Jemaine Clement turned up on his bicycle for his interview with Moana Maniapoto, for this week’s Te Ao with Moana. And no one at Toi Whakaari, the New Zealand Drama School in Wellington, where the interview took place, seemed to recognise him.
Or maybe they just didn’t want to make a fuss, this being New Zealand and all.
The award-winning writer, actor, musician and director is home working on the Avatar sequels and Wellington Paranormal. That’s after wrapping up a second season of What We Do in the Shadows, rated one of the best TV shows of 2020 by the New York Times. It’s a spinoff from the 2014 hit film of the same name which he made with Taika Waititi.
Jemaine grew up in Masterton. His family didn’t own a car, and he’s never learned to drive (hence the bicycle). He’s the eldest of three boys who were raised by their mother and grandmother. He got his first taste of the stage performing in school productions at Makoura College in Masterton, and then he moved to Wellington to study at Victoria University, where he enrolled in film and drama courses.
That’s where he first met his now world-famous mates — Bret McKenzie (the other half of Flight of the Conchords), Taika Waititi, and Rhys Darby.
Taika and Jemaine formed the comedy group The Humourbeasts, which won the 1999 Billy T Award. They went on to tour The Untold Tales of Maui. A couple of years later, Jemaine and Bret took their Flight of the Conchords live show to the Calgary International Festival in 2001, and then on to the Edinburgh Film Festival where they snaffled a Perrier Comedy Award. Their show ended up on BBC radio — and then HBO came knocking.
Here’s how Jemaine’s chat with Moana went.
In 2008, you were named one of the top 100 sexiest people in the world by the Aussie magazine Who. Were you surprised?
Uh, very surprised.
Are you being humble?
Well, I’m very surprised that no one said that again.
Who have you been mistaken for?
Joaquin Phoenix with a beard. Benicio del Toro.
Jemaine Aatea Mahana Clement. That’s a lovely handle.
Thank you. I don’t use all of it. But it’s a tradition in my family to have at least one Māori name and I’ve got two. I think they were just names that my mum liked. You know, “the universe”, “warmth”. My son’s middle name is Iraia after my great-great-great-grandfather.
You have a Grammy and multiple Emmy nominations (with Bret McKenzie for Flight of the Conchords) and your acting credits include Eagle vs Shark, Men in Black 3, and voiceovers for animated hits Despicable Me, Rio, and Moana (just to name a few). And now you’re starring in the Avatar sequels.
But one of your first roles was playing a glue-sniffing Māori.
Yeah. And I hated that, you know? I can never tell if people can tell if I’m Māori or not, but when the producers know that I’m Māori, they’re like: “He can play the little Māori glue sniffer.” I’ve never sniffed that stuff in my life.
How was it to be part of this new wave of Māori actors and stars on the international stage now, quietly inspiring to a lot of Indigenous creatives around the world?
When Taika and I produced What We Do in the Shadows in the US, a friend of ours said: “That’s the first Indigenous-produced show in America.” Which is terrible. I was told that people there don’t have that opportunity.
But that’s happening now. Taika is producing a comedy show that’s set on a reservation. So, he’s working with some Native American creatives to do that, and he’s making it happen.
It’s a funny thing coming from here where I started out being expected to play a glue sniffer or someone breaking into a car. Now we can do what we like in a way.
It’s terrible to still be marking firsts, isn’t it? The first Māori, the first Indigenous stuff?
Yeah. That’s right. But at least things are changing.
Has being a fair-skinned Māori given you a bit of a role as a sleeper? Have you been able to hear stuff?
Yeah. Not so much now, but in the ‘80s, you’d hear what Pākehā people might think of certain Māori traditions that they might not say if they knew I was Māori.
So, your mum is Māori. What’s your iwi?
In 2016, your father spoke quite candidly about being absent from your life and his struggles with alcohol. How was that for you?
I didn’t read it or hear it. But we would talk about that together. I understood that it was better for me and my brothers that the stress of whatever he was going through wasn’t in our lives so much. And sometimes he would be there and sometimes he wouldn’t. It was quite typical for fathers of the time.
I feel like my generation of dads, even if they split with their partner, make more of an appearance in their kid’s life. I think that’s what I would do if I was in that situation.
Did he have anything to do with his mokopuna?
Oh yeah, they would talk a lot together on the phone. They were pretty good friends and have big, long conversations. I’m glad I got to see that.
Was Hollywood always on the cards for you?
Not Hollywood, but I knew I wanted to make things. I spent a lot of time with my friends trying to get a camera and no one would lend us one, but we always wanted to make things.
So, you were raised by your mum and nana. Were they strict?
Well, I was pretty good. Mostly I was a good kid and worked pretty hard at school, but you get bored in a small town, you know? I might’ve broken the law a little bit and that sort of teaches you.
Hang on, hang on. Just rewind . . .
Just dumb things, you know, like breaking into places.
Were you looking for a camera or what?
