You’re in the heart of Hollywood in the middle of the day, just yards off the Boulevard. After navigating past some lowlifes and being propositioned left and right, you arrive at an oasis—a bank of tucked-away production offices including Danny McBride’s creative hotspot.
The late-blooming comic actor and producer welcomes you to his appropriately named Rough House Pictures, explaining how he loves the danger of his location and talking up his new HBO series, Vice Principals (Sundays at 10:31/9:31c beginning this weekend).
Featuring McBride’s Neil Gamby and Walton Goggins’ Lee Russell as the titular VPs, the show launches, fittingly, in the midst of an even-uglier-than-usual presidential campaign. We kicked back with the duo to get the scoop.
“It’s kind of boring to crack a story with a guy who has all the characteristics of what is instantly likeable. For us, it’s about choosing material that’s a little edgier, something that you might not find a laugh in, but trying to figure out how to get that laugh.”
So your characters, two incredibly politically incorrect Vice Principals, have their eyes on the top job, but something quirky happens on the way to bliss.
McBride: HBO trusted us to do the entire story arc—the whole series is only 18 episodes. We wrote it all in 2104, shot it last year, and just delivered the last episode. It’s kind of crazy for us to be at the finale and no viewers have seen the first episode yet. From where the show starts to where it goes is nuts. I’ve had the most fun on this of anything I’ve ever done before. Walt came in, made Lee his own and turned it into something else. He does so much dramatic yet hilarious and heartbreaking stuff that I can’t wait for people to see it.
How do you make these two jerks lovable?
McBride: It’s kind of boring to crack a story with a guy who has all the characteristics of what is instantly likeable. For us, it’s about choosing material that’s a little edgier, something that you might not find a laugh in, but trying to figure out how to get that laugh. I’m all about airing your soul and showing discomfort. And that extends to the characters as well. Finding characters that are flawed in ways that if you never knew anything about this person, you’d be so turned off by them, and would want to have nothing to do with them. But it’s about cracking that human element in them where you see a little of yourself in there. Despite people’s attitudes, there’s a oneness underneath it all because ultimately everyone kind of wants the same thing, so it’s a matter of how they reach for those similar things.
Goggins: This is a story about these two guys who represent the pathetic struggle of the marginalized white man, who’s seen his place at the table diminishing. So they’re doing whatever they can to hold onto their lessening influence in a world that’s rapidly changing. And it’s about guys trying to evolve past a certain narrow-mindedness. These are two deeply flawed, deeply insecure individuals that will hopefully, if not find refuge in the world, will find it with each other. When your seat at the table has been diminished then you need to accept it as a brand-new reality, and in some ways, it really reflects what’s going on in the world right now, in this country especially.
Even though your first draft was written a decade ago, the story seems to parallel what’s going on now on the political stage.
McBride: Yeah, we’re like two Trumps, doing whatever and saying whatever to win the Principal’s office. My series co-creator Jody Hill and I had initially written this as a movie screenplay in 2006. But didn’t crack it into a TV show until 2014. We were shooting the show and then we started to see Trump running for President. So it might’ve been something that we were connecting with, and art was imitating life in a weird way.
Bill Murray has a great cameo as the departing principal, how’d you snag him?
McBride: When we went to scout Charleston, South Carolina, we saw some schools and liked the vibe there. On our flight back to LA, someone said my name, and it’s Bill Murray, who lives in Charleston, and he spent the whole flight telling us why we should shoot there. We took his advice, and when thinking about who should be the Principal who’s leaving, well he’s the guy who talked us into going there to shoot. On the set, it was not just amazing to see him work but also to see the effect he has on everyone else. Everyone on that crew was giddy and in awe. He has a presence to him that’s hard to explain. I saw it in Walt’s eyes, thinking, Why is he so nervous right now?
Goggins: I hid out the first time I saw him. ‘Oh, fuck here he comes.’ I slipped into my trailer, and was sitting there for 15 minutes, talking to the AD outside, who was saying he was close, so I waited a few more minutes. OK, now he’s gone into his trailer. So I exited mine, but there he was sitting there, and I was caught, but we ended up having a very lovely conversation. But the whole time, I was just thinking about all the things he’s done. Everyone remembers Stripes, it was like an anthem. But then to hear what he went through to get Razor’s Edge made, and he’s been that guy for my whole adulthood. I’ve been really informed by his movies.
“We participate in the oldest tradition in the world—that first person who told of the big beast that almost killed him that day, around the fire. So that’s something we’ve all been doing for a long time.”
Vice Principals is not a straight-on comedy, what were you going for?
Goggins: One thing they all said—Danny, Jody and David Green, the two directors—[is that] they really don’t make comedies, they make dramas that happen to be very, very funny. And their inspiration is someone like Scorsese, all these hardcore writer/directors.
McBride: I get bored watching average comedies, most fall apart in the third act, and you’ve invested in them but end up not giving a shit what happens to the characters. And that for us is something that separates what we go after. You have to be invested in these people, no matter how despicable they may initially appear, and they have to feel real, and if you can’t identify with them, you’re not going to care what happens. HBO asked what we wanted to do, and we said we wanted to do an 18-episode show, we don’t want to do nine and then you guys decide whether it works or not. We want to take the full ride and take it exactly where we want to go. We were lucky enough that they agreed to go along with us on this ride.
How can you broaden your audience beyond Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down?
McBride: We had two different fans of Eastbound, those who got what we were trying to do, and then those we found because they liked bad language. And those who get what we were doing knew we were commenting on a type of person. That person is going to have a lot to take in with this show. And hopefully we’ll bring in others who like funny cuss words, too! I think what this is about ultimately is something that’s more accessible than Eastbound. If I didn’t know what Eastbound was, and I saw a fucking poster, I’d think it was about a baseball guy with a mullet, and I might not think it was for me. This is about a lot of different people, the types we may know from our school days, and the fact we’ve all been to school, it might be an easier way in.
Walt, you’ve been nailing some scene-stealing performances, including this new one—what’s up with that?
Goggins: I just threaten the writers (laughs). Thanks for saying that, but I don’t know, man, I’m just trying to come from a place of truth and honesty. The only thing that I’m concerned with is the story, and servicing the storyteller’s imagination. And giving them different ways at looking at the story they’ve created. And if you come from that specific place, then you’re not coming from a place of ego. We participate in the oldest tradition in the world—that first person who told of the big beast that almost killed him that day, around the fire. So that’s something we’ve all been doing for a long time. And I think if actors approach it that way, and left their fuckin’ cellphones—and egos—in the trailer, as opposed to, ‘Hey look at me and primp my hair,’ then you turn yourself over to an imaginary set of circumstances, and it would be just about the story. So working with these guys at Rough House, with real artists—and I’ve been lucky to work with some of them the last five years of my career—well, this is really the cherry on top.
Do you guys need to hug it out?
Goggins: Danny gave me this opportunity to be in a comedy which is like a drama with comedic twists. That’s a big invitation, and I take shit very seriously. I’m just grateful. (Reaches over to hug Danny). I love you, man!
Danny, what can you tell us about the new Alien: Covenant movie?
McBride: Before I came here, I got like a fucking document of 10 pages I had to read and sign, what I’m not allowed to say. I’m having a blast filming it, it’s awesome. I’m the pilot of a spaceship, Covenant, a colonization ship which is full of couples and we’re setting off to find a planet we can hopefully colonize. And then, ‘Shit, there goes our plan!’ Awesome!