Growing up in a violent neighborhood in East Los Angeles armed a young Efren Ramirez with the drive to become involved in something other than the world that surrounded him. Guided by his parents into community theater, Ramirez found his true calling as an actor. The self-proclaimed artist portrayed a variety of roles to perfection, including Pedro Sanchez in ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ and Kaylo/Venus in the ‘Crank’ films. Ramirez quickly evolved into one of the greatest character actors in the business and his amazing talents are in high demand. Steve Johnson of Icon vs Icon recently caught up with Efren Ramirez to discuss his influences, his iconic role of Pedro in ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, his involvement in HBO’s hit series ‘Eastbound & Down’, what it was like working with Will Ferrell on the upcoming film ‘House of My Father’, what fans can expect from the upcoming ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ animated series, and much more!
First off, tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Los Angeles. I live in L.A. actually. I was born and raised in East L.A. Every two or three years my parents would always move, so I decided to move with them. [laughs]
What led to your decision to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
I’m still wondering why I am doing it! [laughs]
We actually get that from a lot of people when we ask them. Who or what influenced you getting into the entertainment industry?
My influences to getting in … I guess my neighborhood. As funny as it sounds … I grew up in a not so safe of a neighborhood. You’ve gotta go, “Well I don’t want to end up being like that guy!” They wanted me to do something that I really like. My mom and my dad actually put my brothers and me into theater, community theater. I think that’s where it got started. It was never about getting into the entertainment industry. It was always about just doing something that we loved and it was a chance for us to get away from the realities of things that were happening.
Do you have any actors or anyone who influenced you or continues to do so at this moment?
There are a lot of directors. It’s everywhere from TV shows to feature films. I just recently saw ‘The Social Network’, and you see David Fincher, and you see his work. Even Danny Boyle who did ‘Trainspotting’ to ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. These guys are artists and they are creative. As an artist myself, you just want to do great work. I think Martin Landau said it … even though there’s so much work out there that’s happening, nothing defeats talent. Talent is talent. The question is, are we reinventing new art forms? The trip is, no. Everything has been done. The question is, is it quality that you want and talent? I keep looking at the most talented people and what they do, and do what they do. I see if I can follow that as well.
How do you think you have evolved as an actor since starting out?
Oh wow! I really got into acting professionally when I was 20 years old. The acting remains the same. You’re always on stage or you’re in front of the cameras. You’re working with not only your imagination, but with what the writers made it. You hope that that whole creative effort between you, the writer, and the director falls in sync so that you can deliver a great piece and a great performance. As far as business is concerned … business is, as we already know, a business. There’s a totally different aspect to it, where you really understand what people do and how you can work together.
You currently have a role in ‘Eastbound & Down’. How did you become involved with that project and were you a fan of season one?
I had auditioned for the project. I actually own the DVD for the first season. I was a big fan of Danny and his work. Watching Ben, and Jody Hill, and David … seeing what they do and how they create it. So when it came to being a part of HBO … HBO, as we all know, is not TV. I was auditioning for two things, ‘Eastbound & Down’ and I was going to go to New York and do theater over there. I was fortunate to make the choice to do ‘Eastbound & Down’. Working with these guys reminded me of working in theater because these actors are risk takers and that’s who you always want to be. Everything remains fresh and it’s original.
You mentioned Danny McBride and some of the other cast members. What has it been like working alongside of them?
It’s a team connection with Gary Sanchez Productions. When you work on a project, even if it’s like an immediate family, it’s hard sometimes because you become a quick family. When you’re a newcomer into the field, it’s always wonderful when they accept you. I really felt that working with Danny, Steve, Stephanie, Jody and David. They took me in and I thought that was really cool. That led me to doing ‘House of My Father’. I just finished doing a film with Will Ferrell. It’s from the same production company, so I feel like I am part of the family and I’m welcomed. They give the actor the ability to become more creative with their work and trust them not to think about anything else but the work.
I was actually going to ask you about ‘House of My Father’. Will Ferrell is in that and from what we hear he is pretty intense when it comes to staying in character at all times. Is there any truth to that? If so, what is the vibe on the set like?
‘House of My Father’ is all in Spanish. It’s a Will Ferrell movie and Will Ferrell is funny. We all know he’s very funny and very smart, but there’s something about him … he’s got a really big heart and that’s the reason why people love his films. He’s open to everything. He’s very vulnerable and I like that. When you work with actors, sometimes you lock yourself into a specific way and sometimes you don’t feel it’s enough, depending on the circumstance and the type of character you’re playing. The type of character Will Ferrell tends to play is someone everyone wants to work with because he’s learning. When that happens and the audience watches his film, you go through an experience with him. For me, it’s very enjoyable to work with him.
What is the film about?
