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Danny McBride and John Goodman on God, capitalism, and wearing cool pinkie rings

The stars of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones tell us how to make a satirical comedy about Christians that doesn’t mock Christians.

Three men in the cast of “The Righteous Gemstones” wearing suits and standing beside an interior staircase.
Danny McBride (center) and John Goodman (right) star in The Righteous Gemstones. Also pictured is Adam Devine, who plays Jesse’s younger brother Kelvin.
HBO

It feels slightly remarkable that there’s never been a TV show where John Goodman and Danny McBride played father and son — at least not until HBO’s new series The Righteous Gemstones. The dark comedy casts the two as Eli and Jesse, the paterfamilias of a family of megachurch-owning, faith-selling televangelists and his heir apparent.

McBride and Goodman seem to have bottled a certain branch of machismo, of burly guys who stride into a room confident that if they can effectively hide how much they’re sweating in terror, they just might get what they want. But both actors can also play enormously warm and cuddly guys who are there for you when the chips are down. And sometimes they showcase those opposing sides of their onscreen personas in the same role (Goodman on Roseanne and its spinoff The Conners; McBride on his TV series Vice Principals).

They feel like such natural fits to play onscreen family in some capacity that I was surprised to learn The Righteous Gemstones is their first collaboration ever. Much of the fun in the show’s early episodes (I’ve seen four) stems from Jesse’s frantic, flopsweat-drenched attempts to prevent his father from finding out about some of his bad behavior, while Eli glides above it all, trying to keep his megachurch empire alive through sheer inertia and willpower.

As always with projects that McBride is involved in creatively, The Righteous Gemstones offers a look at a side of America that doesn’t always turn up on TV — in this case evangelical Christianity. So when I sat down first with McBride and then with Goodman to talk about the series, I was excited to delve into the intersection between Christianity and capitalism, but also what Hollywood gets wrong about Christians, what Christians get wrong about Hollywood, and what acting has in common with preaching.

My conversation with McBride is below, followed by my chat with Goodman. Both interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


Danny McBride plays Jesse Gemstone wearing a suit, a headset microphone, and holding up his fist.
Jesse Gemstone is a guy who loves living large.
HBO

Emily VanDerWerff

What sort of research did you do into the finances of these churches?

Danny McBride

I talked to a few megachurch pastors and they actually opened their doors to me and were very kind and talked to me about the nature of their business and what they do. We see these salacious headlines about pastors that are cruising around with $1,000 pairs of tennis shoes and private jets. But I don’t think that’s representative of what a lot of them are. Most successful megachurch pastors don’t see themselves as that, and they actually think that guys like that are worth taking down.

This show is a combination of a lot of things. Jody Hill [the writer-director who is a frequent McBride collaborator] and myself had always wanted to make a story about the Memphis Mafia or some kind of Southern mob story, and we tried different avenues but never found an in. And then as I started thinking about this megachurch stuff, it felt like, “Oh, this could be a good way to explore this idea of a family that operates almost like a crime syndicate, but they’re not a crime syndicate.” It felt like a tee-up to something that we’d been wanting to explore.

Emily VanDerWerff

That intersection between crime and economics and religion is an old one, but one that’s been coming up a lot in the 2010s. What did you see as the gray area between those things?

Danny McBride

You know what? At the end of the day, church is a business. It really is. And it’s not to say anything about what the message of church is or anything. This isn’t a takedown about religion. I don’t want to clown people for what they believe in, because I don’t know enough about what I believe in to have the viewpoint that if they believe, they’re a moron. It’s not me, and I feel like that’s the way Hollywood has treated religion a lot of times. There’s such a disdain for people who are believers that I feel like it takes the insight out of it. That doesn’t make it resonate with me.

But the idea that this country is built on the idea of “one nation, under God” started with small little one-room churches, and we’re at a place now where church is a megachurch — they’re coliseums! — it says a lot about Western culture. It’s this idea that we have to grow and expand and make everything bigger, and then there’s a loss of way in the process to do that.

When they plant these [mega]churches, they’re interested in growth. It’s not like you put a church in a town and are like, “Okay, the 500 people here are serviced.” Like, they have performance evaluations! If that pastor who’s in charge of that church hasn’t grown those numbers, he’s replaced and they put in someone who will. When you’re even looking at church as something that has to expand and has to be big, it’s crazy, the idea that there has to be a business mind behind spreading the word.

