BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Sure, Napoleon Dynamite gave us plenty of laughs. It’s a modern classic beloved by audiences everywhere.
But there’s more than just quotes about tater tots and cage fighting when it comes to its characters. Efren Ramirez co-starred alongside Jon Heder’s titular character, portraying mild-mannered new student Pedro. In a conversation with Ramirez Thursday afternoon, he spoke to the complexity of these characters beyond what audiences may have initially noticed.
In less than three months, Ramirez, Heder and Jon Gries, the latter of whom audiences remember as “Uncle Rico,” are set to take the stage at the University at Buffalo for “Napoleon Dynamite Live!” It’s a discussion surrounding the 2004 film with plenty of audience interaction, Ramirez says.
“We get the audience on stage,” Ramirez, a lifelong Los Angeles resident, said. “If it’s somebody’s birthday or a celebration, I’ll have a couple of muffins or cakes. We have a tetherball. People bring footballs and we toss that around.”
Occasionally, you might see some harmonicas, or even a bicycle on stage, too. Although they’re supposed to go for an hour, Ramirez says shows typically continue even longer than that.
“It becomes a whole vaudeville act and it’s so interactive,” he says.
It’s not uncommon to find people dressed as the characters at shows and screenings, either.
“Even when we do these tours, it’s amazing to see that that film has been so strong with not only families, but from teenagers to college students to grandparents; it’s a movie where families can sit together and watch and enjoy,” he said.
With these kinds of audiences and the men he’ll be sharing the stage with on the upcoming national tour, he’s in good company.
“They’re like my brothers,” Ramirez said of his co-stars Heder and Gries. “I’ve known them for like, two decades now.”
This spring won’t be Ramirez’s first time in Buffalo. During Thursday’s interview, he proved that with his UB Bulls jersey, complete with the name “Pedro” written on the back.
The Renaissance man keeps a pretty busy schedule, getting involved in the arts in any way he can. When he’s not on stage or screen, one of his passions is speaking to college students. He’s even written a book on taking charge of who you are called “Direct Your Own Life: How to Be a Star in Any Field You Choose.”
“If I connect to students in such a way, where I can give them some kind of advice, or in some cases, they can give me advice, then I’m a part of something where we’re trying to figure life out together, and I think that’s important,” Ramirez said.
He feels it’s a social responsibility to show younger generations that they can take big steps and accomplish big things, too.
Ramirez says he began public speaking at high schools and junior high schools “a little before Napoleon Dynamite.” But after the movie’s release, it all just got bigger.
The role he might be best known for actually almost didn’t happen. Ramirez says that by accepting the role of Pedro, he was taking a risk. At the time, he had also been offered a role in a different film, but the character of Pedro was a leading role, so he took it.
This wasn’t a huge Hollywood production with multiple departments and a massive crew, either. It was an independent film with a tiny budget of an estimated $400,000, according to IMDb. At the time, director Jared Hess was still in his early twenties.
“It felt special, because when you’re working on an independent film, all you have is each other.”
But it paid off, grossing more than $46 million worldwide, the movie database says. But Ramirez didn’t expect the movie to get as big as it did.
“We were creating something that was bigger than ourselves.”
When making an indie film, Ramirez says that you wake up and hope to do as much as possible, because you don’t have much of a budget. One of Ramirez’s favorite scenes is one he wasn’t even in — the “time machine” scene between Napoleon and his brother Kip (played by Aaron Ruell).
“Some of these stories in this film are based on true events,” he told me. “I think it was the director’s little brother who actually ordered a time machine online and he had thought that it was gonna actually work.”
And yes, it did come with crystals.
“The director just wrote what he knew and his experiences while living out there in Preston, Idaho,” where the film takes place.
While working on the movie, Ramirez showed his dedication to the character of Pedro, hoping he was able to honor what the filmmakers wanted him to do. Day to day, it just got bigger and bigger, he says.
“Once Napoleon Dynamite hit, it changed everything, because in so many eyes I became a celebrity. But that’s not where I came from. I came from the theater, I came from this school of the arts.”
