‘Art Should Be Polarizing’: Walton Goggins Sticks Up For ‘Vice Principals’

Perhaps no other actor right now is more skilled at authentically portraying despicable people than Walton Goggins. In the past 15 years, Goggins has made his name with a series of memorable turns in down and dirty TV dramas, including The Shield, Justified and Sons of Anarchy. In each instance, Goggins distinguished himself as a fearless performer committed to the raw honesty of his characters, tempered with a dose of warmth and thoughtfulness that seems inherent to the real-life Goggins. With 2015’s The Hateful Eight, Goggins gave the best performance in a loaded cast of Tarantino regulars like Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Tim Roth, imbuing racist sheriff Chris Mannix with an unexpected humanity without soft-pedaling the character’s thoroughly “hateful” nature.

Goggins is currently co-starring with Danny McBride of HBO’s Vice Principals, a half-hour comedy about two ineffectual administrators — Goggins’ Lee Russell and McBride’s Neal Gamby — who scheme to oust their school’s new African-American principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).

Instead of playing down the potentially racist and sexist implications of this scenario, Vice Principals pushes the envelope, fully exploring the prejudices and dysfunction of Russell and Gamby in ways that are both comic and profoundly disturbing. (A recent installment in which Russell and Gamby gleefully destroy Brown’s house is one of the most squirm-inducing episodes of television in recent memory.)

Even for admirers of Vice Principals and I count myself as a fan — it can be a challenging watch. But it’s ultimately rewarding, especially at a time when “prestige TV” has lapsed into a codified set of agreed-upon conventions. Vice Principals meanwhile feels like the opposite of safe.

Like many projects with which Goggins has been associated, Vice Principals has caused controversy, with some critics accusing the show of being insensitive about race and gender. Others, however, have praised Vice Principals for its prescient (and hardly flattering) portrayal of white male rage in the age of Trump.

Goggins, who addressed television critics this weekend with the rest of the cast of Vice Principals as part of the TCA press tour, was eager to respond to criticisms of the show when we caught up with him via phone on Saturday.

Did you know that you were trending on Twitter today?

No! Somebody said something about [my] beard. I don’t know. Tell me.

I think it was related to your appearance at TCA.

I wouldn’t know that I was trending on Twitter until maybe six years from now. Then there would have been, like, a picture of myself that I sent to Instagram: “Hey, remember that day I was trending on Twitter that I didn’t even know about? Hey, man, that was a great day, wasn’t it?”

Before we talk about Vice Principals, I need to pay you a compliment that’s about 10 years late: Your performance on The Shield as Shane Vendrell is one of my all-time favorites in either TV or film. In particular, “Postpartum” and “Family Meeting” are among the most powerful episodes of any show that I’ve ever seen, and you are a primary reason why. 

You know what? I’m sitting here with my mouth open wide, man. I really, genuinely thank you for saying that, and just the fact that you started with that and brought those two things up, it immediately comes back into my frontal lobe. Emotionally speaking, those were such special opportunities for a storyteller, and they really mean a lot to me.

I’m curious about how much of a Method actor you are, because you’ve played a lot of heavy characters in your career. Even Vice Principals, which is ostensibly a comedy — Lee Russell is maybe the darkest character you’ve played yet in a lot of ways. When you’re doing these projects, do you carry these characters around with you, or are you able to shake it off when the director says “cut”?

I agree with you in the sense that I think [Lee Russell] is on par with the darkest characters that I’ve ever played, and it will become more evident as the story progresses, especially in season two when you start exploring why Lee Russell is the way that he is. It is not without a lot of pain, though people are hopefully able to laugh at some of it.

I don’t even really see myself as an actor, to be quite honest with you. I think a lot of actors who don’t see themselves that way just use that word because it’s easy — it’s easily kind of identifiable for one’s occupation. I see myself as a person who cares deeply about story, and so I suppose I feel like I’m a storyteller.

I’ve learned that from some of my heroes. When you watch Forest Whitaker on a set or [Robert] Duvall or any number of the actors that I’ve been given an opportunity to work with, they’re there to work, they’re there to tell a story. And if the story on a particular day requires you to drop a grenade in your friend’s lap, well, then I’m probably not going to talk to you about what you’re doing this weekend. I’m probably not going to talk to anybody, because I’m there to experience that emotion and to tell that story, and there’s great freedom for me in that, and there’s great joy in the process.

I don’t know how closely you follow this, but the reaction so far to Vice Principals from TV critics has been somewhat polarized. Some critics really love it, and I would put myself in that camp. Then there’s people who seem to regard it as a celebration of white male rage, rather than a satire. I’m wondering, when you were first presented the material, was that something that you anticipated? Did you feel like Vice Principals was going to be something that some people would really love, and some people would really not love? If so, was that what you liked about it, that tension?

I think, yes, that was evident in the material. [And] evident in the people behind the material. Danny and Jody [Hill] and David [Gordon Green], their art is on the periphery of comedy and drama and what they do and who they are are very dangerous, and I’m attracted to that. I’m very attracted to that.

