Ed Helms: In Scranton Or 'Cedar Rapids,' He's Plucky
If you're a fan of The Office, you may have seen Ed Helms, who plays Andy Bernard, occasionally whip out a banjo and bang out a few tunes. On Thursday's Fresh Air, Helms brings his own banjo to the studio and sings bluegrass tunes with his band, The Lonesome Trio.
He also discusses his new comedy Cedar Rapids, in which he plays Tim Lippe, a naive insurance salesman who has never left his small hometown, let alone ventured into a hotel room for a night.
But when he is sent to represent his insurance company at a convention in a place that he considers exotic — Cedar Rapids, Iowa — Tim meets three insurance company veterans (played by John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who open his eyes to new boundary-pushing ideas.
To play the character, Helms said, he had to tap into the part of his brain that contains his most idealistic notions about humanity.
"I really loved this character and wanted him to succeed, and I didn't want him to learn the evils of the world," he says. "As an actor, it was just fun to tap into a really earnest and wide-eyed view of the world that celebrates optimism and hope in a way."
The innocent character Helms portrays in Cedar Rapids is a far cry from Andy Bernard, the awkward, posturing salesman Helms plays on The Office.
"I suppose it's fair to say if Andy would be me if I didn't learn more about myself," Helms says. "Andy's sort of the high-school version of me in adult form, perhaps. There are some differences. I never struggled with the anger management [issues Andy has]. But certainly the posturing and insecurities — that's most of us in high school."
Helms' character has now spent five seasons on The Office, the hit comedy set at a fictional Pennsylvania paper company. This upcoming season will be the show's farewell to Steve Carell, who plays regional manager Michael Scott. But even his co-star can't say how Carell's character is going to make his exit.
"I can tell you, honestly — I don't know," Helms says. "I've been told there are a few different plans, and they're not exactly sure how it's going to execute. The narrative of the show is incredibly fluid, and it really changes with whatever is successful in the previous handful of episodes. So we have four episodes with Will Ferrell coming up, which will be crazy and fantastic. And then Steve's departure, which will be utterly heartbreaking but of course really exciting for the rest of us to see where the show leads."
Helms got his start in the acting world with the Upright Citizens Brigade and other sketch-comedy troupes. Before joining the cast of The Office, he was one of the satirical newshounds on The Daily Show. He co-starred in the gigantic summer comedy hit The Hangover, and has also appeared in Evan Almighty and Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. His next big-screen project after Cedar Rapids is The Hangover Part II, scheduled for a May release.
On his love of banjo music
"I grew up in Atlanta, Ga., and there was some early exposure to it, but it's not like it was very prevalent in my family or anything. But I also spent summers up in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, and [bluegrass] was always a sound that resonated for me and felt like a connection to these places that meant a lot to me. ... But I do think people who love banjo music are cursed in some way, because most people don't like it and it's kind of an obnoxious instrument. But I just get a lot of joy out of it."
On singing in movies
"It's at the point now where, when I get involved with something, people are like, 'How do we inject a song into this?' And I'm trying to pull back a little bit. But I do love to sing; music's a huge part of my life. And I've always felt like singing at the wrong time, or at the wrong volume or with the wrong energy, can be one of the most hilarious things. So I always use it for comedic effect."
On stage fright while performing
"I get staggering stage fright when I play music. I don't know what it is. I've done stand-up comedy for 15 years, and I can step in front of 2,000 people in a college auditorium and just chat for an hour. But if you put an instrument in my hand — a guitar or a banjo — I desperately want to share it with people, but I have some stage fright. It makes the technical act of playing difficult. That's something I've always struggled with — even at piano recitals as a kid, I would freeze up."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Ed Helms, got his start as a correspondent on "The Daily Show." On the NBC series "The Office," he plays Andy Bernard, a paper and printer salesman who isn't very good at selling or at keeping a girlfriend. Andy exudes an uncomfortable mix of arrogance and insecurity.
Ed Helms was one of the stars of the hit film "The Hangover," and now he stars in the new film comedy "Cedar Rapids," as a small-town insurance agent who's sent to a regional conference in what, to him, is a really big city, Cedar Rapids.
At the conference, his naivete gets him into awkward situations involving alcohol, drugs, a married woman and a prostitute; and he learns that the insurance company that prides itself on Christian values doesn't practice what it preaches.