I don’t know if I can tell you that … [laughs]
That’s alright. I just figured I’d ask. We also understand you have recently jumped on board a ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ animated television series for Fox. Does the storyline follow the live action movie and does it pick up where the movie left off?
It’s the same thing when everybody asks me about ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, like “What year did it take place?” I went, “Well … It takes place in Preston, Idaho.” I will say that the animated series of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ has all of the original cast members. There are a lot of big fans out there. A lot of fans! It’s great! Even this Halloween, walking through the store and you’d see a Pedro costume or a Napoleon costume. I think it’s funny. I can tell you that not only does it have the original cast, it goes back into the world of Napoleon. It goes back and forth between the movie and what happened prior and afterwards. I know these guys are really excited about it and it’s going to be a pretty big deal.
Have you guys been in contact with each other since the project was announced?
Yeah! We have via text and Skype, which is the coolest thing!
What has been like getting back together and talking to those guys again?
It goes back to the old ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ wave. We did the film and didn’t think anything of it. As an artist and actor you do the work. When it blew up at the theater we were all surprised. You’ve got to go like, “OK. We’ve got to keep going and we’ve got to keep doing this.” So when we met up with everybody, we looked at each other and went, “Wow! This is pretty cool!” To be able to know that they are making us immortal by doing cartoons of us … There’s a cartoon of me man … I am excited! You always want to please the audience and stay true to the work.
Getting back to the original movie. I understand that you actually had to choose between ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ and the major studio film ‘The Alamo’ back when both films were made. What led to your decision to take a role in the small indie film over a huge Hollywood production?
Up to that point I had been working on several TV shows and I was doing a lot of theater. I’ve been studying acting for about 16 years. It’s always wonderful for an actor to be able to play not only a lead role, but also a character role. You get to change and you get to play a lot more. You take a lot more risks. So I started to embrace that. I thought that even though this was a unique film, the focus was never about the money. It was always about the work and it should always be about that. When I was offered to do Pedro, I thought wow, this is my chance. I can either make it or I destroy the film. [laughs] I think I passed! [laughs]
Yeah! You did a great job! Speaking of the character of Pedro, did you have any input into that character or was it laid out for you in the script?
Jared Hess directed ‘Napoleon’. He’s got a short film called ‘Peluca’ and in it there are two characters by the name of Giel and Pedro. I remember him telling me that you’ve got to mix those two guys together and make them into one. So it’s probably not cheating, I guess. [laughs] In order to shape Pedro I put Buster Keaton and my ex-girlfriend’s dog together. That’s how you got Pedro. [laughs]
Looking back on it, what is your most fond memory of making the film?
I think everything from day one. When you work on a feature film, normally you work for about two months. We shot this film for about 23 days I think. It was really quick. When we went to Preston, Idaho it was totally different from Los Angeles. It was out of my element and I thought, “OK! Where the heck am I?” [laughs] I tend to be able to watch what everybody does and I saw how far everybody was willing to go. I know that everyone struggled. There were some times where we would get ready to do a scene and the director goes, “We don’t have enough film, so we only get one take.” [laughs]
Uh … Yikes! [laughs]
Do you think we will ever see Napoleon and crew back on the big screen in the future?
I don’t know. I mean I can see them making the cartoon into a big cartoon feature film. That would be funny. [laughs]
That would be great!
We are all so busy. John and even the guy who played Kip, Aaron Ruell, is a director. He’s been directing tons of commercials. Jonathan Gries, who played Uncle Rico, has got tons of feature films as well. John Heder is working as well. We’re going everywhere and that’s what you want to do. You want to keep expanding and keep entertaining actually.
When can we expect to see the animated series on our television screens?
I think in March. I’m not sure. I have a twitter account under @efrenramirez. Any new information I get from the studios I push right away out to twitter. Everyone gets excited about it.
I’ll make sure I add you!
You have played a variety of characters throughout your career. Is there one that sticks out in your mind as your favorite? I personally dug your performances in the ‘Crank’ movies.
[laughs] Yeah! Kaylo and Venus! [laughs]
Those movies were over the top!
[laughs] They’ve all been great. I was lucky after ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ to be able to select where I wanted to go. Not many people have that. Not only that, but once I started doing that I began getting a fan base. People are watching my work and going, “Wow!” There are artists out there who always play themselves and that’s great. That’s fantastic as long as you are getting into the theater. I like following Johnny Deep or Marlon Brandon. Every time they did a film they would constantly change. Of any character I’ve played so far, I’d have to say Jorge from ‘Employee of the Month’. I liked playing that character. He’s funny. [laughs]
That’s a good one too. You’ve had roles in motion pictures and on television series. Which format do you prefer?
