Rhys Darby is keeping busy. When IndieWire got the New Zealander on the phone, he was in Vancouver filming an unspecified role in the upcoming series adaptation of “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” It was a project he described as “amazing,” even compared to other large-scale productions he’s been a part of, like the recent revival of “The X-Files.”
“It’s a Netflix show, so no money spared,” he said. “There’s absolute attention to detail on these huge sets — I walk into them and I think, ‘Wow, is this all real?’ And of course, it’s not, but it’s huge. I haven’t really done anything quite like it. It’s like being in a big Hollywood fantasy film.”
Before that, though, Darby was in Puerto Rico to film the TBS comedy “Wrecked,” which airs its season finale Tuesday night and recently got renewed for a second season. Simply described as “Lost,” but a comedy and no polar bears, “Wrecked” features Darby using his natural New Zealand accent. Which, in fact, he’s never lost, despite leaving his home at a young age to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival — where, in his words, he “jumped out on stage and said, ‘Here I am, this is me.'”
And since then, he hasn’t stopped being himself, playing variations of the same character and loving it. We began our conversation by discussing the production of “Wrecked,” which brought the man from way down under to a whole new land.
Where was “Wrecked” being shot?
That was in Puerto Rico. I hadn’t been there before. I’ve always wanted to go to the Caribbean. So, it was a nine hour flight. It was two flights from LA. It was quite a distance to go to work and then we had to be there for the whole time, two months. I was away from my wife and kids because they had to be at school and stuff, so they couldn’t really come with me. It was challenging to be away from my family on this island, but I love the place. It’s rustic. It’s mystical. It’s got so much history. Old San Juan is so beautiful and there’s so much culture there. And then of course, the tropical beaches are fantastic. I love the tropical vibe. I’m a big tiki bar Tahitian booty shaker [laughs]. So there I am, on an island. I hired a Jeep. I had some adventures. I loved it.
It was an opportunity to really cut wild.
Yeah, I felt like I left the city behind, I left my life behind and maybe had a midlife crisis. I even bought a BMX and started riding around local parks. It was quite funny. There were actually younger, the 20-something set or even younger, I guess, on BMXs doing jumps and stuff. And then I would turn up and they would see me from a distance and I’d be up near the grandstand and my big trick was to just go down some steps on the bike. But I made the foolish move of trying to film myself going down. And so as soon as I went down a couple of steps, I dropped my phone and the real BMX gang started laughing at me. I had to pick my phone up, adjust my hat and ride off to another beach. But, you know, I was having fun [laughs]. The 40-something dad reliving his youth.
Growing up in New Zealand, is this ever the path you imagined your life taking?
I imagined my life taking so many different paths and it has taken so many different paths so I think I’m never surprised now on what path I’m on or what place I end up next, because this crazy life has given me so many opportunities and so many experiences. I haven’t been scared to do anything. And I think that was the thing — right from that early age of leaving New Zealand, deciding to take a risk. I went to the United Kingdom. I went to Edinburgh. I went to the Fringe Festival, the biggest art festival in the world. I just jumped out on stage and said, “Here I am, this is me.”
I come from a land very, very far away, but I have this confidence a lot of New Zealanders don’t necessarily have, being so isolated back on this little tiny island next to Antarctica. I think it’s kind of important to prove that we’re somebody. We mean something as well in the world. It’s about kind of taking the world by the horns and riding it [laughs].
Where do you think that confidence comes from?
Being laughed at my whole life maybe? People sort of championing that I can bring joy to others, so I believed that as well. And also, a sense of positivity. There’s a lot of negativity in the world and I kind of try to get away from that and try to make people smile and make people laugh because we’re only here once. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you can go to other places. I try to go to as many places as I can and sort of spread that happy vibe. I’ve been lucky because a lot of my trips have been supported or paid for by organizations and so I’ve felt like I’ve got something to prove if somebody else is paying for it. I paid for the initial trip to get to England and then I had no money for like four years, or even longer than that, while I kind of tried to find myself and get my jobs going, get my comedy to a point where I could make money. Once I got there… It’s been a journey, let’s put it that way.
Of course. As an actor, have you ever felt typecast or put into one particular kind of role?
Sure, sure. Usually, I use my accent so I usually play someone either from the South Pacific or from another world where my voice is as it is. And I usually get cast as a sort of hapless hero of some sort, someone who is downtrodden or life hasn’t quite worked out the way he wants it to or somebody who you have a lot of empathy for. I seem to play those kinds of characters.
Do you find that at all limiting, or do you like getting to play in that niche?
