Danny McBride ensured himself a place in television history with his timeless portrayal of egotistical blowhard Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down, the beloved 2009-13 series that McBride also co-created and co-wrote. Not content to make his mark with just one ground-breaking comedy, McBride has come back hard with a follow-up series that is in its own way just as innovative.
McBride created, wrote and stars in Vice Principals as Neal Gamby, a slightly less egotistical blowhard dying to be principal at the South Carolina high school where he works. Rising star Walton Goggins (Django Unchained, TV’s Justified) – who recently killed it in The Hateful Eight – co-stars as Lee Russell, a rival educator with whom Gamby teams up to bring down their new boss, Dr Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), whose job they both covet.
Despite initially coming across as a direct tonal continuation of Eastbound, Vice Principals soon reveals itself to be a darkly comedic beast all its own. There’s never been a show quite like it. Flicks recently spoke to McBride and Goggins at the Hollywood headquarters of Rough House, McBride’s production company.
FLICKS: Danny, you have some experience as a teacher right?
DANNY McBRIDE: Yes I do. I was a substitute teacher. After I got out of college, I came out to Los Angeles for a little while, and tried to make it as a screenwriter. It didn’t happen, so I went home to live with my parents and I was substituting in the day and bartending at night. I didn’t last long.
Is it fun to play somebody who never grows up?
McBRIDE: I think it can be, but I don’t think that Gamby is guy who hasn’t grown up. He’s just grown up in a very mis-aligned way. I think he thinks that he is entitled to certain things and the world just isn’t the place that he thinks it is. He thinks that just because he does the hard work he should get what he wants but that isn’t always how life goes and I think that frustrates him and make him sort of act out like he’s owed something. I think it’s more interesting to start with a character who is more compliated and harder to get your head around and figure out a way to make the audience sort of understand how somebody that’s so different to them could weirdly be the same as them.
The American high school setting is heavily defined by how it’s portrayed in movies, especially to an international audience, how did that play into ‘Vice Principals’?
McBRIDE: The high school I went to, it was very much like those John Hughes movies. It really was. Everyone is sectioned off into cliques of jocks or band nerds or drama nerds…
WALTON GOGGINS: Pot heads.
McBRIDE: Yeah. American high school is very much about navigating your way into which of those groups represent you and I think even growing up on those kind of films, Vice Principals is almost, like, an answer to those, because now the characters that would’ve been high schoolers in those movies are now the age of the teachers. And so it was kinda fun to nod our hats to some of those films but it’s now the adults dealing with those social anxieties that you usually see with high school kids.
So which group were you in when you were in high school?
McBRIDE: I was a nomad, I moved around through all of them. [Laughs].
GOGGINS: I think that’s one of the things that Danny and I have in common, I was the same. I was not in any group but I was in all of them, and that was pretty cool.
Walt, how familiar were you with ‘Eastbound & Down’ before doing this?
GOGGINS: I’m not only a fan of Danny and David [Gordon Green, director] and Jody [Hill, co-writer], I’m a student of Eastbound & Down. I know it. And what Danny and these guys were able to do at the end of season one of Eastbound & Down, when Kenny Powers drives away from that convenience store, is sublime. And that’s what these guys were able to do over the course of two seasons [of Vice Principals], where it goes. Season one is about who these people are, and season two, spring semester, is about why they are who they are. It truly is not what you think it is and it becomes something transcendent and it’s dangerous.
McBRIDE: Our history with Walt is interesting. Walt came in to audition in the third season of Eastbound for the role Jason Sudeikis ended up playing. I had seen Walt before but it was the first time I’d met him in person. And we ran into each other again when he was doing Django and I was doing This Is The End. There was something about him. When we were writing this character, we’re always really bad with casting when we write, we don’t ever really write roles for people, we are just so trying to figure it all out. It was such a strong character that there wasn’t anyone that anyone suggested that universally everybody in the room liked and then one day David Green and I were talking and we’re like ‘What about Walton Goggins?’ and as soon as we pitched it to the other writers in the room, everybody was like ‘That’s perfect’.
Danny, you recently finished shooting ‘Alien: Covenant’ in Australia right? That seems like an interesting change of pace for you.
McBRIDE: Yes, been down there for the last three months. Been having a lot of fun, that movie’s pretty incredible. To be able to work with Ridley Scott, I mean that’s amazing. The movie is, I’ve never been in a movie where people die before. It’s like, you start out going to these big dinners then as the shoot goes on there’s less and less people at the table. [Laughs].
Walt, your performance in ‘The Hateful Eight’ was incredibly well-received. Did it feel like a career turning point for you?
GOGGINS: I dunno. I love my career. I don’t know that I would’ve been able to handle it on any other level than how it has happened. And for Quentin to give me that opportunity, to write that role for me with that cast, his all-star Tarantino players, was an extraordinary experience, my goodness. I’ve never in my life had expectations of what’s going to happen on the other side of something, it has always been about the experience itself, and so I went into that experience the same way.