New Zealand comic, actor and musician Jemaine Clement has firmly cemented his reputation for his deadpan performance in the cult hit “Flight of the Conchords” opposite Bret McKenzie. From the early ’90s onward, the multi-talented Clement racked up credits as an actor, screenwriter, TV-show creator, and executive producer, with a strong genre emphasis on eccentric comedies.
Clement began in 2002 by scripting and acting in the martial arts comedy “Tongan Ninja” — the saga of the world’s most powerful ninja, who must travel to the Patio of Death, fight an omnipotent enemy, and rescue the love of his life. Though McKenzie did not participate in that project, he and Clement teamed up in 2007 for the quirky HBO series “Flight of the Conchords”, a comedy woven around the theme of culture clash, following the pair’s wacky adventures as a band trying to make it in New York City.
Clement then could be seen solo again, with an acting role as Jarrod in Taika Waititi’s deadpan absurdist comedy “Eagle vs. Shark” (2007). Clement will next be seen in the oddball indie comedy “Gentlemen Broncos” as a famous sci-fi writer who steals a story from an adolescent adoring fan. The film is getting mixed reviews but Clement seems to coming off the quirky film with critical kudos. The actor talked about the film and the future of Conchords, with Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: Was Gentlemen Broncos an opportunity to try and play a character that is as different from anything you’ve ever done as an actor?
Clement: I guess as an actor, yes. But [LAUGHTER] as – I might have put on voices like that as a kid and I remember my parents being dismayed. They were both factory workers, and sort of hippies as well. So, you know, I’d try and get, like, tweed jackets and vests, and pretend I’m wearing a monacle, and for some reason, I had these delusions of grandeur, so, I had practice, in my own way.
Question : Do you see your character as unsympathetic?
Clement: I don’t think of it like that. I guess I’m becoming an actor, because I feel myself saying these things that actors always say on these ” Making Of’s” , with, ” I think of him as a sympathetic character.” But that’s true. I think of him as someone who’s just sort of – early success trapped him, and he’s quite depressed about it, and – you know, he doesn’t know what to do now.
Question: Do you feel any sense of personal empathy or identification with Chevalier at all?
Clement: Yeah, I do. I don’t know if an audience will.
Question: But in some ways, you’re kind of the sane voice amidst this comic chaos. Did you approach playing him in a very manic way? I mean, did you want to make him as real and as straight as possible?
Clement: Well, that’s always the question with anything officially ” comedy” , because there’s so much spectrum between totally real deadpan, and off-the-wall mania. So, I guess I started with a caricature, and then hopefully added some realism, so that it didn’t – you know, you want it to seem real.
Question: What was the attraction of doing this movie, for you?
Clement: I thought the script was really funny, and original.
Question: And had you been done with Conchords at the time?
Clement: I was between the first and second season when we were gonna shoot, I just happened to have a couple of weeks off. And in fact, I had one week off, and I took an extra week off to do the film while Bret and James started on the Conchords without me. So. And so, actually, in another way, I was sympathetic to Ronald Chevalier, in that I had to write, or co-write, another 20 comedy songs and another season of a sitcom. And – you know, when you think you’ve done everything. So I related to that.
Question: Did you have any expectations at all, when you guys did Conchords?
Clement: Yeah. We expected them not to take the show.
Question: So what is your reaction to its cult-like status amongst Americans?
Clement: Well, it’s made the live shows a really pretty amazing experience for us, because we started off playing to – more like in the show. We would play to about ten people a week and – for a very long time. It was slowly built up, but not to a big degree, before we started touring. And now our smallest audience is literally zero. Was literally zero. We replicated it in the show, where we started off, and there was one person in the audience. And when the lights turned on, just – they weren’t there. They’d left. And that was our audience low point. And our biggest audience was, like, 20,000 people.
Question: And you did a show here in LA recently. How successful was that?
Clement: It was really good. It was really fun. It was at the Greek.
Question: That’s a huge house. Is it intimidating to do that kind of show?
Clement: Well, that was near the end of the tour, so we were used to those kinds of venues by then, but the first time we saw anything like that, it was quite a sickening feeling. But that’s part of the excitement.
Question: Where did you and Bret meet? How did that relationship come to be?
