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Most people think of Jemaine Clement as part of a unit—the Costello, or possibly the Abbott, to pal Bret McKenzie in their New Zealand folk-comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords. But lately there have been signs that Clement is close to breaking out on his own, beginning with his “Best Actor” Emmy nomination for the Conchords’ HBO show and his starring role in Eagle Vs. Shark, and now his prominent role in Gentlemen Broncos, the latest from Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess. Though his actual screen time logs him as a supporting character, it’s unquestionably Clement’s film; his performance as washed-up, self-aggrandizing science-fiction author Ronald Chevalier provides most of the laughs. Chevalier is also a bit of a departure for Clement, who abandons his likeably low-key Conchords persona to play an odious, pompous jerk with no compunction about stealing a young fan’s work and passing it off as his own. Shortly after the Broncos première at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, The A.V. Club spoke with Clement about bringing Chevalier’s very specific quirks to life, why he isn’t looking to pal around with Ashton Kutcher anytime soon, and whether his rising star has had any effect on his relationship with McKenzie.
The A.V. Club: Did anyone in particular inspire your performance as Chevalier? There seem to be some hints of Gregory Peck in the voice.
Jemaine Clement: Oh, thanks. [Laughs.] I studied theatre at [Victoria] University. I didn’t get very far—I dropped out—but there was one lecturer on theater whose real passion was science-fiction writing, and I thought of him a little. He was a much shorter, gentler kind of person, and he was quite humble, unlike this character. But he had a [Adopts dignified tone.] very resonant voice, and he loved to talk about just the imagination, and the power of it. So I thought of him a little bit. And also, Michael York was the reference that Jared came up with. I think they actually wanted Michael York, probably, because the character is described as being in his 60s in the scripts.
AVC: Jared’s characters often come off like a bundle of quirks. Does he outline all those eccentricities for you up front?
JC: A lot of things, like the way they dress—which was quite quirky, I suppose—are mentioned in the script in a really detailed way. But also, a lot of the stories come from people he knows. There are some quirky people out in Utah. [Laughs.] I think the films might be less quirky for him than they are for other people, because a lot of them are real experiences. For instance, in Napoleon Dynamite, the kid turning up to school, and he’s got a wig suddenly? That happened exactly like that to a guy he knew at his high school. Things like that. And in this film, the character Lonnie, who makes the films? He’s got a friend who does that. He has hundreds of films; it’s called UtahWolfProductions.com. Check it out. He makes all these music videos, and I know he’s an inspiration for that part. So I don’t know if it’s as quirky as people think it is. It’s more just real life. I think some people find it really weird, but to me, it’s quite a cohesive world where they all coexist. I appreciate that he’s creating this different universe.
AVC: It does seem at times, especially in this film, that Hess lets the costumes do a lot of the lifting in terms of creating a character.
JC: Yeah. The descriptions will be like, “Chevalier enters. He is wearing a tan jacket and a mustard-colored top and matching pleated pants with ankle boots.” You know, it’s all described like that. He’s very visual.
AVC: And those costumes all seem to come straight from Goodwill. Did you feel like you were essentially wearing garbage every day?
JC: Well, I went along with the costume designer a couple of times to the Goodwill store. So yeah, when you’re in there, there’s that smell. But I’m a real pawn-shopper anyway. I always go to those places, so I’m used to that.
AVC: The film hints that Chevalier is obsessed with Native American spirituality, but it’s never directly addressed. How did that factor into the character for you?
JC: I just think he romanticizes the spirit of Native Americans. Like, the idea of unity with the land and the universe.
AVC: Is that something that, as a New Zealander, you’ve had a lot of exposure to—American white men taking on Native American culture? Is that something you’ve seen New Zealanders do with Maori culture?
JC: People do it a little with Maori culture, yeah. I’m part Maori. My mum’s Maori, and she raised me. And my grandma, she’s Maori. So I’m like a spy. [Laughs.] Like, I’ve got white skin, but yeah, I’m kind of like that myself.
AVC: Chevalier is your first fully American character. Did you approach him as a parody of Americans?