In the movie "Cedar Rapids," as in "The Hangover" and the TV series "The Office," Ed Helms gets to sing. He usually sings in a comic way. We asked if he'd be willing to sing for real, and he offered to bring his band, The Lonesome Trio. We enthusiastically took him up on the offer.
Ed Helms, welcome to FRESH AIR. Welcome to the band. It's such a treat that you've brought your band with you. So thank you so much for that. Ed, can I ask you to introduce the band and the first song that you're going to play?
Mr. ED HELMS (Actor, Musician): Of course, Terry. Ian Riggs is playing the bass. I'm playing banjo. Jacob Tilove is on mandolin. Together, we're the Lonesome Trio, and we're joined today by Chris Eldridge on guitar, who plays with The Punch Brothers.
And we're going to play a great old standard bluegrass tune called "Please Search Your Heart."
(Soundbite of song, "Please Search Your Heart")
Mr. HELMS: (Singing) Please search your heart, and maybe you'll find a reason to stay. I'm begging this time. I know I was wrong, but darling, I've paid. So please search your heart before it's too late.
When you left me, I said that I'd never be blue, that I wouldn't cry if you found someone new. But this is my plea: Give me one more try. And please search your heart. Don't tell me goodbye.
When you left me, I said that I'd never be blue and that I wouldn't cry if you found someone new. But this is my plea: Give me one more try. And please search your heart. Don't tell me goodbye. Please search your heart. Don't tell me goodbye.
GROSS: That's fabulous. Thank you so much. And that's Ed Helms and his band The Lonesome Trio. So it's Ed Helms on guitar; Ian Riggs, bass; Jacob Tilove, mandolin; with guest guitarist, Chris Eldridge.
Ed Helms, I never would've guessed that you love bluegrass music from hearing you sing on "The Office" or in "The Hangover." How did you fall in love with bluegrass?
Mr. HELMS: Well, that is a mystery to me, as well. I don't know where it started. I just know that - you know, I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and there was some early, I guess, exposure to it, but I also spent summers up in the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina.
And it just was always a sound that resonated for me and felt like a connection to these places that meant a lot to me, the mountains of North Carolina. And I don't know. It always was - it just felt authentic and something that I gravitated to.
I do think people who love banjo music are cursed in some way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HELMS: Well because most people don't like it, and it's kind of an obnoxious instrument. But I just get a lot of joy out of it.
GROSS: So Ed, I really want to thank you for bringing your band with you, and I want to thank the members of the band, who can't actually hear me because they're not wearing headphones, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HELMS: Our pleasure. Thanks for having us.
GROSS: Yeah. So I'm going to let the band leave. But Ed, I'm going to ask you to stick around, and I want to talk with you about your new film "Cedar Rapids."
So in "Cedar Rapids," you star as an insurance salesman in a small town, and you actually believe that insurance agents are really helpful people who help other people put their lives together after catastrophe strikes. You are truly dedicated to this.
But you're also very naive, and you've never left the small town that you grew up in. And then you're asked to go to a regional conference in Cedar Rapids, and that's a really big city to your character. And when he gets to the hotel, he's just amazed. He's never stayed in a hotel. It's confusing and exotic to him.
And in this scene, he's just checked in. He's walking to his room, talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone, his older girlfriend, played by Sigourney Weaver, who used to be his teacher in 12th grade. And so - is it 12th grade? No, it's when he was 12. He was younger.
Mr. HELMS: Yeah, I think it was seventh grade or something.
GROSS: Seventh grade. So you're walking down the hall, talking on the cell phone, going to your room, and the hallway that you're walking through overlooks the hotel swimming pool. So I'm going to play that scene.
(Soundbite of film, "Cedar Rapids")
Mr. HELMS: (As Tim Lippe) I just did the whole chicken rigmarole, and I'm on my way to my room.
Ms. SIGOURNEY WEAVER (Actress): (As Macy Vanderhei) Have you seen the pool yet?
Mr. HELMS: (As Tim) Yeah, it's incredible. I mean, there's like palm trees and stuff. And the whole place smells like chlorine. It's like I'm in Barbados or somewhere. Oh, here we are, mi casa, junior suite. Hang on a second here. Let me figure out how this deal works. The key's like a stinking credit card.
GROSS: That's Ed Helms, in a scene from his new movie, "Cedar Rapids." So what did you tap into in yourself to play somebody so naive and so innocent as this character?
Mr. HELMS: I think for me, it was kind of tapping into a little bit of idealism, and I don't know, I kind of really loved this character, Tim Lippe, and want him to succeed, and I don't want him to learn the evils of the world.