I like playing those characters because people can relate to people who don’t have everything going their way or are not necessarily the “cool” person — because I think most of us aren’t like that. We do all struggle in one way or another, trying to be better than what we are. So if I play someone who is that, then it’s relatable. I think we all try and do this, we try to become part of some kind of society or some sort of social group that makes us feel good.
The other thing I like to do is celebrate the weirdness we all have inside of ourselves. We should be proud that we might be weird or collect weird things or whatever. That comes out in a lot of my characters, that it’s okay to seem a bit like a loser or a bit like a person you might mock because you can get strengths from that in a weird way, especially in these days, you know? Geeks are cool.
Definitely. You mentioned that you use your accent. Do you ever try to work without it?
I have, but it just doesn’t appeal to me, because I think if they want an American character or an English character or a German character, there’s plenty of actors out there that can do those accents perfectly. For me, I normally create comedy no matter what character I’m portraying and to make the perfect comedy, it has to come from the heart and I have to use my own voice because I can then create the tiny little details and nuances in the sequences that I deliver because I improvise a lot as well. I need to get the timing and have everything perfect and for that, for me, it needs to just come out without thinking. So, it’s hard to explain how improv works in a way that makes sense to work with the scene you’re in, but to have to then think about getting the accent right is another part of the brain that takes away from the other part. It’s a convoluted answer, but doing an accent requires quite another shift in the thought process of speech, so I’ll leave that to someone else.
I mean, I’m one of a few out there of characters who gets to have this New Zealand accent and I think I’ve been lucky. Now I think the whole world is used to it and now they’re quite happy to see me in anything. The true test is whether I get cast in some sort of ancient Greek drama series or something like that. Remember Sean Connery [in “The Hunt for Red October”] when he played a Russian submarine commander with a Scottish accent? That’s a level I want to get to.
Where nobody cares, they just want to hear you talk.
No one cares. They just love Sean and they go, “Hey. Of course that’s how Russians speak.” It’s more about watching Sean than thinking he’s meant to be Russian.
That’s great. It also connects back to what you were saying before about when you first went to England and just stood on a stage and put yourself out there.
Yeah, exactly. So much about acting is turning up to a room and being who you are and showing people that you can be whoever they want on that piece of paper. That’s what they’re looking for — they’re looking for your height, the color of your hair and they see you visually and think, “Okay well, you look like the part,” and then you start talking. So for me I guess, most of my career has been about developing me as a personality through comedy and being a comedian. That’s first and foremost, and then actor second.
As a character actor, how often have you had a love interest in a project?
Well, you may not have seen them, but I’ve done two films where I was a leading man in a romantic comedy. One was called “Coming and Going” and the other was called “Love Birds.” So I had love interests in both of those and it was fun to have that. And I haven’t since then really. Most of my love interests since those films have been either separated or divorced or in the background somewhere who have left me for some reason [laughs]. It’s not fair!
As you look forward, where do you hopefully see yourself going?
The sky’s the limit because I’ve been involved in so many comedic projects. I still really love science fiction and I would still love to become part of that world in one faithful form, whether that be a TV show or a movie. I’d like to play a leading man in a comedy movie. I still haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’m mainly doing character parts, cameos, small parts and I’m just waiting for that person who will trust me and put me in the lead of something. I’m willing to wait.
I’m writing myself as well. I’m writing some books and I’m always writing stand-up and I think that’s the true essence of keeping the comedy blood flowing through the veins. To keep performing live and to keep working on new characters and things. And I enjoy being an indie or alternative comic actor, whereby some people know who I am, but I can still walk anywhere and forget that I’ve ever been in big projects because people aren’t staring. It feels good out in public. I often think, “Oh well when you do get really famous, it would be just awkward walking around,” and it’s a weird scenario, thinking that could happen. I’m enjoying my place at the moment.
Do you seriously not get ever recognized on the street?
Now and again. Here in Vancouver a couple of times. Someone would yell out “Murray!” I don’t sort of acknowledge that because that’s not my name and think they may recognize me, but it could be…and then they’ll try and say my first name and sometimes, actually more often than not, they can’t pronounce Rhys. They’ve seen in writing and so they yell out [Rice] or [Rise] [laughs] and they just get it wrong. And I think, “Well if you’re a true fan, you would know that it’s pronounced [Reese] Rhys.” It’s Welsh. So that’s where I’m at at the moment, people yelling out the wrong name [laughs]. That’s my level of fame.
The “Wrecked” season finale aires tonight on TBS.