There are few films from the early aughts that are as quotable as Napoleon Dynamite. The low-budget 2004 high school comedy went from a sleeper hit to a cult classic in a matter of months. Nearly 15 years later, it’s not uncommon to spot a “Vote For Pedro” shirt in the wild.
On Friday, November 16, the iconic movie will screen at the Riverside Theater with commentary from the film’s three leads: John Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), Efren Ramirez (Pedro), and Tina Majorino (Deb). Milwaukee Record spoke with Efren Ramirez over the phone about his enduring fondness of the film, his never-ending association with Pedro, and his work outside of Napoleon Dynamite.
Milwaukee Record: Did you ever think that Napoleon Dynamite would still be relevant and have cultural impact 15 years after it came out?
Efren Ramirez: Uh, no [laughs]. It’s Halloween today, and there’s around 15 million views on Camilia Mendez and Lili Reinhart’s [of Riverdale] Instagram post because they dressed up as Pedro and Napoleon. I think it’s pretty bad ass.
MR: I, too, dressed up as Napoleon Dynamite three years ago. My best friend wanted to be Pedro, but we couldn’t find a bolo tie in time. It’s such a classic costume. Are you still in contact with anyone from the movie?
ER: Yeah! [Jon] Heder lives about 15 minutes away from me, and I talk to Jonathan Gries (Uncle Rico) all the time. When you work with actors, sometimes you work at a job and it becomes a job. But there are moments when you connect to the people you work with and become friends for life, which is rare. In the entertainment industry, you’re constantly working on projects, and you disappear to another world. You have to have some connection to reality, and that connection is your friends. I’ve gotten really great advice from Jonathan Gries. It’s wonderful to talk to Jon Heder about our experiences in this industry as actors, and as friends.
MR: Can you tell me how you landed the role of Pedro?
ER: Well, I was working on two shows, Boston Public and Even Stevens. My agent called me up and said, “Hey, you have an audition for two films. One of them is called The Alamo and one of them is called Napoleon Dynamite.” I read the script for Napoleon Dynamite thinking, “What is this?” It was just so odd. I went into 20th Century Fox studios, and the audition went great. Then I got a phone call and was offered the roles for both The Alamo and Napoleon Dynamite, and I really had to make the choice. I chose Napoleon because Pedro was such a unique character and I wanted to play a lead role. I didn’t know it was going to change my life forever.
MR: You said the movie was odd, and I’m sure a lot of people would agree with that. I think Napoleon Dynamite really embraced a sort of awkward, uncomfortable humor before shows like The Office and Arrested Development did. What was it like being in a movie with that type of humor before it became so popular?
ER: The characters’ experiences throughout the entire film are really funny. One of my favorite moments with Napoleon is when he and his brother order a time machine and they believe they’re going to go back in time. A lot of these plot lines are based off true events that the director and his wife had experienced with their siblings. They literally ordered a time machine thinking they could go back in time. It even came with period money, so just in case you do go back in time, you’d have the right year of dollar bills. Which should make it obvious that it didn’t work, but they still thought it would! It was just so odd.
With Napoleon Dynamite, I found it endearing that the film was about these two different people who don’t know each other and then form a friendship. And then with their friendship, they help each other out and make each others’ dreams come true. In the end, Napoleon gets the girl and Pedro becomes president. Kip finds the love of his life and goes to Detroit, and Sandy goes back to Tina the llama. It’s just a wonderful way of telling a story. You get to go experience the journey of all these odd characters who we can all relate to.
MR: What were you thinking when you first read the script and you learned about all of the weirdo characters?
ER: I literally went to my parents’ closet, and I was wearing my father’s wardrobe, kind of dressed like Pedro. I was doing the voice but not trying to be too comical; you really want to be honest to the character. I was still wondering about [the role], because I had just graduated from acting school. I’m a big fan of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and I knew that I wanted to create a stillness with this character, and this curious eye. When I went out to Preston, Idaho and I met Jon Heder, he was in wardrobe for Napoleon and he was like, “Hey…are you Pedro…?” I knew it was going to be awesome.
MR: Have you ever gone to the Napoleon Dynamite Festival in Preston?
ER: [laughs] No, I have not. But I will tell you, in between working on films, I DJ all over the world.
MR: Oh really?
