'Napoleon Dynamite' actors reunite in Detroit to discuss cult classic

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

Jon Gries, best known as Uncle Rico in the 2004 cult classic “Napoleon Dynamite,” had planned to quit acting to concentrate on writing when producer Jory Weitz pulled him back into the fold.

“(Weitz) was casting a movie called ‘The Big Empty’ with Jon Favreau, Kelsey Grammer and Daryl Hannah,” recalled Gries, of Los Angeles. “I told my agent I wasn’t doing any more auditions, (then) Jory called me at home — ‘Where have you been? We’ve been trying to find you. We’ve had an actor drop out. Would you come in and do it?’ I said sure, and he sent me the script… So I shot this film and fast-forward: (Weitz) was casting ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’”

When “Napoleon Dynamite” director/co-writer Jared Hess was casting Uncle Rico, Weitz recommended Gries and showed Gries’ “Empty” footage. Impressed, Gries was cast.

Jon Gries, left, Jon Heder and Efren Ramirez

“I read (the screenplay) and by page 15, I was laughing out loud,” said Gries. “I called (Weitz) and said, ‘You tell 'em I’ll do this movie.’ It was simple as that. It was the connection with (‘Empty’), and Jory hounding me to do that movie that led to ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’”

Gries, alongside Jon Heder (Napoleon) and Efren Ramirez (Pedro), will appear at “Napoleon Dynamite: A Conversation with Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez and Jon Gries” on Friday at the Redford Theatre in Detroit, which is sold out. They will participate in a moderated discussion about the film, which will subsequently be screened. They’re also scheduled to appear in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.

“I love hearing (it sold out). Sell-outs are always fun. Big crowds are a lot of fun. We do have a really good time up on stage,” said Gries.

Loosely based on Hess’ life, “Napoleon Dynamite” occurs in Preston, Idaho. Napoleon, 16, is a socially awkward, aloof kid who lives with his grandmother (Sandy Martin) and an unemployed older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), 32. As their grandmother recovers from surgery, Uncle Rico — a get-rich-quick schemer with shattered dreams of NFL stardom — watches the two. He ropes Kip into his schemes and butts heads with Napoleon.

“One of the things that really works is Napoleon’s absolute confidence in whatever it is he’s saying or doing,” said Gries. “People respect that. Uncle Rico respects that in an odd way. As much as he’s a pain in the butt, he gives (Napoleon) props because he stands up for himself.”

"Napoleon Dynamite"

At school, Napoleon befriends Mexican transfer students Pedro and Deb (Tina Majorino). With Napoleon as his campaign manager, Pedro runs for class president, despite the long odds of beating popular girl Summer (Haylie Duff). On election day, Napoleon performs a dance routine to Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat,” which is well-received by the students. In the end, Pedro is elected.

“One of the pervasive themes behind this (movie) is understanding each other, despite our diversity,” Gries explained. “It’s about inclusion… It has a very warm message, and we’re purveyors of that message. We want people to get along and to appreciate our differences.

“People can be monochromatic and don’t realize diversity is the best thing we can have. It’s the spice of life. We’re all different and that’s what makes stories so special — that’s why we love movies and characters. We really espouse the positive and why we love this movie and why we champion it and do these screenings… I’m honored by it.”

“Napoleon Dynamite” was shot on a budget of about $400,000 yet grossed around $46 million. The movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 17, 2004, and won several awards, including three MTV Movie Awards for Breakthrough Male Performance, Best Musical Performance and Best Movie. It ranks No. 14 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies.”

Jon Gries

“I have so many stories about the experience of making the movie and how it came together. The movie gods had to have been smiling on them because they barely had enough money to make the film,” said Gries. “It was one of those amazing situations where everybody really pulled together. The crew worked for nothing. It was a true labor of love. Once everyone was in, they were really, really in. I think that’s reflected on the screen.”

Gries and Ramirez spoke about the film’s staying power.

“That’s kinda like the $64,000 question. The movie is inherently nostalgic – that’s No. 1,” said Gries. “It has certain characters in it that people on a universal level relate to. Everybody’s known a guy like Napoleon… maybe not exactly but had certain characteristics he does. Everybody’s known Uncle Rico. Everybody’s known Deb. There are these iconic truths in these characters. At the same time… it’s an optimistic film and it’s inherently nostalgic because of it. I think also the music helps.”

Added Ramirez: “‘Napoleon Dynamite’ is led by love, family, and the uniqueness in each character. We are all a little odd, trying to find our way in life. We all can relate to a specific character in the film and feel like we’re looking for something better.”

There are no plans for a sequel. However, a short-lived “Napoleon Dynamite” cartoon aired in 2012 on FOX with the original cast voicing their animated counterparts, but it was canceled after six episodes due to low ratings.

“Jared was disappointed that it didn’t take off because he really wanted to make that show,” said Gries. “There’s always the possibility of (bringing it) back because there’s so many platforms now where people are looking for content. Efren and I have spoken to Jared via text about reviving it… It’s a just question of everybody being available at the right time to do it.”

Currently, Gries appears on Adult Swim’s “Dream Corp, LLC.” He’s had roles on TV dramas “Lost” and “The Pretender.” He’s also appeared in 1985’s “Real Genius,” 1986’s “Running Scared,” and 1995’s “Get Shorty.” The latter was based on the late Bloomfield Village author Elmore “Dutch” Leonard’s best-selling crime novel of the same name, featuring Oscar nominee John Travolta and Oscar winner Gene Hackman. Gries portrayed Ronnie Wingate.

“(Leonard) was an amazing writer,” said Gries. “The scuttlebutt was Travolta was going to pull out because Leonard’s great dialogue was removed in a later draft… Travolta recognized the value of really, really snappy, sharp, good, tight dialogue. And Elmore Leonard was one of the best.”

Gries is excited to come to Michigan with his castmates. 

“I don’t know why because I’ve only been to Michigan a couple of times, and it’s really only been to the (Great Lakes). I’ve never been to Detroit, yet I have an odd affinity for it,” he said. “The times I’ve been in Michigan, the people there were really so down to earth and kind. You felt like you’re talking to people with their feet on the ground. They really listen to you… It’s a completely different world than (L.A.).”

‘Napoleon Dynamite: A Conversation with Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Jon Gries’

Thursday at the Fountain Street Church, 24 Fountain St. NE in Grand Rapids. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The event begins at 8 p.m.

Friday at the Redford Theatre, 17360 Lahser Road in Detroit. Doors open at 5 p.m. The VIP event is at 6:30 p.m. The event begins at 7:30 p.m.

Saturday at the Kalamazoo State Theatre, 404 S. Burdick St. in Kalamazoo. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The event begins at 7:30 p.m.

While the Detroit event is sold out, tickets are still available for the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo events. However, tickets are going fast. Prices vary between $25 to $75. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit thecrofoot.com/.