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'Napoleon Dynamite' cast reunites, reminisces at Sundance

Jon Heder attended a Sundance anniversary screening of "Napoleon Dynamite." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Jon Heder attended a Sundance anniversary screening of "Napoleon Dynamite." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Cast members from Napoleon Dynamite attended a screening of the film at the Sundance Film Festival Wednesday. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the film's premiere at Sundance, where Fox Searchlight won a bidding war to distribute it.

Jon Heder, who played the quirky teenager who helps his friend Pedro (Efran Ramirez) win the election for class president, said he caught himself laughing on camera in this viewing.

In one scene, Napoleon attends a martial arts class taught by Rex (Diedrich Bader) and Heder could not keep a straight face. Heder remembered the day on set.

"Every single take I laugh and I break character," Heder said after the screening. "You look closely and you can see me sitting there like [chuckling]. So I ruined it."

Heder met director Jared Hess and screenwriter Jerusha Hess in film school in Utah. The Hesses cast Heder in their short, Peluca, dancing like Napoleon does at the end of the feature.

Shondrella Avery attended a Sundance anniversary screening of "Napoleon Dynamite." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Shondrella Avery attended a Sundance anniversary screening of "Napoleon Dynamite." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Heder said the expanded feature felt so much like his own childhood he considers Napoleon Dynamite a documentary. Heder said he also played with a bo staff and nunchucks like Napoleon, and even helped make the boondoggle keychains that classmate Deb (Tina Majorino) sells in the film.

"I read it and was like, 'Jared, this is me and my younger brothers,'" Heder said. "In between shots, remember I was sitting there making boondoggle keychains. It was extremely real for me."

Jon Gries attended a 20th anniversary screening of "Napoleon Dynamite" at Sundance. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Jon Gries attended a 20th anniversary screening of "Napoleon Dynamite" at Sundance. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Jared Hess could not attend the screening because he is directing a movie in New Zealand, but he recorded an introduction to the screening. Jerusha Hess was present to discuss the film and said she and her husband based the script on real life experiences.

"You thought we were brilliant," Jerusha Hess said." We are not. We were collecting stories from our childhood, from our families and from our friends. We strung them together into a movie."

Jon Heder played Napoleon Dynamite in the 2004 movie. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Jon Heder played Napoleon Dynamite in the 2004 movie. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

It was so real that co-star Trevor Snarr wasn't sure Heder was acting. Snarr played class bully Don and said he only met the real Heder when they were rehearsing.

"When we were rehearsing, you came out of character," Snarr said. "You broke. I was like whew, he's okay."

"Napoleon Dynamite" was Jon Heder's breakout role. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
"Napoleon Dynamite" was Jon Heder's breakout role. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Heder said he still hears from new fans discovering the movie for the first time.

"They love it when they get the chance to see it, if they have good parents," Heder said.

Shondrella Avery, who plays Napoleon's future sister-in-law Lafawnduh, said she still sees the impact of Napoleon Dynamite. Lafawnduh is the online girlfriend of Napoleon's brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who comes to visit, and they marry in a post-credits scene.

"Every Halloween there's always a Kip and Lafawnduh," Avery said. "Lots of men dress up like me too."

The wedding scene includes Avery's real family. Jerusha Hess welcomed Avery to invite her real family to be in the scene on location in Idaho. According to Avery, they were having trouble finding Black extras in Preston, Idaho.

"I was very blessed that I could have my actual real family in the movie," Avery said.

After the release of Napoleon Dynamite, Vote for Pedro T-shirts and memorabilia were sold in stores. Ramirez said he felt the film endures because of its empowering message.

"What's so great about this film is in the very end of the movie, something great happens to every single character," Ramirez said. "Pedro becomes president, Lafawnduh and Kip forever, Napoleon gets Deb."

For Jerusha Hess, making Napoleon Dynamite was hard work. Though she said she enjoys watching it now, Jerusha still remembers the toll it took.

"I hated everything about it," she said. "That movie was very, very hard. I was seven months pregnant and I had to do the costumes for all these jokers. So my memory is skewed."

Supporting actors Jon Gries, Emily Kennard Dunn and Tom Lefler were also on hand to share memories of Napoleon Dynamite. Gries plays Uncle Rico, who moves in with Napoleon and Kip.

Gries remembered a scene in which Rico throws steaks. They were partially frozen and one bruised Heder's face, which they covered up with makeup for the rest of the shoot.

"I just asked for a bigger piece of meat to give it a little extra weight," Gries said.

Dunn played Trisha, a popular girl whose mother forces her to go to a dance with Napoleon. Napoleon gives her a bad picture he drew of her, and Dunn still remembers Heder drawing the picture himself.

"While we were filming, Jon Heder was over there drawing my picture," Dunn said. "Then after I filmed he came up and was like, 'Hey, Emily, what do you think?' I think I cried laughing."

Lefler plays the high school principal. He was actually the Hesses' professor in college.

"They called me up and said, 'Hey, we had a real actor drop out,'" Lefler said. "It was typecasting I think."

Napoleon Dynamite is streaming on Hulu and available for rent or purchase.