Just didn’t really know what we were doing. Trying to have fun, you know. (Breaking into) an abandoned building or whatever. And then it turns out someone owns that as well. So don’t break into buildings — that’s my advice.
Were you going to the marae? Did you have much involvement with te ao Māori when you were growing up?
When I was a kid? Yeah. With my grandma. We had a few marae we would visit. And sometimes she’d just say: “We’re going to visit your aunty.” And then you might be in the car for five hours going somewhere up north and then be in some old lady’s house talking. And then we would go to family reunions, which I loved as a kid actually.
Much te reo around then?
Not really. My grandma didn’t speak Māori. She was of the generation that would be punished at school if she spoke Māori. That was her first language, but, you know, they got hit if they spoke Māori.
I know. That’s what happened to my dad. It sucked, eh?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah . . . I’m sorry, I’m upset thinking about my poor grandmother.
I’m sorry. Well, tell me about her. What was her name?
Maikara. And she was funny. Sometimes intentionally, like she would come up with a good joke. And sometimes, completely unintentionally. I loved hanging out with her.
So how did you get into acting and performing?
I’m one of those classic stories of someone who wasn’t really a show-off at school or anything like that. But I wanted to be able to say that I did some school shows and stuff like that.
It’s a bit of a thing, isn’t it, because I remember meeting Tui Teka and Billy T James. Hilarious on stage. And then you meet them and they’re kind of shy.
Yeah. I know people see me as an actor, maybe because that’s the bit on screen? But most of my year is spent at a computer. You think of it, write it out, you go back to try and make it better, go back again and try to make it better. And that’s what my job is.
And after those high school productions, you went to uni in Wellington, and there’s Taika and Bret.
Yeah, Taika and I met at auditions on campus and then we met Bret when we all did a thing called “Body Play”.
So, me and Taika and Bret and other friends of ours were doing shows anyway. And then, eventually, I went: “I’ll just do that.”
What was it about them that attracted you?
Those guys? They just made me laugh. I remember both of their auditions and what they did. And it still makes me laugh.
Do you reckon New Zealand audiences are tough?
Oh yeah, the toughest. It’s good to train here. The only trouble here is we don’t have a big enough audience. You can’t play all year here like you can in the UK and get better and better. But you can start it here, then maybe go to the UK. That’s what we did and we got to play more.
They’re tough here. They’re not expecting anything good. Sometimes people in the early days would say: “Oh, I wanted to laugh so much. But, uh, no one else started, so, yeah, I decided not to.”
New Zealanders are fiercely reticent. They don’t want to stand out, whereas in America they just go: “Wow.” It’s easy to get them up and going there.
I always look at you guys and your performances and think it’s a real New Zealand humour. It’s quite distinctive. It’s not an exclamation mark kind of humour. It’s quite fascinating seeing how people overseas relate to that.
I think it was a surprise for them to hear Bret and me, these two funny straight guys. But neither of us really played the funny guy. We were both the straight guy, and they weren’t used to that.
And when we played here, some people would get up and shout offensive things. And then we’d get up and just do a nice little love song, quietly.
So, it was a contrast.
When it comes to comedy, has anything really backfired, and you thought, uh-oh?
Yeah, for sure. Mostly with Taika when we’d do live stuff because, often, we hadn’t quite figured it out. We’d have a great idea but we’d hardly practise. We were always so keen to get up there that sometimes we hadn’t worked it out.
I remember one time we had to MC a thing at the Edinburgh Festival, and we’d never MC’d before. But we just got up there and tried our stuff, and it was tough. It’s good to have those experiences in a double-act, though. It’s funny — it’s funny to fail even. I dunno if I could handle it by myself.
I’m not sure if you were part of the Give Nothing To Racism campaign, but Taika and I both were.
Very pro-racism — I wouldn’t touch that one (laughs).
Should we make fun of racism? Do we disempower racist behaviour by making jokes about racism? Or do we normalise it?
Well, people read it differently. When you make a joke about racism, some people might relate to the racist character and you can be surprised by that. In my first writing job, we were making fun of the homophobic classic Kiwi bloke and most people got it. But then homophobic people liked it as well.
They’re like, “I see myself”, right?
Is there a line in comedy that you don’t cross?
That’s up to the comedian. There’s definitely jokes that I’ve done on stage and then found out that it might’ve connected in a bad way with someone’s traumatic memory. And then I go: “Hmm. Okay. I’m not going to do that joke again ‘cause I didn’t think of that.”
I suppose we’re in an era now when there seems to be a lot more sensitivity to things.
Yeah, that’s a great topic. It would be great if we can joke about anything — and sometimes you don’t hear a challenging idea till the comedian says it, or makes you think about something in a different way. But, personally, I don’t like people to get uncomfortable when they’re listening to something I’ve made. But that’s just me.
What was the reaction when you first pitched Flight of the Conchords to producers here in New Zealand?
“I’m not that interested”?
