Exclusive Interview with Ed Helms on 'The Hangover'

Ed Helms in The Hangover
Ed Helms in 'The Hangover.'. © Warner Bros Pictures

Fans of The Office know Ed Helms as the banjo-playing Andy Bernard, a nice enough guy who used to have anger management issues but seems to have worked them all out. And in Warner Bros Pictures' The Hangover, one of the most buzzed about comedies of the summer movie season, Helms plays another nice guy - Stu the dentist. Stu, Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) take their buddy Doug (Justin Bartha) to Vegas for one last night of freedom before he marries the lovely Tracy (Sasha Barrese). The guys check in to Caesar's Palace and prepare to let loose for one wild night they'll never forget. They toast their night together and give peppy little speeches and then... Well, they wake up eight hours later without a clue as to where they went, what they did, or who they did it with.

Coming to in various states of dress in a trashed hotel suite, they find they've somehow managed to set a chair on fire, Stu's missing a tooth, there's a chicken running around, a tiger in the bathroom, and a baby in the closet. And they've lost Doug. The 'what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' would normally apply to a bachelor party weekend, but these guys have absolutely no idea what happened in Vegas. With time running out before Doug's due back to say I do, they have to piece together the missing hours in order to track down Doug's whereabouts.

On a press tour to promote The Hangover, Ed Helms didn't have any scary Vegas stories to share, but he did have lots to say about working with a real tiger and sacrificing a tooth for the sake of art.

Exclusive Interview with Ed Helms

The missing tooth, how did they do that?

Ed Helms: "When I was 15 I lost a tooth and had an implant put in. Cut to 20 years later, I'm doing this part and the script calls for my character to lose a tooth. We did some camera tests blacking it out, we made a prosthetic with a gap in it, but that made me look like a donkey, so I vetoed that right away. And then I just finally called my dentist and said, 'You know, I've had this implant for 20 years. What's it involve in taking it out?' And he said, 'It’s actually not that big a deal. We can do that.' So we took it out and I was toothless for three months, for the run of the movie."

So you really sacrificed for the part, having nothing there.

Ed Helms: "I take my job very seriously."

So they didn't write this part specifically for you, knowing you had that implant in your mouth?

Ed Helms: "No, I think they wrote it for me knowing that I, hopefully, have some chops as an actor. At least that’s the way I think about it."

That's a much better way to look at it.

Ed Helms: "Yes, I like to think it was more for the acting than for my teeth. No, but actually no one knew. I didn’t mention the tooth thing to anyone until it became clear that...we started to discuss just taking it out of the movie because we couldn't find anything that worked and they couldn’t afford to do a full like digital effect. So that’s when I called my dentist and it worked out."

Have you guys signed on for Hangover 2 already?

Ed Helms: "Hangover 2 is really just getting talked about right now. I think, you know, this movie really has to prove itself first. If this movie doesn't do well, I'm pretty sure you will not be seeing a Hangover 2."

But with all the positive buzz, what's the chance this movie’s not going to do well?

Ed Helms: "I don't have any idea. I mean I'm excited there seems to be some nice moments building but, you know, this ain’t my first rodeo. I've been in this biz for 15 years and seen a lot of ups and downs. So I'm really, I'm going to wait for some real results before I get too hyped up about it."

Where do you think they'd take Hangover 2? Would it be your wedding that people are going to, so it's your bachelor party?

Ed Helms: "Well I think obviously it would have to be outer space, right? I mean that's the only way to heighten the story here."

That would be a definite option for it. The chemistry between the three of you worked so well. You seemed like real buddies. Did you hang out off the set, or how did you get that friendship vibe?

Ed Helms: "When we were not shooting we were sleeping, so pretty much every waking moment we spent together. And, you know, Bradley [Cooper], Zach [Galifianakis] and I were acquaintances before the movie started but we became good friends very quickly and spent so much time together that it was just inevitable we were either going to really hate each other or really like each other. Thank god it turned out to be the latter."

That would have been miserable.

Ed Helms: "Yes. I mean they're both just really good guys and also they're both extremely funny in very unique ways. We made each other laugh an awful lot, and that goes a long way. And we also went through some hard times. I mean it was hard to make this movie. There's a lot of action sequences, it’s incredibly physically demanding, and you see a lot of sides of people on a movie set because it can be really taxing and to kind of go through all that together - you really get to know someone. And what's cool is that in the story of the movie our characters are also really kind of getting to know each other and bonding over the course of the movie. And I think you're seeing a real, a literal sort of friendship growing both in us as actors and on screen as characters."

