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How Rhys Darby flew from Conchords to The X-Files, and Netflix’s new Voltron

For a particular generation of kids who grew up in the ’80s, the animated adventures of Voltron, Defender of the Universe are a cultural touchstone as iconic as any television series over the years.

This week, Dreamworks Animation introduces Voltron to a new generation in Voltron Legendary Defender, a series that combines cutting-edge animation, a refreshed and rebooted origin story, and an impressive cast of voice actors for a new spin on the characters.

Among those voice actors is Rhys Darby, the talented stage and screen actor known for his portrayal of band manager Murray Hewitt on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords and unassuming werewolf pack leader Anton in the critically acclaimed vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows.  Darby was also recently seen in The X-Files revival episode “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” playing the mysterious Guy Mann.

In Voltron, Darby provides the voice of Coran, the eccentric advisor to the team of human pilots tasked with defending the universe from cosmic threats, and a character that, according to Darby, has more qualities in common with him than just a voice.

Digital Trends spoke to Darby about the upcoming premiere of Voltron Legendary Defender, as well as his experience filming The X-Files, the sequel to What We Do In The Shadows, and his new film Hunt For The Wilderpeople, which arrives in the U.S. theaters later this month.

Digital Trends: Was Voltron a show that was on your radar when you were younger?

Rhys Darby: No, it just came out of the blue. I had heard of the original Voltron, of course, but it really wasn’t on my radar. I have a very distant memory of seeing something on television when I was 11 or 12. Being in New Zealand, we very rarely went indoors.

Was Voltron big in New Zealand? 

Yeah, we certainly had it, but I was a very sporty kid growing up, so I didn’t see a lot of cartoons. I recall seeing it once, and seeing these characters in these amazing outfits flying through space in these cat-type spaceships and I never forgot the image of it. It sort of stuck in my memory, and now here we are 30 years later, with a reboot of that show.

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It’s funny, because as soon as I saw the pilot and those costumes, I realized, “My god, it’s that show! That’s the show I’ve had that image of in my head for so long!” So it’s kind of bizarre and wonderful that I got to be part of it.

Whether a reboot is a live-action project or animated, sometimes actors prefer not to spend too much time analyzing the original. In preparing to voice Coran, did you look up old episodes, or did you approach it with more of a clean-slate perspective? 

To be honest, I got really excited once I realized I was going to be part of it, and went straight online and looked it up. I got into it, found the early episodes, and went back and watched some of the original series. It doesn’t quite hold up as well as you might imagine — and I’m pretty childlike in my mentality. But I watched four or five episodes to get the gist of the show and see how my character comes in.

The new version is quite different. For a start,  it’s a hell of a lot better and exciting. My character has a better role, and he has a real quirky sense of humor. He’s not just a walking voice, which he seemed to be in the earlier one. All of the characters have a deeper personality  and a stronger backstory in the new version. It’s for the better, modernizing the whole thing.

Your comedy has a very physical, visual aspect to it. Is it a challenge to get into a character when you know you can’t control the visual side of the performance?

We went and did Comic-Con and saw a huge room full of fans, half of them dressed up, and we got a standing ovation. That’s when you start to realize, “This is huge.”

That’s a good question. This is my first major animated voice role. I’ve done little bits and pieces on other things, but this one is a fairly big deal. When I went in there and did the voice of the character — and this is even before I got to see what he looked like and what he was capable of — I just did my usual thing. It’s an adventure action-comedy series, so when I was on certain missions with the pilots and in the midst of battle, I would do my usual shrieking or high-pitched voice and be in the sound booth being quite physical. Later on, I would see it put together and they made Coran very much a physical embodiment of me. He does slip and slide and do a bit of slapstick. It’s kind of amazing, really. I think they knew what I was like in real life and put a version of that in the show.

Projects like this tend to have a lot of nostalgic baggage that goes along with them. Did you feel any of that pressure when you were making the show?

When we were working on it, we weren’t really aware of the fandom-type stuff. But we went and did Comic-Con and saw a huge room full of fans, half of them dressed up, and we got a standing ovation. That’s when you start to realize, “This is huge.” Since then, we’ve been excited, because we know the product is good and the fans will be happy. We also know there will be a whole bunch of new fans — my kids included. This is the first time I’ve been involved in something that’s already huge, and you just try to jump on that wave and hold on to your surfboard.

Of course, you see online people already saying, “Hey, it’s not like the original,” or “This guy’s suit is a different color,” or “She’s not right,” and “He’s too short,” but that’s what happens sometimes with people who watched it the first time around and were obsessed with it. I think they’ll come on-board and will actually realize this is way better than what it used to be.