We had offers to make a pilot in the UK, and one in the US. But we wanted to live here. So, we pitched one here, thinking: “Well, if they want it over there, they’ll want it here, surely, because we’re from here?”
But no. . . . Our whole careers are based on that decision to go and make that show in America.
Were you surprised about the reaction from overseas audiences?
When New Zealanders hear the New Zealand accent, they’re like: “Oh, I’m not going to listen to this.” But they don’t have that concern over there. So we were surprised. And, as we’ve played, our shows just got bigger and bigger and it was a massive surprise.
How did you keep your feet on the ground?
It got hard there for a while. Not that we were getting a big head, but just all the attention. I don’t think either Bret or I particularly like that, but we like making comedy and then we would tour and it was hard work, so it’s not like you’re floating on air all the time. Long drives and flights and then late nights and stuff.
It was hard because we were trying to make an album, record music and make a TV show in the same amount of time you have to do one. So that was tricky.
Have you ever been star-struck yourself?
I met Prince.
Yeah . . . I was very star-struck.
Did he talk to you, though?
Did he? ‘Cause you’re not meant to address him.
I was told that, but it didn’t turn out to be true. Someone said: “Don’t shake his hand.” I was like . . .
. . . give him a hongi?
I didn’t do that. I dunno what he’d think about that. I was like: “Don’t shake his hand. Don’t shake his hand.” And he said “Hey”, and reached out his hand. And it’s like: “Oh, I don’t know what to do.” He must’ve thought I was weird.
Did you let the side down?
I think I did okay.
You were in the film Moana.
As a big crab, Tamatoa.
He was quite camp that crab, wasn’t he?
Yeah. I did the Māori version as well. And I think I made him a bit more sinister in the Māori version.
What are you trying to say?
Nothing! I just got another chance to do it and I thought — maybe make it a little bit scary.
You recorded your song in te reo for Tamatoa. How challenging was that?
It was very difficult, but it was worth it.
You were a co-director with Taika, in 2014, on the film What We Do in the Shadows. It was a great success. Big fan here. I loved it. And then you took it to the States and translated that into a TV series. How challenging was it?
In some ways, it was easy. You’ve got a really great cast and I’d done it once before. And there were things I thought we didn’t put in the movie that we could throw into the series.
But maybe the American studio system didn’t really sit with our collaborative style, that kind of marae-based style of us all pitching in together? So I’m taking a break from that show and the third season. I’m not writing for that one. I’m working on a new show.
You’re also a co-creator and producer for Wellington Paranormal. What do you enjoy most? Performing, writing or directing?
Writing. I get most excited about it in the beginning. And then, while I’m on my tenth draft, I’m like . . .
Do you think: “Oh, the first one was actually better?”
Never. No. It always gets better with another draft — working on it, honing it.
Is your mum surprised with how you fared in the world of arts?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I grew up in a very working-class family. Everyone worked in factories. My mum worked in a factory, my dad, my grandparents. So I guess, yes.
But, also, there was no pressure to follow in my family’s footsteps. They don’t mind me not working in a factory.
Have you taken your mum overseas to shows?
Yeah, I took her to the Emmy’s. It was fun for her. I didn’t know anyone at the Emmy’s but she knows all the shows. She got to meet Ricky Gervais. She loves The Office. I remember that being quite cool.
How old is your son now?
Does he get a buzz going to see these movies that you’re in?
It’s normal for him. He gets excited about some things if they’re on a topic that he likes — if it’s historical in some way. But he’s grown up on tour. Backstage at concerts, on film sets and stuff like that. He’s used to all that stuff.
There are some good photos of me and Bret playing a big concert — there’s probably 8000 people there. And my son’s just reading his book. That’s what it was like for him.
I took my daughter on tour with my band and we just put her in a Pelican case onstage. We put a note with my band’s name on it around her neck. She’d just go to sleep.
You kept it open?
That’s important. I’m glad we figured that out.
How are you coping with the slower pace?
Last year, I realised I was pushing myself too hard and doing too many things, with this show and one in America which I was in charge of as well. And it was too much. So, when everyone had to stop travelling, I appreciated that and took a step back and thought: I don’t need to be going too hard all the time.
Got it. Any other collaborations on the table with your wing men?
Oh yeah. Bret and I occasionally talk about some stuff but we haven’t got anything on the boil. Taika and I are working together on three projects, writing things. So I have a lot of Zoom calls with him. He’s my boss now.
I see . . .
Well, on some of them.
Thank you, Jemaine. I’m really looking forward to seeing you in the Avatar.
Avatar 2 and 3.
Hopefully you’ll get the callback again, eh? Unlike that Sexiest Man of the Year.
Well, you know, once is probably enough. I guess that was my peak — 2008. Yeah.
Te Ao with Moana, hosted by Moana Maniapoto, is on every Monday at 8pm on Māori Television. This is an edited transcript of an interview which aired this week.
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