Danny McBride is more soft-spoken than you might expect, given the characters he plays.
Of course, he’d almost have to be. He’s become famous for playing brash loudmouths in a wide variety of big-screen comedies and especially on his two HBO series, Eastbound & Down (where he played baseball pitcher gone to seed Kenny Powers) and the new Vice Principals (where he plays slowly fizzling powder keg Neal Gamby).
Watch an exclusive clip from the next episode of Vice Principals, airing Sunday, August 7, at 10:30 pm Eastern on HBO.
When I meet with him in a hotel bar during the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Vice Principals (which debuted July 17) has already been met with some of the most divisive reviews of the summer.
Some critics believe the show is a near masterpiece, a surprisingly deft examination of white male rage and the kind of American climate that has made the rise of Donald Trump possible.
Others think it fails to indict its two heroes (McBride’s Neal and his co-vice principal Lee Russell, played by Walton Goggins) as they attack Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), the black woman who received a principal job they thought they were competing against each other for at the North Carolina high school where the show takes place.
In the show’s second, controversial episode, Neal and Lee burn down Belinda’s house, and then manage to get away with the crime. Are McBride and series co-creator Jody Hill celebrating this crime? Or are they setting up the two men for a brutal fall?
What’s impressive about both the show and the way McBride describes it to me is that both of these answers can be true simultaneously.
Neal and Lee can be driven to actions that are frankly despicable, but McBride and Hill want viewers to understand that their darkness comes from somewhere, that the two men are still human, with very real disappointments, regrets, and, yes, anger.
So McBride and I talked about the angry national mood, about the criticism of the show, and about what he thinks Hollywood gets wrong about the South.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On what’s funny about anger: "It has less to do with anger and more to do with disappointment"
You guys filmed Vice Principals last year. What’s it been like to watch the national mood tilt in angrier and angrier directions, knowing the show was just waiting to be released?
I've never been one who really follows politics. I just don't see my world through the lens of politics a lot. When we wrote this story originally [as a film], it was actually back in 2006, and then we wrote the whole series in 2014.
It is crazy. We were shooting in 2015, and we were starting to see the beginnings of this presidential campaign.
There's things about this story that I think speak to any time. But if it's this time, where we're all witnessing a crazy power struggle going on and how far people will go to get that power [like in the show], I think that's definitely accurate.
I don't think we tried to write something that was exploiting what's happening now. I think it's weird the world is kind of lined up with this vision that was written so long ago. Maybe we saw where things were going.
But you’ve always been drawn to rage as a comedic engine. What do you find interesting about anger?
I think it has less to do with anger and more to do with disappointment.
We take a lot of these stories, and we figure out how you take something that to someone it would feel like there's this big epic goal happening, but then set it in a very realistic, small world. The stakes suddenly don't feel as high as the characters are taking them.
With all these characters, I wouldn't categorize them as angry guys. I'd categorize them more as dreamers that had a failed sense of what they were going to get, and I think that frustration can make people lash out in ways that maybe isn't even in character for them. Also, it's just not healthy. That's part of, I think, what this story is ultimately about.
You talked about how these characters feel acute disappointment, and I really recognize that type of guy from my childhood in rural South Dakota. And we don’t often see that sort of person on TV or in movies. Where are you drawing from? What are your inspirations for writing these characters?
I come from being a guy who grew up in a small town like Spotsylvania, Virginia, and carried around a dream of wanting to work in the industry and wanting to make movies or tell stories.
When you are so fixated on a goal like that, there's lots of times when things aren’t going your way, when you feel like you've been walking around with a little egg on your face.
In some regards, I share that with some of these characters, the idea of having a grand vision and things not always panning out the way you want them to, and also understanding that there's nothing wrong with having a grand vision, but it's not what life is all about ultimately.
One fascinating thing about Neal is how class-conscious he is. He’s very strict about not wanting to be seen as a "redneck," and it gets into social divisions in the South that I haven’t really seen portrayed on TV like this. Where did that come from?
There's a lack of originality when it comes to Hollywood portraying Southerners.