And he continued doing theater and going to school, later landing roles in Jason Statham action flicks like Crank and the romantic comedy Employee of the Month. Ramirez says he was offered roles like Pedro, and wanted to accept any and every role that came his way, but was told by his team to wait.
According to Ramirez, he’s constantly reading and doing research for his next character.
“Denzel Washington said it best — you become really good at whatever you practice, and that’s just the truth,” he says.
Ramirez says every character he plays is special to him “because you find their purpose,” and Pedro is no different. He compares him to those played by silent era actors Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton because of their “innocent curiosity that’s led with hope.”
In Napoleon Dynamite, Pedro is the new kid in town, trying to find where he belongs. Upon befriending Heder’s Napoleon, the two strike up a bond based on their similarities; neither really has a clear place amongst their peers, with Napoleon being mocked and sometimes bullied throughout the film.
One of the great characteristics about Napoleon and Pedro though, is that neither was afraid to take a chance. Pedro ran for Class President and won, and just prior to this, in the film’s climax, Napoleon bravely stepped out on stage, performing an iconic dance in support of his classmate’s campaign, which was met with thunderous applause and a smile from his friend.
“It truly is about friendship and hope,” Ramirez says of the film.
“Some characters are easier than others,” Ramirez said. “You have to go through their pain. You have to go through their broken dreams, at times, and you have to face their greatest fear. The greatest fear for Pedro was ‘What if he didn’t win?’ What if he felt like he wasn’t enough? I think that’s relatable, because we all, at some point in life, feel that way, too. And the challenge is to get through that. It’s to say, ‘You know what? Even if I’m not enough, I’m gonna do my best; I’m gonna try.”
And that kind of thinking shows in Ramirez’s conversations with students. I’ll tell you, I got goosebumps listening to what he told me. It was inspiring.
“As you get older, you start talking about not only your profession, but you talk about life. Like, ‘what does life mean to you?’ because you have to find some kind of purpose in such a way.”
Would Ramirez ever play Pedro again? It wouldn’t be the first time. He and his co-stars reprised their roles in an animated series that debuted in 2012.
There’s been talk of a live-action sequel by both Ramirez and Heder, both suggesting that a modern look at the two friends and those around them could be a bit dark. But with Ramirez, there’s also a sense of hope. Maybe Napoleon and potential love interest Deb (played by Tina Majorino) get married, have a child and end up divorced, and now Napoleon needs the help of his friend to work things out, Ramirez speculates.
It would be important to honor the stories and characters and what would really happen, he says, also suggesting that maybe the man who was elected Class President goes on to get involved in local politics.
“I think that’s something that really defines who Pedro is, trying to better himself and better the community,” he said.
Outside of being an actor, author and public speaker, Ramirez has long been a DJ — another job that keeps him busy between films and speaking events. He’s even DJ’d here in Buffalo.
“My schedule is pretty out there. I mean when I’m working on a feature film or TV show, my brain is just in that world,” he says. “But then I end up getting booked to speak at an event or at a university. Or I get booked to DJ somewhere and I’ve just gotta like, have a suitcase ready because I don’t know where I’m gonna be next, which is how I am.”
And those aren’t the only things keeping him busy. He also introduced a furry friend he’s been calling “Captain Goofball” — a little, black cat that showed up around New Year’s Eve and has made Ramirez “like a cat dad, I guess.”
“Yes to this, no to this, where are you at, stay out of trouble, don’t jump, get off…I’m like a father!” he says.
Wherever Ramirez goes next, it’s almost certain he’ll bring his optimistic outlook with him.
“Life is already difficult, and our job is to find a better version of ourselves so that we can really have something memorable that we can give to our own kids at some point,” he said.
And if you’re wondering if he would have voted for Pedro, I think the answer’s pretty obvious.
“Of course! Anybody who wants to not only take a chance on growing, but also seeing what he can do for his peers, that’s selfless and that matters…Lead with love and lead with wisdom.”
Napoleon Dynamite Live! will be at the UB Center for the Arts Mainstage Theater on April 13, with a start time of 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $38 to $108. Here’s how you can get yours:
- University at Buffalo
- UB Center for the Arts Box Office (Tuesday-Friday from Noon to 6 p.m.)