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

Cultural Critic
08.01.16 12 Comments

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.

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