Rhys Darby interview

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Animated NZ comic to Hollywood star, Ben Williams asks Rhys Darby about his stand-up roots

© Rob Greig

Rhys Darby is a strange fit for LA. The 38-year-old New Zealander, who moved to the US in 2011, is quiet and unassuming; the polar opposite of the brutal Hollywood agents and diva-ish movie stars. He sums it up, mid-photo shoot at the Time Out office, when he tells me his kids go to school with those of one of the Wu-Tang Clan. ‘Which member?’ I ask, ‘Method Man?’ ‘I don’t know. I just know him as Robert.’

Darby’s life has certainly changed since I first saw him perform in a sticky leisure centre function room in Glastonbury in 2005. Back then, he was a longtime-favourite of the British stand-up circuit, performing a mad collection of vocal sound effects and physical comedy. These days, the ‘Flight of the Conchords’ star is more likely to be found acting alongside Jim Carrey (‘Yes Man’) or Bill Nighy (‘The Boat That Rocked’), selling out huge venues, or answering questions about the rumoured ‘Conchords’ film. I caught up with the Kiwi comic in the middle of his first ever UK tour.

You spent eight years on the British circuit before you landed the film roles. What lured you to the UK?

‘The instigator to coming over was [British comic] Adam Bloom, in fact, who came over for the New Zealand Comedy Festival. He saw what I was doing, said that it would have universal appeal and that not many other people were doing the physical stuff I did. So I decided to come over, went straight to the Edinburgh Fringe, and from there I really felt at home for the first time. I felt like I was surrounded by like minded buffoons. Certainly when I left New Zealand there was no career there as a comedian. I was doing more live gigs than anyone, and I was maybe doing three a week. Even then it would often be the same people in the audience, going, “I saw you on Tuesday, mate!”’

Your stand-up includes a lot of sound effects and mime. When did you add those elements?

‘I originally started in a duo with my friend Grant, and we did songs and sketches, which sound effects weren’t really a part of. When I went solo I still did weird sketches, but because I was on my own I tried to create objects and things around me, and the sound effects just came in as part of it. I was doing sketches or characters by myself, so I would tend to act some of it out. I’ve always had a passion for acting, without really realising that that’s what I should be doing.’

© Rob Greig

You’ve said that your ‘Conchords’ character, Brian Nesbitt, who later became Murray Hewitt, is effectively your own creation. Were you ever asked to change anything about him?

‘No, not at all. I came up with that initial name, and then they turned the recorder on and I said, “Right, well let’s have a band meeting then,” went straight into the roll call, and then we just made it up. I knew when they put the three of us together for a band meeting that it was funny, you could feel it. I thought people would think, “Who’s this nerdy loser that they hang out with?” But it turned out that people had empathy for him; he was a genuine lovely guy, so all the loser elements just made him more endearing, thank goodness. The only thing I was asked to do was to grow a goatee. That and the way my hair was styled, which wasn’t my choice either, obviously. But it worked out perfectly. Apart from the comments I get now like, “Your hair’s a wig!” It’s not a fucking wig!’

Your stand-up is very energetic, but Murray’s subtle and mild-mannered. Was it a deliberate decision to make him different from your stage persona?

‘Oh yeah. Bret would always remind me to have him very nonchalant, very calm. I tend to do a quite physical wide-eyed thing, and he would go, “Bring those eyes down, don’t make him too excited.” I can be a bit movement-orientated and flamboyant, because essentially I’m a physical comedian. So I had to rein in my usual comedy skills.’

Do you feel Murray has changed over the radio series and TV show?

‘I’m not sure if he’s got any wiser, but I think he’s warmed to people’s hearts more. He’s learnt a few things, a few more names of bands and where not to gig, like airports, things like that. But I don’t really think he’s learnt anything substantial or progressed too much since the beginning, which I think is a good thing, because that’s where the magic lies. I would have loved to have a third season or a film to see what he has learnt. Hopefully the guys will work on a “Conchords” film because the world deserves it. That’s up to them, because we’re all keen to do it. It’s about finding the time and the right story. All I can do is encourage them and then wait for the phone call.’

Murray, present

Our favourite Murray moments from ‘Flight of the Conchords’

Series 1, Episode 7: ‘Drive By’

Murray’s first song, a farewell to the woman from tech support that he has fallen in love with, containing such lyrical gems as ‘I had a budgie but it died/ I like pie’.

Series 1, Episode 9: ‘What Goes on Tour’

Murray finally loses it with ‘cool-looking idiots’ Bret and Jemaine when they let his car roll into a swimming pool…

Murray: I’m so angry, I feel like swearing.

Bret: Oh, Murray, you wouldn’t swear at us.

Murray: Go fuck yourself, Bret!

Series 2, Episode 3: ‘The Tough Brets’

Murray gets his rappers and cartoon characters mixed up…

Murray: Who were these people you were dissing? The only one I could make out was Snoopy! What’s your problem with him?

Bret: No, Snoop Dogg.

Murray: Yeah, I know he’s a dog, Bret. I’m not totally in the Dark Ages.

Buy 'Flight of the Conchords' on DVD.

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