[Vice Principals is] not somehow breaking the mold by putting on a guy who has a mullet and stuff, but the South isn't all just one thing. The South is many things. It's many different cultures. It's many people from all over the world, and it's not a guy in overalls with hay hanging out of his mouth. That's a very cheap understanding of the South.
Southerners have grown up watching TV, and they know how they're portrayed. I do think you get people who are aware of how they can come off, just because they have a Southern accent. That's an interesting thing that I don't feel like you really see much, but it's something I see when I'm there.
What do movies and TV shows get wrong about the South?
It's kind of universal that if you have a dipshit in a movie, you give them a Southern accent. Some of the most intelligent people I've ever met are from the South, and they're not just Southerners. They're people who migrated there, and there's some of them who are leading universities and the whole country down there.
The South is made up of a lot of different types of people, and that is the one thing I feel like isn't really represented about the South — how diverse it is.
There are liberals in the South, and there's conservatives in the South. There's thinkers in the South, and there's guys who don't give a shit about thinking in the South. It's not different from any other city you live in.
You’ve had quite a film career, but you also keep coming back to television. What part of your need to tell stories does television satisfy?
I feel like it is very hard to get people's attention these days, and movies are really struggling to do that. If you're not a gigantic, known entity, it's very hard to get people to talk about you, and it's very hard to get people to talk about movies, other than dollars and cents and how much it made or how much it didn't.
TV is one of those things that the social aspect of it is still very much alive, the idea of people seeing an episode and then discussing what they thought about that episode. When we see the debate on whether we've gone too far, that's exactly what makes us excited about this show, the idea that you can create something and there can be conversation about it that evolves and changes from week to week.
For me, when Game of Thrones is on, which has hit me more than any [recent] movie has hit me, on that Monday morning [after an episode airs], I have my friends that I instantly go to, or my websites where I see what people are saying.
It's awesome to invest in a story where there's a public forum to discuss it, and to anticipate things and to think about things. That's something I really hope doesn't go away with TV as everyone's cutting their cord.
Sometimes when we binge things and you're moving through a story at your own pace, it cuts out some of that conversation. There's something cool about everyone having to wait and everyone having to process it at the same time.
On building the show: "We intentionally made that second episode a kick in the balls"
Neal is different from, say, Kenny Powers, in that there’s a side of him that really does, genuinely, care about his students, even if he does a poor job of expressing it. Why was it important to you to show that side of him?
When we write Neal Gamby, it's not anything similar to Kenny at all.
When you're a comedian, if people gravitate toward you, it's because they like something you do. It's that weird balance of trying to make sure you give people who showed up to see one thing enough of what they're expecting, but try to make sure it's reinvented and pushes it further, so it's not just the same thing.
To me, Neal doesn't seem like Kenny at all. Kenny ultimately was a man who was driven by ego and his own success. I really think that Neal is more misguided. He really thinks that what he's doing is the best thing for the school, and that ultimately leads to his downfall.
This whole show is one story told over two seasons and 18 episodes, and you filmed it all at once. But it’s still airing week to week. How are you constructing the show to make sure audiences know that you know these guys have crossed the line in some of their actions?
We had written this script originally as an hour-and-a-half [movie], and audiences are so savvy now and they've seen so many stories that it really felt like what that script was suffering from was predictability. You've seen enough movies that audiences are going to kind of be able to identify the highs and lows.
For us, even opening up the canvas of it, being able to make it that much longer, I really think we worked hard on the audience not really being sure what's going to happen, and, honestly, challenging the audience on what they even want to have happen.
We intentionally made that second episode a kick in the balls, where you almost punish the audience for being on board with these two guys wanting to take this principal down. All of a sudden, you see how far they're going, like, "Well, I'm not sure if this is what I want to see happen."
It allows you to shift gears and see where Dr. Brown’s coming from, or to see from the love interest’s [a teacher named Amanda Snodgrass, played by Georgia King] point of view and how she might not be as perfect as Neal imagines her.
With TV, with that canvas, it allows you to take stops and detours that I don't think you have time for in a feature. It will keep the audience on their toes, and that's really the main thing we wanted to do. Whenever they think it's going one way, we'll make sure it goes the other way.
