Fans of HBO’s pitch-black, critically divisive comedy Vice Principals likely wanted to skip immediately to the next episode — out of both dread and uneasy anticipation — once they saw what happened at the end of the series’ sixth half-hour, which debuted August 21.
As "The Foundation of Learning" concludes, the oft-brutish Neal Gamby (series co-creator Danny McBride) finds himself driving with Amanda Snodgrass, the teacher he has a crush on. She’s just endured her own round of disappointments — largely stemming from another teacher dumping her in humiliating fashion.
And in that moment, she reaches over and takes Neal’s hand, even though in an earlier episode, she had told him, in no uncertain terms, that she didn’t think very much of him.
To understand what might have prompted this change of heart, I sat down with Georgia King, the actress who plays Amanda. She had plenty of insights into her character, yes, but she also offered me her take on what she — a Brit — learned about Americans and our school system by spending seven months playing an American high school teacher.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On why Snodgrass does what she does: "Her compassion and empathy is huge, as well as her insecurity"
So Amanda reaches out and takes Neal’s hand at the end of this episode. What was your read on why she does that?
As the love interest, it was very important for me to find if they do connect, why do they connect? Ground it in something very real and meaningful, so it doesn't just become, "Oh well, we have to move the story on, so they'll just happen to like each other." I really wanted to understand from Snodgrass why Gamby touches her, emotionally.
I think her compassion and empathy is huge, as well as her insecurity. She's very generous to other people. Even at the beginning of the show, before she's romantically interested in Neal, I think she's keen to get on with him. She kind of tries to absorb this very strange human being. She's not a polished human being. She doesn't have the best communication skills herself, just like Gamby doesn't.
The sixth episode, it's a really special episode for me. That's a very important episode to understand really just how much Gamby is struggling. And Snodgrass sees this man fully. I think a lot of people see the blowhard side of him, the angry side, and Snodgrass sees the vulnerability, the anxieties, the self-doubt. And she believes in him, sees the good as well.
That’s a pretty big change, though, from where she is in episode three, where she’s pretty honest with Neal and tells him that he’s ruining the school trip they’re on. You say that by episode six, she can see the real him. What were the moments where you think that happened?
[Episode three] is a huge turning point for Snodgrass.
Not only does she mess up and try to confront [Gamby] and do it all wrong, but she actually just pushes him further away. I think she prides herself in being fully equipped and ready for school, and then she just isn't as good as she thinks she is. It's not just like the school is crazy for her, and she's trying to navigate her way through. I think she's not as good as she was hoping to be, and it's a tough challenge for her.
By making a mistake, she sees somebody directly that she hurts, and then the big turning point for her is seeing [Gamby] at the end of episode three talking about his daughter. That's a revelation: That Gamby wants to be a good father.
That piques her interest at the end of three. So she probably sees more of how wrongly people are perceiving Gamby and how wrongly he's putting himself out there in the world. I think she still continues to see the hard edge to Neal Gamby, but she knows of the soft. I think six is a really big episode for her to show herself and her pain, as well as seeing his.
Six is also the first real glimpse we get of her personal life. I like the way Vice Principals lets you think you know a character, then pulls back and reveals they have this whole other life outside of school. What did you find most surprising about Snodgrass’s life?
It was so cool when I read that episode, because I was, like, "Oh my goodness, okay, this woman does not have her shit together. She does not have her life the way that she wants it." It was a huge revelation for me.
I remember reading that cold open with her being so crudely dumped, and that rejection hurts her in a way that comes out of nowhere. She tries to do what I think a lot of women feel we need to do, which is to try to come across as being cool and in control, and really she's not. It's a very painful breakup.
I love seeing that in a character, where they try to present one thing, when really something else is going on, and you have that great pull and tug between reality and hopes of putting something else out into the world, an image of who you are. We all want to show the world this side of us, but actually we have these very terrified sad times.
On learning about America: "It’s funny how you start melting into another culture"
You’re not from an American small town, but you filmed Vice Principals in South Carolina. What did you think of that sort of American small town way of life? What did you learn about America from that?
The first thing I'll do with a character is figure out where I can understand them and where I can align a lot of my own experiences and battles and whatnot with them, and if they're different, how I can embrace the differences.
There are a lot of traits about [this character’s] personality that I recognize. I'm not from a small town in America. I'm from a small middle-of-nowhere village in the countryside in England.
And I went to a [US] school [to do research for this role], because obviously the school system is very different as well. I interviewed a teacher on a broader scale in terms of differences between England and American education, but also on a personal level, like what are the things that happen within the school environment as a teacher.
