At the end of Consequence‘s phone interview with Our Flag Means Death star Rhys Darby, the veteran comedy actor felt the need to apologize. “Sorry for rambling on — I’ve had two coffees and you’re the first person I’ve spoken to today,” he said, before adding, “I’m a lead actor now, I’m going to do way more talking!”
This is Darby’s time to shine, as after decades of appearing in projects like the Jumanji films and his iconic role as Murray in Flight of the Conchords, he’s for the first time ever number one on the call sheet for a TV show. Specifically, Darby stars the HBO Max period comedy about real-life historical figure Stebe Bonnet, who abandoned his family in 1717 to become a pirate, assembling an eclectic crew on board his well-appointed ship for one of the weirder mid-life crises of all time.
It’s a big part in a big show, but Darby wasn’t sailing off alone, as his longtime friend and collaborator Taika Waititi came on board to direct the pilot episode — and also play the role of Blackbeard, just one of the other pirates that Stebe encounters at sea. “What mainly caught my eye was the idea of a pirate comedy series, which hasn’t been done. So I thought, ‘Well, that’s exciting,’ and knowing Taika was involved, I knew it was going to happen and I knew it was going to be great,” he says.
Below, Darby goes into how he ended up in the role, why he connected with Stebe’s story, and what it was like working again with Waititi as both his director and his co-star. Darby also offers up the latest update on what might be involved in making a Flight of the Conchords revival happen, and if fans of the musical comedy series might have cameos to look forward to in future episodes of Our Flag Means Death.
To start off — tell me a little more about how you came to Our Flag Means Death.
Well, it feels like a decade now, but it was a couple of years ago during the pandemic’s early days — I was in New Zealand, and I heard that this thing had been developed or at least talked about, this pirate show. I don’t know how — must have been on Deadline or something like that. It was definitely David Jenkins, and I think Taika was mentioned as a co-developer on the show and so then that caught my eye.
I never really thought of myself [for it] and I didn’t really know what it was, but I looked into the story pretty soon after that — you know, the factual drama that took place many hundred years ago — and I thought, oh, no wonder they’re working on this. This is a ridiculous story. So it sparked my interest right from the onset and then I never heard back from a while… I mean, I didn’t reach out. The universe provides for me — I just sit by the phone.
Then, eventually, I got contacted by David and he said he’d like to see me on tape because he’s auditioned a lot of people. I was very surprised it was for the lead character. Normally I don’t do leads — I normally turn up in the cast down the [call sheet] numbers quite a bit, the guy that makes everything funny when things start to get a bit of the yawn side — I’m that guy. They’re throwing me into pictures, movies, whatever. I lighten things up.
I’ve loved that for a long time; I always love being the funny guy, but I am getting on a bit and it’s probably about time I take the lead on something, so it kind of made sense. I do love the craft of the thing that’s all of my stand-up and my comedy has led to the dream of being a comedy actor. I’m there now, so now it’s time to stand up and do more work.
I felt, “Alright, I’ll put myself on tape for this lead,” and he kind of already knew that I was what he wanted, Taika said, “Just reach out to him,” and he was happy with what I sent through. I guess it just kind of collects, because this character I could relate to. Not that I’ve got everything and I’m a healthy landowner that wants to leave my wife and kids, but the idea of middle-aged escapism, which Taika and I both discussed, is a funny thing because we’re both kind of middle-aged like Stede.
Back in the day, I think Stede was 32 when he did this — that’s definitely on the end of middle-aged for back then, and of course, now, these days, your forties are the new twenty [Laughs]. Yeah, I think the stars aligned. Time worked out, and it was meant to be, and it just felt like the right fit. When they said, we wanna go with you, I was over the moon because that meant an excuse to leave the safety of the shire of New Zealand [Laughs] and come back into COVID-filled U.S. and get the kids back to school.
Me and the wife and the kids — we left LA as soon as the pandemic happened. We had no idea how long it was going to last, we had no idea how the U.S. was going to handle it, and then it just felt like if we’re going to come back, we need to have something to come back to… Yeah, it just worked out. It was everything in a nutshell.
So I wanted to clarify — first off, you started doing the research for this before you even knew that the job was a possibility?
Yes, yeah. I was interested. I hadn’t heard of this pirate — he’s sort of on the fringe as far as the famous pirates go. Anyone who’s really into the golden age of piracy, of course, will know all about him, but it’s surprising that he’s not more famous because his story is so bizarre. The guy had everything and he left it all to go and become a complete rebel. That and risk of life, and three months later, he’s dead. It’s kind of like, “What a fool,” but also, “What courage.”
Taking a risk is something that artists can relate to, and a lot of people have said to me that where I am now and what i’ve done came down to having nothing at the beginning and just a dream and a risk and turning my head towards the sun and running at it. I think you can either get burnt up or you can make it, and I think that element to it is also something that sort of attracted me to the role.
