When I say Napoleon Dynamite, you say Pedro Sanchez.
But here’s a trivia question: What’s Pedro’s real name?
Answer: Efren Ramirez.
Yes, many people don't know the real-life Pedro, even though he's been working nonstop since his character's famous run for class president 10 years ago in the cult classic film, which screens Aug. 7 at Cinespia at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
He's also quite different from the sluggish and soft-spoken character we remember onscreen. In an interview with L.A. Weekly at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, Ramirez couldn’t help but entertain — one moment he was singing Depeche Mode’s “I Want You Now,” then he was wailing away on his harmonica.
Since Napoleon Dynamite, Ramirez, 40, has acted in more than 30 feature films, short films and TV shows, including Casa de Mi Padre (starring Will Ferrell), Employee of the Month (starring Dane Cook) and the HBO series Eastbound and Down (starring Danny McBride).
You may not have even realized you were watching the same actor who played Pedro, because these new roles were so drastically different. Most unrecognizable of the transformations was Ramirez’s performance in the 2006 action film Crank, in which he played a transvestite.
His projects in the works include voicing a Fox animated comedy series created and written by Family Guy’s Mark Hentemann and Seth MacFarlane, tentatively called Bordertown, about two families living in a Southwest desert town on the U.S.-Mexico border; it will premiere in 2015. Ramirez also is working on independent film Endgame, in which he plays a teacher who coaches an elementary school chess team to victory. It's based on a true story.
“I think after Napoleon Dynamite, I became very selective on having to keep surprising the audience and keep surprising myself with the characters I play,” he said.
Ramirez, who was born and raised in rough neighborhoods of East L.A., got his first taste of acting at Pater Noster High School, where he participated in the school’s theater program.
“I think my parents put my brothers and me into theater because they wanted to get rid of us, really, because we would destroy the house," he said. "I did theater because I really liked the girls."
But Ramirez grew to have a deep appreciation for the stage. With a scholarship he attended California State University Los Angeles, where he studied theater. While at college, Ramirez decided to further his studies and take Shakespeare classes offered in Santa Monica, which took him two hours each way by bus because he could not afford a car.
“It was having to remember expression, articulation, inflection, intonation, and it all had to be vivid and everything you said had its importance,” Ramirez, who also speaks Spanish, said in between reciting the “Speak the speech, I pray you” monologue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 2).
“I never thought about where I would be if I didn’t do theater and extracurricular activities. … Maybe I’d be lost — I don’t know,” he added. “But theater was home in my heart, in my head, my mind, my imagination, where anything is possible, and now I work with studios and productions. … Sky's the limit, right?”
It was that imagination that helped Ramirez find Pedro’s true character. An admirer of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Ramirez found a connection between the innocent qualities in the characters they played and those of Pedro.
“I was trying to put Buster Keaton and my ex-girlfriend's dog and put them together to create a Pedro-like character,” he said.
Why his ex-girlfriend’s dog you may ask? That dog apparently had been hit by a car on three separate occasions and managed to live. It was that dog’s innocence and stillness that helped Ramirez get closer to Pedro.
As far as finding Pedro’s physical appearance, Ramirez had just seen the film Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr. and recognized how critical clothes were for Chaplin to create his characters.
With that in mind, Ramirez’s gut instinct, while preparing for the audition, was to go to his father’s closet. “It was my father’s jeans, I put on his boots and I wore his shirt and I thought, there it is,” he said.
The Cinespia Napoleon Dynamite screening will kick off Sundance Film Festival's Next Fest (previously called Next Weekend), the second edition of the annual, four-day festival that brings the Sundance spirit to L.A.
“It’s one of the most unique, strange films to ever play Sundance,” says Charlie Reff, Sundance Film Festival programmer, of Napoleon Dynamite. “There’s nothing really like it, and that’s what this festival is about — celebrating filmmakers that are doing something completely unique.”
The rest of the festival will take place at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, which will screen six films first shown at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in January. Each film will be paired with either a musical performance that complements the spirit of the film or a conversation with someone who inspired the filmmakers.
During Ramirez's interview, after an hour of harmonica, violin and vocal serenading, there was one question that needed to be asked: Would you consider running for public office in real life?
“Maybe a politician in films,” he said, laughing. “But in real life, you leave that to George Clooney.”
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