Last October, I went to the set of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s new Vacation. The movie follows Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) rounding up his reluctant wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and their two kids (Steele Stebbins and Skyler Gisondo) to take them on a trip to Walley World. Like in the original vacation, the hapless family runs into a series of comic misadventures, although they’ll be unique to this latest chapter in the Vacation series.
During my set visit, a couple other journalists and I got to interview Ed Helms about the movie. We talked about his nostalgia for shooting in Atlanta (Helms is an Atlanta native), having the freedom to create an adult Rusty Griswold, how his “Griswold DNA” affects the character’s relationship with his family, getting to work with Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, and more.
ED HELMS: No, it just was, as soon as I know we were shooting in Atlanta, this was the only place it could be. This whole production has been very nostalgic for me. I’ve never shot in Atlanta before, and I have deep roots here and lots of family and friends, and for some reason being here during Autumn, which is the most nostalgic time of year, has stirred a lot of wonderful memories and anxieties.
The original vacation, and the sequels too have huge followings, but the first is an iconic comedy in Hollywood history, was there any trepidation or excitement or a mixture of both that you were going to be tackling this new take on it?
HELMS: I would say that before I read the script there was trepidation and preciousness on my part, to the point of saying ‘I don’t even want to read this thing.’ I was then admonished by my agent who was like ‘Be an adult and make an informed decision and read the thing,’ I did, and after Page 5, once I realized it was Rusty’s story and not just another Clark story, but that Clark was also in it, I was over the moon. It just felt like all of the fun and really not any of the baggage and the pressure, because adult Rusty is a character that has never existed before. So that’s on me, he’s good or bad just on my shoulders and not like the weight of this franchise. Then as I read the script all the way through, and that Goldstein and Daley had nailed this really fun tone, that felt irreverent but a little bit poignant and had some family love underneath it. It just felt awesome.
Even though this is the first time we’ve seen an adult Rusty, does he still have some of his father’s personality in him?
HELMS: There are a few ways in which Griswold DNA bubbles up in Rusty for sure. I think the same is true from a storytelling standpoint, the story of Rusty’s family trip across the country to Walley World is only similar to the first one as far as that one sentence description goes. It’s otherwise completely different, the experience of the entire trip is totally fresh, even the Walley World experience is totally fresh. So there’s DNA of both the Griswold’s in Rusty, a little bit of Clark in Rusty, and a little bit of the original Vacation in this one from a story standpoint. But that has by no means defined my approach to Rusty or how these guys wrote Rusty, which I was also very happy about.
Talk a little bit about his relationship with his kids and how that’s maybe different or similar to how Clark treated Rusty.
HELMS: I think that these kids are very different from Rusty and Audrey as kids. They’re so wonderful these actors. I’ve worked with child actors before and had mixed experiences, and I was like a little trepidatious, and I thought this movie kind of lives and dies on the believability of us being a family and right away the four of us, Christina and Skyler and Steele and I started having fun and having a blast right away. They’re nailing these characters, they’re their own thing and they’re unique. The only way in which, again this goes back to the Griswold DNA question, is that Rusty just wants the best for his family, and he’s prone to denial and sometimes a little too much enthusiasm.
This scene where we’ve finally arrived at Walley World, is Rusty starting to reach his breaking point? As we saw he’s getting cut in front of in line, and I assume this trip is filled with misadventures that have already slowed them up.
HELMS: That is a very astute question and I will artfully dodge it, or clumsily dodge it. What you’re seeing today is a little piece of narrative closure, but what is really Rusty’s arc and breaking point issues, there’s more to it than this. There’s more going on in the movie than this, and I’ll leave it at that.
Can you talk about Chevy and Beverly are in the film, how much are they in the film and what’s it like working with them and seeing what adult Rusty’s dynamic is like with his parents?
HELMS: They are in a fairly contained scene, a little episode I should say, it’s a few scenes, but I think it’s going to be one of the most impartial and meaningful scenes, especially to fans of the original. And what was it like to work with them? Honestly, I had no idea what to expect, and they both came in with such positive energy and eager to be playful and open to some improvisation and collaboration, just pitching jokes to each other. Chevy and Beverly have been friends for so long that their dynamic is incredible. They’re like siblings on and off the set, and she just handles him in the funniest ways. It was a dream. For those guys to walk on our set was like the king and queen arriving. They’re like royalty to us, it just felt good all around. We showed Chevy some clips from what we had shot earlier and stuff and he was really laughing, and that just felt awesome. I think this movie could have happened without visiting them, I just think it would have felt a little more hollow, and having them in the movie really brings fans of the Griswold world, of which I am one, gives us all something to latch onto. Also as a production was just a tremendous validation to have them be excited to be on board, to really genuinely love the material, and love the way these characters are written, and to respond to the way Goldstein and Daley picked up the John Hughes torch and wrote Clark Griswold and Ellen Griswold in ways that the people who created those characters responded too and liked. I’m getting tingles thinking about it. It’s huge for me.
What’s it been like working with Christina and what’s the dynamic between this husband and wife?
HELMS: Christina, I’d never met her before we started having meetings for this movie and right away it just was like, this is a cool person. She’s a pro, a great collaborator. I’ve been a fan of her stuff for decades, and her stuff in the Anchorman movies was just pitch perfect. I wasn’t worried about it going in, but you never know how personalities are going to mesh, it’s just been a dream. We hang out a lot off camera, like on weekends and stuff. Her family is here, her husband and daughter are here, and there’s just a lot of social time. I’ve really grown to admire her as a person and not just as an actor, which makes all the work more fun. So the dynamic between Rusty and Debbie, let’s see, I wanna stay coy on those kinds of questions. They’re a couple that are well intentioned, they have a deep love for each other, there’s definitely a little disconnected. There are some ways in which they’re on different pages in their relationship when the movie starts. They’ve been married a long time, probably twenty years or so, and like a lot of marriages there are some issues they’re just starting to face as a couple. The last thing I’ll say is Debbie is a little more aware of those issues than Rusty.
When this movie was first getting ready to go it was kind of a sticking point for if it would be rated PG-13 or R, I don’t know how that was resolved, is the movie a little more vulgar or is it toned down from what was originally written?
HELMS: It’s gonna be R.
You guys won that battle.
HELMS: The shackles are off! That was kind of an interesting debate, that was a while ago. I don’t really know all of the considerations of those decisions, like to me a ratings decision is almost a marketing decision, ‘How do you position this movie?’ Because the content doesn’t change that much at this point, a PG-13 movie you can get away with a lot. It is nice knowing that we’re shooting an R movie, knowing that we don’t have to worry about it, that we can just feel free to get dark or get weird or gross or whatever. I think that just gave everyone a chance to exhale and be like ‘Alright, cool, we can do whatever we want here.’ So I’m thrilled that we wound up as an R movie.