Emily VanDerWerff

Jesse Gemstone is very different from your previous characters in that he’s trying to hold onto something instead of trying to get something new. What has shifted in your performance now that you’re portraying a guy who’s comfortable and upper-class?

Danny McBride

Neal Gamby and Kenny Powers, they were both guys who thought that they deserve something in this world and they didn’t get it. They had a chip on their shoulder about it and it influenced everything about them. And Jesse is just a man who’s had so much privilege that he doesn’t even kind of understand it. I think it’s showing you the corrosion that can happen even when you have everything that you want.

What he suffers from is a lack of authenticity. He’s the firstborn in this family, and it would appear that he would be the one to take over from his parents, but it’s so obvious that he doesn’t have the moral compass for this job, or maybe even the belief or desire for it. But he’s following this tradition that’s been laid down for him, and you see it in certain ways. He has such a shitty relationship with his sons, but he’s trying to parent them the way his dad obviously parented him, with slapping you when you’re in trouble, and it’s not getting the same effect that it had on Jesse when he was a kid.

A lot of his undoing has to do with his lack of authenticity, and it’s coming back to bite him in the ass, that he’s not just being true to who he is. He’s following these traditions that have been handed down, even though they don’t really fit.

Yes, Walton Goggins also stars in this show.
It’s a great time in the Gemstones’ church.
HBO

Emily VanDerWerff

It’s got comedy in it, of course, but it has the bones of a thriller, too. How did you mix those tones?

Danny McBride

We explored a little bit of that thriller aspect with Vice Principals, and then even just like writing Halloween [2018]. It’s fun writing those kinds of sequences and playing with the audience that way and using suspense the same way that we use comedy to try to elicit a response from people and to keep people on their toes.

It adds stakes to the story, and we’re always just trying to defy expectations. It’s hard for people not to sit down and see where something’s going from a mile away. So mortal wounds could happen at any moment. People could die or get hurt or shot. It helps us to keep people on the edge of their seats and not really knowing where it’s going.

Emily VanDerWerff

People who write comedy are often also strong at writing suspense. Why do you think that is?

Danny McBride

With comedy and suspense, you’re tuning something [to provoke] an audience reaction. You’re writing something with an audience so clearly in mind — [with] pacing and setup and payoff being part of the formula of your story.

Emily VanDerWerff

Most of the time when Hollywood talks about Christians, they tend to be either idiots or hypocrites. The Righteous Gemstones lets its characters be idiots and hypocrites, but it’s not mocking them for that. It sees what’s human about their weaknesses.

Danny McBride

That was really important to me. There’s so much propaganda that comes out of Hollywood, and the lines are so drawn in the sand. I wasn’t interested in doubling down on what other people have said about things, or doubling down on an insight that’s already been out there.

I grew up in a Baptist church. My mom did puppet ministry, and my aunt is a minister in Atlanta. My family’s religious. As I got older, the church didn’t appeal to me and I went my own way. But it’s not like everyone in my family are robots or sheep. They all have wicked senses of humor. What works for them on a daily basis is different than what works for me on a daily basis.

That was the distinction. I don’t want people who believe in God to be the target of this. What I kind of find appalling is hypocrisy, the idea of people not practicing what they preach. And hypocrisy felt like such a right thing to explore right now.

We’re in a world that’s full of hypocrisy, from how people portray themselves in social media to how their lives are in reality. Our leaders are hypocrites, and some of these church leaders in these megachurches seem hypocritical, too. This show can’t just be about what’s wrong with the state of corporate religion. It’s also about what’s wrong with everything.

It was important to try to create the story so that it would include everyone and not necessarily seem like it was just some dialed-in hit piece on a certain type of person. It’s about all of us.

Emily VanDerWerff

There’s a character on The Righteous Gemstones who’s gone off to LA to make it in the movies, and who has now come back to some degree of mockery from his family. Obviously, you went off to LA to make it in the movies. I don’t see this as a self-portrait, but did you draw from your own relationships to your family to help draw that character?

