No one could have predicted that August 2004 would have brought us a cult-phenomenon movie — which will soon be turned into an animated television series — that would have us all buying VOTE FOR PEDRO T-shirts, researching Ligers and exclaiming: "GOSH!" Napoleon Dynamite was the big break for Pedro himself, Efren Ramirez (pictured left, courtesy WENN), who has gone on to star in a wide variety of projects, including Crank, Nacho Libre and HBO's Eastbound and Down (on Sunday nights at 10:30).
Hot on the heels of the news that Fox has turned Napoleon Dynamite into an animated series, featuring the voices of all the original actors of the film, I got the chance to catch up with Efren.
Celebrity Extra: I read that you were up for both Napoleon Dynamite and (the big-budget Western) The Alamo, and decided to go with Napoleon. Is that true, and if so, what led you to that decision?
Efren Ramirez: Yeah, that’s true. I was working on a television show called Even Stevens at the time with Shia LaBeouf, and I auditioned for roles in The Alamo and Napoleon Dynamite. And even though The Alamo was a big feature film, and it had Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid, I decided to make the riskier choice. You have to do it for the right reasons. So when I took that risk with Napoleon Dynamite, I was surprised with the outcome.
CE: It became such a huge phenomenon — it's a cult classic. Could you ever have imagined that?
ER: I was recently at the museum called the Huntington Art Gallery, and there were a bunch of kids everywhere — and mind you, these kids were 10 years old, 12 years old. They saw me and they went bananas, and I thought: “Wow! When Napoleon Dynamite came out, they were like 5!” It still and will always be surprising to me, that I’m a part of something that people will remember for … well, most of their lives, I hope.
CE: Do you ever get tired of people calling you Pedro or telling you that they voted for Pedro?
ER: That happened yesterday at the gym! Some guy was like: “Oh my God. How ya doing, Pedro?” It’s funny, because I’m assuming that a lot people think it’s a documentary, when it’s not. It’s a feature film, guys. But the other part is it's entertainment, and you watch it and you get so into the film, and that’s great. When I see people like that it means they are big fans of the film, and when I talk to them and they are like, “My God, you’re so different.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” To me, I’m lucky because not only did I get to play in a movie that a lot of people like, but I played a character that a lot of people like. And I worry about actors who play villains, because they become hated everywhere they go, and that’s not cool. That’s harder.
CE: And now Fox is producing an animated version of the movie. How is that going so far?
ER: Well, we’ve done the very first episode already, and it’s been approved by every department. Once I read the script, I thought, “OK, this is gonna be really funny!” Because we’re jumping back into the world of Napoleon Dynamite and to make it into an animated series, we’re gonna get a large audience. It appeals to everybody and it’s funny. It’s got all the original cast and the original writers. And it's Fox, and as you know, Fox does a great job with animated series.
CE: This season you are also in another cult-phenomenon-in-the-making, Eastbound and Down. Tell me about this season and your role in it.
ER: Well, I’m a big fan of the first season. I have it on DVD, and it brought me to the world of Kenny Powers. Those guys are such outlandish characters. The second season starts when Kenny is in Mexico and decides to play baseball there. I play his neighbor and my name is Catuey. As far as my work is concerned, I’ve always played very far-stretched characters, and it is only this time I’m actually playing a very wise, family-oriented character. I'm a very straight character with all the lunatics roaming around. And of course you’ve got Danny McBride as Kenny Powers and Steve Little, who plays Stevie Janowski. And even Michael Pena, who’s playing the baseball manager, he’s really out there too. I play Danny McBride’s neighbor and every time he get up to his antics, he always comes back to me, and I give him good advice.
CE: It must be tough being the straight man to Danny and having to keep a straight face!
ER: It is! Because the way Danny works and the way everybody works is you stay scripted to the scenes, but sometimes he’ll improvise the entire thing. And as an actor you have to just jump into the scene with him and whatever happens goes! And I like that, because it’s so true and in the moment. I enjoy working on the show, because these guys are smart at what they do. They know what they are doing.
CE: What can you tell me about your next project, Casa de mi Padre? I know the film stars Will Ferrell and it's all really hush-hush.
ER: Well, what can I tell you? One, it’s my fortune to be able to work with Danny McBride and all those good guys. But then to jump onto Casa de mi Padre working with Will Ferrell under Gary Sanchez’s direction. These guys are great men. The film itself, what can I tell you? What a ride! It’s all in Spanish with English subtitles. Will Ferrell had to do the whole film in Spanish and he did a great job actually. And when you go with Will Ferrell, it’s definitely a Will Ferrell movie. It’s very funny. The writer is Andrew Steele and he used to write for Saturday Night Live, so these guys know comedy. I’m in a good place right now.
CE: I can't wait to see how this one is going to turn out — I can only imagine right now!
ER: Even the way Matt Piedmont, the director, directed it; there are some really dramatic moments. Everybody had to be at the top of their game. It’s certainly different. And that’s good, because you want to create something that’s going to be surprising to the audience.
CE: I was surprised with the cast, especially Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who are known for their dramatic work, to see them in a Will Ferrell comedy ...
ER: I wish I could tell you what I think while on the set! I would just think, “Is this really happening?” It’s funny.
CE: You just have so many great projects going on right now, it must be nice for you as an actor.
ER: No, that’s okay. I’m gonna quit. I’m gonna quit acting. I’m done! I’m going to become a desert priest (laughs). It’s great because after Napoleon Dynamite, I was able to really select where I wanted to go. And part of being an actor, you just want to grab any job possible. But now I’m about waiting and sitting around, and go let me do three projects a year. This year is over, but next year I already have two projects.
As an actor, once you do a project — Jeff Bridges said you want to try and shift 45 degrees and do something totally different, so you’re always surprising the audience all the time. That’s why I’m able to enjoy doing dramas, actions and comedies. All the great actors who just keep changing and transforming to different characters, that’s what I want to do. That’s how I want to be.
CE: You’re on the right track. You’re certainly not pigeonholed in any particular "type."
ER: Yeah, a lot of people are coming up to me going, “My God, that’s you!” And I’m like, “Yeah.” When I did the Crank series, not only did I play the transvestite, but I played the transvestite's twin brother, and everyone was like, "Dude! What?!" But it’s always about the work. And later my mom said, “Ah, I wish I had a daughter.” And I was like, “Thanks, Mom!”