It’s time to start calling Jemaine Clement a leading man. For years, the New Zealand actor has juggled our spirits with his dry comedic performances and that iconic voice, whether it’s from his addicting work on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords or with his family-friendly fare in both Rio films. And while he’s taken some questionable (and unfortunate) risks — Gentleman Broncos and Dinner for Schmucks, for example — he has always shined over any rust.
Lately, Clement’s been shaking up his colorful resume with an assortment of intriguing projects and roles, the type of stuff that should take him into new and exciting directions. Earlier this year, he wrote, directed, and starred in the hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and now for the first time in his career he’s playing a leading man in James C. Strouse’s charming indie dramedy, People Places Things.
As Will Henry, Clement plays a good-natured graphic novelist, who teaches at a liberal arts college in New York City to make ends meet. He’s also a father of two twin daughters from an ex-wife he’s still in love with, despite their awful breakup that stemmed from an embarrassing affair at their children’s well-attended birthday party. Granted, that’s all funnier than it reads, namely because Clement plays it so warm without ever getting too soggy.
It also helps that he’s surrounded by the talents of Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, and Stephanie Allynne.
In anticipation of the film’s release, we caught up with Clement one early morning to talk about his recent stellar run and his exciting prospects ahead, from working with Steven Spielberg on his upcoming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG to a radio play he’s developing for Earwolf. Essentially what we discovered is a man who has no interest in slowing down while always keeping his cool. If only we could all be that suave.
Hey, Jemaine. How are you doing?
Hey, Michael. I’m not too bad.
Well, that’s pretty good for the morning. I imagine you’re in New York?
I am. It’s raining. Where are you? I have to ask where you are now.
I’m in Chicago.
Oh, okay. Probably similar. Is it raining?
No, it’s actually kind of nice out — a nice little morning.
It’s pouring down here.
I actually like rainy days in the summer. Then I don’t have to feel like I need to go outside and do something. [Laughs.] Anyways… I have a few questions for you. Your latest film, People Places Things, is loosely based on director James C. Strouse’s real life. What sort of direction did he give you to play a somewhat looser version of himself?
Well, I wasn’t compelled to make it like him. He didn’t ever make me conscious of me doing it the way he would do it, but he wrote the character, and some elements are from his life, and so I picked some up. And he wouldn’t even reveal that fact to us. Some things came out during filming that some things happened in his life.
So, essentially the harsh breakup…
Yeah. He’s got the breakup, he’s got two kids, and he also teaches. He teaches different subjects. Maybe that’s the only change, but I’m not too sure either. You’d have to ask him about that.
Did he do the illustrations in the film, or were those yours? Because they’re remarkable.
I believe it was a graphic novelist named Gray Williams.
Have you tried drawing in the past — maybe as a hobby?
Yeah, I did it as a hobby. I mean, I doodle. I’m a doodler.
So, no graphic novels coming down the road?
I’m not a graphic novelist. There’s a big divide.
The film’s main protagonist, Will Henry, is your first time as a leading man. Were there any initial struggles?
I think the main one was whether or not I wanted to take on a leading role. I’ve never really been sure if I wanted to be an actor. I enjoy doing it. I was a little afraid of the pressure that I might feel carrying a movie. But as soon as we started, there was so much to think about that I didn’t think about that kind of stuff anymore.
Did you find the scenes that leaned more on drama rather than comedy necessarily difficult?
I find, for me, the thing with drama is to ignore trying to make everything funny, which I am used to trying to do, like doing live comedy in front of an audience. But I think it’s hard to tell what is funny, and it’s not hard to tell what’s dramatic. You know, the person they loved left them, what might be funny about that?
Having just directed and starred in What We Do in the Shadows, did you have any advice or input for Strauss?
No, not really. Jim’s done a few movies, and this was a different thing from that. We had the script for a week just to show it to the actors, so it was basically improvising the dialogue, so you’re looking for a different light, trying to show it in a different light. I wouldn’t presume also after directing one movie that I’d be able to give advice to someone.
Oh, I meant in the sense of having some perspective having overseen a production yourself.
I do remember hearing my own voice saying, “What I did in What We Do in the Shadows…” But usually when I start to say something like that, I wish I hadn’t thought of the sentence.
