On June 11th 2004, a small film called Napoleon Dynamite hit theaters in the United States. It had a very modest $400,000 budget, was filmed in the middle of nowhere in Preston, Idaho, and had a cast of unknown actors.
Against all odds, the film quickly blew up into a pop culture phenomenon and grossed $46.1 million dollars worldwide. In a time where we were getting crass and raunchy teen comedies in the vein of “American Pie,” Napoleon Dynamite took more of an old school John Hughes approach to the genre and charmed audience goers with its unique and quirky characters.
To this day, the film still has a big cult following and still feels just as unique and special as it did when it came out 15 years ago. On Kinsey’s personal Facebook page, her political views section states “I voted for Pedro” because obviously her wildest dreams came true.
This movie is a staple in Andrew and Kinsey’s relationship and they still quote it daily. Their collective favorite part of the movie, aside from Napoleon’s infamous dance to Canned Heat by Jamiroquai, is Kip’s song about technology for Lafawnduh at the end of the movie.
To celebrate this anniversary, we got to chat with Efren Ramirez who played Pedro Sanchez to discuss the film and its legacy.
Check out our conversation below and let us know what you think!
It is the 15th anniversary of Napoleon Dynamite! I want to start from the beginning. How did you first get involved with the film? What was the audition process like?
Well I’m an actor. I’ve been acting for about 20 years. I was working on a show called “Even Stevens” at the time. My agent told me “Hey listen, you’ve got an option between two feature films.” One feature film was “Napoleon Dynamite” and the other was “The Alamo,” which was a big studio picture. I had auditioned for both and I got called back for both and I ended up landing both pictures and I didn’t know what to do. I had been acting for a number of years and doing theater in Hollywood and I said “Well, Pedro is a new character and a role that’s completely different from who I am,” so I didn’t want to miss that opportunity. I remember asking my pops about it and him trying to tell me “Follow your heart.” So that’s what I did. That’s what Napoleon says to Pedro, right? “Follow your heart. That’s what I do.” So I trusted that. I guess it kinda worked out right?
Absolutely! The whole film was different than anything else at the time. When you were working on the film did you ever imagine that it would explode into a pop culture phenomenon?
No. For a number of years, I was doing theater and I focused so much on working as an actor and doing the work on stage. I had also been working on TV shows and doing commercials. I admit that I was scared to play Pedro. I wasn’t so sure until I met Jon Heder and I thought “Hmm… Maybe this is going to work.” Actors like Diedrich Bader [Rex] and Jon Gries [Uncle Rico] gave me great advice about trusting your worth and trusting your gut. You never really think about the business. You never think that the movie is going to be seen by millions of people. You hope you do a good job on a project that has a lot of heart and who knows from there?
All the characters have such distinct personalities and character traits. How much of Pedro’s mannerisms and characterization came from the script and how much did you bring to the character?
What I brought to the character was living in the moment for whatever is created. Jared and Jerusha [Hess] have such vivid imaginations and they are really clear on the characters and the world of Napoleon. They know people who are like Napoleon, Rex Kwan Do, Uncle Rico, Summer Wheatley… and Lafawnduh [laughs]. They were very specific. I remember Jared made a short film called Peluca. He told me “There are two characters. There’s Giel and there’s Pedro. Watch it and put the two characters together and there’s your Pedro.” And I went “Uh… okay?” I came up with putting Buster Keaton and my ex-girlfriend’s dog together to formulate the idea of Pedro. The poor dog had been hit by several cars and he was still alive, but he was very still. So I thought “Hm, maybe I can put that and Buster Keaton into Pedro and see what happens and then we’ll just take it from there.” But we did the script word for word.
Did you actually shave your head in the film?
Yes, I did! And I’ll tell you this, I don’t think my agent at the time had read the script. So I remember having to shave my head and Jared goes “You only have one take” because we were shooting on film. We didn’t have digital cameras because you couldn’t afford them. I tried to give myself a mohawk like Robert Deniro in Taxi Driver. The camera was rolling and here I am, thinking I’m doing a good job, but once it was done my head was just… dude, I looked like Frankenstein [laughs]. It was so bad. Then I got back home and my agents freaked out and they were like “Oh my god!” Right after doing Napoleon, I ended up doing “ER” where my character ends up being raped in prison and finds out he has AIDS. I know, another comedy right? [laughs]
Did your real life high school experience mirror Pedro’s in anyway?
Sorta. I guess you could say that. I have a twin brother and he was like the MVP football player. I was quiet. I’m the guy who wore all black, sat in the back, and read Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare. I was a goth dude [laughs]. I was that one kid who was like “Nine Inch Nails rocks, bro. Radiohead all the way, bro.” I think really we’re all kinda like Pedro. Because whether it’s your first day in junior high or your first day in high school, you’re just trying to figure out where you fit in and what works and doesn’t work. I’ve gotta tell you, when I read Napoleon Dynamite I remember the script being like “Midnight Cowboy” with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Jon Voight’s character goes from Texas to go see New York, a place totally different. He had to learn to fit in. His best friend was Dustin Hoffman’s character Ratso Rizzo. From that friendship, they helped each others dreams come true. And that’s exactly like Napoleon and Pedro. Pedro goes into a totally different town, tries to fit in, and from his friendship with Napoleon, they help each others dreams come true. So I was like “Whoa, this is cool!”