ER: Yeah! Before Napoleon Dynamite, I did a lot of raves in Los Angeles. After that, I became a celebrity DJ. I’ve actually DJed in Milwaukee, and stayed at the Ambassador Hotel—where Jeffrey Dahmer used to stay—right across from The Rave. I’ve always had a great time in Milwaukee. When they mentioned that I would be making an appearance with Jon Heder over in Milwaukee, I was like, “Oh, great!” It’s a place that I really enjoy. People have been really loving.
MR: What are you expecting from the film screening at the Riverside? Have you ever done something like that before?
ER: I have. It’s kind of like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where you have die-hard fans who are really into the movie and really want to enjoy that experience again. Knowing that it’s been 15 years, I am so happy that all of this is happening. I’m so happy to be able to give big hugs to all the fans and say thank you. This is something that we can all enjoy together.
MR: Do you have any funny stories about shooting Napoleon Dynamite that you can give away before the event?
ER: [laughs] I mean, there are so many. There are fun moments working on the set, and working off the set, like at comic conventions. When I was working on Napoleon Dynamite…I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this [laughs]. It was so hot, a really dry heat and Haylie Duff [Summer Wheatley] ended up fainting. I remember she had a little dog with her and it looked like Falkor from The Neverending Story. She ended up fainting, and her dog ended up coming off the leash and ran off the set and into a field. I was told a bird swooped down, took her dog and ate it.
MR: Oh my god!
ER: She had this tiny dog, but it looked like Falkor! And when she came back to consciousness, they told her, “Hey…we can’t find your dog!” [laughs] Preston, Idaho is such a small town, so the whole town knew that one of the actors had this dog. There was a search for it, but it was eventually decided that the dog went to dog heaven. I think like a week later, she replaced it.
MR: That’s crazy. I’ve read a lot of Napoleon Dynamite reflection pieces, and I’ve definitely never heard that story before. At least it sounds like she got over the dog-snatching pretty fast. Do you think there will be a sequel or revival of Napoleon Dynamite, aside from the short-lived animated series?
ER: Well, it’s been 15 years and the studios really love the film. I can only think about the future, maybe Pedro running for mayor and Napoleon married to Deb, with two kids—one looking like Napoleon, like an eight-year-old Napoleon saying, “Hey dad…I’m ready for school…” Pedro maybe having four kids with Summer Wheatley. Uncle Rico actually being a pro-football coach, Kip become a cage fighter for real. That would be hilarious. Because of that movie, we’re all working actors and we’ve all worked on projects. We’ll see. It’s up in the sky. I’m always open to a really good script.
MR: Do you have any projects coming up that you’re excited about?
ER: I’m working on three different projects—two dramas and a comedy. After Napoleon Dynamite, there were a lot of roles that were almost the same character, and my managers didn’t want to do that. I’ve started playing all these different characters, and I’ve become labeled as a character actor. There are two TV shows and a feature film. All I can tell you is this: The next project, I will be working with one of the actors who has played Gandhi. I love being able to challenge myself and take on roles that scare the crap out of me. When the audience sees the work that I do, they get surprised that they don’t recognize me.
MR: Yeah, I was going to ask you if you ever get recognized on the street or if people ever come up to you and quote the movie.
ER: It’s everywhere. It’s everywhere that I go. [laughs] You know, around Halloween time I like to go to these theme parks, like Knott’s Berry Farm or Magic Mountain. I go to those haunted mazes, and the monsters will jump out and try to scare me, and then they’re like, “Oh my gosh, you’re Pedro!” And I’m like, “Dude, no! Stay in the moment! Scare me!” The other thing is that when I DJ, I’ll go up on the deck and they’re like wait, that guy’s a DJ?
MR: You should play at Summerfest here in Milwaukee. Summerfest gets a lot of celebrity DJs, like Paris Hilton and Pauly D from Jersey Shore. It sounds like you would fit in there pretty well.
ER: I love what it really means to DJ. It’s about the music and it’s about the people, and creative new music. I’m so passionate about that, but I’m more passionate about acting. You’re exploring new things, especially with new technology in such a way that everybody gets to explore new endeavors.
MR: I know you’ve had roles that were not Pedro, of course. What have been some of your other favorite roles?
ER: I would say Crank, a film I did with Jason Statham and Amy Smart. I’m fan of Tim Curry, and in an ode to that, I played a role named Caleb who’s transgender. The character dies in the film—spoiler alert—and so when they wrote the sequel, I played my own twin brother. My twin brother, he’s kind of gothic and has his own issues. I had training in martial arts and how to ride a motorcycle. Each character takes you on a new journey.