Interview: Actor Jon Heder on Working with New Filmmakers, Shooting in Chicago

This interview continues our coverage of this week’s Chicago premiere screenings of When Jeff Tried to Save the World, from first-time feature director and Chicago native Kendall Goldberg. The film screens at the Music Box Theatre on Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 8:15pm, and Thursday, Dec. 6 at 9:45pm—after which Goldberg, and stars Jon Heder and Candi Milo will be on hand for audience Q&As (I’ll be moderating on Wednesday). For more details and to buy advance tickets, go to the Music Box’s event page.

I was fortunate enough to visit the film’s set in August 2017, where I observed Goldberg and her actors and crew move efficiently and skillfully from scene to scene, all of which were filmed that day (and most of the shoot’s 19 days) at Lan-Oak Lanes, an old-school bowling alley in Lansing, Illinois. The film tells the story of Jeff (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder), the manager of the bowling alley Winky’s World. When his boss Sheila (Candi Milo) tells him that her soon-to-be-ex-husband Carl (Jim O’Heir) is looking to sell Winky’s, Jeff takes it upon himself to save the establishment by showing how much of an indispensable institution it truly is to the community.

When Jeff
Image courtesy of Music Box Theatre

It’s almost impossible to believe the Heder’s breakthrough performance in Napoleon Dynamite was nearly 15 years ago, but since then he’s worked steadily in such films as Just Like Heaven, Blades of Glory, When in Rome, and a great number of television series and animated shows, including one based on Napoleon Dynamite. We sat down on set between takes to talk about his character, how he got involved in the film, and working with first-time filmmakers. Enjoy our conversation…

What are you about to shoot next?

The next scenes are the final scenes of the film. It’s all about this bowling alley that’s going out of business and the guy who runs it, and he does everything in his power to save it. But it’s really about this guy’s journey. In this scene, he is about to bowl. It’s actually the only time we get to see the people who run the bowling alley bowl. Plus, it’s this nice, sweet emotional scene with this older guy who used to be a bowler here. It’s a sentimental scene that recaptures the glory days of that character, and it’s a way for all the characters to come together to say goodbye. It’s a bittersweet moment where they all say goodbye to this establishment that they’ve been working at for years, and it’s the closing of an era.

Bowling alleys have such a foot in the past, to me, and yet it’s still a legitimate pastime that people still do. But you feel that feeling when you go to bowling alleys. Most of them that you go to have such a cool, retro look, but all bowling alleys have that look because they haven’t been updated since the 1970s, rarely. Now that I say that, I have been to one that was at the top floor of this hotel, and it was just two lanes and very hipstery.

How did you get involved in this and meet Kendall?

I actually auditioned. It’s one of the few things I auditioned, and I got the part [laughs]. We were actually talking about this the other day. She had a couple of people on her list, but either they didn’t work out or she didn’t like them. But she didn’t know really what Jeff was like, she is a very young, first-time director, so she wanted to see some people. My agent sent me the script and I read it first, and I knew it was a small film, but I love working on independent film and with first-time directors, giving them a chance to shine.

What vibe or vision do you need to get from a first-time director before saying Yes to working with them?

The whole vibe of the script and the project should give a good sense of whether I want to do it. You can usually tell from the script, especially if it’s written by them. But first thing’s first: you read the script. Do you like it? And go from there. Then you sit and talk to the director and get a sense of why they are attached to this project. Did they write it? Is it a passion project? I want that passion and excitement. First-time directors have so much to prove, and that energy, focused correctly, can really benefit the production. I felt that for sure on this film. When I went into the audition and saw Kendall, I didn’t know who it was, but she looked like a college student, and she was at the time. I was impressed by the script, and we sat and talked, and it was clear she knew what she was doing, and she has a vision and intense focus that I could feel that this would be a fun project to be a part of.

And this was just for the short, so many of which are made with the intention of turning it into a feature, but it rarely happens. And with this film, it not only happened, it happened quickly.

Yeah, it’s rare. Every project is different. Some are ready to go, and at the last second it goes or falls apart. It was three years ago when I did that audition, and then we were told we’d have to wait a year to shoot. And then after a year, they said we were going to shoot a short first, and it wasn’t going to take a lot of time, so I was fine to do it. And then she said, we’re shooting for next summer to shoot the feature, and we got closer and closer throughout the year, then we got pushed back once, and I thought that was the death sentence. Usually when that happens, it gets pushed five more times, but it only got pushed once and then it was like “Okay, this is happening.”

In the short, we find out your character gave up going to MIT. Is that still a part of the story?

The backstory is that Jeff found a talent in software engineering, programming. He’s a guy that has these talents but he also went into college with a knapsack full of anxiety and could not handle it, got overwhelmed and ran from it. In running way, he came across this job. We illustrate his anxieties a bit. We haven’t shot any of that yet, but it gets to almost hallucination-level anxiety. He’s medicated.

Is it played for laughs, or is it treated seriously?

It’s done seriously, but it is meant to be interesting. It is a drama at its heart, but not a heavy drama. Any good drama has laughs, and they are usually funny because it’s sincere. It definitely has funny moments. My character is very serious and contemplative, but the people around him don’t take anything seriously.

I firmly believe that playing the quiet, stable guy at the center of more over-the-top characters is a tough job sometimes. You’re the one holding it together.

I agree, but Jeff is not stable. He’s stable in terms of running the place and being in charge of the staff, but he’s in hiding from reality and moving forward in his life. So when you have that kind of person as a lead character, it’s hard but hopefully what Kendall and I are trying to do is bring a life to that character, and the other characters are there for fun and they are very real.

Where are you in the shoot?

We’re at the end of our second week, and it’s a three-week shoot.

Have you spent any time in the Chicago area before?

No, I haven’t. And I was excited to be here, but I’ve been working every day, shooting every day. We shot the first week in downtown Chicago, so some nights some of the cast would go out to local restaurants. I went to a play at Steppenwolf and did the architectural boat tour. I did the River Walk. It’s not enough, but this is a beautiful city, incredible, so I was bummed I couldn’t do more but also happy that I got to see some parts of it.

You got this sense of Kendall that she knew what she was up to, so how has the shoot been so far?

It’s been great, absolutely. It’s also one of the most efficient sets I’ve been on. I’ve done studio films that have all the money for production and tons of crew, but here, you’re also working on a script that’s working within its means. It all takes place in bowling alley, and it’s simple. But that said, it’s a young crew. For a stretch there, I was the oldest guy on set—a career first—until Jim showed up. But he acts younger, so I still felt like the oldest guy around. The fact that he picture wrapped when he had that many extras around earlier today—and we’ve hardly had any extras in the film—of course he’s going to picture wrap with an audience that he can entertain. And even though the crew is young, they’re incredibly experienced. They are sharp and know what they’re doing. And it’s weird because Jim and I were both here last year to shoot the short, same place, shooting some of the same scenes.

So you are reshooting those moments?

Yes, we had to reshoot it. I had long hair, Jim was a skinny guy back then before he started to drink [laughs].

I have a friend with to tween kids who were recently introduced to Napoleon Dynamite, and they won’t stop quoting it now.

That makes me very happy. That’s the only thing you can hope for with a movie like that, is that it still has some resonance years later. It’s surprising that a new generation has fallen for it, but when it came out, it didn’t feel current. It had this timeless feel to it, and if it could be big then, it can be big now or 10 years from now. Hopefully it will continue to entertain people.

Great to finally meet you. Best of luck with this.

You too. Thanks.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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