Taking flight: Rhys Darby
This article is from 2009.
During his last Fringe foray, Rhys Darby had to drag people off the street to see his shows. Now enjoying cult status, Claire Sawers reckons his characters and sound effects will have mass appeal
It’s 9am New Zealand time when Rhys Darby answers the phone. His three-year-old son had just left for day care, and finding the house suddenly peaceful again, Darby was signing up for Twitter. ‘I wasn’t planning on doing Twitter,’ he explains, those delightfully wonky Kiwi vowels of his turning the word into something more like ‘twutta’. ‘But I found a couple of impostors pretending to be me, so I decided to get on it. People can try and work out which one’s the real Rhys Darby now. Kinda like Slim Shady.’
The real Rhys Darby could be many different things, depending on who you ask. To legions of fans of cult HBO comedy series, Flight of the Conchords, Darby plays the haplessly deadpan Murray Hewitt, manager to Bret and Jemaine’s criminally under-successful indie-folk duo. Murray is the one diligently booking them gigs at the local library, taking roll call at band meetings, and bravely ignoring cries of ‘ginger balls’ from passers-by. According to certain online fan forums, Murray’s the star of that show. Moviegoers meanwhile, might recognise Darby as the DJ in Richard Curtis’ The Boat that Rocked, or Jim Carrey’s painfully uncool boss in Yes Man, another well-meaning try-hard, this time with a Harry Potter obsession. The latter was a small role, and despite sharing the screen with Carrey and kooky-cute Zooey Deschanel, it was enough to make US film reviewers single him out as the real scene-stealer.
Then there is Darby’s stand-up career, which began ten years ago. He was an Edinburgh Festival virgin back in 2001, a year before the Conchords arrived in town where they landed themselves a Perrier nomination. His DVD Rhys Darby Live: Imagine That! is a platinum seller in New Zealand, and having just finished sell-out tours in London and Australia, he’s readying himself for a triumphant Fringe return. ‘It’s going to be really cool bringing a show I know people will actually come to this time,’ laughs Darby, who spent six Festivals doing his own flyering on the Royal Mile, trying to drag bums onto seats. This time around, the Udderbelly is flying him over, most probably to a hero’s welcome. For his one-man show, It’s Rhys Darby Night, he’s bringing three new characters, plus his stand-up; a surreal blend of physical comedy, beatboxing and frighteningly good sound effects. Kind of like Eddie Izzard with a Kiwi accent or Peter Sellers meeting Michael Winslow from Police Academy.
‘I’m trying to do it all really,’ Darby explains. ‘I don’t think I could do a show without sound effects, so I’ll definitely be bringing the helicopter and a few sirens.’ As for the characters, Darby reckons Conchords’ fans might recognise a bit of Murray in his typically glass-half-full types. First up is ‘ranger and crusader’ Bill Napier. ‘He’s travelling with me as my security guard, as well as giving a special message to the world about conservation and the environment,’ explains Darby. ‘He’s also trained in unarmed combat, in case anyone tries to attack me.’ After Napier, audiences will meet Ron Taylor, an adventure tourism entrepreneur specialising in whale watching. ‘He’s a keen go-getter, a real outdoors type from the South Island.’ Finally, there’s Steve Whittle, a ufologist and alien expert who rounds off the show. ‘They are three very different Kiwi men, but you empathise with them all. One’s really softly spoken and grateful; another is more brash, very manly. All three are naive, which is a trait that I kind of run with.’
Since the smash-success of Flight of the Conchords, Darby and co-stars Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement don’t see as much of each other as they’d like. Partly because of geography – Darby lives in Auckland, the other two in Wellington – and partly because of work and family commitments. Both Darby and Clement already have children, and McKenzie is expecting his first this year. With the second series finished, Darby would love to do more films if possible, and dreams of getting the fantasy phone call from American directors like Wes Anderson or Judd Apatow, or British comedians like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. He’s also creating his own TV show back in New Zealand, but silver and small screen aside, stand-up remains his first love. ‘Out of all the stuff I do, live stand-up is definitely the most exciting. It’s the most like bungee jumping. I write for weeks, but whatever comes out on stage is certainly not what I’ve been planning. A lot is ad lib, just whatever happens on the night.’
So what if he gets the inevitable requests to take a Murray-style roll call after the show? ‘Oh, that still happens every few days. Yeah, I stopped finding it funny a long time ago. But I don’t mind doing it. I mean, I’m not a total dick.’
Rhys Darby, Udderbelly’s Pasture, 0844 545 8252, 6–15 Aug, 10pm, £15 (£14).