Page 2: Ed Helms on Mike Tyson, His Tiger Song, and Action Scenes

You don't do action movies, so how difficult were the action parts in this for you to handle?

Ed Helms: "Let’s just say it was damn hard. I've got the bumps and bruises to show for it. It’s funny because things that don't even look that bad on screen were still extremely painful. Like when Mr Chow’s henchmen come up on the car and then they pull, they actually drag us out of the window of the car. It really hurts to get dragged out of a car window. And on the tenth take, you've got a lot of bruises and probably a few raspberries here and there. And over time, I mean Advil was a good friend to me on this movie. I’ll put it that way."

So action is not where you're heading in the future?

Ed Helms: "I've no idea. I'm pretty sure no one’s reading action scripts saying, 'This has got to be Ed Helms.' But that said, you know, as much as you do get beat-up doing even small action sequences, it's incredibly fun."

Was it really?

Ed Helms: "Yes. So cool, so fun, and so as long as it’s funny, sign me up."

And Mike Tyson's in this - I never knew that guy was funny.

Ed Helms: "I certainly didn’t."

Was he easy to act with?

Ed Helms: "He was fantastic. Well, here's the cool thing about Tyson. It turns out he’s a huge fan of Old School, which was one of Todd Phillips' earlier movies. So he got to the set and he already liked Todd and he trusted Todd."

That's a good thing.

Ed Helms: "Yes, and so, god bless him, I mean a lot of times you get non-actors on a set and they get really self-conscious, especially when doing something crazy like singing along with Phil Collins. They get sort of reserved and self-conscious. Mike completely trusted Todd and totally put everything into it. And this word gets overused in describing actors but I think it applies to Mike in this case – he was totally fearless. He jumped in and played with us comedically and improvised a lot. A lot of jokes in those scenes with him are from him improvising."

But how do you tell Mike Tyson that something's not funny?

Ed Helms: "Oh Todd doesn’t care. That's part of his genius as a director, he will say anything to anybody. They actually struck up a really pretty incredible chemistry, those two, and I think they really trusted each other."

So is a lot of the movie improvised? Did you guys play around a lot?

Ed Helms: "We played around and improvised a ton, and I think it’s hard to say at this point what's what. Gosh, I wouldn't even know how to take a stab at it. The script was so good that we really didn’t need to improvise very much, but I think we just found a lot of moments on the set. It’s really cool when you get onto the set of a movie and you start shooting the scenes and you start to actually incorporate the environment. The piano song that I do in the movie, it’s a great example, that was never - that wasn't in the script."

It wasn't?

Ed Helms: "No. I mean, how do you put that in a script? It wouldn't even make sense in a script. So like I just would sit on a set, we were on that hotel suite set for like two or three weeks, and I would just fool around on that piano - because it was there - and fool around and try to make the crew laugh and whatever."

At the screening I attended your song got the most laughs.

Ed Helms: "Oh, that's awfully nice to hear. So I was just fooling around with the piano and Todd was like, 'Hey there's a great spot in the movie where we need a little bit of a breath in the narrative. You should write a song and stick it in there.' And I was like, 'Well, what should the song be about?' And he said, 'The tiger.' 'Oh, okay.' So I went off and I wrote this song. I came back and Todd and I tinkered with it a little more and then we shot it right then. It all happened in a day."

How tough is it to come up with something that quickly?

Ed Helms: "The way I see it, it’s a craft. It’s my job and I've been working at it for a really long time. The Daily Show was an incredible training ground for that kind of thing. It was all about discipline and generating material constantly. So, you know, it’s like anything, woodworking or playing the violin. Over time you can sort of apply skills that you've built up and, in this case, come up with a goofy song."

Do you come up with your own songs often because you're usually singing stuff that exists in The Office, right?

Ed Helms: "Yes, I guess. I mean the fun part about when Andy Bernard sings on The Office is he usually embellishes the songs in fun, stupid ways. That's just something that I do in life, like in the shower or whatever. So a lot of that stuff is pretty spontaneous."

Are you going to have that written in all your scripts from now on, that you must have one part where you sing?

Ed Helms: "It’s incredible how big a part of my acting career music has become. I get asked about it all the time, and I love it. It’s one of my favorite things, and I'm so glad that I get to sort of work that in. And then people now genuinely respond to it and associate me with music. It’s really fun."

