Adam Devine in ‘The Righteous Gemstones’: The Making of America’s Favorite Man-Child
Talking everything from God and near-fatal accidents to flashing your junk for the world to see with “Workaholics” alum Adam Devine, now starring in “The Righteous Gemstones.”
There’s the time when, at a Hollywood party, McBride superfan Devine, a devotee to the comedian’s work on Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, saw the actor at a party and, fumbling for the right thing to say, opted for, with gusto: “You’re a bright shooting star!” A flummoxed McBride politely thanked him and went about his night.
Then there was the stars’ initial meeting about Gemstones, a series exploring the greed and corruption pervading a world-famous televangelist family, launching Sunday night. Put in touch through a producer who had worked on Workaholics, the Comedy Central sitcom that Devine co-created and co-starred in for seven seasons, Devine flew to Charleston, where McBride lives, to meet with him.
When he arrived at the restaurant, he was confused to see McBride squatting fairly conspicuously behind a potted plant. As Devine approached, McBride jumped out: “Boom! Scared you, motherfucker!”
“And I’m like, I’m in,” Devine tells me. “Whatever we’re doing, I’m in.”
We’re meeting in a Beverly Hills hotel room at the start of a major press day for the new series. The comedy casts Devine as Kelvin Gemstone, the youngest of three siblings juggling burgeoning responsibility, competing interests, and extreme wealth as their father, John Goodman’s Eli Gemstone, mints money as the figurehead of an exploding megachurch in the South.
On his way into the hotel room, a publicist asks Devine if he’d like a Diet Coke, or maybe even a Coke Zero. He responds in kind: “Hell yeah! Let’s have a party!”
It’s the kind of gregarious personality you might expect from the 35-year-old actor, who through movies like Pitch Perfect, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and Game Over, Man!—as well as TV shows like Workaholics and Modern Family—has perfected a certain, tragically recognizable “bro” character: Always on, always working the room, always with a brash, forced joke at hand to supercharge any otherwise mundane encounter or occasion.
This specific “type” is not necessarily a dick, per se. But it’s certainly douchebag-adjacent. Devine’s distinguishing trick is the good-naturedness and endearing innocence he brings to these guys, the Chads and Jakes and, well, Adams of real life.
In fact, he’s so good at it, he may have even cornered the Hollywood market on the type, dialing it up for commercials or hosting gigs—2017’s MTV Movie & TV Awards, for example—or shading it to more adorable effect in romantic comedies, like last year’s Isn’t It Romantic, alongside Rebel Wilson.
“I demand a lot of Coke Zeros…” he laughs sheepishly as the publicist returns with a laughable haul of cans, a number so outrageous we’re forced to interrupt our conversation to acknowledge it. Someone took the party comment a little too literally.
It goes without saying that the actor sitting before me, born in Iowa and raised in Omaha, talking about his own near-death experience, feelings about religion, self-awareness about his place in the industry, and goals for the future, is a far cry from the petulant man-children he’s so adept at playing.
“I mean, I am wearing a pretty fun shirt…” he protests when I bring this up.
He’s not wrong. His crisp red-and-white checkered shirt is, indeed, fun—a sartorial picnic tablecloth that, styled with black skinny jeans, white sneakers, and crew socks, all-too-well wardrobes the very character type we’re discussing. If Devine didn’t have more interviews that afternoon, he could’ve driven across town for a round of cornhole and some brews on the lawn of a UCLA frat house.
But that seems to be the reason Devine has made such a splash since arriving in Hollywood a decade ago. He knows exactly who he is and how people see him, while at the same time subverting those very assumptions. With The Righteous Gemstones, we’re witnessing the start of his next act.
The nature of The Righteous Gemstones’ subject matter lends itself to talk of religion, more than might usually be comfortable for an actor and a journalist just meeting for the first time in a hotel room on a press day.
He grew up Catholic in Omaha, Nebraska, going to church every Sunday and most Wednesdays, too. At some point in his childhood, his family’s church asked its parishioners to raise somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000—“some outrageous number like that”—for what Devine describes as “an absurd crystal goblet to, like, put the wine in.”
That set his mother off. “She was like, we’re outta here. This is crazy.”
It’s not a bad parallel to what’s going on in The Righteous Gemstones, which digs into the frequent moral hypocrisy and conning often associated with megachurches and the families behind them: the performatively pious who present themselves one way to the congregation and the public, but live under a wholly different code behind the scenes.
In yet another iteration of can’t-make-this-up coincidence, while the series was being shot, news broke of one pastor who was caught sleeping with prostitutes and another under fire for his use of private jets. “So I think it’s pretty timely,” Devine says. “I think even religious people should like the show, because no one likes people who are taking advantage of the system.”
