āIt was like Iād finally met my maker,ā enthuses Rhys Darby of meeting Jim Carrey, speaking with a degree of awe he might otherwise reserve for a UFO sighting, explaining how the two slapsticking, physical comedians bonded over their intention to buy jetpacks. ā$100,000 is nothing to him of course,ā the 34-year-old Aucklander laughs, ābut I might need to make more moviesā.
As a sound effects specialist, impersonations of jetpacks have been a fixture in Darbyās repertoire since childhood, along with robots, dinosaurs and an entire menagerie of mythical creatures.
āIām just a big kid really and Iāve always been interested in monsters and the paranormal, stories of Bigfoot and aliens,ā he says. āThe last three years Iāve been really busy, so any time off Iāve spent with my two-year-old son. Or on the computer looking up giant squids.ā
Darby is flying into the UK next week, by conventional means disappointingly, for two dates to promote his debut stand-up DVD Imagine That! It includes a typically energetic portrayal of the comicās childhood and stint in the New Zealand army, which he was encouraged to join by his mother.
āIād been in the army cadets and I suppose she thought Iād always been quite physical,ā he says. āI was good for morale in the platoon, I made people laugh but I had absolutely no sense of direction. After three years I was brought into the office and told āperhaps you should go to university ...āā
Darbyās cartoonish stand-up, in which he chiefly recalls his younger, foolish self indulging in escapist tomfoolery, seems a world away from the role that is currently turning him into a star, that of the strait-laced, ineffectual band manager Murray Hewitt in cult sitcom Flight of the Conchords.
Tellingly though, when Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie recruited their fellow Kiwi to play Brian, Murrayās prototype in the BBC radio series that preceded the Conchordsā New York-based television show, they rejected the five silly voices Darby offered them in favour of his own. Moreover, the adolescent fantasising the comedian presents in his stand-up would undoubtedly resonate with Murray, a frustrated deputy cultural attachĆ© in the New Zealand consulate who dreams of managing a successful rock band and witnessing a āleggy blondeā sweep by on a photocopier.
āI was always a kid with a big imaginationā Darby recalls. āI used to put on plays on the back lawn for my mother, who halfway through would disappear. Iād be so into it, that at the end Iād go āta-da!ā and there was nobody there. So that kid in my stand-up might be a lonely guy, but I think heās happy. The truth is, I also had a lot of friends at school and was popular.ā
Indeed, his wife Rosie calls him the most confident person she knows, yet āwithout being arrogant about itā.
āI believed from the beginning that I would end up in movies but that I wouldnāt go down the drama school route,ā he says. āSo I just put my blinkers on and did comedy. New Zealanders are quite inward people. Itās not a Kiwi trait to be really proud of yourself, thatās an American thing. But for some reason, Iāve always had it. Iām embarrassed by my confidence.ā
Starring Clement and McKenzie as struggling musicians, the cast of the Emmy-nominated Conchords, which has screened on BBC Four in the UK, exist in a strange parallel universe to their characters in the show. Within the world of the comedy, the few songs that the band actually perform ā those that arenāt in their heads ā are unremittingly awful and their āfanbaseā consists of a solitary stalker, Mel, played by if.comedy nominee Kristen Schaal. In reality though, the Conchordsā latest album made number three on the US billboard charts and they have legions of ardent followers, the āFlight Attendantsā.
āWeāve had to cordon off certain streets for filming,ā Darby says of production of the eagerly anticipated second series, which Clement and McKenzie have suggested will be the last. āThe fans find out where weāre doing it and invariably you hear girls yelling things out.ā He himself recently portrayed an obsessive fan in a Nike commercial with Roger Federer, breaking into the Swiss tennis starās home and engaging in a racket duel that recalled the Cato scenes in The Pink Panther.
As a certifiable loser in a culture that champions achievement, the popular, sometimes overshadowing appeal of the Conchordsā manager has undoubtedly been the unlikeliest aspect of the bandās US success, with fans asking after Murray at the duoās live performances and the character winning New Zealander of the Year in 2007.
āI guess itās because heās loveable and heās got a big heartā Darby reasons modestly. āThereās a couple of guys in a rock ānā roll band and he wants a piece. I think people can see themselves in that, wanting to be connected to a cool group but not really having any idea.ā
Conchords was Darbyās screen acting debut. His follow-up is playing Carreyās boss in the movie Yes Man, out December and adapted from Dundonian author and TV presenter Danny Wallaceās comic memoir of saying āyesā to everything.
The filmās director Peyton Reed āloved Murray and wanted me to do a reading for this roleā Darby relates. āIt was one of those occasions when I was meeting some very well-known people and they were more excited to meet me than I was of them. I was really thrown by that.
āItās totally different to the book. Obviously, theyāve created my character to make it bigger. Norman is a little bit more flamboyant than Murray, likes to hold these fancy dress parties and heās a bit more of a nerd, but he still has that enduring decency. It was good for me with it being my first movie, because if the character had been really different to what Iād just done, Iād probably have shat myself.
He maintains that Carrey was a āreally supportiveā presence on set, but he still had to occasionally raise his game.
āSometimes Jim would improvise a really big physical scene that wasnāt in the script,ā he says. āI wouldnāt be working that day and Iād get a call from the director. āYouāve got to come in, Jimās done something hilarious and heās done it through the window to you! Youāve got to respond to it, do something similar back!ā I almost felt like Jim was setting a test for me to say āhow funny can you be motherf*cker?āā
In May, Darby appears in Richard Curtisā The Boat That Rocked, set in 1996 and loosely based on the pirate station Radio Caroline, alongside Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy. Fortunately for a fledgling actor in such distinguished company, he was once again asked to play to his strengths.
āAngus is a pretty out there guy, not the most popular on the boat because heās into folk, but a nutty DJ who likes doing character voices,ā he explains. āPeople at that time like Kenny Everett were using a lot of sound effects and he was fun to play because Richard let us improvise too. It was scary to ask him but I think he took a real liking to me and let me improvise quite a bit. And it was great to mess around with someone who isnāt loveable for a change.ā
Rhys Darbyās live stand-up DVD, Imagine That!, is out now.
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