When Joel Hopkins was a graduate student at the NYU film school, he had an idea for a short film which would be, as he put it during a recent Dallas interview, “a story about a shy man who falls in love with a girl at work.” He had little more than that skeletal notion in mind when he spotted Tunde Adebimpe, an undergraduate majoring in animation, on the campus. Adebimpe recalled that at the time his hair was “fire-engine red” and that “he [Joel] thought I was a big freak,” but Hopkins imagined he might be just right for the lead role in the film he was planning, and Adebimpe agreed to do the part despite having little acting experience. “After I met Adebimpe, we fleshed out the character,” Jopkins recalled, and the result was “Jorge,” a simple tale which went on to win NYU’s Wasserman Award (an honor previously accorded to such illustrious alumni as Spike Lee and Ang Lee), was screened at Sundance and other festivals, and eventually attracted financial support for a feature film focusing on the same character. Hopkins and Adebimpe were now in town for a showing of the result, “Jump Tomorrow,” at the USA Film Festival.

Turning “Jorge” into “Jump Tomorrow” wasn’t an easy process. The short film was confined to a single office set, where the reticent title character vied with an arrogant colleague for the affection of a co-worker, and so considerable expansion was necessary. George became a Nigerian immigrant scheduled to be married in a match arranged by his family; he finally loosens up, and is imperceptibly nudged toward a relationship with a different woman, the Latina Alicia (Natalia Verbeke), by a voluble new Gallic friend named Gerard (Hippolyte Girardot) during a comic road trip to his nuptials. “The key for me,” Hopkins explained, “was that the character was introverted, and I knew that for an hour and a half it would be hard to follow such a quiet character, and for comedy we were going to need someone for him to bounce off. So we created the Gerard character that’s the opposite of George–the extrovert. The road movie element was [another] addition.” So was the nationality of Alicia’s current fiancé, who was turned into a snooty Brit played by James Wilby, which allowed Hopkins to play on “the classic cultural clash between France and England” in arguments between him and Gerard.

While expanding the narrative, though, Hopkins stuck visually to a minimalist style. “I think that it’s really important for physical comedy–and I learned this from people like Jacques Tati, and Jim Jarmusch does it–to use very clean backdrops, allowing us to enjoy the physicality of the acting, keeping the frame quite clean. Then the comedy can come from [the actor’s] interaction with the environment.”

For Adepimbe, that interaction required a stillness and reticence that reflected George’s deep shyness. Part of the effect came from the wardrobe–a drab suit and the actor’s own horn-rimmed black glasses “to accentuate George’s awkwardness,” Hopkins said–but most arose from his performance. “It was really fun,” he recalled. “I never really thought of it as being put into this confined suit. It was kind of fun getting to be really, really still and really quiet. You just have to react very subtly to what people are doing. Well, it was fun at first. Toward the end I was like, ‘Okay, it’s enough now.'”

Hopkins noted that Adebimpe altered his character slightly for the movie, and that the change was key to the successful expansion of the original. “You made George a lot stronger in the feature,” he said to his star. “It went from being a panicked, shy quiet to a sort of more or less silent quiet that had more strength to it.” Hopkins also praised Adebimpe’s loose attitude as an actor, which, he opined, “probably springs from animation being his first love–acting is this thing, he can take it or leave it.”

Adepimbe agreed that while “I’m going to keep doing both [acting and animation],” he preferred the latter because acting is dependent on the right roles coming one’s way and so “is not as much in your hands.” At NYU he first studied live-action directing, but found the process frustrating because his volunteer cast and crew would frequently wander off to their own projects, leaving him unable to continue until they returned. “I said that the next year I was going into animation because I wouldn’t have to deal with real people,” he recalled, and soon he was specializing in claymation and stop-motion work. “If my actor didn’t work,” he chuckled, “I could rip his head off and make another one.” But he opted to collaborate with Hopkins because “I knew that I could learn something as a filmmaker” from the experience. And he’s happy he did. “I like real people a little more now,” he said with a smile.