Jemaine Clement made his name internationally with his distinctive brand of humour and versatile musical talent as a broke folk musician in The Flight of the Conchords. His deadpan delivery stood out in Men in Black 3, and his turn as Vladislav the vampire in the Kiwi micro-budget What We Do in the Shadows, which he co-directed with his old friend Taika Waititi, further alerted the world to his talents following its 2014 Sundance premiere.
The next year Clement starred in James C. Strouse’s People, Places, Things and it’s probably his best role to date. Certainly it’s his most serious, though it’s impossible for Clement to do anything without humour. On the red carpet behorehand, the naturally shy man of few words admitted he was nervous. “I might black out!” he quipped. “I’m used to doing supporting roles when I’m not nervous at all.”
Afterwards men bowled up asking him about his upcoming Conchords tour while women of all ages were visibly starstruck having discovered an unlikely sex symbol. Of course, in 2008 Australia’s Who magazine had him on their 100 Sexiest People list, and we’ve known about his appeal for quite some time.
In People, Places, Things Clement plays a 40-year-old comic book artist who is suddenly confronted by his wife (Stephanie Allynne) having sex with another man at their twins’ fifth birthday party. This leads to their divorce, and a year later we find him struggling to eke out a living as an art teacher while co-parenting his six year-old girls, played by the adorable and talented Gia and Aundrea Gadsby. Living in Queens in a studio apartment, he sleeps on the floor when they come to visit on alternate weekends, and when his ex falls pregnant to the man he caught her with, he decides to re-evaluate his life. After his brightest student (Jessica Williams from The Daily Show) introduces him to her mother (Regina King) things begin to change.
Allynne had to be horrible to Clement. “It’s not easy,” she concedes. “You really feel like you’re hurting a cat!”
Strouse (Grace is Gone) cast Clement first and says the movie works because of him.
“What’s so beautiful about Jemaine’s kind of comedy is that his mind is so well tuned into the story. Everything was usable. For some funny people the joke is the most important thing, but for Jemaine it was always about what is the moment, what the scene is about and he would enhance it in subtle ways. We got so much that we ended up using. Some of my favorite lines were improvised by him.”
The twins’ mother, Nicole, says he was the perfect screen dad.
“Jemaine has a son of his own, so he was just a natural dad and was perfect with them. He says hello and you start laughing. He’s hysterical.”
In our later interview for The BFG (where Clement voiced the giant Fleshlumpeater that kind of resembles him) Steven Spielberg likewise sang Clement’s praises, breaking into a smile. “I think Jemaine can do anything, absolutely anything. And he’s the sweetest, most retiring guy.”
HB: This film is not an obvious kind of comedy.
JC: I found it funny but in a sad way. It’s more real, more true, than things I usually do.
HB: You handled the romantic scenes with ease with some critics saying you are leading man material.
JC: (Chuckles) My first scene with Regina is when the characters have that awkward first date and we didn’t need to look like we got on. So our first meeting was for real. It happened quite naturally.
HB. There’s a sweetness in the character that women adore.
JC: That’s not up to me; it's the director. It was all in the script.
HB: Could you relate to your relationship with your own son?
JC: Yes. I could relate to the idea of being apart from him.
HB: The film was shot in 21 days. How does working on American independents compare to working back home?
JC: In New Zealand the budget is low. With What We Do in the Shadows we were trying to scrape together whatever we could and make it look as good as any other movie.
HB: Do you feel more comfortable in American indies than in Hollywood movies?
JC: No they’re all interesting. I can make a bit of money in studio films. It’s good to do both if possible.
HB: People automatically think of you as this funny guy. Is that a problem?
JC: I don't see it as a problem. (Chuckles) I guess it’s not something I think about really. I don’t worry about being funny or not. Even a taxi driver probably makes more jokes than me per minute.
HB: You’re still best known for Flight of the Conchords.
JC: Yes, that seems to be the thing that people know and want to see. It doesn't matter what movie I do it’s always that for people. I don't mind. I stand by it.
HB: You grew up with your Maori mother and grandmother. Where did your creative bent come from?
JC: My mother never pushed me into sports like a lot of Kiwi families do. My father is an artist. He makes stained glass windows so it was ok to do that kind of thing. There was no pressure to do a normal job; there was no pressure to conform. I think a lot of Kiwis have a feeling they need to conform and I didn't have that.
HB: Do you have much to do with your father?
JC: Yeah. I didn't grow up with him but I still talk to him and we’re friends. I didn't have anything to do with his family.
HB: Did his art influence you?
JC: It was good to see that you could dedicate yourself to art and I was also concerned with earning a living. I don't think there was any question that I’d go into the arts in some way.
HB: Why is it important to live in New Zealand?
JC: I just like it. I like the people, it’s beautiful and I love the pace of life. There’s a comfort there I don’t find in other places. Though I like travelling and I do that a lot for work.
HB: What about Australia?
JC: I like going to Australia but I haven’t ever considered moving there.
HB: You starred in 2007’s Eagle vs. Shark, directed by your Wellington University buddy, Taika Waititi and he also directed a few episodes of Conchords comprising you and another fellow student, Bret McKenzie, also your former flatmate. What did Conchords give to you back then?
JC: That's how Taika, Brett and I started, doing live comedy.
HB: Was Cliff Curtis in there as well?
JC: No, he’s more a trained actor. None of us are really trained. Though Cliff once did a cameo in our Maori play (The Untold Tales of Maui), which was pretty funny. Sometimes when Taika would act he’d be compared to Cliff because they look kind of similar.
HB: Tall and hunky?
JC: Yeah. We made a joke about Taika being a poor man’s Cliff Curtis and then we had Cliff come and play the same character that Taika was playing.
HB: Do you ever wish you could take acting courses?
JC: No, not at all. I don't see any need. I feel like anybody should be able to do it theoretically. If you have emotions you should be able to display them. But I don't want to study acting. With music I’m different. I love to learn as much as I can and I wish I knew more. I want to keep studying it in Wellington. I’ve been doing singing lessons for the first time and I want to do more guitar lessons.
People, Places, Things is on SBS Viceland, July 8th at 8:30PM as part of the American Indies season: