In Conversation: Rhys Darby Wants to Believe
The Kiwi actor/comedian/writer (Flight of the Conchords/What We Do in the Shadows) ponders the New Zealand film renaissance and the Paranormal.
“Losers!” Rhys Darby exclaims. The forty-two-year-old New Zealand transplant is speaking over the phone from Vancouver, which is characteristically overcast—a sharp contrast to sunny Los Angeles, where the comedian lives with his wife and two sons.
“It’s OK, you can say it,” he laughs as your faithful interviewer fumbles to characterize the roles Darby is best known for: Murray Hewitt on Flight of the Conchords, UFOlogist Steve Whittle on his Netflix series Short Poppies, and now Steve on TBS’s Lost spoof Wrecked. It’s a set of characters with a lot of heart but not much sense. On screen, Darby maintains an uncanny grace, playing these guys with as loveable rubes and approaching them with a certain kindness that seems essential to his nature.
It’s a balancing act on display in his new film, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which recently opened in the US after drawing record-breaking audiences in his native New Zealand. Darby portrays the off-the-grid eccentric Psycho Sam, and despite his skittish, isolationist nature, it’s pure Darby, and you can’t help but just like Darby no matter who he’s playing.
“I certainly find [that there’s] more humor in characters you have empathy for,” he says. But then again, he might abandon this whole acting thing in favor of paranormal investigations any time now.
I’m sure you’re used to being asked this, but a lot of your characters, from Murray on Flight of the Conchords to almost everyone on Short Poppies, have this hapless quality to them. How often do people expect you, the real life Rhys Darby, to be the same way?
I don’t think I orchestrated it this way, but I’ve [played a lot of] hapless characters—people who are naive, who are kind of fun but maybe a bit dim—and upon meeting people, they don’t have much expectation for me when I start talking. [Laughs.] They think, “This guy’s not going to know much, he hasn’t been anywhere.”
But one of the hardest things to do is to play dopey and do it in a way that’s rich for entertainment. I think mean humor is easy; it’s easy to be derogatory and bring down others. I kind of find it more challenging, but also more natural to me, to try and create comedy from optimistic areas. Hopelessness, too, but also a lot of positivity.
I think Flight of the Conchords has in some ways paved the way for a show like Bob’s Burgers, where that innate kindness toward the characters is on display, but I wonder whether you see that in other shows. It feels like it’s still pretty rare.
I don’t really see it in that many places. I think that’s why some of the New Zealand stuff that comes out, stuff that Taika [Waititi] and Jemaine [Clement] have worked on, has that quality as well. I feel like there’s a connection there to our isolation as New Zealanders. We don’t stick our heads out, we’re not really confident, we don’t really feel as if we have a place in the world because we come from so far away and from such an insignificant country.
“New Zealanders are all the same: very rural, living on farms, looking at beaches, eating plentiful fruit.”
We can’t bring other people down because we’re so tiny. We had to resort to laughing at ourselves more than anyone else because there was no one else to laugh at. We grew up with strong British comedy—and it’s fantastic, they’re the masters of it, but really it comes from a higher kind of empire mentality. They have these ruling classes, and they poke fun at these different levels of class. We don’t have any of that. We’re all the same: very rural, living on farms, looking at beaches, eating plentiful fruit.
American humor is different, too. It doesn’t quite have that status-level type stuff but it’s more about particular wording and repartee, and it’s based heavily on writing. It’s less physical in some ways, less silly. So out of our own isolation we just came up with this thing [somewhere in the middle]. For me, it doesn’t make sense for me to play anyone who’s cruel, but in saying that, you can’t play the same characters your whole life, and it’s not to say that I won’t play someone that is cruel in some way in the future. In fact, I look forward to it. [Laughs.]
There’s another thread I see running through at least some of your characters. Whittle from Short Poppies and Psycho Sam from Hunt for the Wilderpeople are interested in conspiracy theories, UFOs, getting off the grid. You’re interested in that stuff personally, right?
I love the paranormal. I’m into the weird. I think there’s a lot of humor that can be taken from that subject matter, and not a lot is. I believe in it—not all of it, but some of it—and I choose to believe in it. Like the old X-Files saying: I want to believe. I’m a big fan of cryptozoology and I’ve done a few investigations myself and the people in that world trust me. [They know] I’m not there to take the mickey, [but] I have a humor that goes with it. The people I’ve met in that world have a great sense of humor as well.
[At the same time,] you see these people on these shows, like UFO Hunters and all that kind of stuff, and they take it so seriously. They’re just setting themselves up for mockery. People think, “How can you believe in that crap?” But if you see the lighter side of it and also don’t mock it, you see the human element—the people. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve found a little niche there. So when I put it into my fictional stuff I guess it’s kind of celebrating the madness.
That paranormal element has influenced some of the work you’ve done: Wrecked obviously borrows some of that from Lost, but you were also on the new season of The X-Files. Your portrayal of the reptilian-monster-turned-human Guy Mann was hands-down my favorite part of that reboot. Were you a big fan of the show?
Yes, of course. What I’d love to be doing, if I wasn’t entertaining people, would be actually investigating [the paranormal]. Who didn’t want to be Mulder, right? I was blown away when I got that role. For me, it’s spookier than the actual show itself when the zeitgeist hits you and the stars align and you find yourself on a show that’s perfect for you.
You play Coran on Netflix’s reboot of Voltron: Legendary Defender. Did you watch the show when it was on back in the ’80s?
Apparently it did play [in New Zealand], but I was a very outdoorsy kid who played soccer on Saturdays, so I pretty much missed the whole thing. I remember seeing it once, [though]. I had this vision in my head of these great uniforms and the awesome helmets these pilots wore, and I remember them flying these ships. I had this memory in my head for the longest time, like, “What was that show?” And thirty years later, I’m pulled up for this part and it all came flooding back. I was very happy to get the part playing, luckily, someone from another world, so my voice fit the bio. I think I was one of the first people cast on that, and then they had to cast Princess [Allura] around me, finding a similar accent that would work well with my voice.
I imagine that’s the best way to do it: cast everyone around you, based on your attributes and strengths.
Yes! [Laughs.] Cast me first and then paint around me.
You’re in a film that’s just out in the States, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. His previous film, What We Do in the Shadows, which you’re also in, became a cult hit in America. Has the changing media landscape benefited films from New Zealand reaching audiences here?
“What I’d love to be doing, if I wasn’t entertaining people, would be actually investigating [the paranormal].”
Absolutely. The cool way to get anything has always been to find out about it by word of mouth, but these days there are so many platforms to see things on that I don’t think it even matters if a film doesn’t get a full theatrical release. It’s going to be interesting to see how big this one gets over here, because it’s been a slow buildup on Taika’s work in America, and now that he’s directing [upcoming Marvel film] Thor: Ragnarok and everyone’s starting to know who he is, they’re going to go back and see his earlier work. It’s a weird one—there’s been a bit of a renaissance of New Zealand filmmaking.
Bret and Jemaine are on the road performing as Flight of the Conchords this summer. What are the odds of you showing up on stage as the tour rolls through the US?
I definitely will, but I just don’t know when or at which venue. I’m just trying to pick things up with schedules. I’d love to have Murray come out there at some point and I think it will happen, but I can’t reveal when or how often.
That sounds pretty in line with Murray’s character.
Exactly! [Laughs.] Depends when he can get away from work. But he’ll definitely show up at some point. FL