EXCL: New Zealand Comic Jemaine Clement

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Up until now, most people might only know New Zealand comic Jemaine Clement as the smarmy “Australian” from the Outback Steakhouse commercials, but two things are likely to change that this weekend. First, he stars in the quirky comedy Eagle vs. Shark, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, then two days later, his musical-comedy series “Flight of the Conchords” debuts on HBO.

Fortunately, both the movie and the show are very funny, especially if you like your comedy a bit left of center. In person, Jemaine’s a lot more charming than Jarrod, the brash video game enthusiast he plays in long-time friend and collaborator Taika Waikiki’s movie, which follows the relationship between Jarrod and the shy introverted Lily, played by Taika’s significant other Loren Horsley. Their fly-by-night romance quickly self-destructs because Jarrod is so focused on his training to get revenge on a former school bully.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down and chat with Jemaine, clearly one of New Zealand’s rising stars, mere days before what could be a very big weekend for him.

ComingSoon.net: I think most Americans will probably know you from the Outback Steakhouse commercials, so how did you get involved with doing those?
Jemaine Clement: They saw the “Flight of the Conchords” special that we did for HBO a couple of years ago, and at the same time, they said they were looking for an Australian for their ads…

CS: And they found someone from New Zealand and said “close enough”?
Clement: Yeah, it was sort of like that, ’cause I can’t really do the accent, even though my father’s Australian, he doesn’t talk like how people would think an Australian talks. So I’d say, “Is that accent okay?” and they didn’t notice that I was putting on an accent. Even though the accent I do is how we do it in New Zealand, like a comedy accent, making fun of Australians, rather than an accurate accent. In the same way, when you go to Australia, they’ll talk like (lowers voice) this, they’ll try to talk like a New Zealander, and in New Zealand no one talks like this. (laughs) It’s like you pick on the thing that’s different about the culture, because in some ways, the cultures are very similar and in some ways they’re very different.

CS: You’ve worked with Taika for a while, so how did he present to you the idea for this movie?
Clement: The first time I saw the script was just to give him feedback. He said he’d written a script, but he hadn’t mentioned me being in it, but I wanted to have an audition for it, although I thought it was unlikely.

CS: Specifically for the role of Jarrod?
Clement: Yeah, I wanted to have a go at it.

CS: He didn’t base any part of that character on you?
Clement: (laughs) I dunno. You’ll have to ask him that. I know there’s another friend of his he based some of the family things around. He’s got a friend whose sister and her husband really made awesome tracksuits and they tried different business ventures and stuff like that. I know he’s borrowed from some people’s lives. One Christmas, I made candles for some of my family (laughs). I dunno, if Taiko was even around my flat when I was doing that. No one has told him. They weren’t like Twin Towers or Osama Bin Laden candles or anything like that.

CS: Once you got the script, did you actually have to audition for him?
Clement: He did mention something about having rehearsals to see if I could act. We’ve done shows together, but they’re always more like big comedy, more like being on “Saturday Night Live” or like a weird version of that.

CS: Like improvised comedy or something you’d write and perform?
Clement: Yeah, we’d write short plays. The last thing we did was a play that was an hour and a half long, but it was all big comedy, big characters.

CS: Well, this movie has a lot of big characters.
Clement: That’s true, that’s true, but these would be more making fun of other types of movies…

CS: …or other people that he knows. Did you figure out who Jarrod might be in Taika’s circle of friends?
Clement: No, no… Well, I know someone who says it’s him, one of our other friends, but I can’t say who. (laughs) There’s other things and some aspects of Taika that I definitely recognize, or a younger version of Taika, just like his defensiveness.

CS: Did Taika have a bully beat on him when he was in school that he wanted to get revenge for?
Clement: (laughs) I dunno, we didn’t go to school together.

CS: Were a lot of the other people in the cast from your close circle of friends?
Clement: Some of them, yeah. A lot of them actually. Certain people come out a lot, as you can imagine. Not as much as here ’cause we don’t really have a star system, but we have a limited amount of people we can draw from. I’m not a person in New Zealand who would come up a lot really or Loren either. She’s done a few TV things and a small film, but she wouldn’t be one of the persons who you’d go, “She’s in everything!”

CS: So you’re not one of those actors who’s always going out for auditions?
Clement: Not really. I’m usually involved with generating the material myself, so it’s usually stuff that I’ve written. This is one of the only things I’ve done where I didn’t write it or improvise it, where I had to learn a script and try to figure out how to put someone else’s words.

CS: Were you able to bring any of your own personality to Jarrod?
Clement: Yeah, I guess it’s like a very grumpy version of myself. Yeah, I didn’t find it hard to do after I sort of understood what they meant in the script. I dunno, ’cause different people would do it different ways of course, but the way I think of it is just of a guy who’s very scared to reveal himself, so he’s always acting and always putting on a persona.

