Ever since his distinctly base and nasal tones wormed their way into our hearts through Flight Of The Conchords, Jemaine Clement has been a delight for comedy lovers worldwide. Sporting a smoothly ironic sensibility and gently geeky core, Clement has found a home as a comedic character actor in everything from Men In Black III and Muppets Most Wanted to the brilliantly deadpan vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows that he also co-wrote and directed. He’s found a career halfway between the mainstream and snobby outsider comedy that’s tickled just about everyone just once. At this point, if you haven’t found Jemaine Clement funny in something, then there’s a chance that you probably aren’t quite sure what “funny” is.
Yet, despite the success the Kiwi comic has enjoyed over the last decade he’s oddly never starred in a movie until now. This week, Celement headlines People Places Things, a new painfully funny and honest film from James L. Strouse. Movingly and awkwardly (in a good way) autobiographical, Strouse’s film follows a teacher and graphic novelist (that’s Clement) still struggling to recover from breaking up with his wife a year after becoming a single father. That means that audiences are treated to all manner of social discomfort as Clement struggles to embrace an adult existence that even his onscreen students have managed to fake. It’s a hilarious and oddly touching film very reminiscent of New Hollywood outsider comedies like The Heartbreak Kid, The Landlord, or The Graduate only, you know, contemporary.
In advance of the film’s release, Dork Shelf got a chance to pick Clement’s brain about everything from teasing his director about autobiographical filmmaking to his discomfort with acting, and his upcoming appearance in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster adaptation of The BFG. As expected, the answers were candidly comedic because with Jemaine Clement, anything else would be inappropriate.
Dork Shelf: So, I gather the film is based loosely on James L. Strouse’s life. Did you have any discussions with him about that or is that just uncomfortable and unnecessary?
Jemaine Clement: He didn’t mention that to me or anyone else in the cast, be we kind of silently put that together. For instance, my character is a teacher at the School Of Visual Arts in Manhattan and after a few minutes of chatting, it came out that James is a teacher at the School Of Visual Arts in Manhattan. (Laughs) And you know, he’s got two kids…it all added up pretty quickly.
DS: Did you guys ever confront him about it?
JC: Oh all the time. Whenever we were trying to figure out how to play a scene, one of the actresses would say, “Well how did she do this in real life?” He’d always avoid answering that (Laughs). He’d just say, “Well this time it didn’t happen to me.” We were always trying to figure out which bits were from his life and which were made up. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe 50/50?
DS: I read you had some hesitation of taking the lead role in this movie because you don’t really consider yourself an actor. Is that really true? Because for what it’s worth, you’re pretty good at it.
JC: (Laughs) Thanks. Before I did Flight Of The Conchords, my friends and I would put on shows. Most of the time we’d spend on those things would be writing and coming up with ideas. Performing just felt like the bit that had to come at the end. I’ve felt pretty uncomfortable accepting other parts, I must admit. But by the time I came to actually doing this film, I’d done enough acting that I didn’t feel too apprehensive. It doesn’t bother me like it used to, but it was pretty strange for a while. The audience is at least used to me now. That helps.
DS: Did you work on the script for People Places Things at all to gear it towards your voice?
JC: Because I’ve done a little directing and a lot of writing, I try to always get the writers idea out, first but not always in the exact words. We did improvise a little bit in the film. But I didn’t feel comfortable doing any writing on this one.
DS: How did you find working with the kids?
JC: I really enjoyed working with those kids, Andrea and Gia. There’s that famous quote, “never work with animals or children” and I’d love to talk to whoever came up with that and see what they meant. I think they might have meant that you’ll be upstaged rather than anything being difficult. I’ve never found kids difficult to work with, but if you’re on screen with cute enough kids people aren’t going to look at you. So that might have been what he was on about.
DS: Did it take long for you to find such a perfectly pathetic ill-fitting suit for the finale?
JC: Not really, it just came out like that. (Laughs) We honestly didn’t plan it, but that kind of fit the scene when it happened. They made the legs really short, which I guess is the fashion. But on me it just didn’t look cool somehow (Laughs). We discussed if it was funny enough to work and decided to throw in a line. We had a whole bunch of reactions from everyone, because I looked a little ridiculous.
DS: How was shooting the movie? You’re in pretty much every scene and I’d imagine this thing was shot quickly. Was that exhausting?
JC: No, I think the fact that it was shot so quickly actually helps. The problem is a big budget film that just drags on for months and months. That’s when it can get tiring. I didn’t have that problem.
DS: I can guess which movie you’re suggesting was gruelling, but I won’t say which one.
JC: Thank you.
DS: Was it nice being back in New York after shooting Flight Of The Conchords there?
JC: Oh yeah. I’ll say yes to almost any job as long as it’s in New York. I love it there. It certainly made this decision easier.
DS: How was your experience on The BFG? Have you shot that entirely?
JC: Yep, we filmed that at the start of the year in Vancouver. Your Vancouver. It was great. I enjoyed every second. I can’t wait to see it. As a fan of Steven Spielberg and Roald Dahl I can’t wait and you know…also as someone who’s in it.
DS: Yeah, I kind of assumed that you must be a fan of Roald Dahl. That seems like your type of humor.
JC: Yeah, yeah. Actually I’m reading Matilda to my son at the moment. I hadn’t actually read it. That one is better known in North America, probably because of the film. But in New Zealand the big one is The BFG. I remember it was a big deal when that book came out. I remember everyone waiting for the school bell to ring so that we could all run out to get it.
DS: How did you find wearing those extra form fitting motion capture leotards?
JC: Yeah…that’s certainly flattering outfit. (Laughs) The WETA people told us that when Daniel Craig wore his for Tintin, not even he would allow photos to be taken in the tights. You know what he looks like, so if he can’t even look good in it then no one’s got a chance.
DS: Were you intimidated to work with Spielberg?
JC: Sure. It took a little while. You look across the room and you feel like you’re in the making of documentary for one of your favourite movies. But he’s very natural so he makes you relax. The way he introduced himself was very gentle. He came over to me and Bill Hader and some of the other actors playing the giants while we were having lunch and just introduced himself as one of the guys. That was nice. Much less terrifying than having a phone call or a meeting. He must know that people freak out.
DS: How’s the HBO series that you and Taika Waititi are making coming along?
JC: We’ve had to put that on hold for a little while. We’ve written it, but he’s a little busy with Thor now. We’re not too sure when we can fit that in for a while.
DS: Would it be horror related again?
JC: We’re hoping to do some horror with it, yeah.
DS: Are you still interested in trying to do a straight horror project some day?
JC: It’s more of a dream (Laughs). It would always have a little comedy, it wouldn’t be just scares.
DS: Like an American Werewolf In London sort of thing?
JC: Well, that’s the gold standard. I could only dream of that.
DS: Are you writing anything else right now?
JC: I’m kind of taking a break to be honest. I’ve got some writing coming up next year, so I’m trying to relax a bit while it’s still an option. There’s that HBO thing and then Taika and I also want to do a What We Do In The Shadows sequel.
DS: What’s it like when you go back to New Zealand these days? Are you mobbed?
JC: Well, we were back in the Conchords days. That got a bit weird. People would come out of their shops and mob us. Now they’re used to it. Sick of us, even. If anything you can tell they’re thinking, “They still live here, do they? That’s a bit sad.”