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.
The first Jumanji with Robin Williams is considered a classic here in the United States. Is this the case in New Zealand?
Absolutely. It’s a big movie all over the world, that one. I remember seeing it not in the theaters, but a few years later on VHS or even on television at Christmas or something.
Was Williams someone you looked to at the beginning of your comedy career?
Oh yeah, definitely. He was a really explosive talent on stage, and that kind of performance-based comedy is definitely the type of thing I do. I do very physical comedy — characters, faces, weird movements, sound effects, and things like that. He did all of that too, and he did it amazingly. I was lucky enough to see him perform live a couple of years back when he took his final tour to New Zealand. I think it was called Weapons of Mass Destruction or something to that effect. It was fantastic to be able to see him before the end.
He has definitely been an inspiration because he had so much heart. In his later movies, you could really see how much he affected people by displaying his heartfelt emotions on screen for all to see. That’s something I’ve tried to do as well, with some of my characters, especially because I want to make sure they’re believable enough. They can be as silly as they, like but you have to have a spark of believability and a heart in the base of the character. I think he taught me that.
What about your live stage shows, like Mystic Time Bird? I imagine improvisation is a part of that, but how much of it? Or is everything prepared in advance?
No, it’s all prepared. It’s written out. I guess I do one every two years or — a solid hour or hour and a half of material, really. Mystic Time Bird is about that long. It’s scripted because it has a narrative running throughout it, with a beginning, middle, and end. The stand-up is the really loose stuff. That’s… what’s the word? Sorry, I can’t think of the word.
I’m such a good improviser. [Laughs] “Scattered.” The word was scattered. The stand-up is scattered throughout the show, and those are the elements that I will improve upon and change every night. Ideas will come to me on the spot and I will change things then and there, and over time the show will keep changing until I get to a point where I’m very happy with what it has become. From then on it changes minimally, and the structure remains the same, though certain elements stand-up will keep getting stronger the more I do them, in theory. Part of the reasoning behind that is, I’ve got to have fun up there. If I’m just doing the same thing every night, like you would in a play, then I would probably get angry and not want to do it anymore.
How long have you been working on and touring Mystic Time Bird?
Just a year. It was developed over the last year or so, and this year I’ve toured extensively throughout New Zealand, Australia, and some parts of Canada. I did one show in Los Angeles and another two in London. I still haven’t filmed it yet, so I’m going to do some more touring before then. I’m just waiting to see what I’m doing next year, but it’s great to have a show that I can tour with for as long as I like, really. It’s always great if you’re happy with the results, and you’re happy doing it. I’ve really enjoyed this one in particular because it’s about my mum, who passed away last year. Mystic Time Bird is basically me getting spiritual about where she’s gone, what am I supposed to be doing on this planet, and where we all go next. That sounds awful, but it’s just very, very funny to me. So if you forget that, and then just watch all the stupid stand-up that happens throughout it, at the end you’ll realize, “Oh shit, there’s a really heartfelt message to this.”
That’s kind of where I’m at with it, and I look forward to filming it maybe next year. Definitely at some point next year. It’ll probably be here in the United States. I haven’t toured much in America before because it’s a big ordeal, and I’ve spoken to my management. They said, “Well no one knows who you are yet here, so you’ve got to work out whether you want to try touring here or not.” I’m torn between continuing to promote myself as a comedy actor and, I don’t know. It’s one of those things where people either know me as a stand-up comedian or as an actor. I’m alternative in both areas.
I’m sure you don’t want to bill the U.S. tour as “Murray of Flight of the Conchords fame.”
Yeah, exactly. I’d do it as Nigel! Nigel Billingsley from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Do you still have time these days to work on Mystic Time Bird and other stand-up ideas, or is there more of a crunch with all these acting roles you’ve accrued?
I definitely have less time, and that’s why I generally do one show every two years. I usually develop a single show over a two-year period while I’m working on various TV shows and films, because I have a lot of free time from just sitting in a trailer, waiting to be called onto the set. I’ve always got a notebook with me, so anytime ideas or jokes come to mind, I write them down. Two years later, I type it all out and, lo and behold, I’ve got a show! That’s something I think I’ll continue doing, though I’d like to get to the point where I can tour here as a stand-up. The thing is, the stand-up has always been a means to an end, to help me get into comedy acting, which is my true love. I just love the acting side of it more. So when you do see my stand-up, it’s really me acting various characters on stage. As for being away a lot, that’s something I’m trying to do less and less. Just because of my kids, you know. I’ve got a 12-year-old and a little eight-year-old to look after. If I can not be away from them too much, that makes us all happier.
Before you go, and since you brought it up, I wanted to ask you about Taika’s Thor film. You’re one of his regulars, and I scanned the credits as best as I could, but I never saw your name listed.
Look, it’s my fault I’m not in it because I should have just emailed him and asked to be in it. But when he got Thor my knee-jerk response was, “Yeah, there’s no way I can see Rhys Darby being in a Marvel movie.” So I didn’t even bother asking him. I’d seen some of the other Thor films. I’m not a big superhero fan, but I’ve seen those kinds of movies and I didn’t want to be the kind of friend who rings up and says, “Where’s my part in this one? I’ll be anything, you know!” I just didn’t bother and then, of course, I saw the film.
I went to the premiere with him and with Jemaine Clement and I thought, “Oh for fuck’s sake, I could have been in this!” I could have been anyone in there. I could have been the rock monster, but instead, Taika gave himself the part. I think I learned a lesson there. I should have just asked him. But you know, it’s not a bad thing for me not to be in that one, as Taika told me I’d definitely be in the next one. I told him, “I don’t care what it is, I’m going to make sure I’m free to do it!” You can’t be in everything.
I’m imagining Taika looking at you quizzically and saying, “Wait, you what? You didn’t call me because of that?”
Exactly. I should have, but I just wanted to play it cool.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle hits theaters Friday, December 20th.