[Laughs.] Despite Will’s own anxieties as a single father, you really do come across as an ideal patriarch in many respects — just brimming with a lot of heart and pathos. Considering you’ve been a father for seven years, that must have helped, right?
Yeah. I think I might not have even done the film before I was a father because I understood the script in a certain way. Understanding how hard it would be to be separated from my child. I probably felt more for the character reading those scripts as a father. Everything changes once you become a parent. Like your movies. I used to watch a lot of horror movies until … basically, until he was born because there are kills all through them, and I was like, “Okay, let’s keep them away from him now.”
What were some of your favorite horror movies by the way?
Things like … some of the worst films for parenthood. I love The Ring and Anti-Christ … that Lars Von Trier film.
Yeah, that movie is terrifying. [Laughs.] So, what do you watch now with your kid? Does he watch any of your comedies?
My son? He saw People Places Things. I had to cover his eyes sometimes. And his ears. He likes watching the audience laugh. And anything Rio. Otherwise, he doesn’t see anything.
It’s gotta be surreal for him to see his dad on the screen, though. Does he understand the idea of being an actor?
We haven’t really talked about it, but I had a trip. I had to go away for about a week to LA, and he was like, “Why do you have to go?” And I was like, “Well, you know that movie Rio? I do the voice for him, and we’re doing another one.” And he didn’t believe me. Eventually, he came to a recording with me and saw what it was like. Then he told me when he grows up, he wanted to make another Rio movie with more realistic birds, and he wanted Nigel — the character I play — to have a different voice. He recast me.
[Laughs.] You know, there’s a lot of heart in People Places Things despite being largely about heartbreak. If this question is too personal, you can tell me to fuck off, but did you have any past breakups that took forever to mend? Maybe one that let you better understand where this character was coming from?
Oh yeah, definitely. I have a few innuendos. Well, most people do, and most would like to be with the first person they ever loved, to be with them for life. So, yes. [Pause.] This movie has something that’s unusual for a romantic comedy. The past relationship hanging around the air, which it does sometimes, and it’s sometimes surprising to the person who’s being wanted by their previous breakup or relationship, and they might not even realize it because they’re still thinking about somebody else.
You recently said, “I consider my career as a whole a collection of hobbies.” What other hobbies are you currently juggling?
Drawing is one of them, even though I’ve kind of neglected it. I maybe couldn’t get away with doing it as a job, but this is a way of kind of fulfilling that. Yeah, I was doing a graphic novel, which is something I used to really want to do, but now I’ve seen how much … you know, it’s an intense and lonely thing to carry out.
So maybe one day down the road?
It’s a lot of work. It requires a source of inspiration and motivation. I don’t realistically think I’m going to do it, but this is a way I could say I lived that life.
Are there any other formats of comedy that you’d like to try out? Maybe do more stand-up or podcasts or even improv?
I’ve never actually done stand-up, you know, being by myself up on stage. I came from more of a theater background. I’m about to do a radio play in New Zealand. It’s one of the most fun mediums because you can invent anything you want.
Oh yeah, absolutely. You should hit up Comedy Bang Bang next. It’s kind of like a manic radio play of sorts.
What is it called?
Comedy Bang Bang.
Oh, okay. I’ve seen the TV show version.
Yeah! The podcast, though, sometimes feels like an old radio play that just goes off the walls. It’s pretty funny.
The one I’m doing is like an old-fashioned radio play. A lot of it’s on the ocean. I’m on a big ocean mission sea-going trip.
Are you playing multiple characters?
A couple. I play the main character, but not too many of the supporting characters. It’s going to be pretty cool. We made one. We made a pilot in New Zealand, and then we’re making the rest. We start next week. We’ll make it in New Zealand, but it’s put out by Earwolf.
Oh nice! That’s who actually produces Comedy Bang Bang.
I love radio plays. I’ve done one before with the Conchords before we did the TV show. I kind of love that medium. It doesn’t have the bullshit of TV or film. You can do it at any time of the day. It doesn’t matter what budget you get. You can have any length that you like, you know?
You’ve won some awards in the past for your radio work. For Trashed, right?
