Jemaine Clement is probably best known to people as half of Flight of the Conchords, the "4th most popular digi-folk paradists in New Zealand." They founded the group back in 1998, but came to worldwide fame recently when it was turned into an HBO television series. Or, if you're an indie film buff, you might have seen him in Eagle vs. Shark from Sundance back in 2007. Or barring that, maybe you're a couch television surfer and caught him in his series of Outback Steakhouse commercials.
He'll be seen again in Jared Hess' followup to Nacho Libre and Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos. In it, he plays the pretentious and self-centered science fiction writer Dr. Ronald Chevalier, and honestly, he's the best thing about the movie. If they make a feature-length documentary following Chevalier on a book tour around the nation for as a DVD extra, I'll buy it. You can catch some of his magic online, where he's done a series of viral videos in character as Chevalier, and they are hilarious.
We caught up with Clement after Gentlemen Broncos screened at Fantastic Fest, and you can read the full interview beyond the break.
Cinematical: So besides appearing in Gentlemen Broncos, which we will talk about, what does your typical day consist of? Are you doing music stuff, other roles? Are you composing?
Jemaine Clement: I have just been having a break for about ... well, I went and did a movie in New Zealand with a friend of mine from there.
Not the Eagle vs. Shark director?
No, no. A different friend. He started off making films more like the film within the film in the Gentlemen Broncos, like on video camera and stuff like that. But how he has got his first funded feature, so I helped him out on it. But I have been having a break. The wireless on my computer broke. I don't have a cell phone. I have been in Greece and I have just been hanging out. No one can find me.
That is literally a break, especially in this day and age. I am surprised a story hasn't broken, "Jemaine Clement Missing. Unable to be contacted."
I send the odd one off, but you could probably just have an automated response and no one would know.
Are you living in New Zealand these days? Do you live in LA? Do you live in New York?
Well, I am about to go back to New Zealand.
When you say film world and New Zealand, most people just think, "Oh, Lord of the Rings" as the first thing that comes to their mind. What is that scene like for people that don't know about it in New Zealand, the film scene and entertainment scene?
Well mostly it is government funded. And it's low budget, because you can't have too much money from the taxpayers. When Peter Jackson started, people were sort of outraged that tax payer money was going to make zombie films. But then he proved them...he is one of the biggest income earners and taxpayers in the country. So he paid it all back. Yeah, that is all funny ... the earnest movies about a childhood rite of passage, or it will be a zombie movie, the last one involving zombified sheep.
There is no zombie rite of passage movie? They haven't just combined the two into one film?
[laughter] That is a shoe in for funding, that one.
Did you hear about this weird sandstorm that they had in Sydney just recently?
Yeah. I have been looking at the photos. It is bizarre. It looks like Frank Herbert's Dune.
It is bizarre. Some of it has just started landing in New Zealand.
Wow. That is bizarre. Well in-line with Dune, tell us about Dr. Chevalier. He has got a bizarre accent. He dresses strange. He is extremely pretentious and self-centered.
If you go and look at a few photos of a few authors, they dress a lot alike sometimes.
Turtlenecks and sport coats.
Yeah. I guess it is dated, his dress sense. But when we were filming the bookstore scene, there was a photo of Jon Krakauer up on the wall. And Jared went, "Dude, you look just like Krakauer!" It was a picture of Jon Krakauer in his leather jacket and mock turtleneck going ... but I like Jon Krakauer. It is not based on him. It was just coincidentally he has got the same beard and the same goofy hair.
Well nobody has really talked about the cheesy author photo and you guys kind of cracked that wide open.
Yeah. For some reason, the male authors often look hyper-manly.
Even Dan Brown who is very pasty and white, he tries to tough it up a little bit.
Yeah. It is like, "I am not a nerd. I am a tough guy. I am on my ranch."
How did the voice evolve? Did you work on that with Jared? Did you kind of already have this voice that you just kind of have this ...
[laughs] In my store? Well, I know one science fiction author, he was a lecturer of mine. He speaks like ... quite gentle, but he has got that funny English, very resonant voice. It sort of vibrates the room, and I was trying to sort of get some of that, I guess, texture. And also, I think an early hero of Jared's was Michael York. And I suspected he might have wanted that.
There was a little Michael York in there.
I suspected he might have written it for Michael York.
And then he comes to you.
"Can you do Michael York?"
Are you the second rate Michael York?
I mean I would be pleased to take on that title.
Yeah. He was in Logan's Run, so there is a sci-fi tie-in right there.
I loved Logan's Run. I still love it. I watched it before we made this and I still think it holds up really well.
I think this is going to make people seek out sci-fi authors on maybe Youtube or whatever, like Ben Bova or Larry Niven, those people who write billions of novels, it seems like, every year.
Yeah. I don't know how they do it. They often don't speak like that. But the one that I happened to know, he speaks kind of like that a little.
What is ironic is he is kind of this pretentious guy, but you still like him. And even at the end he is pleading leniency at the book signing. Did you think he was going to be totally reprehensible or did you want people to kind of feel for him in a way?
Yeah, that is a good question. I guess I didn't really think about that.
Yeah, because he is likeable. You like his strangeness. He is a renaissance man. He composes.
Yeah. I think his real passion now is painting.
Well those paintings were pretty good that he was doing.
He developed a lot from when he was a teenager. I feel like he writes books just so he gets to do the artwork, because fantasy art, it doesn't exist on its own so well. You don't see it just glowing glorious.
Like in mass market paperbacks.
That's right, or in compilation books.
So, originally you were going for a smaller role.
Yeah. There was like an American character. I remember him having maybe a baseball cap. And he was doing the suffix part, the workshop. I wanted to do that role because it was less pressure and it was a really funny scene. But finally, I just thought I really liked Jared's movies, so I should just trust him and say, "Whatever you want me to do I will do it." And that is what I said. And he took that as meaning, "That means you are doing Chevalier." And I am glad I did because it was really fun.
You really seemed to have embraced Ronald.
Yeah. I really liked playing him.
You have the viral videos. You are doing the book signing.
Oh they make me do that stuff man. [laughs]
You are contractually obligated, enslaved in a way?
I actually tried to get out of the book reading today. I said I wouldn't do it. And then I saw it was advertised. But you know, it could be fun. It is good to take on a challenge anyway, like with this part. I didn't really want to do this part. But it ended up being so much fun. I am not naturally a courageous person, I guess, so it is good to ... you know, like anyone else, my fear is public speaking, just like most people. And that is why I got into acting, like as a way of...I was so shy like a lot of actors, and that is why I started doing it, to have an outlet. The side that comes after that is then all these people want to talk to you and you have to do these things, and I don't feel natural in it.
What are we going to see Jemaine Clement in next? I mean we are bummed to hear Conchords may not be coming back. It is such a cult hit on HBO. You said you guys have an album coming out.
Yeah, of songs from the series.
OK. And you mentioned your movie.
Oh, The Predicament. That is the one I did in New Zealand.
So what is on the horizon?
I am going to be writing this project I have been working on with the director of Eagle vs. Shark. We have already made a short version several years ago, so we are going to develop that into a feature.
You took the Napoleon Dynamite route.
Yeah. Well we made the short to get funding. But we haven't had time to make it. Unfortunately it is about vampires, and the last five years since we have made it everything is about vampires. Yeah, it is embarrassing to say that it is about vampires.
You can't just do a find and replace for Frankenstein or something now?
Not for this.
Well you also may strike while the iron is hot. Vampires are white hot right now.
Well it takes a year or two to make a movie.
Plus you don't want to reach the saturation vampire point.
Yeah, so then we will have to wait another eight years, which is fine. It may take that long.