Rhys Darby chats to JOANNA HUNKIN about his meteoric rise to stardom on the back of his Flight of the Conchords role, including a DVD release, two movies and horsing around with Roger Federer
It was less than a year ago that TimeOut last spoke to Rhys Darby, when we proclaimed him our New Zealander of the Year. Actually, it was his alter-ego Murray Hewitt we championed, for his tireless efforts to put a little-known Kiwi band on the map.
This year, Hewitt - Flight of the Conchords' fictional band manager - takes a back seat to the performer himself, as Darby's portfolio grows to include working with Jim Carrey, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emma Thompson, coaching tennis champion Roger Federer and launching his own international stand-up DVD.
Even Darby is amazed at the changes since we last spoke. Back then, on a brief trip home to perform some local stand-up gigs, he was still travelling cattle class. These days, it's first class all the way.
"That seems like ages ago now," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's all been so fast. It's like jumping on this big wave and just trying to hold on to the surfboard. It hasn't really stopped."
The ride began less than two years ago, when Darby was enlisted to play Murray on the HBO series Flight of the Conchords. After the first season debuted to much fanfare in June last year, the offers started rolling in.
"I guess there's that term 'so hot right now'," says Darby with a small snigger. "It's kind of on the back of the Conchords thing. The youth really love that show and that's why Nike picked me up to do that ad. They wanted to bring cool into tennis. And into Roger Federer, because they're both a bit dull," he deadpans.
The advertisement in question never screened in New Zealand but was part of Nike's international campaign featuring the five-time Wimbledon champion. Darby played Federer's maniacal coach, chasing the tennis champ around his house, firing tennis balls at him.
While Nike's executives may have known to capitalise on Darby's cool-factor, Federer himself didn't know who the Kiwi comedian was.
"He thought I was just some random guy. Which I am really."
With only one series of Conchords having screened so far - the second is currently filming in New York - and Darby's two feature films still to be released, Federer isn't the only one yet to pick up on the rising star.
"I'm getting people looking at me oddly now in the street but I guess in six months time, everyone will be staring at me," says Darby.
Yes Man, a Jim Carrey comedy in which Darby plays Carrey's boss Norman, is scheduled for release this December, while The Boat that Rocked - a Richard Curtis film about a pirate radio station in the 60s, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emma Thompson and Bill Nighy - is out April next year.
Darby had always envisioned himself working in films one day but never anticipated the fast track success that has befallen him.
"I was really bewildered," he says recalling his first day on the set of Yes Man. "It was landing in the deep end. I just had to believe that it was possible and not even think about how ridiculous it was."
If working with Jim Carrey was daunting, it was nothing compared to starring opposite Hoffman and Nighy - who Darby describes as "actor actors".
"Jim Carrey's a great actor but these guys are more serious. They don't come from a comedy background."
But Darby was soon at home amidst the Oscar-winning cast, in part he says, because the film was still a comedy.
"I think when I do a dramatic film, I'll be a bit more nervous. It'll be like, 'I can't even be funny now!' That's the one thing I've got - my piece de resistance. I feel naked without it."
As Darby rapidly expands his acting portfolio, he doesn't want to forget his roots as a stand up comedian, having spent more than 10 years on the professional circuit. His stand-up DVD Imagine That will be released later this month and marks the first ever global DVD release for a Kiwi comedian.
Filmed over two nights at Los Angeles' El Ray Theatre last year, the shows were also a chance for the comedian to introduce his American fans to Rhys Darby, rather than Murray.
"I was worried that they would freak out or not go with it," Darby explains, "but they turned out in their droves and I had two sellout shows.
"I feel like I've broken through as more than just this character," says Darby with a small hint of pride. "It was important to me to let people know that I was Rhys Darby and I could do other things."
While stand-up will always be a part of Darby's life - he still heads back to his old Queen St haunt The Classic whenever he's in town - he admits he is grateful to be off the circuit.
"You can get stuck in there," he says. "I've got some friends there who are really talented and can write and act and everything but they haven't got off the circuit because they haven't had a break."
Darby is well aware he is one of the lucky ones - which has seen him stay remarkably grounded.
In Auckland, on a brief holiday before returning to New York, Darby agreed to our interview after TimeOut randomly contacted him via FaceBook. As we sit and chat in a local cafe, his wife Rosie and 2-year-old son Finn join us for a coffee and a fluffy.
"It's important for me to show that I haven't changed," he says . "Why would I change? It's only been in the space of two years all this stuff has happened.
"Two years ago I was still doing comedy gigs in tiny pubs in the arse end of Wales to students. I'm as surprised about it as everyone else!"
He may be surprised about his own juggernaut to stardom, but he never doubted the success of the Conchords.
Some years ago, while working the local comedy circuit in Edinburgh, Darby had a day job as a plainclothes security guard for a cheap clothing store. "When the boss wasn't there I used to put the Conchords CD on and play it to people and say, 'How good is this!?' Most people just thought it was weird. But right from the beginning I believed in them."
Who: Rhys Darby, born March 21, 1974
What: Rhys Darby Live: Imagine That, recorded at El Rey Theatre Los Angeles, DVD release October 20. Special from the same show screening October 24 on TV
Likes: Smart cars with funny paint jobs, such as one painted to look like the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard.
Dislikes: Spanish tennis player and world number one Rafael Nadal. "He's far too muscular for tennis."