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Mr. Nice Guy Ed Helms

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Reporting from Park City, Utah —

As a twentysomething, Ed Helms and his college buddy threw a few articles of warm clothing into their backpacks and decided on a whim to head to the Sundance Film Festival. Self-described movie nerds, they got a room at a Motel 6 in Salt Lake City and hitchhiked to the independent film mecca, where they worked as parking attendants.

“We couldn’t really afford Sundance, and we really didn’t prepare, but Ed was always the kind of guy that would just do it — he’d go along with whatever crazy high jinks you wanted to get into,” recalled Helms’ closest friend, filmmaker Marc Webb, who is directing the new “Spider-Man” film for Sony. “So we volunteered and got these parking vests, basically putting in the minimal amount of work so that we could see the maximum number of films.”

Fourteen years after his initial jaunt to Park City with his pal, Helms was back at the festival with a far more significant job than directing traffic around a parking lot: Promoting “Cedar Rapids,” the new comedy out Friday in which he has his first leading role.

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Last month, the 37-year-old actor was seated in an art gallery on Main Street that had been converted into a faux insurance office, meant to replicate the one where Helms’ character, the sweetly naïve Tim Lippe, works in the movie. The film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the elaborate set-up: The building’s brick walls were covered in wood paneling, couches and file cabinets were shuttled in, and more than 10,000 items imprinted with the movie’s logo — lip balm, beanies and coffee mugs — were handed out to passers-through over four days.

“I hate to use, like, overly romantic language, but it is sort of a dream come true, you know?” Helms said, gawking at his surroundings. From any other actor, it would have sounded like false modesty, but Helms emanates an almost unnatural sense of jovial earnestness. The “aw, shucks!” shtick is also the brand of humor for which he’s become recognized.

Since launching his career as a barbed news correspondent on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Helms has gone on to play a goofy, can’t-get-the-girl salesman on the long-running NBC sitcom “The Office” and a man afraid to stand up to his domineering girlfriend in 2009’s hit boys club comedy “The Hangover.”

In “Cedar Rapids,” directed by indie stalwart Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl”), he’s no longer the nice guy sidekick, though he’s still a nice guy. The film centers on Helms’ insurance agent, whose company sends him to a “big city” industry conference in Iowa after the star employee who typically attends the confab is found dead (from autoerotic asphyxiation, it’s implied). From the second he arrives at the run-of-the-mill hotel where the event is being held, Tim, who has never been outside his small Wisconsin hometown, is awestruck. As he takes in the sights — A chlorine-scented pool! A suite with a pullout couch! — he falls in with a crowd of party animals (Anne Heche, John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who quickly strip him of his innocence.

The film is a gamble for Helms, because it not only marks his debut as a leading man but also furthers his attempt to make the jump from television to the big screen.

“How does the decision to do this movie fit into the career path?” he mused, leaning back in an office chair and unbuttoning his blazer to reveal a true-to-type argyle sweater vest. “I’m not too precious to factor in career decisions. This is a major thing, and I certainly wouldn’t imply otherwise. But in this case, it was really just about telling a story that was fun and exciting to me. I knew it wouldn’t be, like, a ‘Step Brothers’ or ‘Anchorman’ or something, but it just felt like creatively the right fit.”

Helms served as an executive producer on the film, helping to make nearly all of the casting decisions and bringing in director Arteta. On-set, the filmmaker said he was surprised by the actor’s self-assurance.

“John pointed out to me one day — and I agreed with him — ‘Have you noticed how amazingly confident Ed is?’” recalled Arteta. “I’ve known Ed for a long time, but he hasn’t done that many movies. And there he was, going mano y mano with John C. Reilly like an old pro. We were both very happy to see that there were no first-time jitters.”

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Of course, Helms isn’t really a neophyte — he’s been in the comedy game ever since he graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College and moved to New York City, working the stand-up circuit in the late ‘90s. Growing up in Atlanta, Helms always dreamed of being discovered and landing a spot in the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” so his move to the Big Apple was well calculated.

“I looked at the careers of my favorite people from ‘SNL,’ and I was like, ‘How do these guys get there?’” he said. “So I looked at all of the data I could find, and I narrowed it down to: OK, I can go to California and try to join the Groundlings like Will Ferrell; I could go to Chicago and try to come up through Second City like Adam McKay; or I can go to New York City and try to do stand-up comedy like Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon and Chris Rock. I don’t even know why, but New York seemed like something I could control.”

Helms never made it to “SNL” — he was noticed by “The Daily Show” producers first. But his comedy act stuck with many in the industry, such as director Todd Phillips, who later cast him in “The Hangover” and the film’s upcoming sequel, “The Hangover: Part II,” due out in May.

“You always watch a movie through a character’s eyes, and it’s always a different person, depending on who you are. And most of the people I know personally who saw ‘The Hangover’ watched through Ed’s experience, because he felt, in an odd way, the most normal,” Phillips said.

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“He definitely has a moral center that his characters share, and he believes in people and kindness,” suggested his “Cedar Rapids” co-star Heche.

But Helms said he doesn’t always see the commonalities between himself and the roles he plays — in fact, he admitted, he’s often envious of his characters’ goodness.

“I just love good people who are either stunted or don’t know something about themselves or have really dark edges that they haven’t discovered yet who are put into kind of terrifying situations. I’m sort of jealous of someone that naïve,” he said. “It’s a little bit of wish fulfillment, in a way, because I envy that lack of awareness — that innocence. I like to play earnest. And I guess I find it so sort of viscerally frustrating that the world rewards bad people and bad behavior. …I don’t think I’m a better guy than anybody else, but I certainly love to live out that fantasy of being a wonderful, sweet guy.”

Still, his friends insist it’s not that much of a stretch.

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“He really is one of those nice guys,” Phillips said. “He really is, regrettably.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com


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