Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, one of the most anticipated films of this holiday season, stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black as players who accidentally get sucked into a dangerous videogame world of magic and attacking animals.
Rhys Darby portrays Nigel, a guide to the newcomers in the videogame world, who entrusts them with their mission: returning a sacred jewel called the Jaguar’s Eye to the distant statue where it belongs. Darby is best known to American audiences for comedic roles as Jim Carrey’s boss in Yes Man and inept band manager Murray Hewitt in the 2000s HBO show Flight of the Conchords.
Ahead of the film’s December 20 theatrical release, Darby spoke to Boxoffice about filming in Hawaii, the children’s book he started writing on the set, and how his training in the New Zealand Army helped prepare him for the role.
What was it like working with this cast?
Amazing. The Rock is so huge in every way. He has a connection to New Zealand. He actually went to a school in New Zealand when he was a kid. And he’s from Samoa. [Johnson is of Samoan heritage, though he was born and primarily raised in America.] So there was kind of a spiritual connection there. I felt like I already knew him. When we hung out a bit on set, he knew who I was from Conchords. He was very upbeat and fun to be around.
Was it disappointing working with The Rock, after you grew up in New Zealand which already has the world’s largest rock?
That’s in Australia. You’ve got to do your research!
I did my research. I am speaking to Hugh Jackman, right?
What was it like shooting in Hawaii? Had you ever been there before?
That’s right, Oahu. I had been a few times. I love Hawaii, it’s a very special place. So it was fantastic to be able to shoot there. I do this TV show called Wrecked [airing on TBS, about a group of people stranded on an island] and we film on a tropical island as well. We started in Puerto Rico, then we did season 2 in Fiji. So I feel like a lot of my acting work seems to be in tropical islands.
When you were a soldier in real life, where were you stationed? Were you ever on an island then?
I was on the island of New Zealand! [Laughs.] I was in the north island, then the south island. But I never left New Zealand with the army.
Did you use any of what you learned as a soldier when performing your role as Nigel? He’s a tough guy trekking in nature.
It’s really a mind fit, that kind of outdoorsman. I’ve certainly been that in the past. I enjoy adventure, it’s one of the things I do. I mean, I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in real life. I’ve wandered through Rwanda looking for mountain gorillas. So for me, those kind of experiences, wearing that kind of outfit and driving a Land Rover, is almost second nature. I used to drive Land Rovers in the New Zealand Army.
Did you see the original Jumanji when it was released in 1995? How much were you guys trying to go for an original Jumanji vibe, versus doing your own thing?
I think I probably saw it a few years later, on video. They liked to keep the spirit of the original, but definitely do a new thing. We couldn’t copy the original, that one was so good. This was rebooting the world, but modernizing it and turning it into a video game. That was the big difference, which I think is going to be great for the kids. I’d love to say that board games are coming back, and I think they might be. But I know most kids can relate to the video game concept more.
You co-host a podcast called The Cryptid Factor, about fictional or mythical animals. Were there any that you tried to get included in this film? Which mythical animal would you have most wanted to see included?
In the Jumanji world, there are pretty regular animals, except they’re a lot bigger than in real life. So they are gigantic and they seem to be a bit possessed. They’re quite dangerous. If I was to add any animal into this world, it would be something like the Mongolian death worm. [The animal, rumored but never confirmed, is an enormous worm supposedly residing in the Gobi Desert]. That would have fit in there. Obviously, it wouldn’t be Mongolian. Maybe the Jumanjian death worm.
What’s your best Jack Black story?
Nick Jonas [the superstar pop singer who plays a pilot named Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough] contacted me and invited me out to dinner with Jack Black. We went out and had dinner one night. That’s the only context in which the three of us would ever be together!
I didn’t hang out with those guys [the stars of the cast] or anything like that. I was mostly just alone in my hotel. I only worked about seven days, but I was trapped in Hawaii for two months, because the scenes I was in were predominantly either in the Land Rover or some other backstory scene wandering through the jungle. They were waiting for it to rain to film my scenes, for some reason. It was all very weirdly determined. And it never rained! So I just sort of waited, going slowly insane. Then finally I got brought on to the set.
That must have been terrible, spending two months in paradise not working but still getting paid.
I spent that time writing a book! It hasn’t come out yet. It’s a children’s book. I’m still working on it. It’s an adventure book about a 12-year-old who goes on this crazy adventure to find his parents.
Your standup has generally been pretty alternative, Flight of the Conchords was rated TV-MA, [Darby’s previous film] What We Do in the Shadows was rated R. Now you’re doing a children’s book and a family movie. Is this a new direction you’re trying to go in your career?
I naturally go towards stuff that is more friendly, less violent. I think it’s just the jobs I’ve gotten. I also do Voltron [a Netflix original animated series in which Darby voices the royal advisor Coran]. That lets me do funny character work that all ages can enjoy. I’ll do whatever is funny. If we can keep that in the zone for younger people to laugh at as well, that actually means I have to be cleverer.
AT THE MOVIES
What is your favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
It would have to be going back to childhood, seeing Return of the Jedi in this amazing cinema in Auckland called The Civic. It’s gloriously decorated on the inside. It has gold lions on stage whose eyes light up. The whole ceiling is kind of like space, it’s all twinkling stars. You feel like you’re in another world. I got to see Return of Jedi there when I was young, on the big screen. I also saw Indiana Jones in that same theater. So those two.
And your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?
Oh, wow. For me, it’s a combination of ice cream and popcorn. So I get the popcorn and then I like to get a vanilla ice cream, or what they call a Choc Top in New Zealand. [The treat consists of soft serve ice cream dipped in a hard chocolate coating, served inside a waffle cone.] You can bite into it, then you just dip it into the popcorn. So you end up with popcorn sticking onto your ice cream and you can eat them both.