You have a couple of scripts in the works. Have you written in singing parts for yourself?

Ed Helms: "No, but it’s really funny. I'm working on a script right now about Civil War re-enactors who go back in time to the actual Civil War. It’s kind of a big, crazy Back to the Future comedy. So, of course, it’s the Civil War - I play the banjo. I was just having a conversation with one of the producers about some of the material and he was like, 'You know, we have to work in a scene where you play the banjo. And I was like I’ll get behind that."

Page 3: Ed Helms on Working with a Chicken and a Real Tiger

Where did your interest in the Civil War come from?

Ed Helms: "You know, really, I grew up in Georgia and I think if you're raised in the South it’s where a lot of the war was fought, and it’s just more present in the sort of psyche of the South. So I've always just been interested and sort of fascinated by it. I think separate from that, the culture of Civil War re-enacting is also incredibly fascinating, you know? It’s very much akin to Renaissance Fairs or role-playing games and things like that. It’s a fascinating culture and so rife with comedic possibilities. And not in a way that...I have no intention of making fun of re-enactors. I think it’s more just a celebration of their passion and enthusiasm, which is so infectious and maybe at times a little misguided. And that's where we have fun in the movie."

And you travel back to the actual Civil War?

Ed Helms: "Yes. We go back to the actual Civil War and kind of realize it’s not quite what we expected and learn a few lessons and have to find our way back home."

And in The Hangover you character has a chicken by him after the wild night of partying without ever explaining how it got there. Do you have a backstory as to why that chicken seemed to like you best and stuck by you?

Ed Helms: "No. It's just one of the great McGuffins of the movie, and I love it. Chickens are a symbol of chaos. Wherever you stick a chicken, unless it’s a chicken farm, it's just chaos. It’s automatically chaotic because chickens are such a weird creature. They're very frenetic. So if you think about it and you look back in other movies, like if someone’s taking a crazy bus ride somewhere and it’s like, 'Oh, what makes this bus ride crazy?' There's a chicken in the aisle, or like there's a chicken in a crate. So I just think the presence of chickens makes things crazy. No one employed that better than Jim Henson, by the way, on The Muppets. He had all these chicken Muppets that just brought in the most glorious chaos to whatever scene they were a part of."

Will there be chickens in the Civil War movie?

Ed Helms: Yes, I think."

A random chicken or two?

Ed Helms: "I think you have to have some chickens in the Civil War."

How do the chickens react to directions?

Ed Helms: "They don't take direction very well, but that's kind of what's great about them too. They just do exactly what they want. Actually, the chickens in this movie are really pretty cute because they're the white chickens."

They were so fluffy.

Ed Helms: "Yes, they were fluffy and they're kind of adorable."

You had one sitting on the piano while you were playing. Was it there the whole time? Did you have to do a lot of takes because of the chicken?

Ed Helms: "There were a couple of takes. We put some bird feed on the piano to try to get it to stay put, and a couple of times it would just turn around. You're just staring - the camera was just like right on the chicken’s ass and that's not going to work, so we had to keep sort of like cajoling the chicken. But for some reason we all agreed the chicken had to be there, so it was worth multiple takes."

The chicken had to be on the piano.

Ed Helms: "Yes, it was worth it."

And you worked with a real tiger. Was that crazy?

Ed Helms: "Completely insane. The whole time we were doing it, you just can't shake this feeling that you're doing something incredibly unwise. It’s really genuinely scary. And we got stupidly close to that tiger on numerous occasions."

Was the trainer warning you not to get that stupidly close to it?

Ed Helms: "No, that's the crazy thing. The trainer was hilarious because any time Todd would get another crazy idea of something to do with the tiger, it put all of us in jeopardy. Like, for example, when I throw the steak to the tiger. Todd said, 'Hey, try to hit the tiger in the head with the steak.'"

Nice. The tiger probably really loved that.

Ed Helms: "Right. And I said, 'Yeah, I'm not sure that's a good idea. I'm going to ask the trainer.' And I asked the trainer, 'Do you think it’s okay if I try to hit the tiger in the head with the steak?' And he goes, 'I don't know, let’s try it.' That was his answer!"

Did he try it first?

Ed Helms: "Oh no. No. I wound up trying to hit the tiger in the head. But it turns out you can't do that because tigers, if a steak is anywhere in like a two-foot orbit of a tiger’s head, they will catch it. So you can't actually hit them in the head. They have 'cat-like' reflexes."

