Most people know actor Jon Heder as an awkward young man named Napoleon, thanks to the 2004 comedy, Napoleon Dynamite. But to NBC10 sports director and morning anchor Vai Sikahema, Heder is family.
The pair, it turns out, have been related since the 1980s, when Sikahema married Heder's aunt Keala, half-sister to the actor's father, Jim, a Temple University medical school graduate. As kid, however, Heder, 41, wasn't as psyched about his relation to a former Eagle as many Philadelphians might have been; he isn't much of a sports fan.
"While I didn't know who he was at all, and I didn't care about sports, I grew up knowing he was a famous football player," Heder, who grew up in Oregon, said. "I was like, 'Cool, I'm connected to someone who does something cool.' You always want to have that one claim to fame."
Despite his bona fide connections to Philly, familial matters are not what is bringing Heder to town this weekend, though he says a visit with Uncle Vai may be in the cards. Instead, Heder will be here to celebrate Napoleon Dynamite, which, nearly 15 years after its initial release, is considered a cult classic.
Heder will screen Napoleon Dynamite at the Merriam Theater on Sunday, followed by a Q&A alongside costars Efren Ramirez (who played Pedro) and Tina Majorino (Deb). As an event posting notes, the screening is a "Bring Your Own Tots" affair — just make sure you bring enough for everybody.
No one, it seems, is more surprised than Heder that Napoleon Dynamite was a success. An overtly awkward, hilariously uncomfortable take on small-town life, the movie, directed by Nacho Libre's Jared Hess, was Heder's first feature-length film project, and was created almost entirely by his fellow classmates at Brigham Young University (Heder graduated with a degree in animation).
Napoleon Dynamite was "such an independent film," Heder says, that he and his cohorts worried that no one would ever see it. At the time, the movie's particular brand of awkward comedy wasn't popular. But when Napoleon Dynamite premiered at Sundance, Heder says, the project "blew up" and continued growing. Ultimately, it would earn $44.5 million at the domestic box office — a huge success, considering the film's reported $400,000 budget.
"There is a timelessness to [Napoleon Dynamite], so it's a movie that can serve this generation and future generations," Heder says of the movie's success. "It felt like we were finally making an honest nerd film, and there aren't a lot of good films about nerds."
That nerdiness, he says, has allowed Napoleon Dynamite to connect with viewers young and old — and not just the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings the movie's cast and crew expected to reach when making it. These days, Heder gets word about fathers and grandfathers getting their kids and grandkids into the movie. "That's the weird part: Hearing that people grew up on it," Heder says. "It wasn't that long ago."
And every year around Halloween, he gets inundated on Instagram with pictures of folks dressing up as Napoleon, Pedro, or Deb.
Heder isn't tired of being associated with the lovably awkward character, which may explain why Heder is game to do a sequel or revival, should the opportunity arise. While there is nothing currently in the works, and the film's ill-fated 2012 animated series lasted just six episodes, there is always a chance at an update, Heder says. But rather than a "fuzzy, warm" new take, Heder hopes to see Napoleon as a "twice-divorced, single dad" with one child.
"I think he is the type of guy who would want to have kids, and that he would want to get married," Heder says of his character. "He's a weird kid, and I think he will carry some of that weirdness into adulthood, but he's a good guy."
But this weekend when he's in town, aside from Napoleon Dynamite, Heder has one other thing in mind, thanks to his Philly-educated dad: a good sandwich, which the elder Heder taught him about during a trip to Philly when the actor was in high school.
"I remember when I learned about hoagies," Heder says. "I had not heard of them before. My dad was so proud to tell me about hoagies."