If you’ve ever wondered what Ed Helms was going to do with his free time now that The Office and The Hangover trilogy are behind him, you probably didn’t think, “Obviously he’s gonna star in a web series about a 4-inch tall crime fighter.” Well, guess what? You were wrong. That’s exactly what Helms is doing. Tiny Commando, which he co-created with Jacob Fleisher and premieres Monday on Yahoo, is about a former Navy SEAL the size of a Star Wars action figure, who’s locked in an epic struggle with an equally diminutive villain named Cesar Pequeño, played by Helms, who for some reason has a thumb for an arm.
When I called Helms for our interview, there were homeless people fighting over a cigarette outside his window. I know this because he told me about it, and provided a play-by-play. That’s the context in which our conversation began, which should maybe tell you something.
First of all, congratulations on finding a way to make a show that incorporates one of your great loves, toy helicopters.
[Laughs] How do you know about that?
We’ve talked about this before. When you were shooting Cedar Rapids a few years ago, you apparently had an obsession with toy helicopters.
Oh, right, yeah. I’ve always been into toys and kits and models. I’m kind of a toy nerd.
I got that impression.
When we started shooting Cedar Rapids, I was staying at this hotel at Ypsilanti, Michigan, and there just wasn’t much around. It was damn cold, and very close to the hotel was a hobby shop.
So of course you had to check it out.
Of course. I went to it, and I just lit up. It was like, oh my God. There was this wonderful nice man with a handlebar mustache behind the counter. And he was so knowledgable and helpful. They had RC helicopters for sale. I bought one on the spot, took it back to my hotel room, and just dug in.
Any time you weren’t shooting the movie, you’d be flying toy helicopters?
Every free moment. And I got really good at it. Like crazy good. All day long, I was flying these things around the set, in my hotel room, crashing them and sending my assistant to the hobby shop to get more supplies, taking them apart and tweaking them and souping them up.
You were letting your freak flag fly.
We were shooting in this hotel atrium, and it was made for indoor helicopter flight. It had this balcony, and you could stand on it and zip these helicopters out across the pool and around the lobby. When it’s 400 degrees below zero outside, this is an extremely exciting way to spend an afternoon. It became a running joke on the set.
In a good way?
In a great way. That’s why there’s a scene in Cedar Rapids where I’m flying a toy helicopter. [Director] Miguel [Arteta] was like, “I want to capture that face.” Every time he saw me flying a helicopter, I guess I had this intense, joyful concentration.
So really, there was no way you couldn’t have done Tiny Commando?
It just seemed like such a fun idea to me, to do a sort of campy, live-action series with set pieces that are all essentially radio-controlled toys. It’s like a miniature Jerry Bruckheimer movie.
But much, much, much cheaper.
So much cheaper. As a hobbyist, there’s something about miniature anything that captures my imagination.
You would go so far as to call yourself a hobbyist?
I absolutely am, without shame.
I have this very vivid image of you in my head, and you’re sitting alone in a basement and surrounded by miniature toys.
Yeah, that’s me! That’s how I operate.
How’d Tiny Commando come out of all this?
Well, whenever I’ve messed around with radio-controlled things, there’s always been a part of me that’s thought, I wonder if there might actually be a little guy piloting these vehicles.
I don’t mean really. I mean, as sort of a daydreaming thing. Who is that guy? What’s his story? And what would he be doing with his life? Well, naturally, he would start a private investigation firm, kind of like the A-Team, and he’d help people deal with problems. They’d just have to be really small-scale problems.
There’s a great episode that’s based on the big game hunting trope of action or suspense movies. But the Tiny Commando is trying to track down somebody’s lost guinea pig. We also have an episode that’s based on 2 Fast 2 Furious. There’s an RC racing club that’s using the cars to run drugs. The LAPD hires Tiny to infiltrate the gang and bust the drug operation. But what’s insane about that episode is, we got these really skilled drivers who do real drift car racing to operate the RC cars. It was just the coolest thing.
You hired actual stunt drivers to operate toy cars?
Yeah. Oh, and for the helicopter scenes, we got a guy who’s an expert model plane and helicopter flyer. But he also flies camera-mounted helicopters for movies.
