As a correspondent for The Daily Show, Ed Helms specialized in straight-faced reporting with an authoritative air that didn’t quite hide the ridiculousness and the hints of madness beneath it. Since leaving the show, he’s built on that persona, most visibly in his work as The Office’s Andy Bernard. Helms’ carefully balanced performance—and occasional banjo work—has given soulful depths to a character whose misguided chumminess could easily dip into obnoxiousness. Helms has also made several film appearances, including a turn in Todd Phillips’ new Vegas comedy The Hangover, in which he plays a dentist stuck trying to enjoy a rare outing away from a controlling girlfriend. It’s his highest-profile role to date, and also his most fully realized dramatic performance, albeit of the sort that comes squeezed between gags involving hookers, missing teeth, and vengeful gangsters. Recently, The A.V. Club spoke to Helms about bonding over an exhausting shoot, filming in Las Vegas, and why he’s glad he comes from flyover country.
The A.V. Club: On The Daily Show and The Office, you had time to build chemistry with people. How do you get the same kind of lived-in feeling when you’re doing film work, particularly in this film, where it’s a very tight ensemble?
Ed Helms: I guess you’re exactly right; on those TV shows, you do get a chance to lay a lot of groundwork, and get a lot of nuance into those dynamics with other characters. In this case, it just so happens that I haven’t done a lot of big parts in movies, so it’s kind of new to me. But in this case, we were really lucky the way Todd Phillips cast this movie, because Zach [Galifianakis] and Bradley [Cooper] and I were all casual acquaintances before the movie. I’d known Zach for a few years, but we weren’t good buddies. But once we all got together before the movie started, it just clicked. I tip my hat to Todd for that, bringing together three guys who are really different, but really appreciate each other’s humor and sensibilities.
The other cool thing is that the story of the movie is three guys kind of gradually becoming a lot closer and bonding, and that narrative actually informed our friendship—or the other way around. As you spend 14 hours a day together for three months, you see a lot of sides of somebody. We went through the wringer together, and that shared experience really made us genuine buddies. And I think you see that onscreen somewhat.
AVC: It looks like a physically demanding film. Was it?
EH: It was incredibly physically demanding, more so than anything I’ve ever done. I lost eight pounds making this movie, and I don’t mean to brag, but I got rock-hard abs. It was actually really difficult, but it was never hard, because it was so fun.
AVC: What was your roughest day like?
EH: Let’s see, the roughest day. Probably the night when Mr. Chow rams the car, and then they pull us out and rough us up. That whole night was really intense. We shot us getting hit by the car, and we did a lot of takes where the guys pull us out of the car—by the way, getting pulled out of a car hurts! Especially after the 10th time. My shins and knees were just beat to shit. They didn’t open the door and yank us out, they pulled us out the window, which is painful. This is what’s not in the movie: They beat us up. There’s a lot of punches and kicks, and even though you’re faking it, a couple things land, and with multiple takes, you’re just getting tossed around like a rag doll. That was a night shoot, and we weren’t on a night schedule, so everyone was just exhausted and fried. I’d say that was a pretty rough day. Or rough night, rather.
AVC: You play the character who really changes, and is the emotional center of the movie. How do you convey the drama of what you’re going through beneath all the funny stuff?
EH: I think a lot of it’s on the page, you know what I mean? It’s in the script. And I think part of what’s special about this movie is that none of the comedy comes from the characters being clever, like you see in a lot of sitcoms or movies, where the characters actually have a funny sense of humor. That’s not the case in this movie. So as an actor, you can really play the intensity and gravity and seriousness of the moment, and just rely on the circumstances being funny. The joke is kind of the situation you’re in, or the way you’re reacting to something, as opposed to the characters just saying something witty.
AVC: When Andy from The Office thinks he’s funny, he’s really not being funny.
EH: I like to think of it as reacting to moments in the narrative of the movie the way I might actually react to them. You make adjustments according to the specifics of the character. Like, Andy has a lot of unique insecurities that inform how he responds to things. But ultimately, the core is how I would really react to something, and then I maybe will build on it a little. Vulnerability is huge. I love to see that in characters. It’s something I feel like a lot of my comedic heroes have always done. It’s not even necessarily vulnerability, always, but it’s an earnestness, a genuine desire to actually do the right thing, but then still make really misguided, stupid decisions along the way.
