'Jumanji' Star Rhys Darby on His Army Past and 'Flight of the Conchords' Future

The actor's brand of comedy is more popular than ever, and he gets a chance to step into a whole new world with the Dwayne Johnson blockbuster.
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Rhys Darby reported for duty in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and got some help from an unexpected place — his time in the New Zealand army.

Darby plays Nigel, an adventure guide who welcomes players who have been sucked into a video game to the world of Jumanji, and he's a character who fits well with Darby's experiences.

"I can see myself as this kind of guy. Once I'd donned the outfit and then got in and drove the Land Rover, it all fitted into place," says Darby, who served in the army from age of 17 to 21, where among other duties, he drove Land Rovers.

The actor and comedian first rose to prominence with U.S. audiences thanks to his work on HBO's Flight of the Conchords, in which he played not-so-savvy band manager Murray Hewitt. The series ran for two seasons, from 2007-09, and since the show has gone off the air he and his cohorts have continued to be on the rise (there's been a Marvel movie for Conchords director Taikai Watiti and even an Oscar for star Bret McKenzie). 

Musical duo McKenzie and Jemaine Clement have gotten the band back together from time to time for tours and charity work. So far, there's been no big continuation of the show, which centered on the band and their manager Murray trying to make it big in America.

"We've often spoken about maybe doing a movie, but it would be a different story. It would be the same characters, but they'd be thrust into a different kind of world, and that's really up to Bret and Jemaine to kind of come 'round to doing that," says Darby, who adds, "In terms of filming anything, no idea whether that would happen again.… I think the actual show ended really well. And of course we come from that sort of British mind-set of making a series that only goes two seasons, and that's kind of standard."

New Zealand comedy is definitely distinct from what your co-stars Kevin Hart, Jack Black or even Dwayne Johnson do. How did you feel about bringing your own flavor to this movie?

Everyone has a different thing to say and a different way of saying it. I'm a real comedy geek, so I really like the different styles.… You look at Jack Black with Tenacious D, we were close to them working with the Conchords. He knows who we are and what I'm known to do, so that was really easy getting on with Jack and talking about that kind of stuff. Kevin, I know him from a few years ago, I met him at a kid's birthday party and didn't know who he was back then, but then with his meteoric rise, I have seen his stand-up. He's an incredible storyteller and a fantastic presence on stage. That's in the same kind of zone I do, which is the performance-based storytelling. It's just fun to have such eclectic but similar, in the same world but different types of comic talent in this movie. Even Dwayne, he's a big funny boy.

Ten years ago, the humor you were doing with Flight of the Conchords was new to a lot of people in the U.S. Now we have Conchords director Taika Waititi doing a Thor movie. It doesn't get more mainstream than that. What do you think that brand of humor becoming a lot more prominent worldwide?

When we started creating the Conchords comedy, it was definitely that odd fish out of water. The Office was on and it was that stream of awkward humor. What we offered was a little bit of that kind of awkwardness, but it was definitely more of that naive and non-offensive style. Definitely silly. Quite wacky. But also it had a real base of realness stuck to it. So even when we were saying ridiculous things, it just felt real.

There was definitely a sweetness to it, especially your character Murray.

People can relate to a guy that isn't cool but wants to be doing something other than what he's actually doing, and wants to be affiliated to something he thinks is cool. Everyone is going to feel that way at some point in their life. This is the comedy we started to create, that kind of buddy, awkward, silly kind of behavior that's non-offensive. A lot of the American stuff would go straight for the jugular or straight down below the belt, and by not doing that, we were making it more family oriented. I remember a few years ago, people used to come up and say, "Conchords is great, because I was able to watch it with my teenage kids." There were hardly any shows out there where teenagers could watch something with their parents, so that's kind of a difficult genre to kind of get. That wave has continued through Taika's films.

I was satisfied with how the Conchords show ended, but audiences always want more. Creatively, is there more to do with Conchords for you?

If something comes up, I'll definitely be involved, but the only thing they seem to be doing at the moment is touring the live act. And they have like ten-plus new songs and I've heard them and they're fantastic, and if there's ever a chance for me to get up onstage with them, then I can definitely do that. That's kind of where they are at, at the moment. In terms of filming anything — no idea whether that would happen again. I agree, I think the actual show ended really well. And of course, we come from that sort of British mind-set of making a series that only goes two seasons, and that's kind of standard.

When you were in the military, did you have aspirations to do comedy?

I've always made people laugh, and I certainly did that in the army as well. I just didn't think back then that there was an opportunity for me to do that, at least not in New Zealand…. Coming from New Zealand and what we have there, which is rugby and sheep paddocks, [I felt] that my options were limited. But I definitely entertained people while I was in the army in my late teenage years and going into my 20s. Then I when I went to university, I joined a social club called the comedy club and that was the beginning of it, because we went together once a week and wrote sketches and we put on a show and then I realized this is what I should be doing. Even then, right after university for that next four-year period, it was still just a hobby. I was very happy when it finally became a vocation for me, and that's when I went to the U.K. and I started performing regularly at comedy clubs and things. We didn't have that in New Zealand. We had like one club, so it all sort of came into fruition later in years. And I felt like, "Have I been wasting my time building up to this? Why did I join the army?" But I think all of that stuff is great background life lessons and experience you can then draw upon for your material and stuff, so it all worked out.

Murray is quite disciplined in his own way.

I totally brought in aspects of my military life into characters like him.

Do you have aspirations to bring your Jumanji character Nigel back for a sequel?

I would definitely love to. They are obviously going to wait and see how this goes, but I think the idea is that Jumanji potentially is back and we would love to see where we can take it from here, because it really is its own universe. It can be. I see it as an ulterior dimension to our own world. And it's a living game, and so that can evolve. This is obviously the jungle version, but who knows what they could do next? It could evolve into another world or another type of game world. And of course, you'd have to have Nigel there as the field guide once again. He has to be the guy who welcomes you! And then bookends it.

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is in theaters now.