Jemaine Clement goes serious, for the most part, in “People Places Things,” an indie in which he plays a father of two whose wife leaves him for another man. But it’s still funny, and it still makes use of the Flight of the Conchords member’s gifts for extremely deadpan comedy, requiring he deliver most of his lines in a manner that’s still restrained. In person, it’s worth noting, Clement is open, friendly and very prone to laughter. In fact, he laughs so much it can be, for those who’ve been watching his work for years, a touch disarming.
You’ve made a lot of work in New York City. Did you learn some new things by making a film about the parenting part of it, which is especially huge in Brooklyn?
There are parenting parts of the city. In one neighborhood everyone’s into wearing a baby bjorn. Schooling here is the big issue for some people. I live in New Zealand, where it’s pretty much free. To send kids to school costs about $70 a year.
Acting with kids seems like it would be, like actual parenting, about returning to a childlike state.
They did see me as another child, I think. They would play with me and we would sit around drawing together. Jim was like the dad. He’d be the one told us what to do. [Laughs]
Were you nervous to try something like this, which is a little more serious?
I think that it was more serious made me more interested and more cautious. I wasn’t worried about the drama or emotional moments, because I have emotions. I know [laughs] that I have emotions, and I project them in the normal human way. But would that be interesting to watch? Because when you do comedy, especially on the stage, you just want laughs all the time. You want a reaction all the time. Whenever the audience is silent you’re failing.
That must be difficult for fellow actors — to try not to laugh at material that’s funny as it’s being done.
I’m a terrible laugher. I often laugh at my costars.
Have you ruined takes before?
Oh yeah. Lots. During “Flight of the Conchords” they’d see me out of the room, I’d be laughing so much. I just did another film with [Bret McKenzie] and it was the same thing, me just cracking up.
It is weird hearing you laugh, given your deadpan persona on “Conchords.”
My character doesn’t laugh, but I laugh. I’m more normal than my character.
Do you feel that same anxiety for constant entertainment with more dramatic work?
I’ve known friends who’ve done dramas and they don’t know how it’s gone till the very end. They may think it’s dying and at the end the audience applauds. They go, “Phew, that was a long time to wait.” I did a film with Steven Spielberg and he said during “Jaws” he had nightmares for months. He didn’t know it was a success till the day it came out. For months he had no idea it would work.
You do a lot of American work but you live in New Zealand. How do you find the comedy opportunities there?
It’s hard to do comedy in New Zealand, especially in television. Film’s a bit more open in New Zealand, but TV, they’re just imitating American TV. We would have to go to America, make a show, then go back to new Zealand and say, “We’ll make a show like that American show.” [Laughs] New Zealand invented those terrible “Pop Idol” shows, like “American Idol.” They had a show about this band. The idea got copied and copied then changed, and then it became “Pop Idol” and “American Idol.” Then New Zealand copied that idea that we had in the first place. So we didn’t have a chance there.
Has it improved?
There’s a bit more comedy stuff. After we started here I heard they were looking for a musical show, even though we’d been turned down in New Zealand.
You’re working on a “What We Do in the Shadows” sequel, this time about the werewolves, not the vampires, correct?
We’re hoping to. We’re calling it “We’re Werewolves” at the moment, or “What We Do in the Moonlight.” We’ve got to talk to a lot of special effects people. Werewolves are harder than vampires. Vampires, they have teeth and a wire that lifts you up. Werewolves are a whole transformation thing. We have to try and do low budget filmmaking with effects that look real. I live in Wellington where there’s a lot of special effects people, because of the Peter Jackson films. There’s a lot of people there who’ve learned both practical effects and makeup and prosthetics, as well as CGI stuff.
Sounds like New Zealand is the best place to make a low budget effects-driven film.
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