So you heard about the possibility of the role and put yourself on tape — of course, you already know Taika. Did you talk to him in advance of putting yourself on tape for the role?
I think that I waited until David Jenkins contacted me and then I contacted Taika and I said, “It looks like I’m in the running for this piece. Is there anything you think I should do to make sure I get this?” It felt like it was just something HBO needed, was to have me on tape. They knew who I was many years ago — over a decade ago, when I was on Flight of the Conchords — but I’m sure they’ve had a staff change, and now they’re like, “Who is this guy?” [Laughs] “Remember me? I was really funny in the late nineties!”
I just wanted to confirm with him — is there anything else I can do? He just said, “No, he wants you, just be yourself and do what you do because I think this character — you embody him.” It’s hard to describe, but you’ll see it when you see the show. I guess it’s something that I’ve got that I can do whereby I have empathy for the person I betray even though he’d done really bad things. You still feel for him because there’s an innocence to his character, and as the show unfolds, you see why he left his wife and kids and what his whole situation was. He didn’t know who he was until he kind of found it.
It’s a difficult one to play. You could audition any great English actor to portray someone of that stature — of that wealth and everything like that and be very well-spoken and what have you, but if you haven’t got the heart and the empathy for the person, and you can’t see the innocence in them, then you’re not going to believe him, he’s not going to be your hero. I could see how I could sort of pull that off. Imagine if Murray from Flight of the Conchords was running a pirate ship. That’s probably what the sale was.
I mean, it’s a good sell. But what’s really interesting about the show is the idea that the worst crime that Stede commits isn’t anyone of the piracy he does, it’s the initial act of leaving his wife and children.
Yeah, absolutely. And in some ways, an unforgivable act, but let’s be honest, it happens all the time. A partner leaves their family, families break up, it’s even more common than it used to be where marriages just don’t last. People are unhappy, and back in the day, people used to stay in their unhappy marriages and have affairs and what have you, but these days, it’s like, “No, it’s not working, let’s move on.”
In that regard, he did sneak off in the middle of the night, but I think it’s a case of, “This is not working.” This is something we tackle in the show — how can someone do that and how can that be resolved as well? What are the reasons that bring people to that?
Yeah, because on one hand, in today’s eyes, it’s probably a much worse crime than it was back then, but also in today’s eyes, we have a deeper understanding of why he might do such a thing.
Exactly, yeah. Back in those days, especially when you were of wealth and an aristocrat, things were worked out for you. You didn’t get to decide who you marry — it’s all organized. When you see any period drama — by the way, I love period dramas, pretty much, that’s all I watch, which is another reason why I was happy to get this show and throw a costume on — it just takes me to sort of another world, really— but when you watch these dramas, they had very little power. The more powerful they are, they have very little power in who they are supposed to be with.
And then they’re expected to — once they get married — to stay with that person. So it was a Catch-22 back then, I guess. He was certainly going against the grain for what could have been a complete shock back then, that you would just leave your married situation, let alone pay for a pirate ship, put a library in it, and then hire a ragtag crew and hit off into the sea to your definite death at some point. How bad was his married life? [Laughs]
These days, we just go and buy a Porsche 911…it’s just a different scenario, isn’t it? I guess that was his Porsche, that pirate ship.
When working with Taika again, was there a kind of an easy shorthand you had right away, since you know each other?
Of course, yeah. We definitely have the same sense of humor. We know how each other works, and we come up with the same jokes — not exactly the same jokes, but we usually have the same tone. If he’s thinking of something, I’ll definitely hammer it home, or if I’m suggesting something, he’ll have the idea that’s gonna make it go through. We have kindred spirits, definitely.
Having had him direct that first episode, it meant he was controlling the general vibe of everyone in the show, and it was really exciting, especially for these British actors that they come across and see what he’s capable of, and knowing me as well that there would be improv and added stuff that we could play with, and just make this thing the funniest thing that we could do. In that regard, it was what everyone wanted.
Later on, when he’s acting, there’s some really dramatic parts that we had to do, so we had each other’s back in that as well. We are working alongside each other, and we haven’t done that much. Normally, he’s directing me, and if we’re in something together and both acting, we’re not really in many scenes together, if any. So that was really lovely, to be able to work with him acting-wise.
It’s a really good fit, and that’s why you do see comic actors work with each other time and time again — it’s because comedy has to be a really good natural, organic thing. You can’t come across like you’re saying a line, it has to be real to be true. If that works, if you know each other really well — you can say anything completely ridiculous and the people are going to believe it. You can see it in their eyes that they’re friends and they mean it.
It’s hard to describe the flow of it, but that’s what happens, and also if I want to jump off script and do something ridiculous, the people I’m working opposite, they have to be able to keep up with that. If they start laughing, they lose the moment. It’s a skill that not many people have, so if they can do it, grab those people that can do it. I think that’s how it works.
