Rhys Darby: well-known soldier, sports fanatic and budding journalist – wait, what?
You’d think for someone as naturally gifted in the comedy department as Rhys Darby, performing would have been something that he’d planned all along, but having a hit TV series, sought after stand-up acts and starring in many a movie was never in the pipelines.
In fact, as a child his mother’s main concern was to keep him out of trouble. Rhys says growing up he had no time to think of anything other than school and sport, let alone becoming, arguably, one of New Zealand’s favorite actors.
“I was too busy being a boy to think of acting,” Rhys explains.
“My mother had me involved in a bit of everything, I was in soccer teams, I was a cyclist, I was in the school athletics team, I even played tennis and as a teenager I was in the Air Training Corps and the Army Cadets. I think her main aim, looking back, was to keep me off the streets or from falling in with the wrong crowd.”
Being the epitome of energy, it was probably more to tire him out.
After finishing high school, Rhys joined the New Zealand Army and became a soldier. Now if you’ve ever seen how Rhys portrays his time in the army, you’ll know that this wasn’t his calling.
If one was to try and make sense of it, it would be the equivalent of trying to turn a block of jelly into a brick. Suppressing his theatrical nature would be a daunting task – even for the army.
“It took a while for me to grow up and realise what I was supposed to do. In the army I enjoyed doing all the physical stuff but I realised ‘I don’t want to be doing this forever’ and I left after about four years because it didn’t wsuit me,” he says.
His time in the army clearly wasn’t lost on him, and like all great comedians he took his experience and turned it into some hilarious gags. His live performance of Imagine That referenced his time as a soldier and when released on DVD went platinum here in New Zealand.
After the army Rhys went on to study at the University of Canterbury where he aspired to be a journalist. “I was always quite good with my English skills so that was the plan there.”
The six o’ clock news would be far different to what we see today if he’d stayed on that path. But thankfully he “fell” into comedy.
Realising his calling
Rhys says “it was really a destiny that I didn’t know was meant to be, until it squarely knocked me on the head.”
He admits, looking back over his life, one thing that remained consistent was his “crazy sense of humor”.
Practically on arrival at university, Rhys signed up to The Comedy Club as a bit of fun.
“It was really just a bunch of like-minded guys meeting once a week, writing sketches and stuff, then I got a part-time job at a restaurant and met the chef there (Grant Lobban) and we created a comedy duo.”
At the time, stand-up comedy wasn’t a thing in New Zealand, so the idea had never crossed Rhys’ mind and if he was to be honest, he wasn’t really interested in it either.
“The thought of someone standing up behind a mic seemed really boring to me.”
And to this day, even when doing stand-up, he has never been one to just ‘stand up behind a mic’ and that is what got him noticed. He is animated and often described as ‘different’ – not the words we all like to hear, but it couldn’t work better for him.
Initially inspired by Monty Python and Rowan Atkinson, he thought “maybe I could do something like that”, but living in New Zealand – that would never be possible.
It is so easy to plant a seed of doubt in your mind and give up before even starting. While Rhys, like most, was guilty of this in his earlier days, as he got a bit older, he realised that life wasn’t just about making money and he certainly didn’t want to wait to be comfortable before starting his comedy career, it just took a slight mindset adjustment.
Rhys says, what started purely as a hobby with a bunch of mates just having a laugh, has been forged into a lifelong career.
It was when he began his solo act in Auckland that he began getting noticed. Naturally Rhys got excited and decided to give the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a go and from there it all happened in a very linear way, everything just began falling into place.
Making America great again
It’s hard to imagine Rhys as anything other than an actor or a comedian.
He has this natural way of being a little bit odd, that works in his favour – most wouldn’t be able to pull it off.
Throughout his career, Rhys has remained Rhys. His voice is one that can’t be disguised and the way he portrays himself on stage and on screen has remained timeless and distinctive.
He says his original plan of making it big in the UK was a struggle and America had been put in the ‘too hard basket’.
“The UK had so much of their own talent, I got the feeling that they were all like ‘you’re from over there (New Zealand) – we will laugh at you, but we won’t give you job’.”
Rhys planned on heading home after season one of Flight of the Conchords (FOTC), in which Rhys played the character of Murray Hewitt the band manager.
But the universe had other ideas.
America opened its doors to season two and Rhys was offered a role in the hit movie Yes Man, so instead of heading home, Rhys took a slight detour.
Something that had originally been placed in the ‘too hard basket’ was now the more viable option.
Throughout the years, Rhys has appeared in many sitcoms, TV adverts, movies, cartoons and comedy festivals.
Currently living in LA with his family, Rhys is run off his feet with several projects including filming his part in the sequel of Jumanji which is set to be released in December this year.
He’s taken by surprise when he’s known by these ‘famous actors’ because though, in his own words, he hasn’t done much, the things he has done have been really well-received.
“Even Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson comes up to me on set and makes me be in his videos for his friends.
“I’ll be thinking, ‘really? Okay, I mean he’s The Rock – but sure, I’ll be in a little video for your friends’,” he laughs. “You get over the star-struck feeling pretty quickly – now we can all enjoy a sandwich together.”
Although he’s enjoying his time in LA and the opportunities that have come from it, New Zealand is still home. We may not have Dwayne Johnson here, but Rhys still misses us and squeezes New Zealand into his schedule every now and then.
His show Mystic Time Bird will be touring NZ from July 9 through to August 15 this year. Tickets are still available but selling out quick.
Rhys may not have made the best soldier, sports star or journalist, but when he’s on the international stage representing New Zealand, he’s giving us a pretty good name.
By Natalia Rietveld