Danny McBride

I don’t know if they’ve said any of that stuff to my face or not. But it’s also the idea that, you know, people in Hollywood have a view on what Christians are like. And I think Christians have a view of what Hollywood is like. And so, the idea is that [those established views are] coming to roost in Jesse’s home where you can see that division and how silly it is. It just seemed like it was a funny thing for him to have to deal with. Seemed like it was right.

Emily VanDerWerff

Well, we talked about what Hollywood gets wrong about Christians, so what do Christians get wrong about Hollywood?

Danny McBride

I think that they just see Hollywood as the epitome of everything that they’re against. But ultimately, Hollywood is full of artists, and when they rail against Christians, of course [Christians are] going to rail back against them and feel slighted by them. All the shows that we try to do, it’s always like trying to find empathy in the areas that you don’t really expect to find it. It’s challenging the audience to look at people just a little bit differently.

It’s not making excuses for people or condoning what their behavior is, but knowing that ultimately underneath it all, everybody is just here and trying to figure out what the fuck to do.

Emily VanDerWerff

Well, just like going from one-room churches to megachurches, that’s true of movies and TV, too. You just keep scaling up.

Danny McBride

One hundred percent. You lose focus at the end of the day of why you’re doing it originally. When it becomes about numbers, the intent matters less and less.


Eli Gemstone preaches at a big service.
John Goodman stars as Eli Gemstone.
HBO

Emily VanDerWerff

Did you have any trouble finding the cadence of a megachurch pastor or a televangelist?

John Goodman

Well, it was in the script. But I found myself, when I was preaching, it took over. I just let it happen because it was really cooking. That’s the way I like things, just all of a sudden something else takes over and you just go with it.

Emily VanDerWerff

I’ve attended these sorts of churches. I know that feeling of having it come over you. Was it freeing in some weird way?

John Goodman

I don’t think it was any Holy Ghost, but there’s something that will happen onstage, mostly when something else takes over and you can trust it. The importance of it is knowing when it’s there and then riding the wave. Even the extras that they packed the church with, all of a sudden they’d start getting into it and you’d hear some feedback and then you go on that.

Emily VanDerWerff

Did you grow up in the church?

John Goodman

I would go to church with my mom and my sister, and she was Southern Baptist, so there was a lot of hollering going on. But we’d go to Vacation Bible School. A little later on, I started going Wednesday nights. And then I didn’t.

Emily VanDerWerff

Do you have a relationship with faith now?

John Goodman

My father-in-law is a Presbyterian minister, and my wife grew up Presbyterian, and I’ll go to church with her.

Emily VanDerWerff

I was talking with Danny about how these characters are idiots and hypocrites, but they’re also very, very human. Was that side of the character what drew you to Eli?

John Goodman

I’d never heard anybody doing a show about it. I liked the rot aspect of my character. Because of his grief, he’s just falling apart quick, and he’s been focused on the business side of things for a long time, and I think he feels justified in doing that. And the only thing keeping them going is just scoring points, grading more territory and more land. It’s the old story that power corrupts and he just naturally falls into it. He wants to be more powerful.

Emily VanDerWerff

There’s an ongoing national conversation right now about Christianity and its influence on politics and business and things like that. Has playing this character helped you look at that conversation in a new way?

John Goodman

Oh, it was always there. It’s always been there. It’s more prevalent now because I think the people are being pandered to by a political party. “Let’s just give them whatever they want and we’ll get their votes.”

Emily VanDerWerff

Do you think the church panders to people sometimes?

John Goodman

It’s a gradation of the word “pandering.” In order to build megachurches, they have to be offering something that people aren’t getting. But yeah, it’s finding new attractions, making it more palatable, more marketable. It’s a good business.

Emily VanDerWerff

These days, a lot more people get frustrated when art doesn’t have a clear-cut moral. But you haven’t played that many characters who are purely good or purely bad. When you play these sorts of characters who don’t fall easily into one camp or the other, do you think of their behavior in any real moral context? Or do you just think of them as they are?

John Goodman

[I think of them as] getting by.

You can’t start thinking in heroic terms or villainous terms, it just ruins you from straight off. I think my guy is just trying to grasp something. He’s treading water, and he knows he’s treading water. He knows he’s been going down the wrong path, but that’s the only thing he knows.