And so, as an actor, it was just fun to tap into a really earnest and wide-eyed view of the world that, I don't know, that sort of celebrates optimism and hope in a way, but also a lot of fear.
GROSS: Now, you get to sing a song in "Cedar Rapids." You sing a song in "The Hangover." You've sung a bunch of times on "The Office." Do you usually try to have an opportunity to sing when you're in a TV show or a movie, and do you suggest that that be written in, or is that usually done on your behalf?
Mr. HELMS: Yeah, it's kind of at the point now where it just seems -when I get involved with something, people are like: How do we inject a song into this? And I'm kind of trying to pull back a little bit. But I do love to sing; music's a huge part of my life.
And I also think that - I've always felt like singing at the wrong time or the wrong volume or with the wrong energy can be one of the most hilarious things. So I always sort of use it for comedic effect, although in "Cedar Rapids," there is a little bit of a poignant turn on it, I guess, although I still there think there's some smiles going on.
Yeah, it's just, it's something that I love to do and just pepper in here and there.
GROSS: When you were young and first discovering music, did you sing in church? Did you go to church, or were you ever in kiddy talent shows, on or off TV?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HELMS: No. No, I was never in kiddy talent shows, but I was in church choir from a very young age. I see these pictures in photo albums of me in this little, white choir robe, and I barely remember those times. But there's no doubt that I was just sort of being immersed in music a lot.
And we went to - my family went to a Presbyterian church in Atlanta, Georgia, and it was mostly conventional hymns and so forth, but I don't know. It planted a seed of some sort.
GROSS: And at what point did you want to be in a band? And did you want to be in a rock band?
Mr. HELMS: Well, what - I mean, what adolescent boy doesn't want to be in a rock band of some sort? I got my first guitar when I was about 12 or 13, and my brother, who was a few years older, was in high school. And, you know, some of his classmates were in bands that I would see at school functions and so forth. And I just thought it was the coolest thing ever.
So yeah, I was always trying to get that going. I didn't have a lot of luck in high school in bands for some reason.
GROSS: What do you mean by that? You weren't in them, or the bands didn't do well, or...?
Mr. HELMS: Well, I played with guys here and there, but here's something that might surprise you, Terry. I get staggering stage fright when I play music.
GROSS: Really? That does surprise me.
Mr. HELMS: Yeah. I don't know what it is. I've done stand-up comedy for 15 years, and I can step in front of 2,000 people in a college auditorium and just chat for an hour and a half.
But if you put an instrument in my hand, a guitar or a banjo, I desperately want to share it with people, but I do oftentimes, I have some stage fright, and it makes the technical act of playing difficult. And that's something I've always struggled with. Even at piano recitals as a kid I would freeze up.
I remember a talent show at my school in junior high, and I played Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," and I froze in the middle, and I could not pick it back up. And I just couldn't find my place, and I just sat there for a minute and then stood up and bowed and walked off.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That sounds traumatizing.
Mr. HELMS: I don't know. That was - maybe it was.
GROSS: Okay, but when you were in high school, and you were playing in bands, I mean, especially like in high school, you're expected in a rock band to project a certain confidence. What did you wear when you were onstage because I'm thinking about how your characters dress in your movie "Cedar Rapids" and on "The Office."
You know, there's such a kind of either business or collegiate look your characters tend to have. In "The Hangover," you're wearing your sweater tied across your shoulders. So how did you dress when you were in high school in rock bands?
Mr. HELMS: Well, I went to a kind of preppy high school. So like a lot of people, I cringe when I see pictures of my adolescence. But, you know, I was talking earlier just about how I got into bluegrass music, and for some reason, I think it does have something to do with this search for something kind of pure and authentic.
And high school, of course, is the opposite of authenticity. It's everyone trying to posture and impress each other and be cool, and that was certainly me. So, at that time, I think my musical interest was sort of off the beaten path, searching for something a little more real, with a little more integrity or something.
And that's not to say that bluegrass music has any more authenticity than anything else, but it does have a roots quality. And I was listening to a lot of blues and bluegrass at the time, and it - I don't know. It just felt good.
It felt like something a little more tangible and real than when I'd show up at school the next day and try to act cool despite the fact that I was anxious and had a huge crush on that girl and couldn't talk to her.
GROSS: You know, it's funny. So much of the awkwardness that you're describing, and the posturing that you're describing about high school also describes your character, Andy, on "The Office" because he's often posturing and trying to impress people and playing cool when he's not.
