‘We’re beating this together’: Jemaine Clement on Covid, crime and his friend Taika Waititi

一世t’s a blustery Wellington night and we’re on the brink of the second nationwide lockdown of the pandemic. There’s a measured knock at my flat door. Jemaine Clement shakes my hand warmly and removes his boots. We’re meeting off the back of the global success of his comedy series Wellington Paranormal and he is in an ebullient mood. He’s also in a thirsty one: tonight the former door-to-door orange juice salesman is plumping for copious glasses of water instead.

Paranormal is one of two spinoffs from his and Taika Waititi’s vampire film What We Do in the Shadows. It stars Shadows’ police officers Minogue (Mike Minogue) and O’Leary (Karen O’Leary), recruited for the paranormal unit by Sgt Ruawai Maaka (Maaka Pohatu). The trio, and their colleague Const Parker (Tom Sainsbury), are oblivious, bungling and affable. Clement explains the importance of Paranormal being a collegial shoot.

“There are lots of comedies where people just insult each other all the time. It’s good to make a space where that isn’t happening,“ 他说. Like Cliff Curtis, Clement favours a collaborative style on set over America’s relentless pressure, influenced by the marae – or meeting grounds – that are at the heart of Māori 社区. “It’s not as regimented. People share the work, and share ownership.”

TVNZ, Wellington Paranormal’s producers, notoriously declined Clement and Bret McKenzie’s pitch for the series Flight of the Conchords – before HBO approved one of the hottest things worldwide in comedy for a couple of years. “Bret’s too polite – I would love to make fun of TVNZ turning us down, it amused me,” Clement says with a laugh, gently tapping my dining room table. “They were too scared to let anyone do comedy.”

Speaking of Paranormal, Clement – now 47 —— reflects on his own first brush with law enforcement: when he broke into a seemingly abandoned building in his provincial home town, Masterton, as a teenager. “That’s part of the fun, and part of the risk, of a small town: you’re let loose. You don’t know the rules. It feels like you’re breaking a small rule. And then it turns out you’re breaking a big rule,” he laughs. “Who would have thought that I’d spend four years making a police show? That’s a warning for any Guardian readers thinking of embarking on vandalism.”

One of Wellington Paranormal’s strengths is its inclusion of a Māori supernatural perspective, of legends and mythical creatures such as Taniwha. Sgt Maaka and his colleagues also speak some te reo Māori. “The whole landscape of te reo has changed in 新西兰,” Clement says. He memorably voiced Moana’s crab Tamatoa in re reo, and is heartened by the progress.

“There are signs everywhere. People are using it in everyday language. 当然, when there’s progress, that really bugs some people. This is change. ‘We don’t like this new name.’ That’s been around for a thousand years.”

Growing up in Māori communities with his beloved grandmother Maikara, Clement was raised to appreciate Māori beliefs in the spirit realm, and also comedy. “She [Maikara] was funny, sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. She had a really vivid imagination. She could tell a story.”

Clement is in a rich, varied space creatively – partly inspired, 他说, by his 12-year-old son Sopho Iraia. He is also visibly energised by co-writing three new projects with his old friend (and fellow “native creative”) Waititi. He gestures through the window, down the hill towards the original bohemian Conchords’ flat and Bats Theatre, where their collaboration first kicked off. “He’s my boss now. He’s the elder brother, tells me what to do. We’ve known each other, worked together, so long. We understand each other, know what each other means.

“We’ve got the same language and the same way of thinking, the same references. We’ve got a similar background. We’re also from the same place. He suffers no fools; even though he is one, in a different way.”

The duo have written two of 10 long-form episodes for their untitled action-comedy adventure, which Apple TV will shoot in the first half of next year. “It’s the dream job, really.” Clement reveals they are also writing a semi-historical kids’ adventure show with The In-Betweeners’ Iain Morris. “It’s exciting for me doing something large-scale.”

Unlike Waititi, who lives in LA, Clement is happy to be based in walkable central Wellington. He lives with Sopho and his Greek-Kiwi actor-director wife, Miranda Manasiadis, whom he met while studying film and theatre at the city’s Victoria University. A lifelong non-drinker who isn’t about the rock star lifestyle, his jet-setting has been grounded by Covid-19. “I was definitely flying and travelling too much. It was wearing me out. I feel younger and healthier than I did two years ago,“ 他说, 添加: “I was basically in a vortex of never-ending work.”

No longer in charge of the punishing network schedules of Wellington Paranormal and What We Do in the Shadows, Clement is looking forward to bingeing his friends’ projects, like The White Lotus (“I loved how Mike White directed me on Brad’s Status”) and Reservation Dogs (“I have some great conversations with Sterlin [Harjo] about indigenous peoples and the supernatural”).

Clement has a number of projects forthcoming on screens, 也. As Dr Ian Garvin, Clement has filmed a significant role in Avatar 2 和 3, 和 4 和 5 continuing productions. 这 2020 film I Used to Go Here is streaming on various platforms including Stan in Australia and Amazon in the US and UK. Kiwi indie Nude Tuesday, in which Clement plays naked hippy sex guru Bjorg, is finished.

But as for Flight of the Conchords, the previously discussed special or film isn’t even on the backburner – due to the band members’ hectic schedules. McKenzie and he are working on separate projects with their Conchords co-creator James Bobin. McKenzie’s include pandemic-affected musicals and an imminent serious album release. “We had lunch yesterday. We got offered a small gig in Tasmania. It might be fun to do that, if we can make the dates work.”

It’s getting late. My phone rings. “Might be a booty call? Before midnight!” Clement laughs raucously. So what does he think of Covid? He pauses, uncharacteristically, looking at the lights of the capital poised to go into snap lockdown. Then he speaks of his anxiety about the suffering, death and loss people have gone through in places like the UK, America and Greece; and his desire that comedy can distract the housebound a bit.

Most of all, 尽管, Clement is about hope. “Covid has been quite unifying in New Zealand. The whole team of 5 million – not this ‘there’s us and you’. We’re beating this together.”

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