CS: There are a lot of people like that actually. Did you wear a wig for that or was that your own hair?
Clement: Yeah, that’s my hair. Taika and I drew these diagrams of a whole lot of caricatures of my face–there must have been a couple pages of them–and drew all different variations of haircuts, and went “that one.” That was my idea, the haircut, but I instantly regretted it.

CS: How long did you have to keep your hair like that to shoot the movie?
Clement: About a month, but I had to keep it like that cause we were doing reshoots, so when we were doing the Outback commercial, I have a bit of a mullet, ’cause I wasn’t allowed to cut it off, so in that commercial, I’ve got this… and it still didn’t leave me. I’m trying to get rid of it, but it stays around for a few years anyway.

CS: Once you get a mullet, there’s no going back. I’m not sure if when I first saw this movie, I realized you were the guy from the Outback Steakhouse commercials.
Clement: That’s good. (laughs) I don’t do those anymore. I did that for the one year, I guess it was last year or the year before.

CS: Did you already know Loren?
Clement: Yeah, we knew each other for a long time. Yeah, but before [Taika and Loren] were together I think, we used to hang out together a lot.

CS: Would you consider the movie a romantic comedy?
Clement: Well, it’s definitely not very romantic. It’s not romance in a traditional meaning of the word. There’s no part of it where you’d say, “That’s so romantic.” There’s little sweet moments. I feel like it means more for the character that I play because it’s so hard for him to open himself up.

CS: Were you able to go to Sundance and did people have any idea what the movie was going to be about when they showed up for it?
Clement: I went to Sundance. I don’t know what people thought going in. I went to one of the showings at the Egyptian, and I felt that it went pretty well.

CS: The movie’s been compared a lot to “Napoleon Dynamite” and I was curious to know what you thought of that. You have to remember that Americans tend to have problems describing things without comparing them to something else.
Clement: Ha, I think everyone’s the same. At least when you start off like. I was singing in a musical at one time, and some singer would come up and say, “He sounds just like Bob Dylan”, and then a few years later, you can’t even imagine how people thought they were the same. After awhile, when you’re used to it, I don’t know, I like that movie, and I had no idea that it had such a love/hate relationship here. It’s funny because it’s such a little independent film for it to be such a big movie, and it’s just a comedy.

CS: I think they’re both just very quirky and not very typical for comedies but they feel very natural.
Clement: I heard people who didn’t like “Eagle vs. Shark” say that it could be a sequel to “Napoleon Dynamite”, but then almost everyone mentions that, even people who don’t think it’s like “Napoleon Dynamite” will say, “This movie is not like Napoleon Dynamite.”

CS: So was Flight of the Conchords something you’d been doing around the same time?
Clement: Yeah, Bret [McKenzie], the other Flight of the Conchord, and Taika and I have done shows together, and Bret and Taika have done a show that I wasn’t in. Usually, we’d just be in these tiny little theatres in New Zealand and it’s just a coincidence that on the same weekend, these two quite large things are happening.

CS: How did HBO first find you for the special?
Clement: Me and Bret were doing this festival in Edinburgh in Scotland (or Americans usually pronounce “Edinboro”) and we went to a couple of festivals, one in Montreal and one in Aspen. It had good word-of-mouth among comics in the comedy industry at Edinburgh, so we had TV people come, and they shot the special a few months later in New York at NYU.

CS: Is Taika going to do anything for the show?
Clement: He directed two episodes and he wrote one of them as well. James Bobin is the director of the first one. He’s an English director who did “Da Ali G Show.” Me, Bret and James created the show, and James directed six of them and then gave six to other directors.

CS: What’s the general idea of the show? Did you write a lot of new songs for the show?
Clement: Every episode, there’s a couple different songs. It’s mostly existing old songs that we’ve written the episodes around, but we’ve written a few new songs for it as well.

CS: Have you been going back and forth a lot between here and New Zealand?
Clement: I’ve been working on that series for a long time, so I went back a couple times to New Zealand, going back soon.

CS: What are you doing next, just working on the show?
Clement: Yeah, we finished last Saturday.

CS: Really? It’s all done? Even editing?
Clement: Yeah, we have to do that. Me and Bret are doing another album, and Taika’s working on another dramatic film in New Zealand, but in and around that, me and him are working on another comedy, a real low-budget comedy, even lower budget than this, I think.

CS: You’d do that here or in New Zealand?
Clement: In New Zealand. Yeah, we wouldn’t be able to afford that here.

Eagle vs. Shark opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday and two days later, you can see the premiere of “Flight of the Conchords” on HBO after “Entourage” or you can just watch the first episode on HBO.com.