That’s a really interesting comparison! How would you say the film impacted your career at the time?
Well after Napoleon Dynamite, there were a lot of offers there to play the same kind of character and my manager told me “No, we wait.” And I go “for what?” And he said “Now you’ve got to prove to the studios that you can act.” And I’m like “Aw man, what do I do?” And I had to test myself with different roles. One of the films I did after Napoleon Dynamite was a film called Crank with Jason Statham. I remember we were shooting a scene on Sunset Boulevard and I was dressed in drag and lipstick and high heels. There were guys in a car looking at me funny and I turned around and the guy was like “Aw, that’s a dude. Wait a minute… That’s Pedro!” I did a film called “Walkout” with Edward James Olmos and Michael Pena. I remember Eddie Olmos telling me, “Now that people know you and that you’re on the map, let them know that you’re an actor and get to meet as many people as possible” and through him I met Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Benicio Del Toro, Forrest Whitaker, Daniel Day Lewis and all these great actors who gave great advice from their careers and their lives. It made me realize that I’m no different. I need to be able to go in as an actor, a writer, a producer and maybe one day as a director and really create something that has substance and challenge myself. On a personal level, I live a very quiet, peaceful, and lucky life. Everywhere I go, even to this day, I was just at the Grand Canyon and people were like “Oh my god, you’re Pedro!” It’s so wonderful and great to have played a part that people will love and find funny forever.
After 15 years, the film still has a big fan base and is considered a cult classic. What do you think it is about the film that makes it resonate for so many people?
I think the reason why the film resonates is the fact that every single character is relatable. Somewhere deep inside, we’re all outsiders and we’re trying to figure life out and that’s just the force and the heart of Napoleon. He may be odd, but he doesn’t think he’s odd, he’s just trying to figure things out. And what’s so wonderful about the film and the way Jared and Jerusha write is that in the third act you have empathy for every single character. Pedro becomes president because of the friendship he has with Napoleon and Deb. You feel for Kip when he decides to take that risk to not only go with Lafawnduh, but to marry her. You really love those characters and it’s a wonderful adventure.
Napoleon says something funny in the movie about how girls only want boyfriends with great skills. Do you have any great skills aside from acting?
[Laughs] Well, Pedro would say “Yes. I have many skills.” Before Napoleon Dynamite, I used to do raves in Los Angeles. My friends and I would create electro-trap music and perform. We would end up playing to thousands of people! I also used to DJ all over the world. I just got so busy as an actor. But when I’m not acting, I enjoy DJing. I DJ by my name, Efren Ramirez. I remember doing a tour all over Australia and everybody was going bananas because as I was DJing in front of thousands of people they had one screen playing Napoleon Dynamite and the other one was playing Crank, and they’re like “That’s you! That’s you!” And I’m like “Just dance man!” [laughs] I love that.
The likelihood of there being a sequel to Napoleon Dynamite is probably pretty low. I’ve read that Jared Hess isn’t really interested in the idea, but if there ever were an opportunity to reprise the role of Pedro, would you do it?
I mean the sequel lives in all of us. You could go to sleep and dream the world of Napoleon Dynamite and you will live the sequel in your head. They could always ask what happens to them 15 years later? What happens to them 20 years later? In the movie, there’s a time machine… you never know! So who knows? It’s up to the gods. Maybe 30 years later, Pedro has like 5 kids with Summer Wheatley and they open up a bakery as he runs for city councilman. There’s so many different directions you could go in with the movie. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.
Do you have any projects that you’re currently working on that you would like to talk about?
I’m about to start a feature film, but I can’t talk about that yet. Something I can talk about because it’s just starting to air is I’m on a TV show “Perpetual Grace” with Sir Ben Kingsley, Jimmi Simpson, Jacki Weaver, and Luiz Guzman. It’s on HBO’s online network EPIX. The show is amazing from start to finish. I can’t tell you about my character because it’s a big surprise as the TV show unfolds, but these guys, Bruce Terris and Steve Conrad, who wrote it are smart. It’s just so neo noir and I feel so lucky to be a part of it. It’s quite like Alfred Hitchcock and my god, the show is just so intense! I’m excited that it’s airing now.
Do you have any last words you would like to leave us with?
Yeah! To everybody out there, I want you to know “If you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true” and I’m no different than anyone else. I’m another version of you. So go out there, dream big, and do it! And if you’re on Instagram, find me and follow me! That’s it. Love and hugs!
Great interview and a fun read!