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Shawn Vestal: For Ramirez, being Pedro forever in the Idaho classic ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ is no curse

Jon Heder, left, and Efren Ramirez are seen in this undated promotional movie still from the film “Napoleon Dynamite.”  (AARON RUELL)

On those rare occasions when he encounters Mormon missionaries, Efren Ramirez sometimes gets a question that most other potential converts do not.

“Do you know,” they’ll ask, “that you look like the character from that movie?”

It is not only LDS missionaries who might ask Ramirez this, of course. Nor is it only Idahoans who might approach him and ask, in a dorky, low-pitched voice: “Hey, are you Pedro?”

No, Ramirez is known far and wide for his role as Pedro Sanchez in the classic off-kilter comedy “Napoleon Dynamite.” And yet, for those of us who grew up in the small, heavily Mormon farming communities of southern Idaho, “Napoleon Dynamite” is more than a quirky comedy whose simple, sweet strangeness has become a cultural touchstone – an endless font of quotable lines and Halloween costume inspirations.

For us, it is a representation of our world that is unique in cinema – the “Citizen Kane” of Mormon southern Idaho. Its many strangenesses, which might seem merely jokey and odd, are grown from the soil of that part of the world.

From the lunch trays to the moon boots, the pocket tots to sign-language choir, the Deseret Industries thrift store to Ricks College T-shirt – the film is informed by that place, and the specific experiences that writer and director Jared Hess had growing up in Preston, Idaho.

Eighteen years after its release, the movie remains wildly popular. It will be screened Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, and Ramirez and Jon Heder, who played the title character, will participate in a Q & A afterward. The event was rescheduled twice in the past two years, due to the pandemic. Ticket prices range from $35 to $150.

For Ramirez, an actor and DJ from Los Angeles, the story seemed initially like it came from another planet.

“Reading the script I was like, ‘What is this?’” he said in a recent interview. “Who builds cake?”

That’s a reference to one of Pedro’s many offbeat lines, when he tells Napoleon that his plan for asking a girl to a dance is to “Build her a cake or something.”

But it is the universality of the film – not its specificity – that has given it such long-lasting appeal, he said.

“We’re all outsiders, and we’re just trying to figure life out, and that’s just the force and heart of Napoleon,” he said.

‘Everybody went bananas’

Since the film’s premiere in 2004, Ramirez has gone on to act in other roles, as well as performing as a DJ all over the world. At his DJ sets, organizers sometimes will screen up parts of the movies he’s been in – which include “Employee of the Month” and “Crank.”

He has a role in the upcoming animated film “Lightyear,” an origin story for the Buzz Lightyear character from “Toy Story.”

And yet it is Pedro Sanchez – who promises the students at Preston High that if they vote for him as student body president “all your wildest dreams will come true” – for which he is most widely known.

He is by now very familiar with the cliché question from interviewers about whether it’s a burden to be so well-known for a single role. As he puts it, “Is it a curse that you’re Pedro forever?”

He sees it as a blessing. He talked about DJing an outdoor event in Boise where unseasonal snow flurries didn’t keep the crowds away.

“Everybody went bananas,” he said. “It was cool. It was so much fun. Whenever I meet people, whether they’re from Idaho or any part of the world, they’re like” – he adopts the Napoleon voice here – ‘Hey, are you Pedro?’ ”

“It’s so fun to see.”

Ramirez said he built his performance on two inspirations: Silent film star Buster Keaton and an ex-girlfriend’s dog.

In Keaton, as well as fellow silent film star Charlie Chaplin, Ramirez saw examples of innocent outsiders, trying to negotiate circumstances they didn’t understand.

“They’re trying to fit into a world they’re quite unfamiliar with,” he said. “And I thought, maybe that’s who Pedro is.”

And as for his ex-girlfriend’s dog? It had been hit by cars several times and had a kind of stunned aspect, Ramirez said.

“The poor dog was lovable but very still,” he said.

From these inspirations, he developed Pedro.

“He’s trying to figure things out,” Ramirez said, “and he really wants to make a difference.”

‘My mom’s llama’

Jared Hess, and his wife, Jerusha, wrote the film based on his experiences growing up in Preston, and many of the incidents were directly autobiographical. In an oral history published in the BYU alumni magazine, he said his mom told him the movie was full of “embarrassing family secrets.”

A cow was shot in front of a school bus full of kids at his house. The sign language club’s performance in the film was based on one at his high school. Jared himself wore moon boots well after winter, and he bucked bales for the man who played the egg farmer.

“And the llama in the film, that was my mom’s llama, named Dolly,” he said in the magazine piece. “I just saw her over the summer. She’s still there in the field munching on alfalfa. She’s a very healthy creature.”

The name Napoleon Dynamite came from someone he met while on his Mormon mission in Chicago.

The Hesses, Heder and many others involved with the film were film students together at BYU; Heder’s reputation as an uninhibited dancer at a local club and church events was one of the reasons he fit well into the lead role.

The elements of the film that grow out of Mormonism are distinct, though not explicit. If you weren’t familiar with that culture and that place, you might not necessarily recognize it.

“It’s not a Mormon movie,” said Jeremy Coon, an editor and producer on the film, in the oral history, “but it’s safe to assume Napoleon is a Mormon; he wears a Ricks College T-shirt, he’s up in Idaho. … It kind of gave the Church exposure in a different area for a while. It helped people realize, ‘Oh, Mormons are real people and have senses of humor.’”

‘Something special’

Ramirez was one of the few main actors who was not a part of that BYU crew. The movie was filmed over 23 days in Preston in 2003. The cast and crew grew extremely close, because of the shoestring nature of the shoot.

“All we had was each other, as different as we were,” he said. “It became something special for all of us.”

Once the film was finished, it was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival, where it was accepted and premiered in 2003. This alone was a huge step, but Ramirez said that he didn’t realize how significant it was. He and the cast went to Park City, Utah, for the festival and they took along some promotional swag – “Vote for Pedro” and “Vote for Summer” buttons – in the hopes the film might land a distributor.

“I’m like, ‘I don’t know what this means,’” Ramirez said. “I was so young. All I knew was, I was going to the Sundance Film Festival to work.”

What happened next is well-known: “Napoleon Dynamite” was a huge hit, and it was purchased by Fox Searchlight Studios, becoming one of the most profitable low-budget movies ever. It sometimes seems everyone has seen the movie, so deeply has it entered the cultural lexicon.

Its unpredictable tone and quirks don’t land with everyone – the film threw a monkey wrench into Netflix algorithms because the audience was so drastically split.

“The ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ problem,” as it was called, was described in a 2008 article in the New York Times Magazine. The movie is generally very popular on the streaming platform, but the Netflix algorithm – which it uses to try and predict other films you might like – was somehow flummoxed by the sharp divide in user reviews.

“It’s the type of quirky entertainment that tends to be either loved or despised,” the critic Clive Thompson wrote. “The movie has been rated more than 2 million times in the Netflix database, and the ratings are disproportionately one or five stars.”

The people who love it really love it, though, and especially those of us who prize its depiction of our little-known corner of the world. And whenever Ramirez goes to events like the one Saturday in Spokane, they become “festivities” of people who still want to celebrate the film, 18 years after it landed on American movie screens.

“It’s just awesome to be part of that,” he said.

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