An interview with Jemaine Clement, best known for HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” and now headed for the big screen with “People Places Things.”
Jemaine Clement, best known for being the bespectacled half of “Flight of the Conchords” on HBO, ended up on TV because he was trying not to be on TV.
In town earlier this summer for the Seattle International Film Festival screening of the romantic comedy “People Places Things” — which marks Clement’s first time as a leading man in a film — he looked back, over breakfast, at how his career began.
At Victoria University in his native New Zealand, he met Taika Waititi and Bret McKenzie “doing theater shows, in the drama club”; both of whom would become his longtime collaborators. Eventually, he and McKenzie quit college at the same time, to write and put on shows. “During the day, our flatmates would be at university, so we’d practice guitar,” he remembered. “We starting writing songs, not with a real idea; we’d just play them for our flatmates.”
’People Places Things’
Opens Friday, Aug. 14, at SIFF Film Center. Rated R for language including some sexual references and brief nudity. For a review, pick up next Friday’s MovieTimes or go Thursday to seattletimes.com/movies.
Though trying to make a living as television writers, they quickly become disillusioned. “We got really sick of the kind of stuff we were trying to get paid for,” Clement remembered. “Television in New Zealand is, well, you think television in America can be bad, New Zealand has all the bad stuff without the good stuff. They really have no interest in making television comedy in New Zealand at all … So we thought, let’s make a band.”
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That band, the charmingly clueless duo Flight of the Conchords, began playing at local bars, and then toured to comedy festivals — where, before long, they were noticed by HBO representatives. The result: two seasons of “Flight of the Conchords,” American fame, a cult following and an assortment of wonderfully hummable comedic songs. (Sample lyric, from “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)”: “You’re so beautiful/ You could be a part-time model … But you’d probably still have to keep your normal job.”)
The show opened the doors to a multifaceted career. With Waititi, Clement wrote, directed and starred in the cult-hit vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows,” released in theaters earlier this year. (A sequel, to star the control-freak werewolf played by Rhys Darby — manager Murray from “Flight of the Conchords” — is in the planning stages.) He’ll tour again with McKenzie as Flight of the Conchords — “The TV show was a lot of stress, but the touring’s pretty fun” — and has another HBO series in the works with Waititi: “kind of one-off episodes, stand-alone comedy, short films.”
And on his own, he’s quietly amassing an acting career, trying out romantic comedy with “People Places Things.” In it, he plays a graphic novelist facing single parenthood, in a story loosely based on writer/director James C. Strouse’s real life.
“I don’t know to what degree he thinks of it as his life,” Clement said of Strouse, with whom he’s remained friends. “But sometimes, we’d turn up [on the set] and I’d be wearing the exact same outfit as him. I’d be costumed in what they’d chosen for me and he would be wearing exactly the same.”
For much of the film, he shares the screen with a pair of 6-year-old girls: twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby, who played his daughters. “They were fantastic,” he remembers. “They were really fun. They knew their lines — whole scenes, just like adults.”
Though his work is increasingly far-reaching (he’ll next be seen in a Steven Spielberg family adventure “The BFG,” based on the Roald Dahl book and due out next summer), Clement still lives in Wellington, and treasures his roots in comedy.
“I went into the job from total joy,” he said of his career. “I love comedy, I love laughing, and I laugh so hard when we’re writing stuff, you know? That’s where making comedy comes from — that’s the main driving force.”