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’s 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—
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 Taika 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 getting the series 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 Taika 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.
So much of Key and Peele’s humor is structured around race, but very little of yours and Taiki’s has been. So I’m wondering: Are New Zealanders less obsessed with race and ethnicity than we Americans are, or is that something that doesn’t particularly interest you two, or what?
We have done some stuff about it in New Zealand. It just doesn’t make sense to us to talk about what it’s like being a Maori to an international audience, you know? But some of our stage stuff touched on it—playing off the perception of what people thought. Also, we didn’t want to do that stuff. There’s a lot of stuff in New Zealand where you have to fight that stereotype. So it was good to make our own stuff. We actually reacted against that. For instance, we’re gonna be vampires from Europe. [Laughs] You know?
You’ve done great work as a comedian, a musician, a writer and an actor. Does one of those things feel most like your home as an artist, as Kieran would say? Or does it help you to bounce back and forth between them?
I think it helps motivate me to change, to go, “This is a new medium,” and then you can play around with that medium. One really fun one that I’ve been thinking about is radio. I’m doing a radio play in New Zealand. You can make anything you want to.
Is that the first time you’ve done that?
No. I used to do it with Bret [McKenzie], a friend of mine. We did the Conchords together. We did a radio show for BBC. It’s sort of great. You can do it by yourself; you don’t need a lot. You don’t even need a cast and crew—if you can do voices. And I used to write radio commercials.
Before you made it as a comedian and actor?
Yeah, yeah. To pay my rent.
You were also an animator for a while early on. Have you had any thoughts of doing graphic novels, now that you’ve played a graphic novelist in the movies?
Yeah, I have had that. But I find it really hard to think about getting through the story, for some reason. Though it was interesting doing this. We went as a group to the comic writing course at SVA, and they talked a lot in terms of films. We’d critique each other’s work, and they asked us to weigh in on it and I thought I wouldn’t even know how to speak about it, but they were comparing the work to all these films, like Tarantino. Another thing, it’s hard to keep a character consistent when you’re drawing so you recognize them as the same character every time. It really takes a lot of skill.
You’ve done a lot of voiceover work. Is that because you really like it, or do you think it’s just easier for other people to use your voice than to figure out what to do with the rest of you in a movie?
Dunno about that, but one of the first jobs that I wanted to do was to be an animator, and I thought that meant I would draw and do the voices too.
Like Mel Blanc used to do?
Yeah. In fact, I think I saw a documentary about him and thought that’s what I wanted to do. So doing voices is great and interesting to me.
Do you think you can do more with just your voice than you can when you’re doing live action?
Well, what’s funny is that often when I’m asked to do animation, they’re asking for the same thing. So I have to think of a different or subtle way of doing that pompous, arrogant… [Laughs]
Do you have anything in the works with Bret?
We’ve started writing a film. But we’re pretty early on.
So you can’t talk about it yet?
Yeah, we can’t talk about it. But we still want to do another tour.
A Conchords tour?
Your first name is very unusual in the U.S. Is it common in New Zealand?
[Laughs] Actually, I’m named after Jermaine Jackson. My mom was a fan of the Jacksons. She was pretty young when she had me, so, you know, you name someone after your favorite band. But they took the “r” out so I wouldn’t be called Germ. There were two Jermaines in my school, and I don’t know if they were called Germ or not.
You said in a recent tweet that your own uncle got your name wrong a couple times in emails. That was probably just autocorrect—
—but do you get called the wrong thing a lot? What other names do you get called?
I always got called Jerome a lot at university. When we first started the Conchords as a TV show, Bret thought we should be called Brent and Jerome. I said, “No, if you put Brent as your name on the show, people will call you Brent for the rest of your life, and I don’t want to be called Jerome.” So we went with our own names, and I’m really glad that we did.
The rest of your name is interesting too. I know it has some family significance.
Right. And your son has your father’s or your grandfather’s name?
I read that somewhere in your background you had, I think, a king. Did you grow up with a great sense of your family’s history?
My Maori side of the family. It used to be, because it’s an oral tradition. There was no writing. So, before the English came and introduced writing, people would memorize all these incredibly long lists of thousands of years of ancestors.
Like the begats in the Bible, just a list of your ancestors’ names?
Yeah, yeah. So you’d memorize that. But now it’s written down, so…
But there weren’t stories your mom or grandma told about people in your family and the great things they did?
There was one story. On one side of my family, one of the women was, like, a cousin of Louis the XIV. She escaped from France during the Revolution—she was an aristocrat—and she went as a stowaway and escaped to Ireland, where she married an Irish man who came from nothing. He was nobody. [Laughs]