Because I was improvising with [the cast] and wanted to feel entirely free as this character and not let the Britishness of me get in the way, I just got rid of it. I just was an American for at least two months leading up to the show, which at first felt silly, especially with friends who know you very well for who you are. Your identity is so much in how you speak, so to manage to get rid of that and lose the Georgia that I've known for however long and be an American me really helped.
It's funny how you start melting into another culture and you start feeling more unified and cohesive. It probably sounds a bit creepy but it really made a huge difference for me, and I actually didn't speak "in British" on set for at least the first season. I think the crew were all looking at me funny when I did finally break and spoke [with my British accent].
For me, it was very important I did play American versus British. When I was filming, Walton [Goggins’s] wife asked me, "Why didn't they just make her British for you?" But I love that the thing that defines Snodgrass and makes her stand out for Neal Gamby's character isn't a foreignness and a mystique. She's just one of the crew in that show. She's one of the gang. What defines her and makes her unique for him is to do with her personality versus the way she sounds.
What about the American education system most surprised you, compared to how you were raised?
What really shocked me was the technology side of things.
Maybe this is to do with age, rather than cultural stuff, but the teacher I interviewed was telling me how the kids aren't allowed to take pictures of the board for notes until at the end of class.
I was, like, "What do you mean, take pictures? Where are their journals and their notebooks and their pencils and pens?" The introduction of iPads and technology was really surprising to me, it really surprised me that to freehand write is not just a given thing you do every day till your hands hurt. I still have a bump on my finger from writing at school.
On Amanda Snodgrass herself: "Her biggest flaw is having an idea of where she’ll be and not finding herself there"
What drew you to the role of Amanda Snodgrass and made Vice Principals a show you wanted to be involved in?
I was given the first two episodes, and Snodgrass is in them, but not as much as she is in the following episodes. It really was the tone of the actual show that just struck me as something so unusual and funny and delightful and dark and gleeful, but also painful and vulnerable. It was by far some of the most extraordinary two scripts I'd read.
I was really intrigued by the whole story rather than just my character, and then was overwhelmed and thrilled that my character becomes who she is in the show, to then go, "Oh wow, my character is full of complexities, and there's a lot of darkness and vulnerability in her, and it's not quite what it seems at the beginning."
That's a real gift to get a role that's complex and has depth and has some really ugly flaws as well. These guys do that so well. They present real people who have a full spectrum of qualities and strange traits.
You’ve mentioned Snodgrass’s flaws a few times now. What do you think is her biggest flaw? What can’t she get right?
She has expectations of what she thinks her life is going to be and what she thinks her career as teacher is going to be versus the reality that she finds herself in. Her biggest flaw is having an idea of where she'll be and not finding herself there, and instead finding herself in a very lonely place.
I think she's an incredibly lonely woman who is struggling with connections and romance and finding a partner, and I think she gets a little mixed up and lost. When people treat her badly, she doesn't know better than to brush that aside and put it on them, she takes that as a comment on who she is.
She’s an incredibly insecure woman who's definitely lost, I'd say is the clearest way of putting it.
So much of Vice Principals is about anger and frustration, but we don’t really see Snodgrass have an outburst of rage or anything, at least so far. Do you feel like she has those moments? Or is she keeping it all bottled up?
There actually was a small scene [in episode six] where Snodgrass does lose it that isn't in the cut. The intention for Danny [McBride] and [co-creator/director] Jody [Hill] was to show that she is absolutely capable of having that rage too.
I love the decisions they've made with how they've put this together, and how they've created all these incredible character arcs. I got to have that moment of cathartic anger and release, and I do have moments throughout the show that I get to have that. But I like that the characters all have that, but they express it in different ways.
The choices [McBride and Hill] made in how they edited this show and how they put it together really stays honest to the actual characters themselves. That's why I've had such a kick out of watching it and being a part of this. We actually felt like we knew these people by the end of the shoot. They were real people to us, which is super creepy and maybe just a result of being together for seven months.
You mentioned Snodgrass trying to put on a brave face after her breakup, and one of the themes of Vice Principals is sort of learning to be okay with your own weakness. As someone who professionally puts on other faces to make a living, what have you learned about dealing with vulnerability in your own life?
I've learned that it's okay to find yourself in a direction that you might not have anticipated. I've learned that it is more healthy, and it isn't weak to be honest about feeling pain and anxieties and vulnerability.
Snodgrass reaches out. She needs Gamby as much as he needs her. It's not just about, "Does the guy get the girl? Does the girl get the guy?" There's a mutual need and a mutual pull toward each other.
It's a wonderful thing to be able to lean on people. As much as I want to be there for other people, I'm glad that I have people in my life that I can lean on too. Snodgrass feels that too in the show.
Vice Principals airs Sundays at 10:30 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go.