Jon Heder Played a Surfing Chicken in ‘Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania’ and We Talked about It
Now out on DVD for your viewing pleasure is Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania, the follow-up to the 2007 animated Oscar-nominee that took a behind-the-scenes look at the Penguin World Surfing Championship. In Surf’s Up, Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) joined the party as a most unlikely character: the surfing fowl, Chicken Joe. Heder and his chill character for the sequel–which is a first for Heder–that introduces WWE Superstars John Cena, Undertaker, Triple H, Paige, and Mr. McMahon as members of the wave-riding crew, The Hang 5.
In celebration of the movie’s release, I had a chance to chat with Heder about the film and his acting career in general, with a focus on his animation and voice-acting experience. You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that Heder actually started his career by studying animation in college. It was his big break in Napoleon Dynamite that opened up other acting opportunities in both animation and live-action, but he’s always had a passion for all things animation.
Whenever I talk to someone working in the world of animation, I like to ask them to think back to their childhood and tell me the first few cartoons that pop into their heads. Often they’re the expected, popular shows from whatever era they happened to grow up in. Heder’s, however, were deep cuts.
The Hobbit, do you remember the animated The Hobbit? I’m listing some of my favorites of all time. When I think 80s and Saturday morning, I go straight to Heathcliff, I remember watching that. And The Littles, I think they were called. It was a family of little people but they had tails, and I don’t know why but that just popped into my head. These are 80s, that was my childhood.
Try this one on for size: It’s called Wizards by Ralph Bakshi. Holy cow. That is a trip. If this is for a kids’ publication, don’t even publish that. It is not a kids’ movie. But it does not hold up. I think my mom rented that for us from the video store when we were kids, thinking, “Oh, it’s an animated film. It’s called Wizards. Why not?” Watch it, and if you know who Ralph Bakshi is, he does not do kid-friendly stuff. I was disturbed. There’s like nude elves in it, weird creatures with machine guns popping bullet holes through little woodland creatures … it was like, “What is this?” It does not hold up, by the way. These are just some random things that pop up when thinking of my childhood.
I’m a hardcore animation guy, but being honest, first thought, things that I saw when I was a kid that I can’t unsee.
If and when you have the time to check out everything Heder mentioned, do yourself a favor and follow up on it. You won’t be disappointed (though you may be disturbed). As for how Heder made his way into voice-acting:
It was kind of unrelated. I graduated with a degree in animation. I was studying it and I was pursuing it. I was always into art growing up, and then I got into acting, I had a great interest in that, and then my career counselor in college said, “Hey, they’re opening up an animation program here at school. Why don’t you do that? It’s kind of a mix of both.” I wanted to get into film, and that’s actually more of what I was studying, it was less acting but acting on the side. “Art and film together, try animation.” I loved it. I loved it and I started doing that, and then I started doing acting around the same time which really helped in both ways: it helped with my animation, my animation helped with my acting because you’re bringing a character to life.
I never thought I’d be voicing, doing stuff like that, but when I got into acting, that kinda covers everything. My agents would bring me this, or “Try this out.” I guess my first acting gig was a natural segue into voice-acting because the first thing I did animation was Monster House but that wasn’t your typical animated film because it was all mocap, motion capture. That was an audition. You go in and they want to see how you move and how you sound and how you act; it was the whole experience. And so it wasn’t sitting in a booth and just talking into a microphone. We were in those mocap suits and everything. So I did that, but then I tried other things and I was always game for trying it out because I loved animation.
I was curious to know if Heder still had to go through auditions after being known everywhere for his performance in Napoleon Dynamite. On the flipside of that popularity comes the risk of being typecast for future roles. Heder explained:
Sometimes things come and I audition a lot, but really there’s no science to it. I remember, a couple of years ago, I do the lead voice of Pickle and Peanut, which is a Disney animated show. That’s kind of been the biggest project I’ve worked on in the past three years. I went in and auditioned for that, and when I got the role I felt really groovy, like, “Hey! Auditions work!” Later on, I found out from the creators of the show who were like, “Well, we wanted you from the start. We just had to follow protocol and had to have you come in and audition so we could show Disney, ‘Hey, see? This is why we wanted the guy!’”
That made me feel better and also worse at the same time. Oh, so my audition didn’t work, but you came to me and you like what I do, so anyway. Yeah, it’s a mix. I definitely audition for stuff and sometimes people bring me stuff.
And as for that “Napoleon” voice:
There have been a couple of projects where they want a little bit of that sound, like the slacker, kinda like that. Yeah, obviously what your voice is typically known for, a lot of times it’s, “Yeah, we want a little bit of that Napoleon voice.” Then sometimes they straight-up wanted that. Normally, if it was a project I could care less about, sure. But most of the time, I’m like, “Well, I want to change it a little bit, or let’s make it a little bit different.” Sometimes it sounds a lot like it, but I guess, in my head, I felt better to slightly skew it, just a little bit, and change it just slightly enough so, at least in my head, it felt a little different. It’s always going to sound a little bit like that because that’s just who I am.