AVC: Are there any advantages to shooting in Las Vegas that you don’t have in Los Angeles?
EH: No, it’s rife with disadvantages. If there is an advantage, it’s that you don’t get as many looky-loos and oglers as you do at other locations, because people are like, “Why are you in my way? I need to get to the craps table.” [Laughs.] That’s all they care about. But I don’t know, I don’t think there’s any particular advantage to shooting in Vegas. If anything, it’s just harder to stay focused.
AVC: You worked as an editor before working as a performer. What did editing teach you about acting?
EH: I worked as an assistant editor, actually, for a few years. That was right when I was just starting to get out at night and do a lot of stand-up, improv, and sketch work in New York. You know, it really is invaluable. I think it pounded into me an awareness of what an editor wants and needs, in terms of clarity of a moment, where and when to start and stop a line. It’s kind of a nebulous thing, but it just helps. Also, a really keen understanding of how and why the different camera angles are set up. Because as an editor, you’re constantly dealing with the best way to convey an exchange between two people. So when I’m shooting that, I’m just aware in the back of my head what an editor might want. And also, the problems editors run into when trying to edit performances—it helps me head that off at the pass a little. That said, I’m sure I cause just as much consternation for editors as any other actor, but it definitely makes me feel more comfortable understanding how and why all the different camera setups exist.
AVC: Have you gotten any feedback from editors saying that you’re doing a good job?
EH: You know, occasionally I’ve been told that they just like my work, and that’s about all I can hope for. But you know, working on The Daily Show, I co-produced all those field segments, and that’s another huge thing. I mean, we sat in the editing room for days on those things, and I probably did more than 100 field segments. And that’s just invaluable, to shoot it… I don’t want to take anything away from the actual field producers on the staff of the show, ’cause they’re incredible too. But it’s really a team effort. And then the editors are great too, and we would all just sit in the room and hack it up and try to make it work. Sometimes you just create a joke out of thin air in the editing room. So I’m really glad I’ve had that experience. It gives me a little more confidence in front of the camera.
AVC: You were a film major, weren’t you?
EH: Technically… I usually don’t go into this detail, I usually just say yes, but for your sake, I’ll clarify. I went to Oberlin College, and they don’t have a film major, but they do have what’s called an individual major, where you can sort of pitch to a committee your own course study, and if they approve it, you have essentially just designed your own major. So Oberlin doesn’t have a film major; they do have a film minor. But I pieced together a major that included all the film courses, a lot of computer science, oddly enough, and a lot of theater stuff, and some literature. And then my spring semester of my junior year, I went off to NYU film school as a visiting student—they have a program for kids from other schools to come in for a semester. You sort of take the core curriculum of the Tisch undergraduate film program. So all that combined, I was able to convince the committee at Oberlin that it was a coherent major. [Laughs.] And the name of the major was actually “Film Theory And Technology.” To be totally candid, it was really born out of a panic attack the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when I realized I wasn’t going to graduate in four years unless I somehow managed to glue together all the courses I’d taken. [Laughs.] That said, I’m really glad I did it, ’cause it was really fun, and I was able to just take whatever the hell I wanted.
AVC: So you weren’t out to become a director, in other words.
EH: You know, at that time, all I knew is that I loved movies and comedy and TV, and I wanted to perform. I made a bunch of shorts and movies in college, and that was always fun too. I directed some plays in college. It was taking it all in and trying to immerse myself in as much of it as possible. Going into editing when I got to New York was part of that. I guess I just kind of wanted to know as much as possible. But I have a real love of the whole process, from start to finish. So right now, I fit into the acting part of the process, but I wouldn’t rule anything out. I’m enamored with how the whole thing works.
AVC: You’re from the South, and you went to school in the Midwest. Do you feel that gives you a different perspective than other people in the business?
