In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Following Flight Of The Conchords, former door-to-door salesman Jemaine Clement has amused in supporting roles in What We Do In the Shadows and Don Verdean. Now Clement has his first American cinematic lead in People Places Things, playing a graphic novelist struggling as he separates from his wife and tries to be a good father to his 6-year-old twins. Jessica Williams and Regina Hall co-star in this funny, sad, thoughtful film. He’s also recently announced that his next project, an as-yet-untitled anthology series, will be produced by Judd Apatow.
Jemaine Clement: Making a TV show for HBO. [Laughs.] When I was a kid—when I was 11—I had my first job working in the bowling alley in Masterton [New Zealand] and it didn’t have a machine for skittles [bowling pins], so the kids did it. I was probably the youngest—it was 11- to 14-year old boys and girls behind the part where the skittles are. We’d sit there and when they’d get knocked down we jumped down and put them back up. It was really Dickensian. Like, there were no lights—it’s so dark in there. Literally dark.
The A.V. Club: How did this line of work come about?
JC: I went bowling once with my class and saw that they were hiring pinboys. I did it maybe a year.
JC: First feel successful? Well, I don’t know that success is a feeling—it’s more like something that other people put on you.
AVC: Framing it that way, is there a moment you’d cite?
JC: I think putting on my first show, So You’re A Man, with friends at BATS [New Zealand underground theater] probably. We felt pretty successful then. It was Taika [Waititi] and Bret [McKenzie], Carey Smith, and David Lawrence.
AVC: Any insights you gleaned from that exploration of masculinity?
JC: We were all 20. It was a topic given to us. We were part of a bigger show at university and we all had different topics given to us. There was body image, the media, women’s issues, all different things. We got men’s issues. We did a comedy sketch show. Most people did a play.
AVC: A highlight of your academic career, then?
JC: You’re right. [Laughs.] One of one!
JC: I don’t think I’m cut out to be a supervillain. [Laughs.] I think I’d be a supervillain that would exercise some form of mind control. Rather than war, I’d force people to get on with each other and I’d force people to argue reasonably about things rather than be polemical. So I’d be a supervillain that makes everyone get on, but forcefully. There would be no choice about it. No free will. [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of villainous, I enjoyed Rio’s Nigel, your sometimes-Australian-accented sulphur-crested cockatoo.
JC: [Laughs.] Thanks. The reason that it’s Australian accented sometimes is because it’s an Australian bird. When we recorded the first one I wasn’t sure what accent to do, so I tried a take with a slightly Australian accent. I then decided against it but they still used bits of that take because I’m not part of the edit and they totally can’t tell the difference. But in the second one I didn’t do any of it in Australian.
JC: I did well at school—in primary school and intermediate—and so I cruised. And then I cruised all through my college years and almost crashed because I didn’t do any work because I was used to always doing well. And then I did really badly. I’m trying to impart this to my son.
I was goofy. Quietly goofy. When I was little, I just liked to laugh and giggle a lot. I spent a lot of time giggling.
AVC: So you were into comedy young? How did your goofiness manifest itself?
JC: Watching comedy, yeah. So the question is, how did my goofiness manifest? I think probably the opinions of others. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I actually liked a lot of the same stuff that I like now. I wanted to be an animator. I didn’t end up being an animator really. But I did it for a little while. What else? I didn’t do any kind of sports. I like playing sports with friends now, but I just cannot watch it, cannot watch it.
AVC: Yes, we discussed your dislike of rugby last time.
JC: After that was published, I started getting all these messages like: “I hate rugby too!” [Laughs.] People came out to me.
AVC: Any of the particular qualities of that goofy kid still with you?
JC: It’s really hard. I feel like I’m still optimistic about people. No matter how often they disappoint me I’ll be optimistic again next time.
JC: That’s fairly easy: Valerie Bertinelli. Rhys Darby plays her boyfriend in Hot In Cleveland.
AVC: You used to watch her as a kid in Masterton?
JC: Yes. One Day At A Time, it’s another American sitcom. It was about a solo mum and her two daughters. A good-looking solo mum and her two good-looking daughters. I guess I related to it, in a way. Everyone loved her, Valerie Bertinelli.
AVC: Rhys says she’s a good sort?
JC: Haven’t asked her actually, I mean I haven’t asked him. I mean, I’m over it now!
JC: Entrance music? You know the… [Hums ominous tune.] I think it’s the Dragnet theme song.
AVC: When you’re doing a Conchords stage show, do you put music on to psych yourselves up before you get onstage?
