Mike Minogue and Wellington Paranormal co-star Karen O’Leary did not assume that their cameo as confused cops thrust into the midst of vampiric antics in Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s mockumentary film What We Do in the Shadows would lead to a hilariously spooky spin-off show.
Minogue phrases this felicitous turn of events somewhat differently, in typically deadpan Kiwi-style. “That’s exactly what we thought was gonna happen,” he mugs from the comfort of his Waiheke Island home via Zoom, when SBS talks to him ahead of the start of season 4 (premiere episodes Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND and SBS On Demand). “Has this has got the smell of something that’s going to go for four seasons? Absolutely.”
All joking aside (not something that happens very often during our snort-inducing chat), it’s clear Minogue is blown away by the international success of Wellington Paranormal. “When we were shooting the first season, Karen and I didn’t laugh once,” he says. “We didn’t want to bugger up a take because we were so terrified that this would be the first project Jemaine and Taika made that was shit, and it would be all our fault.”
They’ve lightened up since, but are still pros at keeping a straight face, unlike co-star Maaka Pohatu, who plays their sergeant. “You can just look at him and he will start crying-laughing,” Minogue chuckles.
He’s eternally grateful for the beat, playing a bit of a dim policeman tasked with handling supernatural disturbances in New Zealand’s capital city.
“Jemaine had seen me in a cop drama and thought I was funny in it, even though it was a dramatic performance where I was really giving it everything, dramatically.”
It took five years for Wellington Paranormal to get off the ground, primarily driven by Clement as Waititi went on to conquer Marvel. “So after five years of Jemaine saying ‘we’re gonna do it,’ it’s like, ‘you know Jemaine, I used to really admire you, and now my fear is that you’re a massive liar’,” Minogue laughs.
So successful has the show proven to be that he and O’Leary were even pressed into real-life saving service, creating comedy bits in character conveying vital COVID-19 information, in conjunction with New Zealand Police. “It’s pretty weird, but it made sense that you don’t want the actual police telling the public what to do,” he suggests. “It was a spoonful of sugar that lightened the mood, but obviously people were sick to death of us by the end of it. It was good while it lasted.”
They managed to squish filming of the fourth and possibly final season in between lockdowns, opening with an outrageously funny episode centred on a giant birdwoman terrorising the city centre, played sassily by film composer and occasional actor Anika Moa.
For all The X-Files-style rogues gallery of gruesome and goofy monsters, Minogue’s favourite moments are when he and O’Leary get to improv while cruising the mean streets in their patrol car. “It’s a chemistry thing. I was super-lucky that she was cast, and she was really lucky that I was cast. We just had an immediate connection, on screen and off.”
[EDITOR'S NOTE: For those who are new to Wellington Paranormal and confused by the names, you’re not reading it wrong. Mike Minogue plays Officer Minogue, Karen O’Leary plays Officer O’Leary, and Maaka Pohatu is their supportive boss, Sergeant Maaka. Officer Parker is played by Tom Sainsbury, but to keep us on our toes, his new partner in season 4, Officer Sainsbury, is played by comedy star Chris Parker.]
And as with most best mates, they love nothing more than rubbing each other up the wrong way. There’s an ingenious spin on their driving sequences in the opening episode that plays out in the back of an Uber. Always looking to provoke O’Leary into breaking character, Minogue ribbed his proudly feminist co-star with a bit that saw him mansplaining, of all things, what mansplaining is. “Because Karen is such a great advocate for women’s rights, I’ll always drop something in there that’s super sexist.”
Of course, O’Leary’s side-eye response works in character or not. And sometimes they nail an off-the-cuff joke without even realising. Like in season 2 episode ‘Taniwha’, about mythological Māori sea serpents, featuring the country’s ‘first bloke’ Clarke Gayford. “We saw the monster and Karen improvised ‘We’re gonna need a bigger chilly bin [esky], which is sort of ripped from Jaws, except she’s never seen the film, so she didn’t get why it was so funny.”
Asked why New Zealand’s unique comic style has become a significant export industry, Minogue suggests that it’s just because we haven’t got bored of it yet. “You couldn’t name a comedy that came from New Zealand prior to Flight of the Conchords,” he says. “Not one. Jemaine really had a handle on what our comedy is. You don’t have to be like America. In fact, the worst thing you could do is try and be like any other country. Just be like New Zealanders and other people will find it funny.”
Not that Minogue’s afraid of slaying the country’s golden geese. Infamously, he accidentally punched Sam Neill in the face while filming Waititi’s hit comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople. “I felt horrible about that,” he grimaces. “I told my mother and she was horrified. He’s a really great guy, just as lovely as you’d imagine him to be.”
As is Minogue. A cheeky charmer, he’s worked hard to get where he is, from grafting behind the scenes on locally-produced blockbusters like Avatar, to steering his own comedy show The Watercooler, to co-producing hit Sundance horror movie Coming Home in the Dark.
“I grew up loving films in a small town, but it never seemed like something that was possible,” he recalls. “I was over in Australia for four and a half years in my early 20s just drinking too much and going to heaps of gigs and then I heard from friends working on The Lord of the Rings movies who said, ‘come back and we’ll get you a job’.” (Minogue was a production runner on LOTR: Return of the King, and also worked on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.)
The rest is history. “It’s very much a case of hanging around and seeing what happens,” he humbly insists. “I’ve done everything. Just giving it a go and seeing if you like it. If you don’t, give it a miss. And if you do, keep on having a crack.”
Episodes of Season 4 of Wellington Paranormal premiere Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND and join the all episodes series box set at SBS On Demand. Start right at the beginning with S1:
Or jump to Season 4 premiere episodes, express from New Zealand: