Ed Helms Talks Changing Audience Expectations & The Improvisational Style Of 'Jeff Who Lives At Home'

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by Jeff Otto
March 14, 2012 2:00 PM
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The future looks bright for Ed Helms. His indie turn in “Cedar Rapids” was well-received, “The Hangover Part II” followed the success of the first film and it looks like 'Part III' is a go. Helms also picked up the slack on “The Office” following the departure of Steve Carell to very positive responses. Now Helms steps out of his comfort zone just a tad to portray the not-terribly-likable Pat in the Duplass Brothers’ new film, “Jeff Who Lives at Home.”

Pat is the responsible brother with a good job and a good marriage, or so it would seem at the outset. He just bought a new Porsche, much to his wife Linda’s (Judy Greer) chagrin. But Pat is quite pleased with himself. Meanwhile his pothead brother Jeff (Jason Segel) still lives at home with Mom (Susan Sarandon), who is going through a crisis of her own. Through a series of bizarrely coincidental circumstances, Pat and Jeff reconnect and wind up discovering that Pat’s wife is cheating on him. They team up to investigate and, well, in the tradition of the Duplass Brothers, the story that develops from there is best seen for yourself.

The Playlist recently spoke with Helms at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. We discussed the unique experience that is working with the Duplass Bros., how he grew to love (or at least like) a character he had initial misgivings about and how he hopes the film will alter the perception of what an Ed Helms movie is.

Going Duplass
Helms was first approached about “Jeff Who Lives at Home” by Jason Reitman, who is a producer on the film. The two became friends after the director helmed some episodes of “The Office.” “I read it and, at first, I didn’t like it,” Helms tells The Playlist. “I didn’t like Pat for the first 40 pages and I thought, ‘I’m not going to do this, but out of respect for Jason, I’ll finish the script.’ And then there’s this kind of really intense, poignant process that kicks in and suddenly I was like, ‘Wow, this is a really cool arc and really cool character.’ And I guess Pat is a jerk but he wants to be a better guy and I can understand and sympathize with that. So I got excited and watched all the Duplass Brothers movies, met and loved them and I talked to John C. [Reilly] about it on ‘Cedar Rapids.’ "

Altering Audience Expectations
While Helms admits he’s generally drawn to comedy, part of the appeal of the Duplass material was stepping out of his comfort zone. “There’s going to be a little bit of perception dissonance for moviegoers,” says Helms. “You see Jason Segel and Ed Helms in a movie and that conjures something very specific and that’s not what this is. This is not a Judd Apatow or Todd Phillips bonanza. It is a Mark and Jay Duplass creation and it’s Ed Helms and Jason Segel in that world, which is very small and contained and very, at times, mundane but in an exciting way. It puts a microscope on something very small and suddenly it’s bursting with intensity and color and flavor. I just really love it for that reason. I love that it’s small and intense and poignant and, at times, dramatic but also hopefully very funny.”

“What I loved about this script and also about ‘Cyrus’ is that you’re in this situation that is building this level of tension and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, how is this possibly going to unfold?’ And then it just does exactly as it should," he continued. "The natural laws of physics just kind of dictate what would happen and that, to me, is just very honest storytelling. It’s not looking for a huge left turn surprise. This is just a snapshot of very real human behavior and isn’t it fascinating and I happen to think it is. Mark and Jay Duplass are geniuses at doing that.”

The Unusual Shooting Style of the Duplass Bros.
Much has been made of the unique shooting style orchestrated by the Duplass Brothers on set. While improv is generally associated with comedic lines, the Duplasses employ improv of some sort in nearly every scene. They don’t just allow their actors to stray from the script, but in fact encourage it. “It’s incredibly exciting,” Helms tells the Playlist. “I was never drawn to dramatic acting. I don’t know why but I guess comedy just seemed more fun. There’s more energy and there’s more instant feedback. You can tell if someone’s laughing. You can’t tell if someone is being moved by something.”

“This process, Mark and Jay really demand that you internalize the script and then perform the spirit of it and not the words of it. Use your own words, use your own instinct. And I guess that’s intimidating at first, but it becomes the most exciting cool thing, especially when you’re doing it with someone like Jason Segel who is so effortless and so massively talented that you just get to go on these runs and follow these little rivulets of spontaneous reaction and behavior that you never would do in a scripted scene," Helms enthused. "And then you just have to trust that Mark and Jay are going to pick the moments that really are genuine and honest and the most authentic. But it is a really exciting process and it’s fun because you don’t know what you’re gonna say. It’s like this challenge to be as real as possible. It was really fun. I’d do it again in a second.”

“Jeff Who Lives at Home” opens in theaters March 16th.

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