Actual-size helicopters. He’s the aerial photographer for a lot of serious action movies. He was so excited by this project, because it was all about the RC vehicles. He got his rocks off, and brought so much expertise to it.
In the series, you play a guy named Cesar Pequeño.
The bad guy, yeah.
This may be a spoiler, but why does he have a thumb for a hand?
It is a spoiler, but I’m going to spoil it for you because it’s one of my favorite jokes of the whole series. Cesar was just a regular super-villain, like a Miami mobster. But he was in a terrible accident, and it basically obliterated his body. Evil scientists were only able to pull together enough tissue to rebuild him at four inches tall. And the only part of his body that was not totally lost was his pinkie finger, which they just sewed on as his arm.
That is…. wow.
It’s really highbrow stuff.
You guys are gonna get a Hugo Award for sure.
The prosthetic finger they made for me to wear was just disgusting.
It’s too real. You know what I mean? It looks like a giant finger. The tech company that made it, they sculpted a finger beautifully and then cast it in this sort of silicon rubber stuff. When you look at it, it’s just…. it’s gross.
And you had to stick your arm inside it.
That was weird, believe me. It was rubbery, so I could control it and manipulate it like a real finger. We didn’t have a lot of money for this series, but we put what money we did have where we thought it was important, and the huge finger was a priority.
We need to talk about that Mumford & Sons video, “Hopeless Wanderer.”
You liked it?
Holy lord, man. Can you guys do all music videos from now on?
I am so proud to be a part of that video. It’s a work of art. Everybody in it was so amazing. When we shot the video, poor Will Forte was coming down with the flu, but he still gave what I think was an Oscar-worthy performance.
And an Oscar-worthy kiss with Jason Sudeikis.
There was some real passion going on there. It was quite beautiful. What I love about the video is if you take us out of it, and [director] Sam [Jones] did that exact video with Mumford & Sons, it would still be a really cool video.
How much of what you and the other guys did was improvised?
It’s kind of a beautiful dance between pre-calculation and improvisation. Sam had all the shots choreographed well in advance. But when everything was set up, he’d just say, “Go for it.” And we went with our instincts. I actually beat the hell out of my hands.
By fake-playing the piano?
I thought it’d be funny to bang on the piano, and I kept doing it take after take. I didn’t realize I was doing damage. I looked down and I had little cuts and bruises all over my hands. It was worth it, though. There’s nothing funnier than playing the piano violently with your fists.
Jason Bateman had some sweet banjo finger-pickin’ moves.
He really does. He did this brilliant Eddie Van Halen fretboard finger-tapping solo.
But he didn’t do the close-ups, right? Wasn’t that the real guy?
That’s right. Winston came to the set, and we found a way to use him. Sam hooked up his banjo to a smoke rig.
I’m not sure if you can see it in the video, but the idea was that he was playing so fast that smoke was coming out of his banjo. They rigged a little tube that came up under his hand, so while he’s finger-picking, smoke comes out.
Were you lip-syncing? Because it looks like you guys are actually belting it out.
Well, we learned pretty quickly that when you lip-sync, it looks like lip-syncing.
The muscles in your neck move in a different way than when you’re actually singing. So we tried to be real with it. But even though we’re all comedians and accustomed to making fools of ourselves, I think we were a little self-conscious about singing.
We got over it. Once you get over that hump and realize it’s okay, we just started singing our little hearts out.
At one point, Jason Bateman eats Will Forte’s tears.
I love that.
Was there anything that went too far, that ended up on the cutting-room floor?
It’s in the video, but it’s really toned down. There’s the moment when Will Forte is copulating with the bass.
Oh yeah. Was that just foreplay?
Well…. [Laughs] He went to town so passionately on that bass. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I don’t think Sam included much of that footage.
Maybe there’ll be an adults-only version?
Maybe, I don’t know. It was pretty intimate. We’re all still e-mailing about it.
You and Bateman and Sudeikis?
Yeah. Sudeikis sent an e-mail not too long ago, and he said there’d be little baby violins in another nine months.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)