Clement: The usual comedy story. We met at university. And we were actually flatting together, in this decrepit old building with some other people. And we’d have – we’d both quit university, and we had a lot of time off, and we both wanted to learn guitar. We’d already played some other instruments, and I played a little bit of bass, but not with any musical knowledge backing it up. But we both had guitars, and we started to learn some songs, and – we started to make up songs. And making them up took over.
Question: So, this show is semi-autobiographical then, is it?
Clement: In some ways. Yeah, there are parts completely from things that have happened to us.
Question: Is there going to be a third season?
Clement: Well, we haven’t made a firm decision. We’re tending towards not, though.
Question: Why? And – this is very disappointing news.
Clement: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. Well, well, if we had the same time frame as we had the second season, it’s definitely not enough time to do it. I don’t know how long it takes a band to write an album, but sometimes years go by. But we’ve got to write two albums, and a TV series. And then we’ve got to act in the series on the weekdays, while we record the music on the weekends, so it’s just really hard to keep up the quality. Like, when we work a lot on the song, the script suffers, and vice versa. So, It’s this terrible thing for us. Even if people like it, it’s hard for us to get it to a standard that we’re happy with.
Question: Would you consider doing, like, a one-off kind of finale to appease fans?
Clement: We are considering that. We’re considering a few different things like maybe a film, maybe a finale, not really sure.
Question: Now, you’ve also just finished recording a voice for Despicable Me. Is that correct?
Clement: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve finished it. [LAUGHTER] But I don’t know. Your sources may be very reliable, I don’t know.
Question: Who’s the character you play in that?
Clement: Is it called Tim?
Question: It’s called Tim, according to IMDB
Clement: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, right. I don’t know if it’s true. Actually, I play more than one character.
Question: Oh, you do?
Clement: But they’re clones, so they’re all very similar.
Question: Are you doing it with an English, New Zealand, or American accent?
Clement: Well, it’s kind of its own accent. But, I mean, we have done very little on my character.
Question: What kinds of ambitions do you have, in terms of your career at this point? I mean, are you interested in directing? Are you interested in doing more movie work? Back to your comic roots? What do you want to do?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: My ambition is kind of going backwards. I’d like to do some gigs in small theaters, and do little shows, and make short films that no one’ll watch.
Question: On your own?
Clement: Yeah [LAUGHTER] – with whoever. On my own, yeah.
And I’m working with Taika on a script at the moment, and we’ve written a few theater shows together, and I’ll probably try and convince them to do some of that, even though we’ve both probably got bigger things we could be doing. But it’s really fun.
Question: I take it you’re not interested in moving to LA?
Clement: No, not really, but short visits are very nice. But, no. I don’t think I’ll do that. But we did move here to write the show. We write it – we’d write it in LA, and then go to New York to film it.
Question: Do you know what’s next for you at this point? Or are you going to just promote this movie and then go back home?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I’ve got some other movie things coming up.
Question: Can you talk about any of them?
Clement: Dunno. [LAUGHTER] You know how it is with these things. Well, actually, I don’t – the truth is, I don’t know how it is. Like, I’ve gotten in trouble before for – for blowing news that I wasn’t supposed to.
Question: Are these American movies, or New Zealand films?
Clement: I’m working on a couple American movies, and also working on some stuff in New Zealand. I just made a film called Predicament, with an old friend of mine. It’s this kind of a heist film. I don’t know if it’ll be out here.
Question: It’s a comedy, I take it.
Clement: It’s possibly a comedy. It might depend on the editing. It’s more like a coming of age movie, I guess.
Question: Do you think you’ll try and do more Conchords on stage?
Clement: Well, I actually came to do quite a small scale album. Like, with less production than we put in the show and just sort of different things. On the show, we relied on parodies, I guess, a lot. And I’d like to do just some other sorts of songs.
Question: How about working with Rhys Darby again?
Clement: Yeah, yeah. I’m always trying to think of ideas for Rhys.
Question: I mean, that show really turned him into a phenomenon.
Clement: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it’s true and particularly in New Zealand. He’s everyone, he’s on billboards for cell phones, and for Greenpeace. And – you know. Everything. But I love working with him. We talked the other day, actually, about writing a film that we could do together.