Mr. HELMS: That's an interesting point. And I hadn't made a real clear connection in that way to my life, but I suppose it's fair to say that Andy would be me if I didn't learn more about myself and became a little more self-aware.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HELMS: Andy's sort of the high school version of me in adult form, perhaps, although, well, there are some differences. I never struggled with the anger management, for example. But certainly the posturing and the insecurity, at least I'd like to think that's most of us in high school.
GROSS: My guest is Ed Helms. He stars in the NBC series "The Office," and he stars in the new film comedy, "Cedar Rapids." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ed Helms, and he stars in the new movie "Cedar Rapids." He's of course also a star of "The Office," and he starred in "The Hangover," and "Hangover 2" is coming out over the summer. Do I have that right?
Mr. HELMS: "Hangover 2" comes out Memorial Day, yeah.
GROSS: Great, okay. You know, I love hearing people sing, whether they sing well or not. If they love music, I love hear them. And I passionately believe that you should be allowed to sing and enjoy singing even if you don't sing well.
Nevertheless, there's something so annoying about watching somebody who thinks that they're a great singer, when they're not, which is something I think you tried to pick up with on portraying Andy in "The Office" because there's times when he thinks he's, like, so good, and he's not and other times when he really is good. Do you know what I mean?
But why is it that there's - because you referred to this earlier. Why is it that there's something so kind of comical and also annoying when somebody is trying to be really impressive with their singing when they're not?
Mr. HELMS: You know, I guess in the case of Andy, he's pretty good. I think he's a pretty good singer, but he's not nearly as good as he thinks he is. And like a lot of a cappella singers, he gets a lot more pleasure out of performing than the audience does out of listening.
And so I don't know. I find that I actually kind of envy Andy's brashness and boldness as a performer, and he really has no inhibitions. And he just - he does have a lot of confidence. It may not be well-founded, but it's there, and that's always fun to watch.
GROSS: It's so much fun hearing you sing in the studio and in TV shows and in movies. On "The Office," one of my famous "Office" episodes is the one in which you're in a community theater production of "Sweeney Todd."
I mean, "Sweeney Todd" is, I think, like the best musical ever. And it's so great because you're singing a song from it in "The Office," and somebody comes up to you and says: Did you write that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And you really have to be, like, a god of music theater like Sondheim in order to have written anything from that show. But anyway, do you love Broadway songs?
Mr. HELMS: Of course. I mean, I think anyone who says they don't like Broadway musicals is lying or trying to be too cool for school or something because they're just unstoppably good songs. Of course, not all of it's great, and I don't respond to all of it.
But "Les Mis" was a big one when I was in high school, and I've always just loved that. And "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" has some great, catchy tunes. My sister just bought that for his son, and he's already learning all the words. He's five years old.
GROSS: Got to get them while they're young. Would you like to an excerpt of a Broadway song that you've always loved?
Mr. HELMS: It's from "Les Mis."
Mr. HELMS: (Singing) Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again. When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drum, there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.
GROSS: Oh, marching.
Mr. HELMS: (Singing) Will you join...?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HELMS: No, I'm kidding.
GROSS: Were you ever in a production of that?
Mr. HELMS: No, but that was sort my go-to song either at high school auditions or when I was at college parties.
GROSS: So you're working with Steve Carell now, on "The Office," and this is his last season.
Mr. HELMS: Thank God.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You'll be glad to get rid of him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Do you have any idea yet how he leaves and also what happens next? I know you're not going to tell me, but I'm wondering if you know.
Mr. HELMS: Well, that's the first time I've heard that question that way. And I can tell you honestly I don't know. I know that there are plans, and I've been told there are a few different plans, and they're not exactly sure how it's going to execute.
The narrative of the show is incredibly fluid, and it really kind of changes with whatever is successful in the previous handful of episodes. So we have four episodes with Will Ferrell coming up, which will be crazy and fantastic, and then Steve's departure, which will be utterly heartbreaking but of course very exciting for the rest of us to see where the show leads.
GROSS: Ed Helms, you've been great. It was great to talk with you. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. HELMS: My pleasure, Terry. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Ed Helms stars in the new film comedy "Cedar Rapids." You can hear a second song that he performed with his band in our studio on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's Ed Helms in the "Sweeney Todd" episode of "The Office."
Mr. HELMS: (Singing) I'll tell you the tale of Sweeney Todd, his skin was pale and his eye was odd, he'd see the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.