Ed Helms: A Lot More Mr Nice Guy
Banjoist/actor raps on his upcoming livestream, a possible new show and penguins
Whether getting his tooth knocked out by Mike Tyson in The Hangover or in his deliciously un-self-aware role as Andy Bernard on The Office, few actors have managed to make haplessness as charming as Ed Helms. It turns out he’s also a hell of a nice guy in real life, with a penchant for penguins and bluegrass.
The latter obsession will be on full display starting at 8 pm EST/5 pm PST this Wednesday (April 22) when Helms hosts The Whiskey Sour Happy Hour, a benefit for MusiCares’ COVID-19 Relief Fund and Direct Relief. The show is described as “a 21st-century online variety show,” and is being produced under the auspices of the Bluegrass Situation, the collective Helms co-founded to build a community around banjoes, hymnody, hootenannies and hollering.
New shows will be broadcast every Wednesday for the following three weeks — April 29, May 6, and May 13. Confirmed guests so far include Lee Ann Womack, Sarah Jarosz, Rodney Crowell and many more. SPIN caught up with Helms from his home in Los Angeles where he is currently in quarantine and talked bluegrass, a potential hobby show with Nick Offerman and why he’s more with how his acting career has turned out.
SPIN: Are you a movie star who secretly wishes you were a professional musician? Or is music just a hobby for you?
Ed Helms: I always knew I wanted to do comedy but there’s a part of me that’s always wondered about the music thing. I always considered music as more of an avocation but I still take it very seriously, and I play as much as I can. I’ve been in this group since college with two of my best friends from school called the Lonesome Trio. We put out an album a couple years ago and even went on a little tour, and it was incredibly fun and exhilarating. But the siren song of the TV and movie industry keeps calling me back.
Other than being online, what differentiates a 21st-century variety show from the 19th or 18th century kind of variety show?
The subject matter is going to be very contemporary, the music will feel very of the moment and probably some of the clothing people will wear will be different from 17th or 18th-century garb but in all other aspects, it will be exactly like the 17th or 18th century.
You once said, “I love a cappella music, but I also loathe a cappella music.” Is your relationship to bluegrass equally paradoxical?
It is not. My relationship to bluegrass is much more pure and simple. It’s a wholehearted love. And it has been since I first heard bluegrass; it just resonated at a really young age. It has fortified me, it’s food for your soul. It’s such a deeply soulful kind of music. I’m not a religious person but there’s a lot of gospel content in bluegrass music and I do get some kind of spiritual gratitude from it.
What other music do you listen to?
It’s incredible what music streaming has given us access to, and I am a deep lover of so many kinds of music, I will go on a Spotify binge–I was doing this a lot more when I was commuting to work, which I haven’t been for a while, I but I just love to go on a genre dive once in a while, either swing jazz from the ’40s or like, I’m not as familiar with the hip-hop scene so I’ll ask a friend to make a playlist for me and that gets me psyched about that for a while… I love old country music like Hank Williams and George Jones and all that Buck Owens. My daughter is a toddler so she loves Disney Pixar music even though she hasn’t seen the music and that stuff is amazing! It’s so good. Even during the quarantine we’ll just drive around and blare “Mulan” just to get out of the house and do some laps around the neighborhood.
After The Hangover, you went from being a beloved comic to a full-blown movie star. You don’t strike me as the kind of person who enjoys massive fame and being asked for autographs – is that true?
I think there’s something to that. Being a celebrity is a job in addition to being an actor or performer. And whereas I feel very natural in the acting side of my career, being a celebrity… I haven’t always felt quite as natural in that role. I’m more relaxed about it now then I used to be.
I assume there are some perks though, in the sense that you probably don’t have to audition or beg for roles.
In a broad sense, you’re right although I don’t think any creative person ever stops having to fight for what they want to do. There is certainly a lot more available to me now and I’m grateful for that but it doesn’t mean I’m a good fit or that it’s the right thing to do. It’s never not a struggle to get done the things you really want to get done or that means a lot to you.
Did success change your self-image?
Fame is not a magic bullet against insecurity by any stretch. But I worked really hard on my mental health and perspective and I try to always be questioning and learning more about myself and having some measure of fame has forced me to confront something about myself that I might not have otherwise, so I feel more self-assured but I don’t think it’s a function of fame as much as time and maturity and some real effort.
I understand you are kind of a penguin expert… and you did that penguin documentary last year for Disney. Any other secret skills you are hiding?
I’m really crafty. I like to make stuff and I have a workshop in my garage. I like to make little bits of furniture for my kid, or gifts for people. I’m kind of a model train nerd. Although I don’t currently have a model train.
You and Nick Offerman should do a canoe building show.
I know! Nick’s a friend and we’ve actually talked about this a lot.
You’re currently appearing in a non-bluegrass related work on Netflix, Coffee & Kareem opposite Taraji P. Henson, in which you shoot guns and inch surprisingly close towards playing an action character. You’re not about to be in the next Ant-Man are you?
I love doing action stuff, it’s incredibly fun, but I don’t think I’m gonna become an action star any time soon. But I do enjoy being a hapless guy in the middle of the action.
What can you tell me about Rutherford Falls which you are doing for NBCU’s new streaming service, Peacock (and co-created with Sierra Teller Ornelas). What’s that about?
I hatched the show with [The Office producer] Mike Shur, and it’s about a small town in upstate New York that’s right next to an Indian reservation, My character is Nathan Rutherford who is a descendent of the founder of the town and his best friend he grew up with is Native American who grew up on the reservation next door. It’s ridiculously funny.
You’re also slated to host and executive produce NBCU’s hybrid television comedy True Story alongside Randall Park. Can you tell us about it?
The format of the show is we hear true stories from everyday people and that becomes intercut with re-enactments of their crazy stories. It’s based on an Australian show of the same name that was a huge hit. It’s really warmhearted; it’s people telling crazy stories about things that happened in their lives and usually, it incorporates the lost art of laughing at ourselves. It’s just a really warm-hearted and hilarious show. I can’t wait for it to come out.