Emily VanDerWerff

What do you mean by “getting by”? That these characters have a path of least resistance they’re drawn to?

John Goodman

Getting by equates with survival, which indicates a lack of a richer inner life. But one gets so overwhelmed by everything. A lot of the guys I play get overwhelmed, and it’s just a matter of showing up. Getting dressed and showing up.

Emily VanDerWerff

Did you get a sense of who Eli was at the height of his empire 30 years ago before you started playing him?

John Goodman

What he was was his wife [who died before the series begins]. She completed him, and things were the best because she was a spark plug and a dynamo. He was totally in love with her, and together they were a great team, and part of that team went to building his business. He also had a moral governor on him, which was very strong. They supplied each other with a lot of wit and love and fun, because it was fun at one time.

Emily VanDerWerff

That quality of how the past informs the present is all over The Righteous Gemstones. I think it’s really smart about fathers and sons and the way that your character’s parenting style trickles down through the three generations of this family, sometimes painfully. How do you see your character as a father?

John Goodman

He was absent. Apparently, [his kids were] raised by the World Wrestling Federation when he was gone, because there’s a huge disconnect there. My character feels it’s too late to do anything about it. He’s just rotten, and he knows that, but he’s got to keep on. He’s got to try to pass this thing down to somebody. Pass it on. And I think he had a very difficult childhood with his father, who was a fundamentalist and very strict.

The cast of The Righteous Gemstones
The Gemstone family welcomes you to their churches.
HBO

Emily VanDerWerff

Eli’s got a very distinct look to him, and it couldn’t be more different from your more casual vibe. What about wearing that outfit did you really enjoy?

John Goodman

Clothes make the man, and I like to take that mantle on. If this guy’s gonna look good, I’d like to feel how he feels: the pinkie ring and the golf clothes and the things he feels he’s entitled to. And we don’t see it, but he wears his wife’s wedding ring around his neck. That’s a good anchor.

Emily VanDerWerff

Danny told me about how he did a lot of research into the more capitalistic enterprise side of these churches. Was that material interesting to you?

John Goodman

Any successful operation is interesting and how they get their money, which is by basically selling faith, providing answers that aren’t necessarily there. The point is selling hope to people.

Emily VanDerWerff

Sure. Capitalism always wants to sell you a thing you could never possibly buy: faith and hope and love.

John Goodman

And also a need for something strong in your life, something that will explain the nothingness.

Emily VanDerWerff

How sincere do you think Eli’s belief system is? When you’re that dependent on believing something, you rarely question it.

John Goodman

He didn’t question it enough that he took it for granted. He’s always taken for granted that it will always be there, and now, it’s really wanting. But he assumes it’s there. And of course it’s not.

Emily VanDerWerff

Had you always wanted to work with Danny?

John Goodman

My agent sent me the script and they told me it was Danny McBride, and I read it and, oddly enough, I’d just lost the Roseanne job about two days before this. So I said, “Well, yeah. Now I got time, so let’s go.” I always thought Danny was funny and he had something going on. His characters are just braggadocio. They are weak men, but they bluster to get by.

Emily VanDerWerff

One interesting overlap between this character and yourself is that a lot of people see the ministry as a calling, and acting is often seen as a calling as well.

John Goodman

Without being disrespectful of anything, I found this is definitely a calling, and it’s something that was calling to me. I didn’t think I could do it, but I had to try or else I’d live with regrets the rest of my life.

Emily VanDerWerff

You talked about how, while Eli’s preaching, you can capture that feeling of riding the wave onstage. Is it possible to capture that feeling in other TV work?

John Goodman

Yeah. You’ve just got to relax and — not know when it’s coming, but be ready for it when it taps you on the shoulder and says, “I’m going to take over for a while.”.

Whenever it happened earlier, I thought it was dumb luck. But you have to be in a relaxed state to appreciate it, you have to be willing and you have to be totally aware. A lot of times if all I’m doing is learning lines for the day and just trying to get by with that, it doesn’t seem to happen as well. I get stuck trying to remember my next line, which is in itself a hook to make you forget them.

The Righteous Gemstones debuts Sunday at 10 pm Eastern on HBO.