When I meet Ed Helms, he is clean-shaven. Gone is the goatee he had for "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," the latest movie from the sibling filmmaking team of Mark and Jay Duplass.
I tell him that when I saw him in the film, which opens Friday, his goatee somehow reminded me of that "Star Trek" episode in which Mr. Spock sported one in a parallel evil universe.
"Maybe that's an evil version of Ed Helms," he muses.
Not likely. It's hard to imagine an evil version of Helms running around. The star of NBC's long-running sitcom "The Office" -- a Georgia boy from a preppy background who plays the banjo -- comes across as an all-around nice guy.
In the offbeat comedy "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," Helms plays Pat, the brother of the title character (Jason Segel). The two are polar opposites. Jeff -- a fan of the film "Signs," M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 thriller -- sits around smoking pot, living with his mom (Susan Sarandon) and looking for portents in his daily life. Pat, on the other hand, has just bought a new Porsche he can't really afford and races through his life, oblivious to others, including his long-suffering wife.
Helms says about 40 pages into reading the script he was wondering why he kept going. "It's a good story but I didn't want to play this Pat character. He's an ass."
But the actor kept reading and by the end found it compelling.
"I don't like evil characters," admits the 38-year-old, who is also known for his role as
the missing-tooth dentist Stu Price in the "Hangover" films. "You're probably not going to see me as a child molester anytime soon. I have to find a way to really like the characters that I'm playing or sympathize with them."
Helms, by the way, voices something of the bad guy -- the Once-ler, who destroys the trees -- in the current hit animated film "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax." But then that's based on a children's book, not exactly evil material.
It took him awhile, though, to understand Pat, whom Helms describes as a guy "losing the fight with his own insecurities and pettiness" but who is self-aware enough that by the end (no spoilers here) starts to become a better person.
"I can relate to that arc," says Helms. "It is a pretty universal thing for many of us."
While growing up, Helms -- who attended a private high school -- says he wasn't a particularly funny guy socially.
"I was never the class clown, but I was always a student of comedy and I love deconstructing it, and I think that's common with a lot of comedy nerds," he says.
It was the combination of "Saturday Night Live" and HBO that got him interested in comedy. Helms was inspired by performers like Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Chris Farley, Harry Shearer and Phil Hartman and movies including "Fletch," "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Caddyshack," "Ghostbusters," "Trading Places" and "The Breakfast Club," and that made him want to be part of that universe.
He went off to Oberlin, the Ohio university known for its music and arts programs, to study filmmaking with an eye toward comedy.
"In front of the camera was always part of it," says Helms. "I moved to New York after college and immediately started doing stand-up."
One of his goals was to get on "SNL" but he soon found himself enamored with "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
In 2002, he got his chance with the show, which he calls "a phenomenal comedy boot camp."
"It's intense, the hours are long and I probably did 150 of those field segments where they just ship you off to some small town to get a story and you sure as hell better come back with something in 24 hours," says Helms. "That was just a real lesson in production and execution.
"Jon Stewart had a phenomenal work ethic," he adds. "Some of the funniest people I've ever known in my life sit on the couch and smoke pot all day long, but I realized that in a place like the 'Daily Show,' you can't keep up if that's what you're doing."
In 2006, after four years on the show, he joined "The Office," where he plays preppy Cornell graduate Andy Bernard, who loves a capella music. (Helms was in an a capella group at Oberlin.) With Steve Carell departing last year, Helms' Andy has taken over as head of the Scranton division of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. The show is in its eighth season, and all Helms will say about its future is, "I think we're just trying to hammer it out."
As you might guess, Helms loves music, but he says his passion for the banjo has nothing to do with another strumming comedian, Steve Martin. It may have something to do with "Deliverance," which was filmed and takes place in Georgia, he admits, but the only real explanation he can come up with for his love of the stringed instrument is that he went to summer camp for a number of years in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.
"That's really the heart of Appalachian music," he says, "It just felt like something authentic that I could latch onto at an early age. It's also haunting and beautiful. ... Some the greatest musicians on Earth are playing bluegrass these days."
While "The Office" and other commitments keep him busy -- there is talk of "Hangover III" -- Helms is working on some projects of his own.
"I really like to generate stuff," he says. "I feel like that's the only kind of control you have in this business, is if projects come from you." He adds with a laugh, "I love telling stories and acting like a jackass."