You might recognize him as Napoleon's extremely nerdy, overly confident older brother, Kip, in last year's surprise hit Napoleon Dynamite, but Aaron Ruell has turned out to be an exciting filmmaker and photographer to watch. Having shot his first short film at the tender age of 17, this California native always planned on becoming a writer-director, but his classmates at Brigham Young University kept casting him in their films.
One such classmate, Napoleon's director, Jared Hess, wrote the part of Kip based on Ruell's impressions of Hess' younger brother. The indie comedy was the darling of 2004's Sundance Film Festival, where it was bought by Fox Searchlight. The sleeper grossed more than $44 million at the box office, thanks in part to a brilliant marketing campaign that drew in a loyal cult fan base.
Ruell was invited back to Sundance this year, not as an actor in a movie, but as a writer-director of two shorts: Everything's Gone Green and Mary. He recently directed a series of national commercials for Vespa, the Italian motor scooter company, and his photography will be on exhibit in May at UCLA.
He is currently gearing up to helm his first feature, Warm Blue Day, this summer. He describes the story as a fantastical drama about a blind British photographer who becomes visually stimulated whenever he listens to a certain audiotape. He becomes addicted to the sensation, until he comes across a young girl with a drug problem, and the two try to help each other end their respective vices. Hess and Garden State's line producer, Ann Ruark, will be producing the feature, and UTA will be packaging it.
Acting remains a part of the picture. Ruell will briefly appear alongside his Napoleon co-star Tina Majorino in next year's Think Tank.
Dude, you're Kip: To play the online chatroom–obsessed Kip Dynamite, Ruell had to transform himself into an uber-nerd: donning large glasses, a moustache, butt-hugger shorts, socks with sandals, and braces on his teeth. Does anyone ever recognize the actor on the street? "I look different, fortunately," says Ruell. "There are a lot of hardcore Napoleon fans, and they do the research and find photos of what I look like when I'm not 'Kip-ified.' Those fans recognize me. It happens maybe once a week, where someone will come up to me and be, like, 'Dude, you're Kip.' And I'm, like, 'Yeah, my name's Aaron.'"
He especially felt the strange phenomenon of being famous when he returned to Sundance this year. "It seemed like all the crazy fans had their radar [on] or something," he says. "Seriously, it was like a mob—[everyone from] high school girls to guys in their early 40s." Don't ask Ruell to repeat his performance on the street. "Sorry, you guys have the DVD. Keep it close to your heart," he says. "But there's nothing nicer than seeing people smile or get happy because you gave them a hug or whatever. That's good stuff."
Acting out: Ruell explains that filmmaking has been his main passion and focus since high school, although acting still runs a close second. As expected, he gets many offers to play nerds. "I've been kind of pursued in the television world a lot, and I've probably gotten, like, three feature [offers]," he shares. "They're lead roles and everything, and that's fine and dandy, but nothing has appealed to me at all. I don't want to do the nerdy, goofy guy again. That was really fitting for the Napoleon world, but that's kind of where I want it to stay. I've done a lot of commercials with Jared over the past year, with him directing and me acting, and it's fulfilling, but my goal is to be able to make good, meaningful films, even if they're small."
The short on his shorts: As for his interests as a director, his future looks bright. Ruell's delightfully bizarre shorts were well-received at Sundance. Commercial agency Area 51 hunted him down at the fest and signed him. He also signed a contract to have one of his Sundance shorts, Mary—a quick spin on a modern-day Joan of Arc scenario—screened before features at Landmark Theatres nationwide. "As far as short films, I mean, that's the ideal," he says.
Ruell also appreciates the acting opportunities he's had so far. "Being an actor really, really strengthens me as a director," he says. "There's just a certain type of understanding that comes from having been there and knowing how much is really being asked of actors that helps me."
For more info on Ruell, visit his Web site at www.aruell.com.