Some projects … like Pickle and Peanut is a great example of one where they didn’t want that voice at all. There have been other times where they were just looking for something very natural. And then, I’ve been in the booth where I’ve just pulled this out or pulled that out and they’re like, “Oh, let’s do that!” And so I’ve done additional voices for other characters that they weren’t expecting.
Heder shared his thoughts on and enthusiasm for playing some odd characters in the world of animation, like the surfing Chicken Joe in the Surf’s Up series:
That’s one of those you just can’t really predict. [laughs] In the world of animation, you’ll never guess. In the world of live-action acting, you can be like, “Okay, I’m sure I’ll play a dad at some point, or I’m sure I’ll get typecast to do this,” but in the world of animation, you can be similar character types but in terms of what your genetic makeup is, who knows! I’m a pickle, for Pete’s sake! Just a walking, talking pickle! Or a surfing chicken. “Oh, you’re going to play a surfing animal!” Sweet, I’m sure it’ll be a sea creature. “No, you’ll be a chicken.” Oh, okay. It can be anything. I’ve done some weird ones.
Believe it or not, Surf’s Up is Heder’s first sequel, though he’s constantly asked about possible sequels for his other films:
Now that I think about it, I think this is my first sequel I’ve worked on. Everything I’ve done, I always get fans asking, number one, “Is there ever going to be a Napoleon sequel? Are you guys ever going to do a Blades of Glory sequel? Are you going to do a sequel for Benchwarmers?” Not every single project, but I’m sure most actors get questions from fans about doing sequels for this or that. Most of the time, it really just depends on the project, like, “Well, this one warrants a sequel and it’d be great to do it,” and sometimes I’m like, “No, they’re never going to do a sequel to this film. It doesn’t really call for it and doesn’t really need one, or doesn’t seem like an obvious fit.”
With Surf’s Up, they do a lot more animated sequels, for sure. I think when I originally did Surf’s Up, it was still kind of in the beginning when these other companies started popping up: Sony Pictures Animation, ImageWorks, Blue Sky, Fox, Pixar. That’s when it was really starting to become a business, so everybody was doing their original content in the beginning. So I wasn’t really thinking, “Oh, they’re gonna make a sequel.”
In hindsight, yeah, you can easily make a sequel to Surf’s Up. And it wasn’t really, completely set up to be a sequel, it was just a competition. So what do you do, another competition? I really enjoyed the first one because it was so different then a lot of the other animated films you saw. It was trying to be like a mockumentary, it was very much styled after those surfing docs, so you can pattern it after that. Regardless, when they came and said, “Yeah, we’re going to do a second one,” I said, “That’s cool. Finally a sequel!” And I could see one to this. They really had fun with it, so that was cool.
WWE wrestling factors into this movie in a big way, but Heder and I grew up during the era when the organization was known as the WWF, or World Wrestling Federation. And though he might not have been the most ardent fan of professional wrestling as a kid, he shares a fantastic experience that would make the most die-hard fan green with envy:
I knew a little bit. For sure it was all around me, but it never spurred on my creativity. I was like, “These are just big, bulky, sweaty guys who are jumping on each other.” And yet, it was prevalent, I knew who Hulk Hogan was. I remember me and my brothers doing all the Hulk Hogan poses growing up, and I had the video game, but I never really religiously watched it all. I was definitely aware of it.
It wasn’t until like 2010, I was doing press for a movie called When in Rome, and I went and guest hosted WWE Raw, and that was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had promoting a film and doing that kind of thing. It was so much fun. It kinda got me back into it. I didn’t start following it, but there was always some kind of connection. I really dug it then. I know some of the people who did voices. Triple H, I believe, is a voice on Surf’s Up 2. When I hosted, he was there, and he body-slammed me. He pounded me. (It was the Big Show, but who’s counting.) I know a couple of the names and a couple of the guys, so that was pretty fun.
As for Heder’s current and upcoming projects:
I’ve been doing a lot more voicework recently. I talk a ton about it, but Pickle and Peanut, I don’t think Season 2 has officially started airing yet, but we did all of Season 1 and Season 2 is going to come out. I’m having the time of my life working on that. I love it, I love it to death. It’s a really fun show.
Then, there’s a movie called The Tiger Hunter we’re doing the festivals on. It’s a really nice romantic comedy / coming-of-age comedy about an Indian boy. It’s really great. That’s not an animated film, that’s live-action. I play one of the only White American guys. It takes place in 1970s Chicago, about a young Indian boy—not young, he’s like 20-something—he comes to America looking to live the American Dream and become an engineer. And I work at this big, giant engineering firm. I’m like the son of the rich father who runs the company, so I befriend the main character and show him the ropes of what it means to not just be the head engineer but being American.
And who knows where you might see Heder next, perhaps in some sort of action-packed, sci-fi/fantasy story, if his skills are up to the task:
I would love to do a sci-fi film. I’ve always been into sci-fi/fantasy. I think it’d be so much fun to do action and actually do something where I could use my acrobatics, or lack of acrobatics. My lack-robatics, as they call it. That would be awesome, I would love to do an epic, sci-fi action film.
Keep an eye out for Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania, available on DVD now.