Away from Hollywood – 7,000 miles away, actually – Jemaine Clement grew up in obscurity.
That was in rural New Zealand, where he wasn’t much in school. “I became the funny guy,” he said. “I never really applied myself.”
What would happen to this big (6-foot-1), quiet guy with a dry wit? A lot, actually. He’s been a singing crab and an evil cockatoo. He’s had albums, an HBO series and now what could be cable’s surprise hit.
“What We Do in the Shadows” has already drawn advance raves from critics. As John Solberg of FX explains the series, it’s “about a group of vampires … in Staten Island, who have been roommates for hundreds of years, sent over to colonize the new world.”
Except they’ve been lazy about it. Now their boss is coming to check on their progress, which is zero.
Clement created this notion with Taika Waititi, who visits the extremes of show business. Waititi co-directed the “What We Do in the Shadows” movie, which made less than $7 million worldwide … then directed “Thor: Ragnarok,” which made $854 million … then went to this low-budget series.
“What happened to my career?” he said in mock horror. “I was a hotshot Hollywood director.”
Both men are half-Maori, the native people of New Zealand. Clement, 45, grew up with his Maori mother in the Wairarapa region, where his life changed when he “started playing around with a guitar.”
He was in music groups — “we’d always say funny things between songs” — before finding his niche.
Clement went to a tiny college (the New Zealand equivalent of high school) in Masterton, a town of 22,000. Then it was Victoria College in Wellington, where he formed two key duos – the award-winning Humourbeasts with Waititi and Flight of the Conchords with Bret McKenzie.
The Conchords had four albums, a BBC radio series and two seasons on HBO. Clement did cartoons, voicing the “Rio” cockatoo and “Moana” crab; he and Waititi created and starred in their vampire film.
“We didn’t show the (other) actors the script at all,” Waititi said. “So we shot a whole movie like that.” There was lots of improvising, leaving them with “about 160 hours of footage that we had to get down to 90 minutes,” Waititi said. “That’s why it took 14 months to edit. It was very exhausting.”
Five years later, the TV version takes an easier route: Clement and Waititi write and produce, with Paul Simms; British actors (Kayvan Novak, Nastasia Demetreiou and Matt Berry) play the vampires.
More importantly, the TV version added key characters:
— An ever-hopeful assistant. “My character was 20 years older in the script,” Harvey Guillen. “So when I auditioned, I didn’t think I was right for the part. (I) parted my hair, went in with some fake glasses” and an un-hip sweater vest. He was chosen; even the sweater-vest stayed.
— A young newcomer – played by young newcomer Beanie Feldsein. “I was like, ‘These are the funniest people I’ve ever seen in my life,’” she said. “(But) I had to keep a straight face.”
— The master stroke, an “energy vampire” who quietly sucks away any energy or enthusiasm. “I’m a relatively boring person in real life,” said Mark Proksch, who plays him.
That character may be the show’s master stroke. “I feel like you meet a lot of those kind of people at parties,” Clement said. “You just get trapped.”
Clement could stay in the U.S, and savor the acclaim, but his global life doesn’t allow it. He came to talk to U.S. reporters in February, then promptly returned to New Zealand for his son’s 10th birthday.
That American stay lasted 24 hours – about as long as the time (11 hours each way) he was on airplanes. Life is complicated when you’re 7,000 miles from Hollywood.
— “What We Do in the Shadows,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays, FX
— Opener, March 27, reruns at 10:30 p.m.; it also airs latenight Wednesday and Saturday – technically, at 1:30 a.m. Thursday and Sunday