Back in 2004, a little film called Napoleon Dynamite made it quite big, becoming not just a cult classic but a cultural touchstone, complete with quirky characters, oddball dialogue, and hilarious one-liners — not to mention, an awkwardly relatable protagonist. In a 10th anniversary look back on the film, Huffpost said, "’Napoleon Dynamite’ was important for a certain generation because of the way its forever quotable dialogue acted as a unifying force for whatever elementary, middle or high school they might have been trudging through back in 2004."
The movie’s success came in no small part due to the actor who played its protagonist, the title character. Jon Heder not only played Napoleon Dymamite with pitch-perfect skill, but those dance scenes that make the film iconic? That was all Heder. "That was something they wrote in because they knew I like to dance," Heder told Portland Monthly in 2012. "Cut to two years later: after we had shot the short, they were like, ‘Okay we’re going to have you dancing in the movie as the climax. This is going to make or break the film.’ It was a lot of pressure. I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene. This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory."
The movie was itself a victory — and while Heder himself never quite achieved household name status, he was able to leverage his newfound fame into some good movie roles in the years following. However, it’s been 17 years since that film came out, and Heder seems to be nowhere in sight. What happened to him?
Jon Heder’s biggest movies came in the wake of Napoleon Dynamite
Following the success of Napoleon Dynamite, Heder — a Brigham Young University grad — acted in some films you may have seen. In 2005’s Just Like Heaven, he played opposite Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon, as a psychic bookstore clerk named Darryl trying to help David Abbott (Ruffalo) discover the truth about Elizabeth Masterson (Witherspoon), a spirit who appears to haunt his apartment. In 2006’s The Benchwarmers, he plays Clark, one of the nerds who make up a baseball team that represents all the people who normally get bullied because they have no athletic skill. That movie included some major talent, including David Spade, Jon Lovitz, and Rob Schneider. In 2007’s Blades of Glory, he worked alongside Will Ferrell as a washed-up skater kicked out of the 2002 Olympics.
In an interview with The Tufts Daily, Heder said, "I really enjoy physical comedy, kind of turning your body into a cartoon. I just love bringing characters to life, whether it be through the words or through their movement and being. You can get so much about a character through the way they position themselves or the way they move or act — not act, but through the way they hold themselves."
After that, Heder played one of a series of suitors trying to win the attention of Kristen Bell’s character in the 2009 film When in Rome. He played Lance, an illusionist, and his physical comedy skills helped him also learn some magic tricks for the film. In an interview with HitFix, he said, "In case I’m ever forced [emphasis his) to stop acting, yes, I can always go to the Magic Castle."
So, at least in 2009, he not only loved acting, but wasn’t planning on disappearing.
Jon Heder’s recent career contains few hits, and more passion projects
Since 2010, though, we bet you can’t name anything you’ve seen him in. In 2012, he starred in a short-lived Napoleon Dynamite animated television series, which lasted for six episodes when it aired on Fox, to subpar reviews (via Rotten Tomatoes). Though he’d played important supporting characters in previous films, it didn’t look like he could sustain box office any longer — his movie roles in the 2010s included major roles in forgettable films like 2012’s For Ellen and 2016’s Ghost Team. He also started in a series of direct-to-film projects, including his most recent, 2020’s Tremors: Shrieker Island, the seventh installment in the Tremors franchise. He’s done a number of web series and video shorts as well, including the independent short-turned-festival film (via the Florida Times-Union) When Jeff Tried to Save the World. This was a project done by a first-time filmmaker, Kendall Goldberg.
Speaking about why he decided to do a project from a novice creator, Heder told Third Coast Review, "I want that passion and excitement. First-time directors have so much to prove, and that energy, focused correctly, can really benefit the production. I felt that for sure on this film. When I went into the audition and saw Kendall, I didn’t know who it was, but she looked like a college student, and she was at the time. I was impressed by the script, and we sat and talked, and it was clear she knew what she was doing, and she has a vision and intense focus that I could feel that this would be a fun project to be a part of."