JC: Well, I’m not even sure if he is American. My first idea was that he’s from England, and he’s come over here because he’s been successful here. But then also, I imagined him being from London, Ontario, and then he just stops mentioning the “Ontario” part, and he’s just become more and more pretentious, and starts speaking completely differently. What was the question? That’s my least favorite thing to hear myself say, is “What was the question?”
AVC: Whether you saw him as a parody of Americans.
JC: Ah, right. No, but the way he dresses is very American. And all the Bluetooth stuff he wears. You get on the plane here in Texas, and all the dudes seem to have those. Actually, on the way here, I heard these two strangers sitting behind me on the plane talking about their Jawbones. [Affects American accent.] “Oh, is that the Jawbone?” “Yeah, it’s pretty good. It’s the best one I’ve had.” [Laughs.] Their Bluetooths. Blueteeth? Bluetooths? What’s the plural of Bluetooth? It’s like the “mouse/mice/mouses” question.
AVC: This is your second wholly unlikeable character, after Eagle Vs. Shark. Do you find those roles easier to play?
JC: Well, on Flight Of The Conchords, sometimes the character’s pretty unlikeable. I’ve got a friend who’s a really funny actor in New Zealand that I used to work with. I remember him reading a script and going, “I’m trying to think of what’s likeable about this character.” And I said, “Why?” And he’d go, “Well, I always try to make my characters likeable.” And then something just clicked in my head, and I go, “I think I’m going to try and always think of what’s unlikeable about my characters.” I try to have a balance of things you like and things you don’t like about a character. But once you start that, all these scripts are like, “You play the douchebag friend of Ashton Kutcher.” It’s all these characters that are overconfident or hyper-masculine.
AVC: Are those the sort of parts you’re usually offered—the “wacky best friend”?
JC: I’ve been offered a couple of those, yeah. But I’ve been asked to read for so many of those, more than you can imagine. The friend of the main guy.
AVC: Is that a trajectory you’re interested in pursuing?
JC: The wacky best friend? Yeah, I’d love to corner the market on the wacky best friend. [Laughs.] Who do you think’s the best?
AVC: The best wacky best friend?
JC: I can only think of one wacky best friend who I thought was awesome: Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill. He really nailed the wacky best friend.
AVC: That’s the bar you’d have to clear, I guess.
JC: Yeah, and I don’t think I can do that.
AVC: With the Emmy nomination and this movie role, has your increased visibility affected the dynamic between you and Bret in the Conchords?
JC: What, are you serious? [Laughs.] No. A couple of years ago, we didn’t even know what the Emmys was. They said “the Emmys,” and we were like, “Oh, cool. What’s that?” I honestly mix them up with the Grammys. There’s an interview I did in New Zealand when we were nominated for a Grammy, and I said, “Yeah, it’s so great to be nominated for an Emmy.” And Bret goes, “No, a Grammy.” I didn’t know. We don’t really have a reference for them.
AVC: So there was no tension that you were nominated and he wasn’t?
JC: I felt a little embarrassed when he congratulated me for it. But man, neither of us really care about that thing—but particularly him. He doesn’t even watch TV. I don’t have a TV, but when we’ll have meetings, and they’ll talk about other shows, he’ll know Friends or Seinfeld, or something really big and famous, but he doesn’t know anything about TV. He’s barely watched it. I grew up in front of a TV.
AVC: Now that the show’s been nominated and the album’s come out, there’s probably even more pressure to do the third season of Conchords. Any movement on that?
JC: Yeah, I can’t really tell you. I don’t know. We’re thinking about it. We’re kind of on the Larry David model. The writing is just a boring job. It’s just a horrible job. And then we’re filming for like seven days a week for four or five months. It might be with an occasional day off, or like a half-day off, but it’s really grueling. Because the creative part of it, we’re doing—writing the music, recording it, playing all the instruments, either doing the scripts or the rewrites for other people’s scripts on the weekend, and then filming it in the week.
AVC: Are you still actively writing music, at least?
JC: I’m actively going out onto the porch and noodling around on my guitar.
AVC: Do you see a point where Jemaine the movie star might overshadow Jemaine from the Conchords?
JC: Oh, I don’t really think about that. If it’s something I want to do, I’ll try and do it. Both me and Bret, we think very short-term. We just go project to project, and try to motivate it with fun, rather than some creative trajectory.