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Interview: Jon Gries Talks Around June and Napoleon Dynamite

Read our exclusive interview with actor Jon Gries, who plays Murry in the fantasy drama ‘Around June.’ The movie, which was directed and co-written by James Savoca, is set to hit select theaters on February 24, 2012. The title character, played by Samaire Armstrong, leads a quiet life in the shadow of the San Francisco shipyards. June lives under the care of her much adored Uncle Henry, played by Brad William Henke, and Murry, her controlling father. Her life changes when she meets a penniless illegal immigrant, Juan Diego, portrayed by Oscar Guerrero. Juan’s unconditional love gives her the insight and courage to finally express herself and follow her dreams.

Gries, who also played Uncle Rico in the hit 2004 cult independent comedy ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ can currently be heard voicing the character in the new FOX animated series of the same name. The actor discusses with us, among other things, why he felt compelled to take on the role of Murry in ‘Around June,’ and why he decided to return to one of his most well-known roles on the FOX show.

ShockYa (SY): In ‘Around June,’ you play the title character’s father, Murry. What was it about the script and the character that convinced you to take on the role?

Jon Gries (JG): First and foremost, I would say when I spoke to James Savoca, I started to understand his sensibility. I think that was number one. He wasn’t a first time director, but he was a director who hadn’t really done anything that had commercial significance. I was just concerned, you meet so many different people, and he was really keyed in. He was really intelligent.

Then, of course, when I read the script, I realized the role presented a challenge. There was nothing easy about playing this part. So I knew I was going to enjoy myself, because I’d rather have something that was going to push me to the limit.

SY: Speaking of James, besides directing the film, he also co-wrote the script. Do you feel it’s easier working with a director who has written the script?

JC: You can never generalize that. I’ve worked with directors who’ve written scripts who didn’t seem to have a clue. It’s almost like they were empaths who wrote these incredible scripts, but didn’t realize the layers they put into their own work. But I would say for the most part, 70 percent of the times, yes. When I worked with Jared Hess, who co-wrote ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ with his wife, Jerusha, he really had a keen understanding of the script.

A guy named J.L. Vera, who has changed his name to Dutch Southern, I did a script with him called ‘South of Heaven.’ He understood his script to such a degree, it was amazing. He writes a multi-level chess game. His scripts are so deep, sometimes I would try to cut lines from his stuff. He said, no, you don’t understand, it was a direct correlation to this. He writes just really deep, deep stuff, and everything is interconnected. You can’t discern it when you’re reading it. In that case, I needed that individual to be directing that movie. Big speeches, big O’Neil-esque speeches.

SY: Samaire Armstrong plays Murry’s daughter, the title character June, in the film. What was your working relationship with Samaire like?

JC: It was really connected, the characters. Sometimes when you work with someone, and you spend a good amount of time, you can have a social relationship. Due to the nature of the relationship she and I had in the film, it seemed to carry over, in that we were relatively distant during filming. It completely evaporated when the filming was done. I think that was something that we both subconsciously had done to keep this tension alive between us.

SY: While Murry is domineering and controlling towards June, she adores her Uncle Henry, played by Brad William Henke. Do you feel Murry and June’s tumultuous relationship is reflective of many young women’s relationships with their fathers?

JG: No, I don’t think so at all. I think it’s a specific relationship. I guess there’s a universal truth in the sense that he’s abusive or an alcoholic. There’s a sense of over-parenting or smothering or controlling. There are perhaps aspects of that.

But overall, I would say no, not at all. I think that most parents would want their child to go out there and flourish and enjoy life. He was very confining, and contrary to growing.

SY: What is it about June that Murry feels the need to be protective over her, especially after she meets, and falls in love with, illegal immigrant Juan Diego?

JG: One of the things that I used personally was the idea of having my progeny get the best in life, and/or be safe. I think Murry acts out of fear. He doesn’t want everything to go wrong, he’s afraid that if she goes out there in the world, she’s going to get hurt.

I think in his mind, he’s made it melodramatic to the point that she’ll get raped or killed. In trying to protect her, he’s only really hurting her. He’s dong all the horrible things that he’s trying to keep her away from.

SY: ‘Around June’ was an Official Selection at such film festivals as the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Radar Film Festival in Hamburg Germany Columbus International Film + Video Festival. What is the feeling like, knowing that people around the world are positively reacting to the film?