But when you guys are in the car and the tiger's in the backseat, that was an animatronic tiger, wasn't it?

Ed Helms: "It’s a pretty elegant editing job between the real and the animatronic tigers. But the scene where the tiger actually pops up behind us, that’s actually a Jim Henson tiger puppet. The Jim Henson Company actually supplied that tiger. And it’s really cool. Its entire face moves. It has like all these little motors in its eyebrows and cheeks and mouth. It was amazing."

And being that The Hangover was about a wild night in Vegas and it was shot in Vegas, do you have any crazy Vegas stories?

Ed Helms: "I'm embarrassed to say that I really don't, and we spent six weeks there. The only thing crazy that I did was shoot that movie. The stuff in that movie is way crazier than anything I might have done, drunk one night in Vegas. I mean we did it for real in the movie, so that's as crazy as it got."

And during the press junket in Vegas the cast participated in a charity poker tournament. Are you a good player?

Ed Helms: "No, I'm not a good poker player at all. Todd Phillips is amazing and Zach [Galifianakis] is an idiot savant. Hee has no idea how to play and he got third place in the tournament."

Page 4: Ed Helms on Loosing It on the Set and Andy's Love Life on The Office

I imagine we'll be seeing a lot of outtakes and deleted scenes on The Hangover DVD. Is there anything in particular that you hope is on there?

Ed Helms: "You know, there really aren’t any deletes. There's like one or two deleted scenes but they're not important or meaningful scenes. Almost everything is in the movie. I think the fun little Easter eggs on the DVD will be sort of the gag reel stuff. There's a lot of takes we just couldn't get through. We were laughing."

How are you at holding it together?

Ed Helms: "I'm pretty bad. I laugh a lot."

How do you make it through The Office?

Ed Helms: "Oh I'm the worst in The Office. It’s a problem. They've had to shut down the set for like 30 minutes because of me."

So once you start laughing, you can't stop yourself? If you find it funny once, you're going to find it funny for the next 15 minutes?

Ed Helms: "You know, it’s just one of those things like when you're not supposed to laugh, it makes it that much harder to stop laughing. And for some reason Zach and I get in this feedback mood of giggling, and on the set of Hangover we just couldn't get through stuff. It's really funny because Todd would get really mad..."

Seriously mad?

Ed Helms: "Yes, seriously mad. Like, 'Come on guys, we've got to get this. We've got to get through this.' And of course Todd getting mad only made it that much harder to stop laughing. It was a little crazy."

What makes you laugh the most? Is it the improv?

Ed Helms: "I mean it can be anything. Sometimes it’s just a little gesture or a moment. The improv stuff, that's always surprising so a lot of times that's really funny. One of the biggest breaks we had actually, one of the biggest, the hardest I laughed on the movie was the baby was just doing ridiculous things and making hilarious faces. But I'm sitting there and I'm supposed to be having this exchange with Zach and the baby is like staring at me with these huge eyes and acting, and just making the most cerebral faces, and I could not keep it together. So I'm sort of laughing and so Zach started laughing. And Todd was baffled because what we were saying wasn't that funny, you know what I mean? And it was like all the baby’s face. So Todd was like, 'What is going on? Get it together guys.'"

Back to The Office (one of my favorite shows), is Andy ever going to find love again?

Ed Helms: "People ask that a lot and I love it because it means people really care about Andy. I really hope he does. I don't have any indication that he will. I just don't know. The writers are just now breaking stories for next season. I'm optimistic."

How open are the writers to changes?

Ed Helms: "It's a very collaborative environment. We always do takes of how it’s scripted, but then we also mix it up a lot too. And it’s kind of a crapshoot, you never know which one... I mean a lot of time improvisation doesn’t go anywhere and it's not good at all but, so what was written is often times better."

Have they ever found anything through improv that has actually taken off and provided a new storyline?

Ed Helms: "The biggest thing that comes out of improv that gets built on is just character traits. You know, for me the singing was born out of improv. A lot of kind of like the way that Andy talks, you know, the writers pick up on those things - little moments that I inject and then they start to write it in later. It’s hard to say if a whole storyline is spun out of an improv. I feel like it has happened on The Office, I just can't think of it."

Was it tough being the new guy there for a while?

Ed Helms: "No, it was never tough. It’s just the warmest group of people you could ever hope to work with."