Danny McBride isn’t an asshole, he just plays one better than anyone else on TV. The innately likeable McBride, 39, thrives when he inhabits the skin of wholly unlikeable characters, all of whom share a DNA that includes specific genetic traits: a lack of self-awareness, an acerbic tongue, and Shakespearean levels of hubris. From Fred Simmons in The Foot Fist Way to Kenny Powers in HBO’s Eastbound & Down, McBride dismantles white male fragility and toxic alpha-male ego with hilarious precision.
Now he has returned with a new series, Vice Principals, which started its run on HBO this month. McBride plays Neal Gamby, a bitter, emasculated vice principal of a South Carolina high school who suddenly finds himself locked in a power struggle against fellow faculty member Lee Russell (Walton Goggins in his most spirited performance to date) as they vie for the highly-coveted head principal position. The show takes a sinister and unsettling allegorical turn when an African-American woman named Dr. Belinda Brown (a brilliant Kimberly Hebert Gregory) shows up and foils their plans. If you were expecting a straightforward comedy of errors, you got another thing coming.
Danny McBride hopped on the phone to chop it up about Vice Principals, his affinity for anti-heroes, Sausage Party, and working with Ridley Scott on Alien: Covenant.
Vice Principals feels like the logical next step in the Danny McBride Cinematic Universe. Your character Neal Gamby is an entitled man-child with an inflated sense of self-importance, and yet we still root for him. What inspires you to continually write these deeply flawed, problematic characters for yourself?
When Jody [Hill] and I first moved to Los Angeles after film school, we weren’t finding much success. So we started tuning into what the studio people were looking for. Execs always had this note about “likability”—that your main character had to embrace certain qualities that would be likable so that audiences would invest in them. That became almost like a challenge to Jody and I because we didn’t necessary believe in that.
So it started with Foot Fist Way’s Fred Simmons. We were just kind of experimenting with this guy that didn’t have any qualities of a hero. That was our first peek into telling a story from a demented point of view. Then with Eastbound, we really got to explore that more and create this character that was obsessed with his own ego. It became a fun way of telling a story. You could almost punish the audience for investing in this guy. It became a way to do something different. Telling a story that people may have seen before but through this different point of view lets things take on a whole new life.
And now you’re back on HBO with a new anti-hero who pushes the limits of un-likeabiity.
Vice Principals is just the next evolution of it. I think that the key to this story is that it isn’t centering around just one person. This is about Lee Russell and Neal Gamby, two guys who are just disappointed and frustrated with their lives. They team together in order to sabotage someone that doesn’t have anything to do with why they’re so unhappy. Through this whole process they’re sort of finding their way in the world through all this destruction and shitty behavior.
Watching these two white dudes team up to destroy the life of an African-American woman who they believe “took” their job takes on frightening parallels to what we see happen so frequently in real life. Is misplaced white rage something you actively try to satirize?
We wrote Vice Prinicpals back in 2006 and it’s really crazy how much it still reflects the fucked up world we’re in today. That’s even more of a reason why a story like this should be told. It’s not like we’re trying to go out and teach some lesson, but I do think there is one here. I do think in this country, when people get angry and frustrated, they can turn on their neighbor so easily and blame them for their own shortcomings. It’s easy to find a scapegoat. It’s very easy to look at something you don’t have and blame it on someone else to make them an enemy, but when you start to see things from their point of view, it’s not really true.
Aside from Vice Principals, you’re a pretty busy guy: you’re making your first leap into sci-fi/horror with a major role in Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated Alien: Covenant. What can you tell us about it?
Man, that movie is gonna be nuts. Alien and Aliens were two of my favorite horror films growing up as a kid. I don’t think there’s anything that comes close to that franchise. I would’ve never thought in a million years I would be in one of those movies. When we wrapped Vice Principals, I came back to L.A. and got a call that Ridley Scott wanted to sit down for a meeting. I’m a humongous fan of his so I was blown away just at the idea of meeting him. So as we’re talking in the meeting and just kind of bullshitting, he starts pulling out these books and showing me these storyboard sketches. I finally realized, “Oh my God, this is for an Alien movie!” [Laughs.]
It was nuts. The idea that he trusted me to be a part of this thing is something that I’m still blown away by. I’m not allowed to talk a lot about what happens in it, but it is a straight horror movie. I’ve never been on something that intense before, with that level of visual effects and gore. I’ve also never been in a movie where people just straight up die like that. When I started the movie, the cast would go to these dinners and it was like twenty people. Then each week, the numbers dwindled and it became less and less people at the table.
You also have a key voiceover role in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s R-rated animated feature Sausage Party this year. What kind of craziness can we expect?
That movie is amazing, man. It is so funny. I remember when those guys pitched me their idea for this. They wanted to make a rated R Pixar movie. It was sort of like when they pitched me This is the End, where we all play heightened versions of ourselves in the apocalypse. They just have these concepts that seem so outlandish that you can’t really imagine how they’ll put off, but they always do.
I saw Sausage Party for the first time at Comic-Con this past weekend and I was dying. It’s so funny and so smart, and it has something so interesting and unique to say as well. I think those guys have really outdone themselves. Oh yeah, and I play Honey Mustard. He is the man who sees the truth. He tries to warn the rest of the food what waits for them in the great beyond. Shit gets wild.
With the comedy you and Jody make, things will be super broad and funny then get uncomfortably dark in an instant. Do you have specific comedic influences?
Honestly, comedies aren’t really 100 percent what influence us. I think our biggest influences are guys like Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola—these ‘70s filmmakers we grew up on who made amazing dramatic works. I think the best of them is Scorsese. He would always establish a level of humor with these characters that made the comedic moments funnier, but also made the drama stick more. He created worlds that felt realistic where things don’t have to be serious. There also can be light moments because that’s how it can be in the real world.
We always approach these projects like we’re making a drama that has funny moments in it. If there are weird long gaps where there are no jokes, that’s by design. We script stuff out because we’re just more interested in telling a strange story than jamming an episode full of one-liners or punch-lines.
I’ve already lost count of how many times I squirmed in my seat watching Vice Principals.
[Laughs.] And that’s what we wanted to do! I don’t think there should be any rules on a genre. Comedy should be able to explore anything it wants. It should be able to go to dark places if it wants to, but it can just be light and silly if it wants to. Pushing the realms of what a genre can do is the only way that film and television is going to survive. You can only see so many types of stories before it all begins to feels stale. The way to get past that is to innovate, to do stuff different with the medium, to try new things. You gotta fuck with tone and fuck with the type of characters you follow.
Well, I haven’t seen anything quite like the show on TV.
Just strap in, man. You haven’t seen shit yet.