Clement keen to sink teeth into vampire role

BREAKOUT ROLE: Jemaine Clement as an alien called Boris the Animal in Men in Black 3. Putting on the makeup for the role could take four hours a day.
BREAKOUT ROLE: Jemaine Clement as an alien called Boris the Animal in Men in Black 3. Putting on the makeup for the role could take four hours a day.

Actor and comedian Jemaine Clement has revealed that he is not only keen to make a Flight of the Conchords feature film, but also a vampire comedy set in Wellington.

Clement, 38, plays a major part in Hollywood movie Men in Black 3, released this week and American reviewers have praised his role as a villainous alien.

The New York Times called him "a great and eccentric comic talent who has improved every Hollywood movie he has appeared in".

Clement, speaking to The Dominion Post from the movie's New York premiere, said he and Flight of the Conchords partner Bret McKenzie still hoped to bring the comic music duo to the big screen. But while it will likely have the same cast as their New York-based television series, including Rhys Darby, it will not be the same setting.

"We might be 80s DJs or New Zealand astronauts or in medieval times and we'd be minstrels. It could be really anything ... it will be a different kind of world."

Flight of the Conchords' first national New Zealand tour begins next month. Ticket sales had been so high, new venues had to be added to meet demand, including Auckland's 12,000 capacity Vector Arena.

Clement said he had also completed a feature film screenplay with Boy director Taika Waititi, based on their rarely-seen 2006 short film What We Do in the Shadows, about a group of vampires flatting in Wellington who try to fit into normal society while continuing to feed on humans.

"We've been trying to find some time to do it, but we've found some time to finish the screenplay. Now we just have to find the funding. We've always been planning on doing a bigger, better version. It will definitely be New Zealand-based."


Just a few years ago Jemaine Clement was in the midst of what was then a career high point. After the success of his American television comedy series Flight of the Conchords with fellow Wellingtonian Bret McKenzie, Clement was cast in Hollywood comedy Dinner for Schmucks.

The boy from Masterton, who had worked tirelessly for years in comedy, was playing alongside big name comic actors Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd and Zach Galifianakis in a film executive-produced by Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen.

Clement was enjoying the wrap party for Dinner for Schmucks when he was approached by two of the film's producers. "They said 'We've got this character we think you might be good for in the next Men in Black film'.

"I couldn't really turn it down. They told me a little bit right there – that he [the character] was ruthless and well spoken and that's what they wanted."

The result is one of the biggest films of Clement's career, where he plays alongside Hollywood A-lister Will Smith.

Clement is the chief villain in Men in Black 3 – an alien called Boris the Animal, who speaks with a stilted English accent and has an insect-like parasite living in his right palm that shoots out and attacks people.

Reviews for Men in Black 3 have been mixed, but Clement's performance has been singled out. The New York Times described him as "a great and eccentric comic talent who has improved every Hollywood movie he has appeared in". His Boris, it said, "is played with thunderous mock pomposity".

The Hollywood Reporter said Clement was "full-tilt ferocious in the role, leaving fans to add their own ironic comedy to his performance".

Clement's character has been imprisoned on the moon for 40 years after being captured by Men in Black agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones. He escapes and time travels back to 1969 to kill the agent. It sets off a chain of events that sees Agent J (Smith) travel back to the 60s. There he encounters a younger version of K played by Josh Brolin and has to battle both Boris and a 1969 version of the villain.

There are scenes where Clement plays both Borises talking to each other.

"Out of all the scenes I did it was the one I was least nervous about because I only had to do it with myself. There's always pressure acting against one of those big names. I don't want to waste their time by messing it up."

Clement is explaining this while in a New York hotel, a few hours before the Men in Black 3 American premiere. He wasn't at the Moscow premiere where a Ukrainian television presenter was slapped by Smith when he tried to kiss him. Nor was he at the German premiere where a model on the red carpet wore only small strips of video tape.

"There's been a lot of press about it," says Clement, who enjoys red carpet premieres. "It's not as bad as it looks. That's as much of a recommendation as I can give."

But even on the red carpet, Clement has had an element of anonymity due to the extensive makeup and prosthetics required to become the Men in Black 3 villain. Over the few months before filming he was required to grow a prominent beard. The normally lanky Clement was also told to put on some muscle. "At first they wanted this guy to have huge muscles, so I started going to the gym. They said `We think you should go the gym because if you don't go to the gym then we'll put on prosthetic muscles and it will take you another hour [to get ready]'.

"I did put on a bit but then they changed the costume and I didn't have to worry about it. But it was good because I was nowhere near what Hollywood thinks of as big muscles. [But] on Cuba St I had quite big muscles."

He was then worked on by Hollywood monster makeup legend Rick Baker, who took about eight hours to prepare Clement in their first session.