As you were expanding Vice Principals from a feature film to a TV show, what were some of the things that surprised you?
Lee Russell. For us, the reason we loved that script so much was we felt that we had come up with a dynamic between two very different types of men, and men that we don't really see that often portrayed. When you see where Lee’s arc goes over the course of 18 episodes, it's a wild ride.
It was a very hard role to cast. We didn't want to cast a straight comedian, because we knew that whoever this actor was was going to have to rely on dramatic abilities as much as comedic. Walton Goggins is one of those rare actors that has that ability to be frightening and intense and also funny as hell.
As the show goes forward, I like how it suggests that Dr. Brown’s approach to conflict, which involves letting people talk out their feelings, can be just as effective as a punch in the face. What’s your philosophy on conflict resolution?
There are a lot of ways to approach problems, and for every problem there are obviously ways that can be more effective than others. I obviously think talking things through should be the goal — that should always be what you do. But when words aren't enough, a fist kind of can get things done.
One of the theories I think the show suggests is that assholes sort of breed other assholes. We see both Neal and Lee interact with guys who are jerks to them, and that’s reflected in some of their behavior. Do you think that sort of behavior propagates other bad behavior?
To break these guys down to just being assholes, it almost seems it's too simple.
In some ways, it's like every person walking around on this planet is the star of their own movie. What they want and what they need is important to them, and the people that they love are important to them.
Does it make you an asshole if you lash out at people, or does it make it that you're reaching disappointment? With all these guys, I don't think it propagates more assholes. Hopefully, it allows you, the next time somebody flips you off or yells at you in a monster truck at a traffic light, [to think], "Well, maybe I can understand where they're coming from."
On listening to the criticism ... or not: "I weirdly had to start acting like those websites didn’t exist anymore"
You mentioned earlier that you sort of followed the discussion around episode two in particular, because that just aired, obviously. Do you read the reviews and comments?
When we were working on the first season of Eastbound, we had never been out in the public eye that way. We were reading everything that came in, and Wayne Kramer of the MC5 [a rock band], who did our music for Eastbound, told us, "If you give weight to the good ones, you're going to have to give weight to the bad ones. You have to get yourself in a mindset where you're not looking to reviews for the endorsement of whether you succeeded or not."
I thought that was really good advice. It's always interesting to know if what you make is connecting or if people are getting it, but all the websites that I always devoured before I was working, all the movie and TV websites, I weirdly had to start acting like those websites didn't exist anymore. Just so that I wouldn't get in my own head about what I was making and keep it pure and not start to change what you're doing to fit what other people think, and even not to get praise for one thing and then only start doing that thing.
It's a tightrope act. There's a lot of intelligent people writing stuff about TV, and TV is at a place now where it's getting talked about the same way that film gets talked about, and that's good.
You’re a really gifted physical performer, and Neal feels very different from Kenny Powers even in how he walks and carries himself. How did you build that performance in terms of physicality?
Honestly, it all came from [Neal being] our take on the broken-down muscle and [Lee being] our take on the diabolical brain. We started to inform everything around that, like their style, what their home life is like, how they interact with members of the opposite sex. It all is influenced by this archetype of a character and us trying to find the beaten, broken-down, modern times version of that character.
As more characters on this show get into the chaos, the more fun it becomes, and I like when characters other than Lee and Neal are really starting to express their own wilder sides. But so many shows like this have a character who’s standing in the way of having any fun. How did you avoid having that figure?
If there's anybody who's like that, the closest is probably Neal Gamby. In some ways, Neal Gamby is the straight man in this story to [Goggins’s Lee]. I was conscious of that. If people are invested in the story, I don't want to be the guy who shows up and keeps saying, "You shouldn't be having fun."
By doing things like breaking into Belinda Brown's house, it gives the straight man even layers of lunacy that makes you feel a little unhinged about where the show is going to go.
I hate that, though. I hate when you watch a show or a movie, and you're coming to see one thing, and there's someone there who's telling you you shouldn't be enjoying it. That's boring.
Vice Principals airs Sundays on HBO at 10:30 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go.