Audiences worried the Robin Williams-less Jumanji sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle would trample all over their childhood nostalgia like a roaming stampede of wild rhinos have nothing to fear. The Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle adapts the spirit of the original film (and the 1981 children’s book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg) for a modern age replete with video games and fantasy roleplaying. After all, the new film is about a group of high school students who are literally sucked into an upgraded version of the original Jumanji boardgame that swaps their real-world identities with some playable characters.
But there’s also a cadre of non-playable characters these untested heroes must contend with. One of the first they encounter is Nigel Billingsley, a guide of sorts who tells them what the game is all about. Nigel is brought to life by New Zealand stand-up comedian and comedy actor Rhys Darby, who is best known in the United States as the irate band manager Murray Hewitt in HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. With supporting roles in films like What We Do in the Shadows and Yes Man, as well as a fantastic turn in the recent The X-Files revival, Darby’s profile is on the rise stateside. Even so, as the 43-year-old comic admits, he’s got a long way to go before he catches up to fellow New Zealander and frequent collaborator Taika Waititi.
You play a character named Nigel in the film. How did this come about?
It just came out of nowhere. I guess I was in Australia at the time, and I got this offer for what I thought would be a very exciting adventure. It’s Jumanji, of course, and they were filming it in Kauai. It was hard to even come close to thinking about whether I would need to think about that. Then I read the character and what was required, and it was certainly in my ballpark — the avid adventurer type.
Nigel is sort of a guide, a non-playable character the others encounter.
Yes, that’s right. I’m the guy they first come across once they enter that world. They start to come to grips with the idea that they’re in a video game, but they really have no idea what they’re supposed to do other than take part in this game. So once my character arrives, rather jovially in a Land Rover, I get to be the “Welcome to Jumanji guy” and then all of a sudden they know, “Okay, well this is where we are. What’s happening?” Then they get into this magical jeep of mine and we drive through the jungle. That’s how everything is revealed to them and the audience. Without me arriving, there’s certainly no point to anything that they’re doing. [Laughs.] A pivotal role, I should say.
Not a bad gig. You filmed in Hawaii and drove around in a Land Rover.
It’s really cool. It was also cool to be hanging out with these people. You know, really big stars like Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black. It was a lovely combination of funny, smart, and talented people. And there we all were with me driving the jeep around and giving them the rundown of the place. What I’d normally do on this kind of occasion is try to improvise, to add humor to the scene. However, the thing about this movie was I couldn’t do any of that. My character isn’t even human, so I just had to say what my character says in the game. Luckily that’s all funny stuff anyways, so I just did it.
But it all felt so surreal. I’d like to think I have a great imagination, and whatever I put on stage is an attempt to show others that I like to create worlds. It’s an attempt to have the audience come in and live in and feel it. That’s what doing Jumanji like, especially with this role. These guys were my audience. They’d come into this crazy adventure world where they have to achieve these ridiculous tasks, and Nigel is there to guide them through it.
Whether live on stage or when taping for TV or film, improvisation tends to be your “modus operandi.” Not being able to do that…
Well, that answers that question.
[Laughs.] I do like to improvise. So does Taika Waititi, who directed me in Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows. When we make those kinds of shows or movies — and the same thing happened with Thor: Ragnarok, I believe — you get people to improvise around the lines as they’re written to see what else they can come up with. It gives everyone a real sense of what everyone else’s genuine reactions will be. It’s genuine dialogue from people’s hearts. There’s a kind of the magic about it. But when I’m in that jeep with all these funny, talented big stars, we couldn’t really play around with it because of the nature of the part and the scene. I’m supposed to be really controlled by my motives as Nigel, to just be this almost robotic kind of character. He has something he has to tell these people, and once he’s said it, he sort of repeats it all again because that’s what he is.
So where did the fun come? It obviously came from being part of this film and working with these people. Plus there was a cut scene we did, which they have in these video games, that looks back and sees Nigel on his own adventure. It shows what he achieved in the game’s history, so I got to do that. I got to wander through the jungle with a machete, steal a jewel from the bad guys, and things like that. That was certainly fun.