Jemaine Clement loves the spotlight and being in the shadows

Jemaine Clement loves the spotlight and being in the shadows
PASADENA, Calif.—Jemaine Clement can’t make up his mind. The New Zealand actor-writer is best known here as one of the hilarious cogs in the comedy series Flight of the Conchords.

While he and co-creator Bret McKenzie starred in the show, Clement is torn, he says.

Jemaine Clement, left, and Taika Waititi attend the What We Do in the Shadows premiere during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at the Paramount Theater on March 8 in Austin, Texas.  (Matt Winkelmeyer / GETTY IMAGES for SXSW)

“When I’m writing I always want to be acting and when I’m acting I always want to be writing.”

The conflict arises from Clement’s own personality. Half timid mouse and half loquacious lion, he admits he’s shy deep down. “If I say that I’m shy, my friends find that ridiculous,” he says.

“They say, ‘You’re one of the least shy people I’ve ever met!’ But it’s how you perceive yourself,” he says, adding, “I guess I’m confident in some ways. It doesn’t bother me to get in front of hundreds of people unless I don’t know what to say, unless I haven’t thought of what I’m going to say.

“I love to write for a while,” he laughs. “Acting’s way more fun, but there’s something satisfying (about) creating characters, and when you see them walking around and they improvise and they’ve got enough from the script to become a person. I still like that.”

And that is what he’s doing now. He wrote a new comedy series, What We Do in the Shadows, premiering on FX March 27, and based on the 2014 mockumentary that Clement co-wrote and directed with Taika Waititi. It’s the tale of three frustrated vampires living in the nether depths of Staten Island and coping with their misfit problems.

“What I didn’t like about sports mainly, ironically, was working with a group. I didn’t like that you all had to do the same thing. I really hated that. I see the same in my son. Now I have to work with 100 people on the same thing, but I enjoy it now. But I didn’t like what the nerdy kids were supposed to do. I didn’t like Dungeons & Dragons or anything like that.”

Always an outlier, he observes, “Individualism is encouraged in America. All the books you see in the airport are self-help books, how to succeed. And New Zealand is not like that. It’s more like blending in. I didn’t want to blend in.”

His mom, who worked in a cheese factory and raised him, was on to him early. “My mum always used to say to me, she said two things: ‘You always want to stand out. And you always want to be like everyone else.’ And they were both true.”

Clement, 45, landed his first job at 11 as a pinsetter in a bowling alley. He also worked for an uncle assembling computers, was a door-to-door salesperson pitching orange juice while in college and began writing commercials for radio stations while still in school.

He met co-writers Waititi and McKenzie at university (though Clement never finished). Fresh out of school, the three of them tried to land some kind of work in show business.

“We all put in pictures for shows, but we could never get through,” he says. “We’d do theatre, but you have to do it a lot to live off. You’ve got to put on a lot of shows and people have got to come.”

At this point, he considered quitting. “Eventually I was thinking of doing advertising. I was writing for advertising. Then it just all suddenly took off all at once. Bret and I got a live show in America, a special. At the same time, Taika was nominated for an Oscar (for his two short films) and it all happened within a week! We’d all been totally poor — all of a sudden from trying to scrounge for money, suddenly people wanted us to make stuff.”

They’ve been “making stuff” ever since. In fact, Clement has two shows on the go, one in New Zealand and What We Do in the Shadows in North America.

He’s been married to actress Miranda Manasiadis for 11 years and they have a 10-year-old son.

Boredom helps feed his creative impulses, he thinks. “Have a walk, have a bath and get bored,” he says. “I always think I want a big holiday, that I want a vacation and two weeks into the vacation, I start emailing people: ‘Let’s try and make something.’”
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