McKenzie takes a serious turn to acting

SERIOUSLY, FOLKS: Bret McKenzie as bank teller Nige in Two Little Boys. Wait until you see his mullet - "just a slight trim on the sides", he says.
SERIOUSLY, FOLKS: Bret McKenzie as bank teller Nige in Two Little Boys. Wait until you see his mullet - "just a slight trim on the sides", he says.

Being the star of Kiwi feature Two Little Boys means one half of Flight of the Conchords - Wellington's Bret McKenzie - has a lot on his shoulders.

To be precise, it's what touches McKenzie's shoulders - one of the most striking mullets in the history of New Zealand cinema.

It's just one of the aspects that makes Nige - the well-meaning, but naive and dim Invercargill bank teller character that he plays - unforgettable.

What will surprise audiences is that this isn't McKenzie, who won the Oscar for best song this year, simply reprising or extending his "Bret" persona from the Conchords.

As actors like to say, he really inhabits Nige. Nige is nothing like the parts we've seen played by McKenzie before, and that includes his two cult appearances in The Lord of the Rings and possibly his third Middle Earth role in The Hobbit.

This really is the arrival of McKenzie: comic actor. Starring alongside McKenzie is Australian comedian Hamish Blake, best known for Hamish and Andy and Rove Live.

"It's a much more dramatic film than what a Conchords film would be," McKenzie told The Dominion Post.

"People will be surprised if they go in expecting a Flight of the Conchords meets Hamish and Andy. The film isn't that."

But he agrees that when audiences first see him as Nige, driving around the empty late night streets of Invercargill in 1993, all eyes will be on the mullet.

"When we first got down there and they cut our hair, Hamish and I spent a lot of time stroking the back of our mullets. It's something I normally don't do with my hair. But with a mullet, you keep pushing it back, making sure it's looking good.

"It was also alarmingly easy to go from my normal haircut to a mullet. It was just a slight trim on the sides."

Blake, who plays Deano, Nige's unhinged and possessive mate since childhood, found another use for his mullet. Blake was required to have his head shaved for a scene, so auctioned off the mullet for charity.

"You could rent it out. He made a mullet wig out of his mullet," says McKenzie, laughing.

Other potential laughter material was McKenzie working with a pie. In the opening scene of Two Little Boys Nige burns himself trying to eat a hot pie while driving.

On the first night filming, McKenzie says he went through 16 pies. He forced down another 10 during reshoots.

"You forget about all the different camera angles when you have to bite that pie. You start enthusiastically eating these pies and then you realise you can't possibly eat that many pies that they need you to eat."

McKenzie, 36, first read Wellington-based Duncan and Robert Sarkies' Two Little Boys script three years ago while the Flight of the Conchords were touring the United States.

He was already familiar with the Sarkies thanks to their debut feature Scarfies, while Duncan had written two Flight of the Conchords episodes.

McKenzie says he'd already had offers of roles in other movies and had read "some quite bad Hollywood scripts of studio comedies". But he didn't like any of them.

"It was so refreshing to read something that I found really funny. I was really up to the challenge. I was so excited by how much darker it is than anything I've done in the past.

"There are two turns. It's the story about accidentally killing a backpacker and the guilt of that and dealing with this dead body. Then it's also the story of a bromance between three friends."

The third friend that comes between Nige and Deano is Gav, played by Maaka Pohatu. Some of the funniest scenes include Gav and McKenzie says in some ways the film should really be called Three Little Boys, such is Pohatu's presence and input.

Most of the seven weeks filming was ambitious, due to the multiple locations in Southland, including the remote Catlins, which McKenzie hadn't visited before. The shoot was early last year, at the height of summer. But most of the time it felt like winter.

"It was really cold. It was freezing, although I'm sure Tim Shadbolt [Invercargill's mayor, who has a cameo in the film] wouldn't want me to say that. It was an anomaly."

It included a scene were Nige and Deano go for a swim on a Catlins beach.

"It doesn't look cold on screen. But the crew are all wrapped up in these Antarctic Kathmandu Macpac super jackets and me and Hamish and Maaka are all in our underwear."

In another scene the boys encounter a sea lion. In the film it's for real, not computer-generated.

"We had to sneak up [to the sea lion] and they set the cameras up. The sea lion chased me up into the dunes and the camera crew had to abandon a camera because the sea lion went towards it. It was like a couple of bogans making a nature documentary."

Much of the strength of Flight of the Conchords is the interplay between McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. While much darker, it's just as important between Nige and Deano in Two Little Boys.

McKenzie hadn't met Blake before auditions but says the two hit it off.

"I had a great time. He is funny, quite ridiculously funny. He is always cracking gags. Some comedians are not funny in real life and he really is someone who is as funny as he is on TV."

McKenzie is unsure if the onscreen chemistry with Blake would have still been there if the two hadn't clicked offscreen.

"I've only seen that happen once on a job. It doesn't happen very often, but it can kill a scene.

"Without the playfulness, the scenes don't come to a laugh. It probably wouldn't have worked I don't think. But we got on really well - it's just a tragedy that Nige's best friend is a psychopath."

THE DETAILS

Two Little Boys premieres in Invercargill on Tuesday and opens nationwide on September 20.

The Dominion Post