EH: Well, I think most people in the business are from all over. I like being from a city that is not entrenched in show business. When you’re in New York City or Los Angeles, even if you’re not dealing with show business, there’s still this sense that it’s the center of the universe. And I think that’s a really dangerous, limiting mindset. People who grew up in those cities tend not to even understand what goes on in the rest of the country. I’m really glad to have grown up in an environment where I actually was kind of a weirdo because I was obsessed with comedy and movies and stuff. In a way, it made it seem more special, and I’m glad to always have that connection to a part of the country that doesn’t really have anything to do with what I do. That said, there seems to be a lot of production drumming up in Atlanta these days. It would be kind of a dream come true to go back to Atlanta to work on a movie, but we’ll see what happens.
AVC: Have you adjusted to L.A.?
EH: Immediately. I’m kind of embarrassed by how quickly I adjusted to L.A. I really love it. It’s so pleasant. I lived in New York for 10 years, I loved it, I never second-guessed it. There were definitely times when I thought, “I will never leave this place.” And I kind of got into that center-of-the-universe mindset. And then, my last couple years, I was traveling so much for those Daily Show field segments that I really got kind of beaten down, and for the first time, I would land at LaGuardia and get this heavy feeling like, “Ugh, I have to deal with New York City again. It’s gonna stink, it’s so hot in the summer.” All the hardships of city life start to outweigh the convenience and fun of city life. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I was traveling every week, almost, and I was just in and out of the city constantly. I didn’t feel very stable.
And then when I got to L.A. and started work on The Office, it was so pleasant. It was such a change of pace. I would just go to work every day, the weather was beautiful, and I had this nice kind of Zen time in my car between work and home. Wasn’t dealing with the subways—I lived in Williamsburg for almost the entire time I lived in New York, and that L train over time became so unbelievably difficult to deal with. When I first moved there, it was amazing, but over time, it very gradually became—especially that Bedford Avenue stop, I’d have to let trains go, because they were so full. I was like, “What is going on?” That neighborhood just completely metamorphosed under my nose, and I barely noticed, ’cause I was working so hard. Now I go back and I barely recognize it.
AVC: What’s next for you? You were developing a film, right?
EH: Yeah, I pitched a movie to Warner Bros. through Steve Carell’s company. It’s sort of a big, Back To The Future kind of comedy about Civil War reenactors who are sent back to the actual Civil War. That’s basically the rest of my summer, I’m going to be writing that with my writing partner. And it’s such a fun project. I’m really excited about it. Steve is behind it, which is really fun. I have a movie, The Goods, which is coming out, I think, in August. I have a supporting part in that; it’s a Jeremy Piven comedy produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. That was really fun for me, ’cause I play a super-broad, ridiculous character, which is not something I get to do as often. He’s like a really one-dimensional joke of a character. And of course I’ll be back to work at The Office in July, and I really can’t wait to get back.
AVC: All the Daily Show alums have kind of formed a community, giving each other work and finding good projects for each other.
EH: You’re right. I had this reporter ask me at the junket—there seems to be a lot of support and camaraderie among Daily Show alumni, and he was basically asking, “Is that all bullshit, and are you guys really professionally jealous of each other?” And I’m a pretty cynical person, but I was totally taken aback by that question. Come on. I guess we’re lucky, ’cause it really is a good group of people that have come through that show—not just talented, but really good folks. I’m really proud to be part of that tradition. And now in L.A., Rob Corddry lives less than a mile from my house, and I hang out with him and his wife and kids. It really is cool. Rob and I shared an office for years at The Daily Show. One of my best buddies.
AVC: You’ve done stuff like The Office where improv is part of the process, and things like Meet Dave where the effects would probably limit your ability to bring new things into it.
EH: Thanks for bringing up Meet Dave. [Laughs.]
AVC: Where does The Hangover fall on that continuum?
EH: It fell into the heavy improv category. But that said—we were talking earlier about how the characters in this movie aren’t funny. So Todd actually didn’t use a lot of the improv we did. That’s not entirely true; a lot of what’s in there is improvised or spontaneous jokes that came up that day, and that’s some of the stuff I’m most proud of in there. But the riffing, all the kind of one-upping that we would do, none of that’s in there. It was all really funny when we did it, but in hindsight, I’m glad Todd had that discretion, because it does keep the characters more accessible and grounded, in a way. Because they’re not particularly clever. You miss some jokes that way, but you gain so much more vulnerability.