It was then reduced to about four hours each day before filming. Clement says the prospect of spending hours in makeup didn't faze him. In fact, looking different was one reason he wanted the part.

"Sometimes I've stayed away from certain auditions because it could change my life if I was in it. But this is like `I can be in it and get to do what I like to do and be disguised as well'. So that convinced me to do it. I'm not sure if I'd do another one with a big makeup [job], but Rick Baker said often people only do one big makeup movie."

Clement says he was already a big fan of Baker's work, including his ground-breaking An American Werewolf in London. "It was probably my first movie that I really loved. I'd often ask him questions about that film, so it was exciting for me."

Even going to see Baker's studio was a treat, he says. "The front of the studio looked like an office you might see in Petone. It looks like they might make computers or air-conditioning systems or something like that. But you walk through the door and part of it's done up like a castle and part of it is this massive studio with them all working on aliens and things they've done before – werewolves, gorillas, and sasquatches. Lots of Eddie Murphy fat suits."

Being in makeup also required patience. There were days when he would have to wait for eight hours in full makeup before doing two hours of filming. He'd spend the down time talking to crew in different departments and nosing around the extensively detailed sets.

Walking around the set as a monster affected other cast and crew. "People kind of recoiled when they'd see me. Even just hanging out at the snack table, you could see people sort of back away from me a little. They were avoiding me. But people got used to that and then they would talk to me.

"Then, when I would turn up for lunch without my makeup on, no-one would talk to me as they didn't know who I was."

But the leads knew who Clement was. "A lot of those action sequences take weeks to do, so I spent a long time both with Josh Brolin and Will Smith, hanging on scaffolding," he says.

And Clement expects he'll have to field questions that include "So what was Will Smith really like?".

"All I can say is that they were all really polite and generous.

"It's made me think. In acting it probably pays to be nice. They always say `Nice guys finish last'. But if you're a jerk, people won't get you back. So those people are all quite easy to get along with and easy to work with."

After promoting the film, Clement returns to Wellington to prepare for Flight of the Conchords' first New Zealand national tour. Most of the shows have sold out. A third show was added to Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre to meet demand, and a show at Auckland Town Hall wasn't enough. Two nights were added at the bigger 12,000-seat Vector Arena.

CLEMENT says he and McKenzie – who in February won the best song Oscar for The Muppets – are surprised at the ticket sales. "When I saw the venues they were planning I thought the Vector was way too big."

After New Zealand, Flight of the Conchords will tour Australia in July. Several shows have already sold out, including one at Sydney Opera House.

After that, he's juggling several projects. He's also well known for his long association with Boy director Taika Waititi. The two were popular as Wellington comedy duo Humourbeasts and Waititi cast Clement as the lead in his debut feature Eagle vs Shark. Waititi then went on to direct episodes of Flight of the Conchords.

Clement says the two have completed a feature script based on a rarely-seen short film they made in 2006, What We Do in the Shadows. The short featured vampires who were flatting together and trying to fit into normal society, while continuing to feed on humans.

"We've been trying to find some time to do it, but we've found some time to finish the screenplay. Now we just have to find the funding. We've always been planning on doing a bigger, better version, so we didn't show [it to] many people. It will definitely be New Zealand-based and set in Wellington."

Clement says he also hasn't ruled out a Flight of the Conchords movie, but cautions that it's unlikely to be a big-screen version of their New York-based television series. "We'll try to work on it a bit more and come up with different ideas for it. It will have the same people in it but we might be 80s DJs or New Zealand astronauts or medieval times and we'd be minstrels. It could be really anything. Rhys [Darby] will have the same relationship and the same people from our show will probably be in it. But it will be a different kind of world."

And regardless of how Men in Black 3 does at the box office, Clement says it's likely to open other doors.

When asked to state his occupation at passport checks, he normally answers "writer". "I always put writer. It's a real mistake to put comedian, and actor – they ask too many questions.

"Usually people ask you what you are making and they say they haven't heard of it. But Men in Black is the first thing I can say that people go `oh yeah, I know that'."


2011: Voices the villainous bird Nigel in animated feature Rio.

2010: Voices with Bret McKenzie in The Simpsons, Jerry the Minion in animate feature Despicable Me, plays the creepy spook in Kiwi feature Predicament and Kieran the artist in Hollywood comedy Dinner for Schmucks.

2009: Stars as an obnoxious sci-fi writer in American comedy Gentlemen Broncos, from the makers of Napoleon Dynamite.

2007-2009: After years performing live in New Zealand, being a hit on the international comedy circuit and a BBC Radio series, the Flight of the Conchords have a sitcom on American cable channel HBO. The duo win a Grammy for best comedy album and play the 17,000-capacity Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and the 12,500 capacity Wembley Arena in London.

2007: Stars as the bumbling Jarrod in Taika Waititi's Wellington-set comedy Eagle vs Shark.


The Dominion Post