Still, as any person who grew up going to Catholic mass may relate to, Devine harbored a certain jealousy of his friends who attended the megachurch near where he grew up in Omaha. It wasn’t like the phenomenon we know now, with churches that sell out basketball arenas in the South. But there was a rock climbing wall and an arcade with ping pong, foosball, the works. “And, you know, my church just had Communion wafers.”
He played baseball, like most boys do, and was even selected to the all-star team at age 11 as a shortstop. Maybe pro ball was in his future, he thought, again, like most boys do. But a horrific accident changed everything.
On a summer afternoon in 1995, he and some friends were on their way to the store to “go get candy,” he’s recounted in the past, “and also rip pages out of Penthouse. That was the real agenda.”
When a friend shouted “come on!” from the other side of the street, he misinterpreted that as a signal that the coast was clear, not to hurry. He walked with his bike directly into the path of a 42-ton cement truck, going under its first two wheels and sliding 500 feet.
He woke up two weeks later in intensive care, all the bones broken in both of his legs. He had to relearn everything: how to sit up, how to stand, how to walk.
No one is more aware of the trope of comics turning to humor because of something traumatic that happened in their lives than Devine. Still, he remembers using his time while confined to a wheelchair writing jokes and creating some of his first sketches. He used to even call into the local radio station, practicing a Chris Farley impression and trying out other characters.
When I ask him more about his faith specifically in relation to this accident, he goes back to his stance that organized religion was ruined for him by people who gamed the system.
But, he says, “I woke up and the first thing I said was that my Aunt Hazel, who had just passed away, was my guardian angel. I was an 11-year-old boy, saying that she was watching over me and made sure I came out on the other side. It would be a pretty weird lie for an 11-year-old boy to run with.”
Devine moved to Los Angeles straight out of high school when he was 18. He had gotten into UCLA, but his family couldn’t afford it. The plan was to attend community college, but as soon as he started making a modicum of money performing standup shows, he was in full pursuit of becoming a comedian.
He and friends Blake Anderson, Anders Holm, and Kyle Newacheck formed the sketch group Mail Order Comedy in 2006, and soon gained fame online and through touring. In 2011, the group created Workaholics, each co-starring and serving as executive producers.
It’s not hard to see his role on that show—which had him dropping acid at work, worrying that he had a threesome with his friends while blacked out, and, uh, rapping as a wizard—as the root of his reputation for playing an excellent man-child. (The show is literally about stunted adolescence.)
“People have used that as a bad thing, the ‘perpetual man-child’ label,” he says. “To me, it just means that I haven’t lost my zest for life. And, like, I do still get excited about things.”
It appealed to Devine that Kelvin Gemstone embodies many of the same tropes of man-children past that he has played, but is much more grounded. In fact, surrounded by McBride’s manic Jesse and Vice Principals breakout Edi Patterson as the desperate Judy, Kelvin is arguably the straight man—or at least the most level-headed person in the room.
“People don’t normally look at me and go, ‘He has his shit together,’” Devine says. “So this is exciting to play.”
He’s surprised that he’s been able to parlay the character type he’s known for into the romantic comedy genre, be it in Isn’t It Romantic or the Pitch Perfect sequels opposite Rebel Wilson, or in When We First Met, which he co-wrote. He’s noticed his work has begun to encompass more dramatic acting as his career has gone on, too. Going forward, he hopes to play more roles that are different, even if that means creating them himself.
On that note, we end our conversation by talking about Game Over, Man!, the Netflix satire of hyper-serious ’80s action films like Die Hard. The comedy reunited him with his Workaholics team, both in front of the camera and behind it—they spent years writing and working with producer Seth Rogen on the treatment.
There are two scenes that anyone who has seen the film walk away talking about, and interestingly, they were both part of the very first draft and pitch. That means Devine had six full years to come to terms with the fact that he would be spending two-and-a-half minutes running around completely bottomless, going full-frontal for a sequence that scored many, many headlines and dominated the film’s publicity tour.
Having six years to psych up for baring all quelled any nerves he had about the scene, as did the near-certainty that it would be the funniest bit in the film. It sets a high bar for what a performer will do for a project.
“For sure it makes me not want to do it again, because I’ve done that already and I don’t want to be the guy who just at any time whips my dick out for a laugh, you know?” he says. “I’m super-proud of that scene. People always ask about it and if it was weird. I’m glad I did it in that movie we created, starred in, and produced.”
At this point, the publicist walks in to wrap the interview. The timing is coincidental, I swear. At least, I think.
“He came in here and heard me talking about my dick and was like, ‘Wrap it up!’” Devine laughs. “Anyway, please enjoy a Coke Zero on your way out.”