chuck it." And then Jon [Heder] says, [Adopting Napoleon voice.] "So chuck it! Gosh!" So I threw that steak and knocked his glasses off. He had a bruise on the side of his nose that they had to cover with makeup. The point is, we were never aware we were making something funny. The beauty of the film is that everybody's playing their characters sincerely. And we were a bunch of friends hanging out. Every night, we'd play basketball and go to Hardee's. On the weekend, we'd go fluming. It was like summer camp.
AVC: Which character do you identify with most?
I would say Lazlo and Uncle Rico, in some odd combination, are two that I really identify with. Lazlo has this kind of sensitivity—he's almost autistic, where he can't look people in the eyes. He's worried about their feelings, and would rather hide away. And Uncle Rico—you know, I came to things a little later. I didn't get on the ball as an actor when I was younger. So I understand how Uncle Rico feels like opportunity passed him by. Though he blames it on other people, and I more just accept it. I also had dreams of playing sports. Luckily, I found something else.