I love motion pictures. You are given more of the responsibility to create and to commit to a different world. When audiences are watching a movie, within two hours you have to show them somebody’s life, somebody’s world, and all of the chaos that happens in it. There’s a meaning to that and there’s a lesson. In that lesson is the passion of the story. TV is a bit longer. I’d like to say that even with ‘Eastbound & Down’ … With ‘Eastbound & Down’ the extremities are allowed because it is HBO. So, there you go.
You have been involved in so many different types of projects. Is there a particular type of film/television series or genre that you are anxious to tackle in the future?
I don’t know. I don’t know yet. Even after ‘Napoleon’, I started working on these other films and I think a lot of studios began to recognize me as a character actor and being able to play all of these different types of roles and styles, from comedy to action to drama. So now I’m beginning to notice that the scripts that do get sent to me are everywhere and different styles. That’s great and that’s what every actors wants to be. So I want to keep creating and be able to have people see that they can trust me and trust my work.
You are definitely a busy man. What other projects are in your immediate future?
Yeah! There’s two of them. One’s a drama and the other is a … A drama with comedic elements. [laughs]
You mentioned you are a DJ and are performing at an event tonight. Has music played an important role in your life?
Always! Before ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ I would DJ at raves in Los Angeles. In every picture I work in, I would get a whole bunch of cd’s of the music that actually fit the world of the film I’m doing of the character that I am doing. I remember when I was doing the ‘Crank’ films I was listening to a lot of Freddie Mercury and Queen, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and Martin Gore and Depeche Mode because that is what the character Venus was like. I can’t remember that name of the song, but Homosapien 2 and some of the dark wave of the late ‘80s. You start to pick music of that type that fits you. As a DJ, even though you go to the club and play the top 40, pop, and well known hip-hop, there’s also an underground style of music, which is the electro. What new electro stuff that comes out, you want to play that and really shock the audience. That’s always wonderful because you get involved with the people themselves and really get into the music. They get into it for what it is.
Do you have any inspirations to start a band or put out a record?
Ah … No! [laughs] I know Jared Leto. He’s been working as an actor and he’s got 30 Seconds To Mars. He’s got another song called ‘Closer to the Edge’. I just recently saw the video and it was great! You see him on stage and that guy is a rock star! [laughs] He’s in front of thousands of people and his music is good! I know some bands, The Killers and My Chemical Romance. They’re great guys and this is what they do. I enjoy DJing and playing new music. Even when I create music either on soundboards, or Acid, or Pro Tools, you want to create new sounds so the audience goes, “What is it? I’ve never heard it!” That’s always impressive. I enjoy DJing as a hobby, but it’s not going to take over my acting.
You said you have a performance tonight, do you have any other upcoming performances that we should know about?
It always varies because a lot of the clubs or the event know that the rule is that if I am working on a film, they know that I don’t make any public appearances at all because you want to commit to the work. When I was working down in Puerto Rico, they were asking me if I could DJ at some places. I pull away from that because I wanted to focus on and be committed to working on the show. Once I’m done I do enjoy going to different clubs all over the world and DJing and hearing people go, “Oh my god! He acts and he knows how to mix!” That’s a good thing. All DJs know that when you hear somebody mixing and you go, “Hey! That was a terrible mix!” You never want a train wreck! [laughs]
What do you consider the defining moment of your career so far?
I think when I was on ‘The Office’ in 2006. I thought, “Hummm … Maybe this is going to be big!” [laughs] If you go to my twitter page, I talk about how I am an artist and not a celebrity. There’s a difference. You could go, “Hey! Look at me! I’m what’s hot!” That’s not me. It’s not about me, it’s about the work. I’m not into the glitz and glam.
What is the best piece of advice that someone has given you along the way in your career?
I’d say Brad Pitt. He said, “Picture what you want to be and go there.” I went, “That’s it?” [laughs] He’s a great guy! I wrote a book called ‘Direct Your Own Life’. There’s a lot of people who I have met along the way who have given me great advice into the picture of your dreams. I thought, “Why shouldn’t I write a book based on that and not only let people know that you can pursue your dreams, but you can create a step-by-step program yourself. This is what I did and you can use it yourself, for what ever you want in your life. It was published by Kaplan, the people who do all of those test books for colleges.
Cool! I had no idea!
Yeah! It was a good deal!
That’s awesome! I will have to check it out! That being said, do you have an advice for anyone who would like to get involved in the entertainment industry?
Yeah! Keep doing it, but be clear on what you’re doing. A lot of people think that all you have to do is just come to L.A. Eventually you will, but before you do that, study your craft. Hone your skills. Even now I am still learning. It doesn’t end. You would think that once you reach your goal, that’s it and you know everything. Work hard because it does pay off. Make sure you follow your passion, no matter what it is.
That’s sound advice man. Do you have any last words?
Work hard and then when you’re done, go out with your friends and have a good time. [laughs] Life is too short. Enjoy it.
Thanks for your time Efren and best of luck!
No worries brother. Thank you and take care.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.