Jemaine Clement talks playing a giant crab in Moana, channelling David Bowie and Maori myths (EXCLUSIVE)

Arriving into Australian cinemas on Boxing Day is Disney’s brand new animated feature Moana and this will be the first time the studio is exploring the culture and myths of the South Pacific region, particularly that of the Polynesian people.

In the film an ancient curse that is causing the crops to fail and fish to disappear must be reversed so Moana Waialiki (Auili’i Cravalho) the only daughter of the chief, must find the Demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and restore the heart of the God, Te Fiti, to lift the curse and save her people.

Along the way, Moana will test her abilities as a sea voyager and navigator and meet some interesting characters, one of which happens to be Tamatoa voiced by Jemaine Clement. We had a chat with Jemaine regarding his character.

“He’s a giant crab, he’s 50 feet tall, he is I’m not sure if you’d say evil, but there’s something not right with him. He’s very vain, and he’s like a magpie in a way, he collects shiny things. He’s this giant evil crab but he wants to look pretty. I’m surprised by all the messages I get about people relating to this character, like that’s how they feel, they feel they want to be pretty and just hide they’re actually just a crab.”

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Being a Disney film, this of course features some fantastic music with original songs written by Opetaia Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda and the score composed by Mark Mancina. In the film Tamatoa has a song called “Shiny” where he waxes lyrical about himself. Miranda of course is best known for his smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton, and he specifically wrote the song with Clement in mind, though Clement admits that he was a little rusty with singing.

“He (Lin) wrote it knowing I’d be doing the part. I just turned up at the studio and sang it. I tried some different lyrics occasionally but mostly, he (Lin) knows what he’s doing.”

“The most challenging thing was reaching the high notes in ‘Shiny’. You’ve gotta warm up. When we recorded it, Lin was in New York, I was in LA. After we’d record, Lin would have to go do ‘Hamilton’. And he’d be directing me over Skype, so he’d be very used to singing, and I hadn’t. Even though I used to do it, I hadn’t done it for a couple of years, not properly, not regularly. So you just gotta keep doing it and get better at it.”

Dwayne Johnson & Lin-Manuel Miranda Image credit: Dwayne Johnson @therock Instagram
Dwayne Johnson & Lin-Manuel Miranda
Image credit: Dwayne Johnson @therock Instagram

One thing that did take Clement by surprise though was the image Miranda and the Disney team had already conjured up for Tamatoa. It actually was a rather drastically different one to Clement’s initial interpretation of the character.

“The way I was thinking of playing the character before I went in there, was a very tough aggressive like warrior, the name Tamatoa means warrior, so I was imagining his shell like armour, a metallic shell like armour.”

“And then I went in there and they’ve given me this glam-rock song about being shiny it’s just the exact opposite of what I had been thinking. It wasn’t until I was in the studio and you’re going to sing this song, which I had heard but I’d been singing it differently. I still haven’t seen it (the film), so I don’t know how the final version comes out, but I’m interested to see these different things and how they work together.”

Despite having a different idea of what the character would be, the song itself is very much a tribute to David Bowie. Channelling the glam-rock Thin White Duke is something that Clement has done before in his cult hit TV series Flight Of The Conchords. Which was probably where Miranda got the idea from.

“To me it sounds like on his demo, you can hear his demo on the soundtrack, but that demo was what was sent to me before I went and recorded it. I knew he was doing an impression of my impression of Bowie, but I didn’t know if he thought that was just how I sung. So I didn’t know if he only knew one song of ours, and thought I sung like that all the time. So when I tried to record it in the character’s voice, he just kept pushing the Bowie thing, do it more Bowie, he wanted glam, like a T-Rex Bowie.”

“As a fan of David Bowie, I did find it a little sad to be thinking of it. I’ve been called on to do Bowie impressions a few times and I’m not even great at it. But I just trusted what Lin was doing and that was how we wanted it to sound.”

“What Lin said about it, he said “the Bowie that you do is a very specific era of Bowie, it’s like ‘Let’s Dance’ Bowie, which is right”. I’ve heard better impressions, and I’m not good at speaking like him, like Lin said, it’s an older Bowie that I can do.”

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Besides getting to channel his inner Bowie, Clement also got to try out a little improv whilst doing his voice acting for the character. As a comedian of course this resulted in many improv outtakes but felt it pertinent to ask if one stuck out in his memory the most.

“Oh yeah we do that, you have the script, then you get through the script. Then they do some takes where they say “just throw in any ideas you have”, then you do your improv. Then they have alternative lines or alternative jokes usually, so you do those, then you do versions of those so there’s a lot of improv. They don’t need to have any of it, but I’ll find out tomorrow I guess if they used any, and then it’s hard to remember who came up with what”

“I remember having a big apology sequence, I know it’s not in the movie I know that, the crab mentions, Tamatoa mentions eating his grandma, and then I did this big emotional apology about eating my grandma, I found that really funny. It might have been a bit indulgent and long. I remember tearing up in the studio. You can’t have all those improvs, it would be the longest film, it would be 10 hours. It would be nice to see Tamatoa having some self-realisation though.”

In regards to self-realisation, the journey Moana takes is one about self-discovery and is also thematically rooted in Polynesian culture. Paritcularly in regards to voyaging and the ancestral Polynesians travelling from island to island. It’s been widely acknowledged that this film is Disney’s first that brings the South Pacific people to the screen. We quiz Clement over the importance of having Polynesian and Maori representation. And whether there were any Maori myths or legends he has a particular fondness for.

“I think it’s a positive thing, I think it’s great how they’ve had a lot of Polynesian people involved all throughout the film, doing some of the score, some of the artists, almost all the cast are Polynesian except for the chicken (voiced by Alan Tudyk). I love the way that they’ve done it coz it would be strange watching someone else, having people that weren’t Polynesian I think it would be very strange to watch. I like the way that they’ve included Polynesian artists.”

“In Maori culture there’s 2 kinds of stories, there’s adventure stories, or the ones I’ve mostly heard of centre around Maui. Some of the Maui stories are quite terrifying in the Maori version, different Polynesian societies have different versions, some of them that I’ve heard now are a bit nicer, not as scary as the Maori version. Me and Taiki Waititi, about 12 years ago we wrote a play together about Maui, we did the legends of Maui called “The Untold Tales Of Maui” and that’s the one that’s stuck with me from being a kid, enough to write a whole play. He’s a very famous, well known character.”

Coincidentally, Clement mentioning his work with Waititi also ties in nicely with our query relating to any forthcoming projects he happens to be working on. Fans of the cult hit film released in 2014 What We Do In The Shadows will pleased to hear that his next project will use a pair of characters we’ve seen before.

“I’m producing a TV show that’s like a New Zealand X-Files in a way but it’s a comedy. Did you see “What We Do In The Shadows”? Well the two police officers who come to the vampires house and they get hypnotised. We’ll be taking those 2 characters, and doing a spin off. Hopefully it will be released late next year.”

Moana will be released in Australian cinemas on 26 December 2016 through Disney.