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Arts & Entertainment

Iconic Indie Film Napoleon Dynamite to Screen at Tarrytown Music Hall, with Cast Q&A to Follow

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August 31, 2022


By W.B. King—

Years ago, a woman struggling with severe depression sat down and painstakingly wrote goodbye letters to each of her family members. She didn’t want to live anymore and planned on taking her life that evening.

As she carefully placed respective letters in envelopes and addressed them, the phone rang. An old friend was calling out of the blue with an invitation to see a movie that night. The zest for life in her friend’s voice briefly shook the melancholy that gripped her tightly. She accepted the kind offer thinking, “Why not see one more movie?”

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When they arrived at the theatre, Napoleon Dynamite was about to begin. Actor Jon Gries, who played “Uncle Rico” in the film, told The Hudson Independent  that after seeing the movie, the woman went home, tore up those goodbye letters, sought treatment and now counsels other people dealing with depression and suicidal ideations.

“She said it [the movie] changed the course of her life. It’s incredible to think that somebody’s life could take a U-turn for the better just from seeing a movie,” said Gries, who along with Jon Heder (“Napoleon”), and Efren Ramirez, who played “Pedro,” learned this life-affirming story after a screening of the iconic indie film.

“There are just so many incredible stories — soldiers in Afghanistan after being in combat all day would tell us that they would sit around and watch the movie every night just so they could take away the pain of the day,” Gries said.

When asked what makes this movie, which was filmed in Preston, Idaho and produced in 2004 on a shoestring budget with a cast of mostly unknown actors, such a universal touchstone across all demographics, Ramirez said it is the themes of hope and inclusion.

“Everyone has a hard time in life, it’s not easy, you know. And it’s okay to make mistakes, not fit in and try to figure life out — and that happens for all the characters,” Ramirez said. “I think when people watch the movie they can relate.”

Engendering Inclusion and Kindness

On September 9, 2022, the Tarrytown Music Hall will host a screening of Napoleon Dynamite. After a roughly hour-and-half showing of the film, which earned a slew of awards and nominations, Gries, Heder and Ramirez will field audience questions. Peter D. Kramer, reporter with The Journal News, will serve as emcee.

 “We have done quite a few of these over the last few years, excluding COVID, and sometimes we will do a few of these in a row. We will rent a car and road trip together, listen to music and talk…Jon [Heder] and Efren are really into that game Geocaching, and I’m not a big cell phone guy, but I tag along with them because it’s fun,” Gries said. “We have a great time together. The whole cast really got along when shooting this film. We are a family.”

It is not uncommon at these spirited screenings to see joyful attendees — from age seven to 70 — dressed as their favorite characters, such as Kip, Lafawnduh, Deb, Rex or Summer Wheatley. Many fans bring along reimagined props—like footballs, piñatas and tater tots—to the show. At one screening, Ramirez said, a llama was even on hand—a nod to Tina, the Dynamite’s family pet. “The fans span the gamut,” Gries said. “The movie engenders inclusion, kindness, and it has its edginess, but there is an incredible positivity and optimism.”

While Gries is well-known for and proud of his role as Uncle Rico, the actor, writer, musician and producer’s credits date back to 1968 when at age 11 he played “Boy Horace” in the Charleston Heston-led movie, Will Penn. The film was written and directed by his father, Tom Gries.

“My father died when I was 19-years old. And after he died, I wore his Georgetown college graduation ring everywhere thinking that the onyx was like a TV camera and he could see everything I was seeing and doing,” Gries reflected, adding that from an early age his father taught him the importance of inclusion, especially on set.

“After Napoleon Dynamite was out, I realized, and had forgotten, I was wearing his ring in the film,” he said. “It was so fitting in a nostalgic sense that I had that ring on throughout the whole experience. It was kind of amazing.”

Over the years, Gries has appeared in countless movies and television shows, including, Real Genius, Get Shorty, the Taken movie franchise, Martin, Seinfeld, Lost, the black comedy series Dream Corp LLC, and most recently the HBO series White Lotus.

When it came to playing Uncle Rico, Gries was inspired by the then “obsequious” 25-year-old director and co-writer Jared Hess, who said he saw the character as an amalgamation of David Hasselhoff, Burt Reynolds and Elvis Presley.

“When I heard that, I said, ‘Say no more.’ I left and drove from that meeting, right to Wilshire Boulevard to a Korean wig store and I found that wig [worn in the movie] for forty bucks,” Gries recalled. He didn’t make his prop purchase known to the production team until he arrived on set. Gries was allowed to demonstrate the wig on with wardrobe and with the wig off — the rest is movie history.

Use Your Voice to Make a Difference

At a recent screening of the film near Ramirez’s hometown of Los Angeles, the actor, who has also appeared in movies such as Employee of the Month, Nacho Libre and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, was struck by a collective sense of community and acceptance.

“Here I was on stage with my two brothers, Jon Gries and Jon Heder, and we know each other for such a long time now — we are artists but we are also a family,” said Ramirez, who is currently shooting a new show in New York City, which he wasn’t at liberty to name. “The fact that I had family on stage and family in the audience…I feel lucky that as artist I get to do this for the rest of my life.”

A defining aspect of the movie is the contentious high school presidential election that gave rise to the “Vote for Pedro” campaign and the iconic t-shirt that supported the successful canvassing effort. And with Napoleon Dynamite turning 18 years old in 2022, Ramirez said he will continue to encourage people to vote.

“Whatever party you vote for, go out and use your voice…it’s your voice and you can make a difference. We all can do something good not only for ourselves but for each other,” he said. “That’s one thing about Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon and Pedro are both odd balls but they help each other’s dream come true. Napoleon gets the girl and Pedro becomes president.”

‘Gosh! That’s the Stupidest Question I Ever Heard’

While there are serious takeaways from the movie, there are also many funny moments that inevitably come up during the Q&A segment, which can run an hour or more, depending on the venue, Gries said.

“I’m always amazed at how warm the experience becomes. We joke with each other; we pick on each other and we pick on people for their questions — it’s almost like we are still those guys [in the movie],” Gries said with a laugh. “Everyone jumps into their character for a minute when asked a question. Jon [Heder] might say, “‘Gosh! That’s the stupidest question I ever heard.’”

In Gries’ view, this movie is admired by an ever-growing, world-wide audience because of its unique, relatable storytelling that is steeped in genuine sentimentality. “I’m a fan of the film as much as I’m in the film and I forget I’m in the film sometimes, you know,” he continued. “It’s like when you’re listening to a favorite record. There is a certain smell you might remember from that time in high school and that’s your window, its right there. But once it’s past, it’s past. You hold it dearly but you don’t quite get that visceral experience the same way and I think that maybe Napoleon Dynamite does all of that for people.”

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