Rhys Darby interview

We talk to the New Zealand comedian Rhys Darby, who stars in the new Richard Curtis film The Boat That Rocked, out on April 1st.

Straight outta New Zealand, Rhys Darby has made waves with his sound effect-laden, character-heavy stand-up performances. After appearing in Flight Of The Conchords, the NZ music-comedy series that has taken the UK and USA by storm, he has now set his course for the silver screen. The Boat That Rocked is only his second film credit, after Yes Man earlier this year, but is this the start of a long career?

We met him in London, the night after the new film premiered, and chatted about how he became involved with Richard Curtis’ latest, as well as his career ambitions, his views on comedy and acting, and his home country.

How did you get involved in the film?

Richard Curtis wanted to meet me, he was in LA for a long weekend and I was there… I think Emma [Freud, broadcaster and Curtis’ partner] was a fan of the Conchords TV Show… or, then, someone told me the other day that he had seen it! Either way, he’s always been looking for hot new comedy talent, I think, and he’s been known for that, so I got to meet him and we had a bit of a connection, because he was originally born in New Zealand… he was only there for five minutes before he came over here!

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Of course, the role that he wanted filling in this movie suited me down to a tee, so I guess I was just lucky.

Did you bring a lot to the role? Was there much improvisation on set? Your character, Angus ‘The Nut’ Nutsford, for example, uses a lot of sound effects in his on-air routine…

Yeah! The script was all there, you know, what I brought to it in particular I guess was during the DJ sessions, which I created and scripted myself. And that included the funny sound effects and things. When they show the extra footage of the movie, you’ll see a lot of extra footage that we all did – that’ll be on the DVD I’m sure.

And as well as that during scenes, he would say to us ‘If you want to improvise, feel free to jump in and say a word here or there…’, because there are such great comedy actors on this movie, and we’re all quite willing to have a go at that. So I helped out there – if I wasn’t in a scene, I’d definitely yell something out [laughs]. So he was very accommodating, he never once told me to shut up.

What was the cast like? It has a good mix of established and up and coming comedians and actors.

Very much so, and I think that’s what makes it work. Obviously, the DJs themselves, they were a great mix of people stuck together on a boat and all trying to get along, kinda like a band that has been put together. You’ve got people who are into different things, and here they are off on tour. So we connected in that same way.

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Was Philip Seymour Hoffman intense on set?

He wasn’t intense at all. When he switches on, when he’s acting, and he becomes this thing, and he’s very good at it obviously. When he’s not on, he was just laid back, down to earth, one of the guys, talking silly stuff just as much as the next guy. There was no one that stood out in any way that didn’t get on with the person next to them.

I think we all had the idea – we all loved the idea for the movie, so we were together as one enjoying what we were doing. We were way out on a boat, drinking a few beers, listening to rock and roll music all the time, when we weren’t acting – you just get into that spirit of ‘we’re lucky to be having this job!’.

There are some great tracks in the film… Are you into that? Would you call yourself a music geek?

No, not at all. I do actually like the 60s and 70s music, and I go through sporadical periods of getting into music, but the last three years, since the birth of my child and this whirlwind of a career that I’ve been doing since I stopped doing stand-up and started doing the acting, I’ve barely bought a CD, barely had time.

But most of the music in the film are standards and stone cold classics anyway…

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Exactly, yeah. I do love that music. I used to watch this TV show called [1980s Vietnam drama] Tour Of Duty, which had a soundtrack from the ’60s and I used to watch it and it really encapsulated the time and the music. This explosion of music that had real meaning, and had great riffs! Everything today it quite derivative of that.

So have you closed the book on your stand-up career, then?

Oh, no! No I haven’t. I stopped doing it every night! Which is what I was doing – it was my job, man, and I loved it, but it got to the point where you’d go to work, and you’d spend 20 minutes or half an hour on stage, and then you get in a cab and go to another one. And you’re doing the same set every night, and then you try to work in new ideas.

It became quite monotonous, and acting was a new challenge for me. I’ve kept the stand-up going on the side-line, and because I’ve been doing less and less of it, when I do do it I enjoy it because it’s like ‘Aw, I’m doing stand-up tonight, yes! Bring out the classic gags!’

And I’ve just done a tour of Australia, because I’ve got this DVD out now, so all my material is so exposed, and if it’s not on that, it’s on YouTube, so I’ve got about 20, 30 if I’m lucky minutes of new stuff, so I just do all my classic stuff. And this tour of Australia, it was sold out, and I was really amazed that people came. I hadn’t really been there before, it was all based on the Conchords fans. And after doing those Australia dates, I’ve decided to take a break and not do it again until I’ve got a whole new hour, and I can do a new show. And I say that now, but at the same time I’m probably going to be swept away with making movies and stuff…

Is it hard to make that transition from stand-up to acting?

