Danny McBride And Walton Goggins On Syntax, Decor, And The Beginning Of The End For ‘Vice Principals’


If you’re a fan of Vice Principals, Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s slice of high school chaos and power lust, you might be a little pissed off about the fact that the show is heading toward its self-imposed end after just nine more episodes (the first of which premieres Sunday, September 17th). TV audiences are so rarely denied the chance to grow tired of a show and its characters, but McBride and Hill clearly aren’t interested in running this thing into the ground. The question is: Why?

We had the chance to sit down with McBride (who plays Neal Gamby) and his Vice Principals co-star, Walton Goggins (Lee Russell), in Manhattan this week and the conversation naturally turned to the decision to cap Vice Principals at two seasons and the benefits, drawbacks, and temptations that sparked as a result. Before that, however, we discussed the ways the characters have changed following the shocking season one finale that found Gamby bleeding out in the parking lot after getting shot, egocentric interior design, the origins of “Busted By Lee Russell,” dumb English jokes, and the “punishment” side of this two part story.

How have Lee Russell and Neal Gamby been changed by last season’s finale?

Danny McBride: When we started writing this series, we really looked at the first half as “crime” and the second half was “punishment.” So, it’s like these guys… they push themselves beyond what their own personal moral codes are to achieve this goal. They achieved it, and now it’s sort of the fallout from that. They got what they always wanted. And now, is what they wanted really the answer to what they needed? That’s what the exploration of the second season is.

What do you think, Walton?

Walton Goggins: Well, I mean, I think that I have a much bigger office. [Laughs]

Much nicer, too.

McBride: Nice decor. Business cards.

Lovely artwork. [The office now includes a looming painting of Goggins’ character].

Goggins: Yeah, that’s right.

Did you take that home with you?

Goggins: I took a couple of pieces. Yeah, I sure did.

Hang that over the fireplace. It’s a good look. A good look.

Goggins: [Laughs.] It could be or it could be, “What an asshole! What a fucking asshole. Have you been over to Walton’s house?”

McBride: [Laughs.] Portraits of himself!

Goggins: “Have you seen there’s like three paintings of himself? What an ass!”

But it’s so tasteful, I think it would be allowed.

Goggins: Yeah, thank you.

You said that there was going to be a different vibe between Jody Hill (the season one director and co-creator) and David Gordon Green (who directed the season two episodes). What has been that difference?

McBride: I love both of those guys as directors. They both have incredible strengths and it’s hard to even put into words how they approach it differently. I remember being surprised when we were filming the first season of Eastbound. That was originally just going to be Jody directing that whole season and he was editing Observe and Report. The schedule wasn’t going to work out. So, I needed to fill a hole for a few episodes, and so I reached out to David to see if he’d want to come direct.

I remember when we were shooting that first episode that David did, that second episode. It was pretty crazy to be like, “This is crazy.” This character amongst all these different dudes. All these different things that I wasn’t anticipating. I think it became what was cool about Eastbound. Even for a viewer, if you’re watching those shows, I think you try to guess whose name is going to appear at the end of that episode. Which director was this? I liked the idea of doing that with these seasons here, of letting each of these guys just own a season and have their tone and their process be at work. I’m desensitized because I just know these guys so well. [To Goggins.] It’s probably easier for you to identify how these guys are different.

Goggins: Yeah, I think Jody has this real cerebral quality to him. What I mean by that is this real specificity, visually speaking, and he sees things and he breaks them down. From all of these detailed shots that Jody is pretty famous for… I think, anyway. And the way he tells a story: in parts and in a whole. With David, it’s just a little different. His is more visceral, you know? He just kind of finds his way around something before he finally goes into it. Jody knows exactly what he wants. David finds what he wants within the exploration of the scene.

As an actor, do you have a preference?

Goggins: Oh God, I love both of them. I’m not just saying that because I’m friends with both of them. I genuinely like both approaches. I like someone who comes in and knows exactly what it is that they want. And I like someone who comes in and knows what they want when they see it. For me, as an actor, I like to touch every wall in a room. But it’s alive.

Do you prefer when Neal and Lee team up, or do you prefer when they’re rivals with that “Spy vs. Spy” kind of thing? Which is more fun to play?

Goggins: I love it when we’re a team, man! [Laughs.] I love it when we’re a team! The rival aspect of it. Those are some of the funniest days because of the things that we say to each other. So, it’s hard to say, but I just enjoy being on set with Danny, man. To be quite honest with you, regardless of where they are. But, we have had some good times when we are both pulling the train in one direction.

McBride: I don’t look at it that way. Definitely, when your characters are experiencing joy and things are good, that stuff is fun to shoot for sure. There’s more of an emotional toll when your characters are falling down a hole or making mistakes and you’re following that. I don’t think I prefer one over the other. Like Walton said, I just like doing it no matter what it is. I like their high moments and their low moments. There are benefits to both of them.

More singing from you in season two?

Goggins: There’s some.

McBride: [Laughs.] There is some singing.

Goggins: There’s some singing and some dancing.

Some “Busted By Lee Russell.

McBride: “Busted By Lee Russell” should be the single, right?

Was that in the script [in season one]? Or was that something that you guys came up with on set?

McBride: No, he came up with that.

In the scene or beforehand? How did that work?

Goggins: Just kinda in the thing. I mean, I do a lot of my improvisations kind of away, just to myself.

McBride: That’s what you’re doing when I see you in your car weeping. [Laughs.]