JG: Anytime you get involved in any type of project, especially this one, you’re not going to go into this movie and come out feeling wonderful (laughs). It’s not a comedy. It’s always nice when people find value in something, whether it’s the performances or through the story or the way the film looks, and enjoy it, it’s always a good sign and a good feeling.

SY: Since ‘Around June’ is an independent film, did that pose any restrictions on what you were able to film, as compared to shooting major studio movies?

JG: Oh sure, you’re limited to your locations. When you use practical locations, and you’re filming (you face limitations). For instance, with ‘Around June,’ there was a project to repave all the streets. The street that we were acting shooting on for much of the time we were there, of all the times to pick to repave, they picked the two weeks that we were there. We were in a war with the street crew to stop their machines, so we could film a scene.

Fortunately, they worked with us, they were understanding. Fortunately, street crews start at 6 am, and they’re done at 3pm. So from in the morning when we would start, until 3 in the afternoon, we would have a battle back and forth. Then they’d be gone from 3 on, and it would be much more quiet.

With a film with a significantly larger budget, or with studio backing, we probably would have been shooting on a sound stage. So we wouldn’t have even had to think about things like that.

SY: Going back to ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ Uncle Rico is one of your most well-known film roles. What initially attracted you to the role, and why did you decide to voice the character in the new FOX animated series?

JG: I didn’t actually read for the role, they just called me and offered me the part. My manager was saying, I don’t think you’re going to want to do this, because they have no money. That’s never been my criteria, but of course, a manager’s criteria, because they work off commission.

I read the script, and I didn’t even get through 15 pages. As far as I was concerned, it was a good day. Depending on your mood, some days, you could read a script and say, this is horrible, or not realize it’s a great script. This script spoke to me, I heard the voice, and called my manager back, and said yeah, we’re doing this, absolutely. I’m going to drive myself there to Idaho to do this, I don’t care. I don’t care what they pay me, I want to do this.

What obviously attracted me was the character, first and foremost. The voice of the actual script was loud and clear. Jared was an unproven director whom I’d never met, who wrote the script.

This goes back to your other question, sometimes you know who a director is by reading their script. If you don’t get to meet the director, you can get a true sense of viscerally talking to them and getting a true sense of them (by reading the script). After I chose to do the part, I met him, and my instincts proved to be absolutely right. He was only 23 years old, but he knew what he wanted and what he was doing.

Coming back to do the cartoon, Jared had called me, and said we’re doing the cartoon, would you come back, and I said absolutely. I didn’t even have a second of doubt. The whole cast came back. We loved the material, and we loved working with Jared. Him and Jerusha, were going to be back helming the show. Also, we all had a bond, working together. We wanted to come back and work together, it was like going to summer camp, doing that film. When you get to have a reunion like that, why would you say no?

SY: Besides the ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ series, you have also appeared on such series as ‘Hawaii Five-0’ and ‘Nikita.’ Do you take a different approach when preparing for television than for films, and do you have a preference of television over movies, or vice versa?

JG: Well, I would say the preparation for television is slightly different in that you have to have consideration for time. Shows are married to time. Say for an hour show, they have 42 minutes that they have to deliver. I’ve done guest starring roles and have been a series regular. You have a better understanding of the character when you’re a regular, as well as a better understanding of the rhythm of the show.

Let’s say you’re a guest star, sometimes the writers will write quite a bit for guest stars, but in the back of your mind, you have to pay attention to the tempo, and not let yourself take the time, so to speak. Whereas in a film, you have a little more latitude. But you don’t want to languish, pace is important.

I just recently directed a film (‘Pickin’ & Grinnin”), and that was my number one concern throughout shooting, because it was a comedy. The pace, and allowing for the beats and the moments to remain in there, but not languish too heavily.

Television is only slightly different, in regards to tempo. But the amount of work I put into the role-usually with television you don’t have as much time. It’s never going to be quite the same as on a film, where you have more time. Most times, there have been independent films where I’ve come in, quite literally, with a day. They’d call me and say, hey, we need you to take over for somebody for this movie, and I’ve had a day or two to prepare. With television, you obviously have much less time to prepare for what you’re doing. So you can do the best you can.

Written by: Karen Benardello

Karen Benardello: As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.