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I found it very easy. When I used to write my one-man shows, they were all essentially like plays, where I would play all of the different characters… and all of the objects! So I was essentially doing a lot of acting in my stand-up, so I found it very easy to move from there.

Is acting a secret ambition of yours, then?

Yeah, right from the beginning I wanted to get into television and film. I mean, I grew up watching Monty Python, so for me that was the ultimate. Any expression of doing comedy, the easiest thing was to do stand-up – doing it on a stage. And then later on, once you get good enough and people get interested in you, they might chuck some cameras on you, and all of a sudden you’re basically acting. And of course they made movies and stuff, and that would be my goal. So now I’m moving into those areas.

Yeah, and there are those actors who have made the transition, like Eddie Izzard, Richard Pryor… those who started off more stand-up, then moved into acting…

Steve Martin is another one. When he decided to stop stand-up, he never went back. I’ve just read his autobiography about his crazy stand-up years, how he became just the biggest thing ever, and he just walked away. And I don’t think I could ever walk away from it, because I’m always thinking of funny ideas, and I enjoy getting those ideas out there. I think of myself as a comedian first and foremost, and an actor second, because it is just in my nature to see the lighter side of things and to have a laugh. And acting is a side-aspect to being a comedian – not all comics can act, but certainly hardly any actors can do comedy.

Well, stand-up is one of the hardest things to perform…

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That’s what they say! [laughs] What’s it like coming up as a comedian in New Zealand? Stand-up is a big thing in Australia, is it similar there?

In New Zealand, well, you know – there’s one full-time comedy club. Then there are other places that offer comedy once a week or once a month or once a year – ‘It’s our yearly show, folks!’ – so it’s a small but perfectly formed comedy industry. It’s a bit picky because everybody is fighting over which gigs you can get, but you know we have internationals come over every year for the big festival.

It’s definitely on the comedy map now, plus, with the Conchords and what I’m doing, people are thinking ‘wow, there are some funny people from New Zealand – and they sound funny, too!’ It’s a bit like the Irish thing, do you remember when with the Irish – you’d basically just have to be Irish and you’d be funny? You’ve got that now coming from New Zealand, because we sound slightly different as well. It’s a kind of novelty thing. But if you don’t have the gear to back it up, it’ll soon go away.

But it’s a very vibrant time for New Zealand comedy at the moment, and it’s great to be at the forefront of it with the flag, going ‘woo-hoo! come on, guys!’

But there’s a problem with gaining international success, right? Australia had that with its film industry, where its big stars would move away to Hollywood, do you think that could happen with New Zealand?

That’s not gonna happen to me! And the same with Bret and Jemaine, they live in New Zealand. Because it works so well as a getaway. If you wanted to work in the film industry, back in those earlier days, you had to live in LA, or New York… but now I think the way that the world has turned out, we can travel so easily, so I can say I want to live in Auckland, New Zealand. And when something comes up, I can pop on a plane. Or if I’ve got a project, I could show it to you, and the Americans or the British might say ‘that’s amazing, let’s make it’, and I’ll say ‘we’re making it in NZ, let’s go!’. To have that kind of power is a great position to be in.

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What have you got lined up?

I’m doing in indie film in about two weeks in LA, and I get to play the lead. Romantic comedy. It’s in the vein of something like A Fish Called Wanda. There’s a bit of romance there, but ultimately it’s just a load of wacky situations and cool sorta stuff that I can do. I get to use my own accent and improvise as well, so it’s a perfect vehicle for me, and I’m looking forward to doing that.

Are you worried about going onto the international stage, and having to suppress your accent, or giving up control?

Well, I don’t know where I’m going with this thing. At the moment, I think people are wanting me to be me. They enjoy me being various versions of me. So. That is easy for me! [laughs] So I’ll just keep doing it, you know! And if I get to the point where I want to do something different, say I want to take on a serious role, actually ‘act’, as a person from a different country. That’ll be a new challenge, but at the moment I’m so new to the whole game, I’ve only been acting in front of the cameras for two years! This is only my second film – I’m still very new to it all. So I’ll just keep on rocking for a couple of years, and I’ll see where I am after that. I’ll just enjoy myself!

Rhys Darby, thank you very much!

The Boat That Rocked is out on 1st April 2009.

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