When you’re doing something as technically complicated as a period drama like this, do you feel like you have the same freedom to riff and improv?
A little bit, but not as much. The script always comes first, and when we’re given such great scripts — these were funny right off the bat even before I came on board. I think I saw the pilot script and it made me laugh. I could see the writing — when you know who you’re casting, you can write towards them as well knowing what their capabilities are. You know, how they can deliver certain things. I could see that in the writing. We’re already there.
You can say, “Ok, how ‘period’ are we going to be? Are we gonna be able to speak like this or use the terminology of the day?” And in the end we thought, “You know what, in order for this to be as funny as possible, we’re going to speak pretty much in modern terms. There’s gonna be the things we talk about and deal with are old world-y, but the words we’re going to use are going to be whatever’s funniest at the time.”
That’s the best thing about making comedy — the poetic license is certainly more free. You get bogged down in being historically accurate — people are going to be, “Oh, God.”
In the first five episodes, there’s at least one cameo that Flight of the Conchords fans are going to be excited about. Can you say in the back half of the season how more of that we can anticipate?
There is a bit more, yes. Not a great deal more, but there is more in the guest star realm that I think people will be quite excited about. Obviously, I cannot say. I am really looking forward to it all unfolding, and major comedy stars knocking on the door, wanting to be part of this show — it’s just so much fun dressing up in a ridiculous outfit, get on a pirate ship, and get your swords out! It’s literal kid’s play!
I’m sure you get this question all the time, but I wanted to get the most up-to-date answer on it, which is what do conversations around a reunited Flight of the Conchords look like at this stage?
It’s always on the peripheral — no one mentions it, and we don’t see each other all that often, especially during the pandemic. I did hear from Jemaine [Clement] yesterday, he texted me to say hello, he’s hoping to pop into LA at some point. He ran into my friend Ravi, they’re making a picture together. We talk to each other like that, when we know we’ll be able to see each other physically every few months or whatever — depending on if he’s normally in New Zealand, I’m in LA, sometimes I’m back in New Zealand, sometimes he’s coming over here.
Bret’s pretty much always in LA working on his music, and we catch up when I’m in Wellington, generally once a year. But there’s never any conversation about getting the band back together. [Laughs]
I feel like it was somewhere where somebody had an idea, it would happen kind of quickly.
Yeah, and it would never be me. It’s never up to me. Despite me being the manager, it’s down to the other guys and what they want to do. I’m always here and totally up to anything. That’s kind of been my mantra, my whole comedy-acting life. I will be up for anything to a degree, especially if it’s working with my friends, which is why it’s such a thrill to be able to do this show with Taika because… yeah, it’s just the best part of having this job is to go through the last few years with these guys and just have each other’s back.
It can be scary out here in America or away from home. You do get projects in things, but you know that when you get to work with your friends, they’re going to be good projects. I get asked to do a lot of things, and sometimes it is not the right fit for me. But you have to work and you’ll go, “Okay, I’ll do this, and I’ll do my best and try and change it my way.” Sometimes people won’t understand.
Our comedy…we have a unique take on it, that’s what people are attracted to. It’s definitely better if we can work together somehow, one or two of us, hopefully one day all three of us again. That’s up to those guys. I feel like I’m never the decision maker, despite the authoritative character I play.
Along those lines — this is kind of a cheesy question, but I was reading that you originally met Jemaine at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Right. I knew him before then, but that’s when we connected pretty well.
In terms of looking back at that time, if you were to tell your past self anything about that, what would it be?
Yeah, I would congratulate myself for being in the festival at the same time as the Conchords, and indeed Taika was there too, I think. God, it was like 2003. [Editor’s Note: It was 2002.] I know that we — I was over there, I think we were all there at one point — maybe it was the first thing we were all there. Taika and Jermaine had a show, the Conchords had their show, and I had my own show, and none of us had any money so we were helping each other out. It was meant to be.
We just connected — we did each other’s flyer-ing, Brit did my technical stuff because I couldn’t afford a technician — he did my lighting and sound. Because we’re from a small country, we felt like we were the ambassadors. I mean, I would say to myself, “Congratulations, you’ve taken this giant risk coming over here because you dreamed big and just keep going. Never give up the dream!”
It might just work out.
It might just work out, yeah. Comedy was the goal, it always has been. All of us have kind of — we grew up watching a lot of British comedy. For most of us, it was an escapism from our family life or our dull New Zealand “not much going on” situation back in the ’80s, we felt like we could be as funny as these people and we had something to bring and it drove a creative spirit inside of us and we thought we could take on the world and we could be as big as these guys.
I’m glad we did it, and thanks to my wife’s parents for forking out the cash for me to get that plane to London. [Laughs]
The first three episodes of Our Flag Means Death are streaming now. New episodes debut on Thursdays.