It’s not a litmus test for me. I don’t have a controversy litmus test, but I trust the people that are behind this show, just like I trust Quentin, just like I trust Mister Spielberg, or Shawn Ryan, or Graham Yost. Art should be polarizing. Lord knows, aren’t we homogenized enough as a culture? If you have a negative reaction to something, that means that maybe you’re asked to think about something in ways that makes you uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, I think that some of the criticism [of Vice Principals] is rather two-dimensional, and I think that that’s just being lazy on the part of reviewers. I suppose it must feel good for some people. They must find some modicum of joy for pointing or making a two-dimensional observation of what is a very three-dimensional story. Everybody has their opinions and maybe their opinions will change as it goes forward, and maybe it won’t. People are free to think what they want.

Tonally, Vice Principals is more challenging than a lot of TV shows because it doesn’t give you any clear, obvious signals about how to feel about these characters. It neither condemns or condones Neal Gamby or Lee Russell — rather, it’s an attempt to present guys like this as they authentically are. As an actor, how tricky is it to handle that sort of material? Is it more difficult, in a way, when you’re not showing your hand about how the audience is supposed to feel all the time?

Again, I think that if you wake up first thing in the morning and this is your job, and you say to yourself, “I’m going to approach this day as a seeker of truth, and I’m going to let curiosity be at the forefront of my thoughts,” then I’m just going to find the truth of the situation. I think that audiences in general — again, in a world that is more overtly homogenized than it’s ever been — appreciate that attempt at authenticity. If you stay with something or if you spend the time to really understand what the storytellers are trying to say, then you will reach a level of a sublime interaction between your own participation as an audience member and the material being presented. I think that that’s what happens with Vice Principals.

I mean, it certainly isn’t a show about two white men beating up on an African-American woman — that’s been the two-dimensional criticism by very few outlets. When you really get down to it, it is about the dysfunction of these two very impotent people, and really why they are the way they are. There’s a line that Lee Russell has in episode nine of this season which sums up the elephant in the room, I suppose, and I won’t tell you what that line is, but when he says it, it’s horrible and it’s really a reflection of where we are as a culture, and what behavior is rewarded and what other behavior isn’t rewarded, and maybe it will be a part of the conversation of why people feel so desperately the need to acquire power in this way.

When I saw Vice Principals, my immediate thought was: “This is an allegory for Donald Trump. It’s about men trying to hold on to power in a modern world where they’ve been usurped.” Obviously, that wasn’t intentional, because Vice Principals was filmed in 2015 —

It was written seven years ago. Some of the scenes that these people are talking about existed seven years ago.

Oh, wow. 

That makes you think maybe they were ahead of the audience and what you were thinking about. I for one think it’s just sublime, man. I really do. When you get to the end of this thing, I think that you will feel very differently about these two people than you feel about them now.

Lee Russell is such a unique character, in terms of the blend of his silly affectations and his genuinely sinister inner life. How much of Lee was on the page when you got the script and how much were you able to bring to the character, with the bow tie and the frosted tips and all that?

God, it’s like what came first, the egg or the chicken, man? Danny had written frosted tips. That was in there, as well as exactly how Lee Russell would dress, with a lot of it coming from our costume designer. The rest of it, Danny said, “Do whatever it is that you want to do.” When you have writing that’s that good, it’s much easier for someone in my position to interpret it because you’re not concerned with having to fix something. You’re just able to let it all out, and to explore this character in many, many different ways. You just kind of see it, at least I do. Like Chris Mannix, for instance, I just knew him immediately. I knew Boyd Crowder immediately. Shane Vendrell, I knew immediately. I knew Venus Van Dam immediately.

How did you hit upon that accent? Again, it’s initially comic, but as the show progresses it’s revealed as a red herring, masking the character’s inner rot. 

I grew up in Georgia and I knew people that were similar to Lee Russell in their mannerisms and behavior. And some were marginalized because they were gay, and others were marginalized because they just had great style and they were different. On some level, I kind of had my cake and ate it too — I was a metrosexual way before that word was ever put out into the lexicon. I knew people like that and I saw that, and so for me it just made sense that that’s where Lee Russell was coming from. Danny was also privy to those personalities in the town that he grew up in in Virginia, and so I think it’s an amalgamation of all of it — life experience and exposure to people like this, and then things that you’ve just picked up along the way.

Your specialty is that you can play evil or flawed people and still project a lot of warmth and even likability on screen. Is that something you’re attracted to, that dichotomy, as an actor? Or do you find that writers and directors see that in you and end up offering you those types of roles?

I think it’s a combination of both. I genuinely am attracted to people like this. I don’t know if I just kind of keep replaying this cycle or this emotional journey, although it’s with completely different people under completely different circumstances. I don’t know if I’m atoning for sins in previous lives. I have no idea. I’ve been given an opportunity and I am very excited by the prospect of playing people that have a long way to go, and that more often than not start off at a place of arrested development, and are hopefully walking towards the light of liberation from what has caused them so much pain.

Aren’t we all Lee Russell, man? Aren’t we all Boyd Crowder on some level? Maybe there’s guys who can play the everyman or the dude in the romantic comedy. But maybe that is farce because that person doesn’t exist. That’s like saying you come from a normal family, and none of us do. I think maybe I am being given an opportunity to play the everyman because I think there is Lee Russell, and Boyd Crowder, and Shane Vendrell, and Venus Van Dam, and Chris Mannix within all of us. Some of us just get to the lesson a lot quicker than these guys do.