Oh, right. That was a commercial. I wrote for a radio station writing commercials for a year or two.
Well, it looks like you’ve still got your strengths in that format then.
It’s kind of the power of radio. It’s sort of old-fashioned, especially in America. When you tell people about it they think you’re talking about something from the 1940s. In England, where we did the Conchords radio show, they’re still very much hip for old-fashioned radio shows. It’s still going on there. [Pause.] I feel the radio play is surely about to come back via podcasts.
Totally. Especially for comedy.
Yeah, it’s something you listen to in the car. Half-hour drama or comedy? Yeah, comedy. It’s just easier to listen to, you know?
Well, they’re so much fun. Especially since we’re in this kind of renaissance of comedy, where there’s just such a large pool of talent to play around with, and with radio, or any audio for that matter, it’s much easier to get everyone together.
It’s also a great place to learn writing.
Do you ever leave room for improv?
What I’m doing now, we do improv a little. Sometimes we’ll improv the whole thing, and sometimes we stick to the scripts.
When do you expect this new radio show to come out?
I’m not sure, but Earwolf will know.
What are you calling it?
It’s got quite a verbose title. It’s called Uncle Booty’s Buttonarium.
It looks like you’re doing more voice work than ever right now. You’re working with Steven Spielberg on his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG?
Yeah, that’s actually motion capture. The green suit with the little balls on them.
I imagine that’s been intense.
We’ve already filmed it. It wasn’t too intense, actually. It’s a kind of quick process in some ways. For an actor, all the cameras are kind of virtual, so they caught your movement and what’s called the volume, and then they can make up the shot later. So, you don’t have to worry about the lighting too much because that’s the way it fits, and you don’t have to get the camera placement right within the shot.
If you have a scene with two people talking, you can move the virtual camera to any angle, so you don’t have to shoot from one side and then from the other person’s side. The way they’ve used technology to make performance-captured characters interact with human characters is really cool.
They’ve also done stuff with robotics in it. There are these giant characters, and the way that they physically interact with the human characters of The BFG, her smart brother and the little girl Sophie, they can make the robotic like a machine that also performs motion-capture, so they can replicate his movements on a robotic platform so that she will be moving exactly the way he moves.
You watch the making of … it’s hard to explain.
Was it fun working with Spielberg? Was he there on set a lot?
Yeah, he’s always there, yeah, yeah.
That must’ve been unreal.
I couldn’t even believe I was talking to him. Also, I didn’t give Spielberg any directing ideas. “You know what I would do…”
[Laughs.] I’m sure he’d love that. Speaking of which, are you planning to do a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows?
We haven’t really started working on that other than emailing each other. We’ve been talking about making another documentary following the werewolf captors.
That’d be great.
We still don’t know much about werewolves. I was like, “What’s with all the vampire movies?” One of my favorite movies is An American Werewolf in London, one of the first films for me that mixed comedy and horror. I loved it when I saw it, and I still love it. And I did watch all the Howlings. Even the marsupials.
So, what going’s on with the Conchords? Are you touring soon?
We were planning on doing it this summer, but then I ended up doing The BFG instead. So it’s my fault we didn’t do it this time. But we are hoping to announce a tour. We’ll announce it before the end of the year, hopefully, and then some time next year get on the road … after we get some new guitar strings and that sort of thing.
Are you thinking about doing any festivals?
It depends what’s going on when we’re touring.
On the topic of music, what have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to Metronomy for the last year. I like the way they use those little keyboards. We’re pretty into little keyboards as well, especially when they’re used in a really cool way. And, what else? I’ve been listening to this woman, Julia Holter, which I found on Song Exploder. Do you know the Song Exploder podcast?
I’ve been listening to Song Exploder a lot.
Oh, it’s great. We have a few writers that adore the podcast. [Pause.] Well, Jemaine, that’s pretty much what I got today, but we’ll pick up tomorrow morning again.
[Laughs.] Another day, it’ll be like a diary.
Yeah, I’ll get some more coffee and tea, and we’ll chat. [Both laugh.] Anyways, thanks for taking this time to talk to us, especially this early in the morning.
Thanks. Nice to talk to you.
People Places Things opens August 14th via The Film Arcade.