Jemaine Clement I Used to Go Here

Jemaine Clement on jumping from indie roles to mega blockbusters

The Kiwi comedian is playing professors and scientists in everything from his new film I Used to Go Here to Avatar 2.

Ever since his breakout as one half of the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, Jemaine Clement has cast a wide net in his career. Alternating between roles in big Hollywood blockbusters (he was the heavy in both Men in Black 3 and Spielberg’s The BFG), voice roles in animation, leading roles in smaller indies (People Places Things, Brad’s Status) and comedy projects in his native New Zealand (where he began his career in another comedy duo with Taika Waititi), Clement has been a reliable comedic presence in pretty much all spheres of comedy. 

He also appears in the Kris Rey-directed indie dramedy I Used to Go Here, which is now available on VOD. In it, Jemaine Clement plays David Kirkpatrick, a literature professor at a liberal arts college who functioned, once upon a time, as a friend and mentor to Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), whom he invites to campus to read from her debut novel. David was once a young and cool professor; now he’s not as young, not as cool, in a complicated marriage and struggling to remain as relevant as he was when Kate knew him. Though a supporting character in the scheme of the film, David is sort of what unlocks Kate’s existential crisis as the film goes on. As a viewer, our allegiances to the character and our perception of him changes throughout. 

“You can read it as he’s not what she thought he was,” Clement explains. “But when I was doing it, I saw it as he used to be that, and he just let it slip. He’s sort of given up on the things he thought were important at one stage and let his morals slip.”

I Used to Go Here is very much in the post-mumblecore vein of “hang-out movies” (a term coined by Quentin Tarantino that has become somewhat mainstream in recent years) in which the action of the movie is defined mainly by the characters’ stasis — but where the formal qualities of the film are less rough-hewn and improvisatory than in the early days of mumblecore.

“When I was a student, that’s the kind of movie I used to love watching,” says Clement. “When I was in my early 20s, I was used to blockbusters and stuff as a student supposedly studying film. Watching these movies that were quite naturalistic and more like real life, watching those small little dramas and seeing how something small can still be important. This script reminded me of those films that I used to see in that sense. I like projects like that.”

Another interesting aspect of I Used to Go Here is the idea that Kate isn’t particularly proud of her novel, that she stands by it mainly because it’s one of the few things she has followed through on rather than because she’s satisfied by how it turned out. It’s excessively rare for movies to explore the idea that a creator isn’t particularly proud of their creation, that something you create can just be sort of mediocre. It goes directly against the widespread problem of films about creators whose work is diegetically supposed to be great — a song, book or film that changes the world, but that is never going to be as good as the world of the film requires it to be.

“It’s a really hard thing to do,” says Clement. “Writing a character who writes a really good song, for example.  Often, it’s like… (exhales deeply) How could this song become #1?! You have to actually write a song that’s as good as what they’re saying it is. I guess that’s the success of A Star Is Born, which I haven’t seen: the hit song from the movie was a real hit. But when you’re making a movie about a book that’s a crappy book, there’s poetry about it.

“I guess it depends on what you started doing,” Clement continues. “I started in theatre, so you often have to deal with what people think, because you see them. They’re right there. If it goes badly, you can feel it, but even if it goes well and one person’s not enjoying it, you can see them. A lot of people I’ve worked with or come up with have had that experience, and it’s funny — at least, it’s funny when you’re with other people. When you’re an author, by yourself, it can be a tough thing to deal with and it can take longer before it gets funny.”

That also extends, in a way, to Clement’s job as an actor, where going out and selling a movie that you may not have enjoyed working on, or one that you ultimately end up being disappointed in, becomes part of the game. 

“You can also love a movie and hate being on it, and you can love working on something and not like the final product!” he explains. “You hope for both — that you like the movie and that you have a good time working on it. When I hear other people interviewed and I hear them say, ‘We had a great time working on this movie,’ I always think, ‘You should have been working.’ This is a warning. (laughs)”

When I spoke to Jemaine Clement via Zoom last week, he was in between two shoots — one for a show that he co-created with Waititi, Wellington Paranormal, and one for what is arguably one of the biggest sets of all time, the Avatar sequels being shot simultaneously in New Zealand. Because I was ostensibly on the line to chat about a small-scale American indie and the Avatar films are the antithesis of that, I had to ask: Is there anything different, practically speaking, about how Clement does his job?

“In Avatar, I have to scuba-dive,” he explains. “I had to do scuba diving lessons for a couple of months. That’s different! (laughs) Otherwise, it’s mainly just talking. (…) It’s always interesting. I love working with people whose work I admire. James Cameron, I’m always asking about Terminator and Terminator 2. (laughs) Those are the things that are different, really. You’re reminded of the things that others have done. The job is the same: you have to seem like a real person.”

That real person, in this case, is a professor, something that is becoming increasingly commonplace for Clement.

“I think that year I was in six things and they were all doctors and professors,” he laughs. “In Avatar, I’m a biologist; I had just been doing Legion, where I was a scientist of some sort of unnamed science. Everything for a while was professors!” ■

I Used to Go Here co-starring Jemaine Clement is available on VOD now. See more about the film here, and watch the trailer below:

I Used to Go Here starring Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement

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