Nostalgia is a powerful force…

It’s such a powerful force. It works really well, because it’s your kid-brain you’re remembering things from. Go back and look at some of the dialogue and things and you think, “Oh, gosh, that could be better.” So what I really like about this new version is that it’s a more adult take on something that was awesome in a our child memory, and it’s being made awesome in our adult memory now, too.

On the subject of shows with nostalgic baggage, you were in one of the best episodes of the recent X-Files revival series. I’ve heard you’re a fan of the original show, so what was the experience like being on the show and being a part of the revival?

I was very lucky to get that particular episode, but to even get near that world, I was kind of blown away. I’m a fan of The X-Files, and a fan of the paranormal genre in general. I love anything to do with UFOs, aliens, and cryptozoology. I even have a radio show I used to do with a few friends called The Cryptid Factor, which was all about discussing that world and interviewing people who think they’ve seen things not of this world. I’m into it, but I also take it with a grain of salt and enjoy the humorous side of it. I like making light of it as a fan. So when I got this episode, it was like all of those things combined. It was one of those moments in my life when I had to kind of pinch myself because it was perfect for me.

When I first got the script, I saw that I was playing a character who was potentially a monster of the week. “That’s fantastic, I love monsters,” I said. And I didn’t even think of the comedy element until I got on set. During my first scene, [episode director] Darin Morgan says, “Okay, you’re quite serious there. You can just be your normal, quirky self.” And as soon as I loosened up and did that, I realized, “Okay, we’re kind of making a comedy here as well.” Here I was, thinking it was going to be one of those dark, serious episodes of X-Files. Stupid me, of course it’s not going to be. I was chosen not necessarily for my wonderful acting skills, but for my comedic abilities.

We’re not sure what direction we’re going, but I quite like that they’re certainly nerdy.

So there I am, and it suits me perfectly. So yeah, I’m really stoked — or “happy,” as you would say here — that it came out as good as it did.

You worked with Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement on Flight of the Conchords, then again on What We Do In The Shadows, and it seems like good things happen when the three of you collaborate. Taika recently talked about a potential sequel for What We Do In The Shadows that would focus on your character and his werewolf pack. Have you discussed it at all?

Yeah, we have. Jemaine and I in particular have spoken about it. He wants it to happen. They both do. Taika, of course, is very busy doing Thor 3 now. Unfortunately, the more successful he gets, the busier he gets. Those kind of dream projects, the cool ones that us boys like to put together that can be done on a lighter budget and with like-minded people of our choosing — which would be New Zealanders of some sort or people we can individually pick who might not necessarily be actors, but people who can do real comedy, either improvisational or by accident — it’s just about finding the time to make that happen. … We’d want to wait for Taika, because even though Jemaine co-directed [What We Do In The Shadows], we need to get the whole gang together, as you say.

Is there a particular direction you’d like to see your character go in the sequel?

The thing we’ve talked about consistently is the fact that these guys are fairly nerdy. They’re kind of IT guys — not the kind of guys you would expect to be ferocious, bully types. They’re not the werewolf, jock-type killing machines you see in most werewolf genre movies. The funny thing here is they’re just ordinary men who have ordinary jobs who have girlfriends or wives. They’ve got kids they have to pick up at school. They’re ordinary so-and-so’s who turn into these savage beasts. We’re not sure what direction we’re going, but I quite like that they’re certainly nerdy.

Another film you did with Taika, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, is absolutely crushing box-office records in New Zealand right now. That has to feel good…

Yeah, it’s really fantastic, and I think it’s partly Taika’s magical abilities in getting the right team together. Again, this particular movie captures more about New Zealand than some of the other stuff has done. It involves more characters, and it’s got different parts of New Zealand coming together. We’re very, very happy it’s done so well. We played it at Sundance and it got a standing ovation there in front of mostly Americans, so it’s something about this one that crosses over and has universal appeal.

You mentioned Taika working on Thor: Ragnarok, so has the phone rung yet with your chance to join Marvel’s movie universe? It seems like the logical next step in your career…

The phone hasn’t rung yet, but you never know… He might get 3/4 of the way through the film and go, “You know what I’m missing? I’m missing someone with a weird voice.” It’s a huge world to get involved in. I don’t know if they’re ready for me yet.

Thank you for talking with us, Rhys.

Thank you very much. Onwards and upwards!

Dreamworks’ Voltron Legendary Defender premieres June 10 on Netflix.

Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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