Film

An Interview With Rhys Darby About NZ Comedy And Escaping To The Bush In Trump’s America

He's "reading a lot of books about werewolves" for an exciting new movie too.

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Murray Hewitt has come a hell of a long way since his first roll call on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords in 2007. Over the past decade or so, New Zealand comedian Rhys Darby has transcended his cult status with the now-iconic show to star in A-list Hollywood comedies alongside US legends like Jim Carrey, score Netflix contracts for his own TV show, and pelt the crap out of Roger Federer under the clever guise of a lucrative advertising deal.

Through cameos on some of the world’s biggest shows including Modern Family and The X-FilesDarby’s become a household name — and not just in the type of households that are entirely furnished by Vinnies and only own one coffee cup.

Though now living in the US, Darby has recently returned home for something more familiar, teaming up once again with the widely-revered NZ director Taika Waititi. The film, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, tells the story of a rowdy young delinquent (newcomer Julian Dennison) placed in foster care with a curmudgeonly old bushman (Sam Neill). After wowing audiences at Sundance and skyrocketing at the box office to become the most popular local film in NZ of all time, the film has already become a classic — one with a distinctive and authentic local flavour.

If this is the first you’re hearing of it, you’ve been missing out. If you’ve chosen to give it a miss, your heart is literally made of stone and there’s no reasoning with you.

I had a chat with Darby about his small part in the film (as a conspiracist shut-in called Psycho Sam) as well his enduring connection to this iconic Kiwi weirdness.

Junkee: I really loved the movie! But then again, it seems everyone does. How have you found the crazy reaction to it so far — in New Zealand especially?

Rhys Darby: It’s not so surprising knowing what Taika is capable of and his past efforts — Boy was the number one movie in New Zealand before this. It was a huge smash hit and a very culturally iconic movie for us. Then there was What We Do In The Shadows with Jemaine [Clement]. That became a huge comedy hit all over the world.

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I think people are used to him now; they know what he creates and they know how good it can be. Now he’s just smashed it out of the park, and this time with a comedy the whole family can see. I’m so satisfied, but it is surprising that it’s reached the level of Boy so quickly. I read a statistic that one in nine people have seen it in New Zealand.

I read, in a recent interview with The Guardian, Sam Neill actually put some of the success on you as well. He was talking about New Zealand film and how it’s so much more popular than it was before. He said it was you and Taika and Jemaine and Brett who were “the school of cool” — you were all responsible for this. How do you feel about that title?

Ohhhh yes! My wife found that article and she showed me. She said ‘Rhys, you’re in the school of cool’ and I said ‘Well, what do you know, look at that hey. I certainly wasn’t cool when I was at school.’

What was it like working with Sam Neill? He’s obviously such a New Zealand (and kind of Australian) institution.

He’s one of my favourites. I did a play with him and he was also in my show Short Poppies — I made that myself and put him in there personally because I wanted to work with him again. We get on really well and we’re very good friends.

He doesn’t do a lot of comedies though. He’s had a huge career and now to be doing something fun and playing a role that is perfect for him in a New Zealand comedy — he was very happy to be involved. He says it himself, he’s with the ‘school of cool’. If that’s us, he’s the headmaster of the school of cool.

[Laughs] I think he’s great at the comedies actually! He’s got such a silly streak to him.

Absolutely! He’s got such a great sense of humour, and so does Julian [Dennison]. Those two were one extreme to the other. A guy that’s been working for years and a boy that’s new on the block. The two of them were like kids in a candy store.

I wanted to talk about your character as well. I really love how the film gives each of the smaller characters so much humour and love alongside the main pair. Where did Psycho Sam come from? Did Taika write that for you especially?

I don’t know if it was for me specifically, but he wanted to have a comedy character in there that had a weird iconic touch to him — one that would be notable and memorable. With that, he sort of harked back to the ’80s films where they put Billy T James [a NZ iconic comedian] in this role. [In Came A Hot Friday], he played a Mexican and appeared in the film for a short amount of time, but he’s one of the ones you remember when you think about it 20 or 30 years in the future.

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Taika had an idea giving that type of role to me — the new kind of comedy guy in NZ. It was to have a role I could make my own and make it that memorable. It’s also in the movie at a time when you don’t expect it — you’re three quarters in, [the main characters] are on a journey, you know where you are, and then suddenly something else pops up that’s a total surprise to the audience.

Total surprise. You transform from a bush. That’s the best introduction to a character.

It was so cool when he first said it to me: ‘the way you’re going to arrive is dressed as a bush’. I was very happy with that. What a great way to arrive in a movie: they’re walking through the bush and suddenly there’s a talking bush. It’s a clearly insane guy who actually does help them out.

I gotta say, I quite relate to Psycho Sam — he’s into his conspiracies, he’s into UFOs, he worries about the government, he wants to be off the grid, he doesn’t trust anyone. I could have easily ended up going down that path if I hadn’t got with the right partner; married the right person and led into a straight, narrow life. I would have probably ended up like Psycho Sam so I can relate to him when I played him.

[Laughs] That’s nice, if not a little worrying.

Well, you know, it didn’t happen! I do read books about UFOs so you never know. If my wife ever leaves me, you’ll find me in the bush.

So you’ve been in the US for around three years now, how has everything changed? Do you still try and seek out New Zealand projects specifically like this? What’s the balance like these days?

It’s definitely more on the American side. There are so many things happening here: TV projects, films, animation stuff I’m involved in. I don’t do as much stand-up as I used to. There’s just more work than there is in NZ. The only things that would get me home would be things that I feel are once in a lifetime opportunities. Also, I would never turn down an offer to work with Taika or Jemaine or Brett. That’s my school of cool!

Really, I see myself here at the moment, but I’ll end up home eventually. When I’ve had enough of this or if Trump gets in. Then I’ll come home.

That’s not a bad plan.

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Exclusive pictures from a world where America is “great” again.

Speaking of Jemaine and Brett — the school of cool — Conchords turns 10 next year. As in every interview with you, I have to ask you about the possibility of a film or reboot. How do you feel about potentially returning to a Conchords project? 

Very excited. I think it’s due. We’ve talked about it. Something is going to happen, I personally just don’t know when or where. Both Brett and Jemaine are well aware that they just need to wave out and I’ll come for them. That still, to date, is the best time we’ve ever had and it’s the genesis of everything that’s happened since then. Getting together is definitely something I want to do again.

In fact, those guys are just about to go on tour in the US. When they’re together, they’re off plotting what their next move is so you never know what might happen.

I have one more question for you: how is the sequel coming along to What We Do In The Shadows? I saw Taika announce the name of it which is very exciting.

[Laughs] We’re Wolves. Absolutely. We’re all very keen to make it, it’s just about finding the available time. It will happen, but there’s certainly not been any progress since the title. I have been reading a lot of books about werewolves though, so I’m studying.

Great! So you’re going to be the star — front and centre this time?

I think so! I hope so! It’s about time, right?

Definitely. Well, I think our time is up.

Thanks so much! I’m glad the film’s going well, I hope Australia comes to the game as well and it does well there.

I’ll do the best I can. I’m actually from NZ as well so I’ll be sure to talk it up.

Oh good. Good on ya. Wave the flag.

Will do.

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Hunt For The Wilderpeople is in cinemas now. Read our full review here.