JC: We play music and we make playlists. If we’re on a tour bus, everyone who’s on the tour bus gets a go on the stereo and will get to choose the next song on the playlist. It’s usually ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, maybe a couple of new ones. But before we usually play songs, we have books that we carry with us of other people’s songs—The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Bowie, Motown. They’re like the four books [Laughs.] that we have between us! We have two each and we try and get through those. When we do sound checks we often do covers. Especially if we have Nigel Collins on tour with us. Especially with him, because he plays cello.
They’re always all resonant, at all times. I think often we’re trying to sound like Stevie Wonder. But we don’t. We sound like The Muppets.
JC: I dropped my son off at school. I’ve sent a couple of work emails. Me and Taika have pitched a TV show in New Zealand. Do you remember What We Do In The Shadows’ cop characters? The male and female cops?
AVC: Karen O’Leary was a hoot.
JC: We’ve pitched a show for those two cops in New Zealand and we’ve made a mini-pilot. At the moment it’s a paranormal activity division of the New Zealand Police Department. But we’ve already been told before we even handed it in that there’s no money for comedy and that TVNZ tried to make a comedy about a real estate agent and it didn’t go very well so they’re probably not going to do another one. But we still handed it in.
AVC: The old original “no money” line.
JC: Yeah! It’s pretty funny. There’s another thing I’m working on in New Zealand too. I came up with putting animated sketches together and we didn’t quite have enough for half an hour because it’s stop-motion and it takes a long time to do. They gave us something like $3,000 to finish it. It’s ridiculous. We’re going to have to pay our own money. Working here is funny.
JC: Yes. I’ve been mistaken for Benicio Del Toro. Here in Wellington. I was in a commercial at the time here and this person was blown away that I was here and I was in Snatch and I was in this commercial. And another time when I had my massive beard for Men In Black, me and a friend—Stu [Rutherford] from Shadows—accidentally went to a private party in New York. Someone came up to me and said: “Me and my friend were having a bet. My friend bet that you were Joaquin Phoenix. And I was betting, no, it’s Benicio Del Toro. But now that I get closer, I see that you’re Jemaine from Flight Of The Conchords.”
JC: When you’ve done something like this for a long time, people look after you in lots of different areas that [Laughs.] you become useless! But I used to be a door-to-door salesman and I was actually quite good at that. So maybe I’d do that.
AVC: What were you selling?
JC: Orange juice. It’s a good healthy product. There were no qualms. There was no internal struggle in selling orange juice.
JC: Since I did People Places Things I’ve managed to collect a lot of graphic novels. I do read some, but I’ve got just as many that I haven’t read so that’s become a bit of a collection. I’ve got some unusual instruments from around the world. It’s not like I’m one of the Rolling Stones with racks and racks, but I’ve got a few unusual instruments.
AVC: Any Greek instruments?
JC: Yeah, I’ve got a couples of bağlamas, which are like a little bouzouki. Occasionally I play them in a gig, but not that often.
AVC: That’s one of the secrets to Conchords’ success. You understand music, and know how to play it.
JC: A little bit.
AVC: How about the graphic novels? Nice banter on that topic between you and Regina Hall in People Places Things.
JC: Actually, the one we talk about in the film is great. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I hadn’t read it when we filmed the scene. Now that I love that book, I feel like I could’ve gotten into it more! [Laughs.] But I feel like it’s such a shame that her name’s become tied to the Bechdel test. She’s a great artist herself, but people mostly know her name from if a movie has female characters in it, and it’s like: “Why don’t you check out her work?” [Laughs.] You know? If you want to support female artists, why don’t you read some?
JC: My last meal? Might skip that last one. I mean the last meal, skip the last meal. [Laughs.]
AVC: Sure, I guess if you’re dying in less than 24 hours it’s going to suppress your appetite a bit, isn’t it?
JC: Yeah. I don’t want to feel too heavy right then.
Bonus 12th question from Joe Mantegna, who was in The Godfather: Part III: If you knew tomorrow was your last day on Earth, what would you want to do today?
JC: When you have kids, it’s easier because you can just hang out with your kids. But if my son didn’t want to hang out with me—say if he wanted to hang out with Sam C. or Phoebe from next door—then I don’t know. Orgy, I guess. [Laughs.] My top would be hang out with my son. Drawing. A pretty simple day. That would be fine.
AVC: Now you get to ask a question, for the next interviewee.
JC: For who?
AVC: We don’t know who it is yet, but whoever it is will have to answer a question from you.
JC: Okay. I want to hear about a time they dreamed they had killed someone and woken up and thought it was real. I want to hear about that dream. I know most people aren’t interested in hearing about dreams, but I am.
AVC: What would your answer be?
JC: I thought I’d strangled my brother, and hidden him in the cupboard. And when I woke up I thought: “Oh God, my brother’s in the cupboard!”