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From actor to director, Gries finds himself ‘Grinnin’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jon Gries can’t wait to get back to New Mexico- and he’s on his way.

Milo and Johnny Jake Johnson, played by Garret Mathany and Johnny Dowers, in the film “Pickin’ Grinnin’. “

The actor – known for playing Uncle Rico in “Napoleon Dynamite” – will conduct a Q&A session after the screening of his directorial debut “Pickin’ & Grinnin’ ” at the Guild Cinema, 3405 E. Central, at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1, Sunday, Sept. 2 and Monday, Sept. 3.

But this won’t be the first time the movie is screened in the Duke City.

The film took home best comedy feature and audience award at the 2010 Albuquerque Film Festival.

“I’m excited to bring it back to Albuquerque and screen at the Guild,” he says during a recent phone interview from his home. “We drove across the country filming the movie and we have some great shots from New Mexico.”

“Pickin’ & Grinnin’ ” follows Milo and Johnny Jake Johnson – played by Garret Mathany and Johnny Dowers – who are music-loving wannabe stars who are on the verge of calling it quits on their music career. Then the duo hear about the Sing-a-Ling contest in Nashville and decide to drive from their California home to the contest -which is a last-ditch mission of musical redemption.

The movie also stars, Frances Bay, Tracey Walter, Garrett Morris, Robert Baker, Sandy Martin, W. Earl Brown, Geoffrey Lewis, Rick Trammell. There are also cameos from Kenny Loggins and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.

Gries says making the transition from actor to director wasn’t that difficult. He says because the script was so well done, he was confident in the movie being is directorial debut.

“When I got the script I knew it was good and did have some nerves taking on this task,” he admits. “But as I started to delve further into it, we did some restructuring of the relationships and such. After awhile it just started to make sense.”

Gries’ foray into film was a no-brainer.

His father, Tom, directed the 1976 film “Helter Skelter” and passed away when Gries was 18.

“I was around his movie sets a lot,” he recalls. “I always had a super eight movie camera with me. I got into acting at a young age but I knew that my intention was always to direct. I did music videos and then it was a natural gestation from there.”

Gries says “Pickin’ & Grinnin’ ” had 38 days to shoot the film, yet the schedule was over the course of nearly a year.

“We had the main actors for 10 days and after that we had to shoot on weekends,” he explains. “For some of the shots, we had to wait until the weather matched up, which meant months had to pass before we could shoot them again.”

While Gries says he’s having fun directing, he hasn’t ruled out all acting options.

With “Napoleon Dynamite” in 2004, Gries’ character – Uncle Rico – became a cult hit along with the movie.

He says while he had fun with that role, there ws much more for him.

“After the movie, I kept getting offered roles that were similar to Rico’s and just full of cliches,” he explains. “I didn’t want to play another character like him again because I’ve been there and done that. I like to be challenged by roles and with Rico, I was. Anything similar to that wouldn’t be as fun. If I don’t feel challenged, I think that audiences would be able to notice it.”

Gries has also been keeping busy. He’s written a screenplay called “Another Man’s Gun,” which is a Western.

“I have a number of projects that I’d like to get off the ground,” he says. “I have a comedy/horror film that I want to get started.”

‘Pickin’ & Grinnin’ ‘
WHEN: 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1, Sunday, Sept. 2 and Monday, Sept. 3
WHERE: Guild Cinema, 3405 E. Central