Based on this, it sounds like Heder might have made a conscious choice to focus on smaller productions, as a way of reconnecting with the love of performing. On the other hand, this could also be a way of spinning the fact that he could no longer command the types of roles he once did.
Jon Heder’s voice acting career took off during this time
Don’t cry for Heder, though. He might not be seen in high-profile feature films anymore, but he’s definitely made a name for himself elsewhere — and that may always have been part of the plan. In a 2004 interview with SAGIndie, he pointed out that he graduated from Brigham Young in animation, and had moved to Los Angeles to continue his acting and animation career. He said he started getting the acting bug as a teenager making videos, and at college he was attracted to animation because of the way it melds art and film.
Not long after, in 2005, he was part of Cartoon Network’s Robot Chicken, and that role may have opened quite a few doors for him in the voice acting realm, because his voiceover career has been robust since then. He’s considered a versatile voice actor, and you may have heard him in movies like 2006’s Monster House and Surf’s Up (not to mention Surf’s Up 2, the direct-to-video sequel from 2016). In those films, he played surfer penguin Chicken Joe.
Over on the TV side of things, his voice can be heard guest-starring in animated television series such as Uncle Grandpa, Ben 10: Omniverse, Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Legend of Korra, VeggieTales in the City, All Hail King Julien: Exiled (from the Madagascar universe), and Star vs. The Forces of Evil. He also had a major role in Disney XD’s Peanut and Pickle from 2015-2018 — he played Pickle. He’s also voiced a few video games, including Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two.
Given that he’s said in the past that his part in the industry might be best described as the "underdog," voiceover work definitely suits him.
Jon Heder has a wife and four young children who keep him busy
If you check out Heder’s social media accounts, you’ll see he’s never truly disappeared. He posts both professional and personal news on his Instagram account, including pictures of his wife and four children (as in this one from Halloween 2019). He and wife Kirsten met in college and married in 2002, before his fame with Napoleon Dynamite, according to People magazine. They are parents to daughter Evan (born 2007), sons Philip and Timothy, and a second daughter (whose name does not appear to have been officially released) born in December 2016. That means his children range in age from age 4 to age 13. It’s pretty likely he and his wife have their hands full with different aspects of family life.
On an episode of the World’s Best Dad Podcast, which was uploaded in July 2020, Oregon-raised Heder talked some about his Boy Scout leader experience and family life (including growing up with his identical twin brother). He said, "My life is, I’m home a lot. I’m home a ton, if I’m not working. and then sometimes when I am working I’m gone for three or four days or a couple of weeks…But more often than not I’m home, so my bonding time is every day with the kids." He said he likes bonding with his children through video games, music, and camping. A 2020 holiday Instagram post from Heder says that he got his kids Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure as a gift, but since he fell into a "quarantine couch slump," he decided to open it ahead of time and "rack up those move points" before wrapping it back up for Christmas.
Jon Heder self-limited his career due to his religious principles
Heder has turned down roles during his career for numerous reasons, including the fact that, as a relatively famous person, he feels like an unofficial ambassador for his religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As a result, he has an aversion to scenes involving sex and violence, preferring "clean" content.
He told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2006, "I don’t think I ever will do a sex scene because of my religion and my personal standards […] I’ll never do a sex scene where you see a man and a woman lie on the bed and the camera is still there with the naked actors in your face. I won’t show the act of it on screen. I’d do a violent scene if it was in a war film or the content or story justified it."
When asked whether he keeps his LDS faith in mind when he picks different roles, he said to WhoSay (via LDS LIving), "It’s not even really keeping it in mind, it’s just a part of who I am. I don’t really forget, it’s just been kind of automatic. When I read something, judgment takes place. Part of who I am is my standards and my beliefs, and that makes its way into all my decision-making."
In a discussion of his career on Reddit, one user claimed that Adam Sandler, who produced The Benchwarmers, went about tanking Heder’s career because he refused to act in another movie of Sandler’s due to concerns listed above. Although this may or may not be true, Heder’s desire to stick to his principles could very well have affected his career choices in Hollywood. Still, according to The Things, Heder is worth $15 million, so hopefully he can pick and choose his projects going forward.