Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Interview: Jemain Clement

Never taking himself—or the rest of us—too seriously, the brilliant Kiwi multi-hyphenate Jemaine Clement is best known as the touchingly hapless musician he played on Flight of the Conchords and the preening cockatoo in the animated Rio movies. His vivid gallery of painfully self-conscious or unjustifiably self-confident characters includes a socially awkward vampire with roommate issues in What We Do in the Shadows, an even more socially awkward video store clerk in Eagle vs. Shark, and a smarmy self-styled artist and sex guru, Kieran Vollard, in Dinner for Schmucks. Now, in Jim Strauss's likeable, low-key rom-com People Places Things, Clement plays another variation on the well-meaning, shabbily loveable beta male he has so often portrayed—but with a twist. This time, his character is sharp-witted and reasonably good at life, with twin daughters to whom he's a devoted father and an interesting career (he's a graphic novelist and a beloved teacher on that subject at the School of Visual Arts). He even gets the girl—after being humiliatingly dumped by the twins' mother—when one of his students, played by Jessica Williams, sets him up with her mother. We talked to him yesterday at the Crosby Street Hotel, where he was quick to laugh, graciously responsive, and allergic to self-aggrandizement.

 This was your first time doing a straight dramatic role. How did that feel?

Um, I still thought of it as a comedy. Or something somewhere in between.

But your character was more—

More real.

Right. Not so goofy.

Hey, no need to be mean. [laughs] It was good. It was more relaxed, in a way, because it was real, so I didn't have to be intense.

So it was easier?

Something about it was easier. I didn't have to worry about making a distinct character from myself, or from other characters from other movies. He could sound pretty much like me and behave pretty much like me.

This wasn't Jessica Williams's first straight role, but it may be her biggest so far. What was it like watching her work and working with her?

She's very, very good with words. So when we improvise, I don't know what she's going to say, but I know she's going to cut me down. [laughs] I could see that, if she wants to, she's going to be a great actor. And Jim [Strauss] has written a film for her, which doesn't surprise me.

I love you and [long-time comedy partner] Taika Waititi together, so I was glad to see you're doing a series for HBO. But why only four episodes?

Well, it could be more. Could be more. We're just going to see how it goes. I guess because it's slightly an experiment, to see what the show will be like if every episode has these different characters and different stories.

Kind of like Black Mirror, only funny?

Yeah. Only comedy.

And Judd Apatow is involved as a producer. Did that happen pretty recently?

No, that was pretty early on, actually. It's an idea Taiki and I have wanted to do for a long time. I just happened to be in L.A. on the way from somewhere to somewhere else and Judd Apatow said, "Do you want to meet?" So I said, "yeah," and I mentioned this idea, and he said he'd love to do it. So he was the thing that really got it going. It hadn't been mentioned before.

Besides by getting the show going, how else has Judd been helpful?

He's really great with notes. If you've followed things he's produced before, you've probably seen other people saying that. Often, when you do things in Hollywood, you have people giving you notes who may literally have a marketing degree—in media studies, something like that. [laughs] He understands the way things work, so he says really helpful things.

The criticism some people have of him is that the things he produces all tend to feel similar, but it sounds like you don't feel that way.

Well, I disagree with that because, you know, Girls is so different from Step Brothers. And I love both of them. I think Girls is a good example of the way he doesn't, you know, have to have a character who's vomiting.

You and Taiki remind me in some ways of Key and Peele. I think their comedy is a little broader than yours, but there's a kindness and an affection for the characters that you both have, plus a way of laughing at stupid human tricks—the foibles we all have.

Well, I'm complimented by that because I really like them. And we started off as a comedy duo. And we did often touch on the same things. And, like Key and Peele, we're both mixed race. They're black and white and we're Maori and white, and we understand things that other people don't understand because of that.

Read the rest in Slant Magazine

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