Goggins: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I just kind of write down these ideas where things might be able to go whereas a lot of people are so quick-witted and can, in a moment, go “Here. Here. Here. And here.” I have to give myself a road map in order to reach a valley on the other side of that mountain. It really works for me. Once the writing is so good, it becomes so specific. It becomes very easy to think in the way that these characters would think. But I can’t fucking stand this. Excuse me for saying that… but you know how I really feel. I can’t stand when I listen or watch an actor improvise in a masturbatory way when you’re just saying things that are cute, that are so outside of anything that the character that you’re playing would ever say.

McBride: You’re just trying to make the crew laugh.

Goggins: Yeah, you’re trying to make the crew laugh or you just want people to look at you. I can’t stand that. I have a real problem with that because I do believe that it’s a sacred space that you create and to come from a place of truth should be what you try to say whenever you open your mouth.

I’m curious, because the way you read lines is sometimes very specific, Danny. It was the same thing in Eastbound & Down. When you said, “I can’t let Jen Abbott suck upon my penis?” It’s such an interesting way to say that. How does that come through? Do you have that when you’re writing the scripts?

McBride: Yeah, we do. Honestly, it’s something that David Green and I always find very funny. Kenny Powers pluralized things that didn’t need to be pluralized. It always tickles us. Just somebody speaking very passionately about something but just fucking up the syntax. [Laughs.] I don’t know why, but it’s just, like, a dumb English joke.

You used to be an English teacher, right?

McBride: I was a substitute teacher, yeah.

Maybe it comes from that?

McBride: Yeah, maybe so.

It just delights me. The laugh is a little bit louder.

McBride: See, you have a weird side just like us.

This season has been done for a while, but with everything going on [in the world], do you feel a need to have these guys pay a price for what they did? Is the story complete if these guys don’t pay some kind of heavy price?

McBride: I’m not influenced by what’s in the media, like what’s in the headlines. I’m not influenced by that with what the work is. I’ll start this story based on who these characters are and I’ll create a tale that is sufficient to tell what this particular story is. There’s nothing against doing that, but that’s just not my process. My process is like, “This is a character study.” It’s about these two guys. I don’t agree with the things these guys do, but at the same time… and I’m not really asking the audience to find sympathy for them or anything. It’s just these guys, and this journey they go on.

I think, ultimately, you just have to make sure that the ending is satisfying to people who have invested in it. And I think that as long as that’s the case, as long as what people have invested in pays off in a way that feels honest to the story, I think that’s what you kind of aim for.

Are all the main characters from season one going to get a chance to have their moment in season two? That pay off?

McBride: I think that you do from everybody, yeah.

Goggins: Yeah. These guys have done such a good job. Like, literally, if there were three or four seasons, you could have followed any one of these characters for an episode or two. That’s how rich they are. And I do think everybody… the ball gets tossed [and] everybody gets a chance to shoot. And, they kill it.

Creatively, what are the benefits and the drawbacks of going into this saying “Okay, this is 18 episodes. This is two seasons and then we’re out?”

McBride: I think the benefits are enormous. To me, that’s the one drawback of television is that you could start writing something, and if people lose interest in it, you might not be able to complete the story that you set out to make. And, if suddenly an actor’s deal can’t close and you gotta suddenly… “Oh! I gotta write this character out and I didn’t anticipate that.” I think making it 18 ensured that we’d be able to create exactly the story that we intended to do. And I think, as a viewer, I don’t necessarily want to sign up for something that I’m gonna have to fucking wait ten years to see how it ends up. I like the idea of having something that’s going to be finished and I know that it has a beginning, middle, and end. I like that.

It’s a lot closer to the UK model. It just hasn’t taken hold here for some reason. Is it enticing at all when you’re in the middle of it — writing, creating, doing the show — to extend it and go a little bit further?

McBride: This story has an ending to it. It really does. What we set up in this… what we set up from episode one, it has a conclusion to it. I think there is a part of me that is completely content with what we’ve done. I did have an incredible time on this and I had an incredible time with Walton, and with Kimberly [Hebert Gregory, who plays Belinda], Georgia [King, who plays Amanda], Edi [Patterson, who plays Ms. Abbott], and the whole gang. That makes me feel like, “Well, could I do more?” But, I think if we ever did more, I would almost have to do it exactly how we did this, where it wouldn’t just be another season. It would have to be a completely other story that has its own set amount of episodes that completes that tale. I think that would have to be the way to crack it if you ever were to.

If you do another TV project, is this the model, or does it depend on what the story is?

McBride: I think it depends on what the story is. We modeled this after a school year, you know? It was like a first semester and a second semester. It felt like an interesting way to break a story up. With this, the idea of there being finality to it, it seemed like it needed it. I really think that if we kept dragging on, like, the idea of who gets in power season after season… I don’t know if we would be able to make that good or not.

As you’re in the middle of it, Walton, do you wish it was going to go on a little bit longer? Were you happy to see something that was going to be so limited when you signed up?

Goggins: Selfishly, to continue working with Danny in this way, and this character, and with the entire cast? Yeah, of course. Who wouldn’t? But, there is a real freedom in the finality of an experience, and to know that you’ve given it your all and left everything on the field. And then you move on. I like that. I’ve had a six-year run and I’ve had a seven-year run. There’s something so sweet about an 18-episode experience.

Vice Principals returns for its second and final season on HBO this Sunday.