By now you probably already know that Ed Helms is missing a tooth. With all of the insanity surrounding Helms’s character Stu in The Hangover, the tiger, the transient baby, the stolen cop car – it seems like the mystery that has captivated fans the most is how they got it to appear as if Stu’s tooth was really missing. Highly effective magic marker? Really fantastic, expensive CGI? Did Helms rip out his own tooth?
Strangely enough, that last guess is the right answer.
Okay – it’s only half correct. But it’s still pretty fascinating that the actor agreed to have a crown removed to play what amounts to his first major starring role.
I’m sitting with Ed Helms in a large Caeser’s Palace hotel rom surrounded by a large camera package on a track, his publicist sits near by smiling when I exclaim that Helms looks energetic for how early it is, and we start our conversation by celebrating America’s freedom to throw a used condom onto Bradley Cooper’s face.
Helms’s character Stu is a twist on a classic R-rated comedy archetype: the nervous guy that needs to loosen up. This character comes in several different shapes and sizes, but never before has this particular brand of personality been so actively engaged in the illicit and the immoral. Sadly, according to Helms, the character hits a little too close to home.
“I’m kind of a Nervous Nelly in real life. I’m a bit of a rule-follower. I don’t like it when things spin out of control. I get ancy and scared easily,” Helms says.
This seems a bit surprising for someone who makes a living doing comedy – an artform that, by definition, seems like the structural equivalent of throwing one-million dollar bills off the balcony in a shopping mall. Helms takes me through the contradiction.
“Even when comedy is spinning out of control, the universe is controlled. I actually love – that’s a good distinction you’re catching – I do love chaos in a performance setting. If it’s on stage, or improv, or in a stand-up setting, or on a set where people are improvising. Or it’s just a crazy scene. That for me is incredibly fun. That’s a kind of chaos that I really embrace and enjoy.
There are limits. Also, there are no repercussions. The worst thing that’s gonna happen is people aren’t gonna laugh. Over time, when you commit to it as a life choice for twenty years, you can live with that. In a comedy setting, it’s all pretend. As chaotic as it can be, you’re still within a controlled bubble…I guess I don’t like to deal with chaos in real life, I like to keep things pretty chill,” the actor laughs.
I bring up a few other Nervous Nellies in film history and bring up the fact that Stu doesn’t fight the loosening process very hard.
“There’s an unanswered question in this movie: how complicit was Stu in all of the activities that happened during the bachelor party? Clearly, there’s evidence that he was very complicit, but he was also under the influence of various narcotics. I never saw Stu as being someone who would ever do those kinds of things – given a rational option, being of sound mind, presented with the options to do those things, that he necessarily would.”
When I point out that Stu is more than willing to get out of sound mind, Helms shrugs, tilts his head and says, “Yeah, that’s true. Stu’s got a bit of an edge to him.”
Then, staring me in the eye, Helms adds, “I’ve got a bit of an edge, too,” in his best bad ass voice. His immediate adjustment of his eye-glasses seems to betray that quality, but if that edge does exist, he’ll get a chance to show it off in his next project that comes out later this Summer – The Goods. The story focuses on a struggling used car dealership that hires a cocky expert salesman to salvage their Fourth of July sale.
“Will Ferrell and Adam McKay put this project together with a director named Neil Brennan who I knew from doing stand-up in New York. He was one of the creators and head writer for ‘The Chappelle Show.’ Very funny guy. They put this movie together as a Jeremy Piven vehicle, and it’s totally crazy and ridiculous. It’s Piven at his finest.”
Helms instantly got excited when I asked about his character.
“I have a really fun part as his nemesis. It’s a fun departure for me because it’s like a malicious version of [The Office’s] Andy Bernard – but super heightened. I think of Andy Bernard as pretty earnest and sweet in a way. This guy isn’t any of that, but he has the bad parts of Andy. The sort of bombastic, stupid, misguided certainty about everything.”
Ed Helms has climbed the ladder up from doing stand-up, making a mark on “The Daily Show,” becoming an irreplacable part of “The Office,” and taking his fair share of side roles and bit parts. Now, with The Hangover, Helms is making his way further into the mainstream, climbing one more ladder rung toward carrying his own film. That may happen if a project with Judd Apatow titled A Whole New Hugh gets off the ground (although Helms tells me it’s far from in-development at the moment). The film would see Helms in a 40-Year Old Virgin Carrellian role of his own. Who knows – with the success of The Hangover (which took the box office last weekend and is looking to take it again this weekend), it might give the necessary gas to a project where Helms sees his name alone above the title on the one-sheet.
Whatever the future holds, Helms had this to say about his own slow rise to fame:
“As an actor, you have this base-line anxiety at all times just about staying employed. It sounds like false modesty, but it really is gratifying to build your confidence that you’re going to stay employed and keep getting work. That said, I’m just excited to have more choices and to be able to work on things that I’m genuinely drawn to, and to work with people that I really admire.”
After years of sharpening his teeth with improv and side roles, it looks like all he had to do was remove one to take the next step.