"It's cool that there didn't have to be a joke every 20 seconds."
New US indie comedy People Places Things finds New Zealand actor/comedian Jemaine Clement — best known as being one half of comedy-folk sensations Flight Of The Conchords — wandering out of his comfort zone and into romantic realms. Written and directed by Jim Strouse (Grace Is Gone, The Winning Season), it's a touching and gently humourous look at the complexities that strike families and surrounding relationships when parents split up — a scenario that's sadly all too common in this day and age.
Clement's character Will Henry is a graphic novelist and art teacher in NYC, and when his long-term partner cheats on him (at their twin daughters' fifth birthday party no less) and leaves him for the gormless Gary — an off-Broadway performance artist — his life spirals into sadness and chaos as he struggles to juggle single fatherhood, the dating game and his dwindling artistic ambition. Much of the turmoil manifests in Will's graphic art — beautifully rendered by Gray Williams — but the remainder unfolds via subtle dialogue and character development as Will rediscovers his zest for existence. The plot may verge on formulaic but there's inherent warmth throughout that engenders empathy, especially throughout Clement's portrayal of the endearingly bumbling nice guy whose life has been flipped on its head.
"I'm really happy with it," the actor smiles. "People have been talking about how they can relate to the film, which is really new for me; for people to get emotional in that way about something I've done. It's not really an experience I've had before, and it was quite nice to not have to worry about it being funny all the time. It's cool that there didn't have to be a joke every 20 seconds."
Clement explains that it was the film's overall premise rather than his character Will that drew him to the project.
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"I don't know if I was drawn to the character of Will, but more the overall tone of the film and what it was about," he reflects. "I did like that he loved his children, but I found the script overall funny and the subject spoke to me firstly because I'm a father but also my parents didn't live together and I think the way that situation is often portrayed in films is like the parents aren't together therefore they're going to drugs or something. It's usually really exaggerated, but I felt this is more realistic — there's still sadness there, but this is a more realistic portrayal of what it's like when parents split up.
"When I did the film and went over to New York, for the first part of it I wasn't with my son so I could really relate with wanting to see your kid and your family. Also most of us have left someone or been left, so it's easy to relate to a big part of that, and this relates to what happens when you have kids and what happens to the relationship then."
It must have been a fairly intensive shoot for him, not because of the low budget but because Clement's character plays a fairly dominant role in proceedings.
"Yeah, there's only one scene that I'm not in," he tells. "I thought it was going to be intense and any doubt I had about it at all was that it would be intense being in every scene, and whether I could keep it going and keep it interesting or whatever, but when we filmed there's so many things to do that you just couldn't worry about it — you just had to get onto the next scene. There were too many things to do for me to worry about what I was doing. And Jim made me do a few of the props — when my character vandalises a few of the posters and draws on these posters, he asked me to do that and I was drawing them in my apartment at night and I was, like, 'Oh man, these aren't working out, I thought they were going to look better,' so I started getting stressed out about those. And I had to draw on the kids' kites, and I'd worry much more about the drawings then the acting! I am not a professional illustrator. Fortunately the main body of the comics were done by Gray Williams so I didn't have to worry about that."
What about the adorable twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby who played his onscreen daughters Clio and Collette, did the old showbiz adage about not working with kids and animals ring true?
"I loved working with those kids actually," Clement chuckles. "They were great fun. When I first saw in the script that there were identical twins I thought, 'That's a crazy thing to do, how are you going to find twin actors?' It's hard enough to find good kid actors anyway let alone two that looks the same — I thought it would really cut down the options — but I was sent a video of their audition and they were just mucking around and being themselves and I knew it would be fine. Even they improvised sometimes, they'd throw in little things. They were surprisingly comfortable — they'd never been in a film before — but maybe it helps that they weren't too conscious of the camera."
Clement recently wrote and directed (and starred in) excellent horror/comedy flick What We Do In The Shadows (2014), did that experience give him a different perspective now he's returned to purely acting realms?
"I think so. Doing something like that makes me realise that when I'm an actor I'm there to make the writers' and directors' vision happen. I think it makes me easier to work with after I've directed my own stuff, I don't want to be that difficult guy for the director," he laughs. "I want to only be helpful."
His acting experience now covers the entire gamut of filmic possibilities, from blockbusters like Men In Black 3 and the impending Spielberg-produced BFG to smaller, lower-budget productions like 2007's Eagle Vs Shark, What We Do In The Shadows and People Places Things, but Clement seems to enjoy these polar experiences equally.
"In some ways they're quite similar, you're still trying to do the same thing," he explains. "It's hard to say if they're that different. They don't seem that different really. The budgets are different, and you usually do the indie films in a smaller amount of time. And there's less people, and the big films have big sets but basically it's the same thing you're trying to do — make people laugh or be excited or moved."
And speaking of make people laugh, rumours have been rampant that Clement is teaming up once more with Flight Of The Conchords sparring partner Bret McKenzie to see how the titular band has been getting on since the second season finale of their TV show found them stranded back on the farm in rural New Zealand.
"We've started writing film ideas," Jemaine offers cryptically. "We're not very far into it and it may never happen, but we have been talking about it. We've started writing stuff but we don't really know where it's going to take us yet. Hopefully somewhere."