Danny McBride and Jody Hill started writing Vice Principals ten years ago. Before Pineapple Express. Before Tropic Thunder. Before anyone had even heard the name Kenny Powers. The limited TV series, which premieres on HBO Sunday, began as a follow-up to the pair’s cult classic The Foot Fist Way. But then McBride accidentally became a movie star.
Based on McBride’s experience of returning to his Virginia hometown to be a substitute teacher after his first, failed attempt to make it in Hollywood, the script for Vice Principals had been set aside in favor of Eastbound & Down, the HBO comedy that made McBride a bankable comedy star and turned his character Kenny Powers into a household name—at least in certain weed-smoke-filled houses.
A decade later, after four seasons of Eastbound & Down and dozens of big-screen roles for McBride, he and Hill returned to the Vice Principals script and reimagined it on a larger scale. “We decided to open it up into an 18-episode series, make it crazier, explore detours that we wouldn’t have been able to do in a feature,” McBride tells The Daily Beast by phone the morning after a late night at the show’s Los Angeles premiere.
“What’s appealing about TV to me is the idea that you don’t have to be confined to a story that takes place in two hours,” McBride says. But at the same time, he does not like the idea of keeping a show going “forever and ever” just for the sake of it, favoring a sense of “finality” over longevity.
“I want to know that it’s going somewhere,” he says. “So with Eastbound we always had the idea that it was a contained story.” That show was originally only meant to have three seasons, but HBO ended up convincing McBride’s team to produce a fourth, a decision about which he still appears to have misgivings.
With Vice Principals, he says he deliberately wanted to tell one “unique story,” which is why all 18 episodes were written before a single scene was shot. While McBride says he has no intention of continuing the series after it meets its natural end point, he laughs as he admits he once said the same thing about Eastbound & Down.
Not being tied down to one television series gives him time for even more ambitious projects. McBride has a role in Ridley Scott’s upcoming Alien: Covenant and he and Hill finally shot their second feature this past year. The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, due in theaters next year, is a father-and-son story starring Josh Brolin that McBride describes as a “comedic Revenant.” Plus, he’s not ruling out the possibility that he could play the voice of KITT in a film remake of Knight Rider that is rumored to star Chris Pratt in the David Hasselhoff role. While no one has specifically offered him the chance to play the talking car yet, McBride says sure, “if it was cool,” he would do it.
In his new show, McBride plays Neal Gamby, a divorced father who takes his job as one of two vice principals at a South Carolina high school deadly seriously. But for the show to work, they needed the perfect person to play, as McBride says, one of the “funniest, craziest, [most] layered characters” they had even written: Gamby’s rival-slash-partner-in-crime Lee Russell. “We really needed the right kind of actor,” McBride says, “someone who has the comedic chops, but also dramatic abilities.”
They zeroed in on Walton Goggins, best known for playing outlaw preacher Boyd Crowder on six seasons of Justified. “Walton is one of those dangerous actors that I just like,” McBride says. “Every time I’ve seen him on screen I wonder what he’s going to say or what he’s going to do...We got down on our hands and knees and begged him to join us.”
If McBride’s character in the show is a righteous, sad-sack disciplinarian, Goggins’ Lee Russell is even more insidious and unnerving. Neal Gamby might let his true feelings about someone slip out in an expletive-laced tirade, but Russell will stay all smiles and Southern pleasantries on the surface with a violent rage seething underneath. When the two men engage in an epic act of vandalism in one early episode, it is Goggins’ character who takes the lead.
Another important casting choice was the beloved principal both men desperately want to replace. That character, played by none other than Bill Murray, appears briefly in the pilot before retiring to take care of his sick wife. How exactly did McBride convince Murray to make a rare television cameo? It turns out that a chance meeting on an airplane from Charleston, South Carolina, where the series is shot, back to Los Angeles helped seal the deal.
McBride had recently co-starred in the film Rock the Kasbah with Murray and he had heard that the comedy legend was particularly fond of the city of Charleston. “We knew we wanted somebody special for the role,” he said of the outgoing principal part, so he spent the flight talking up Charleston with Murray. When McBride finally got a script to Murray a couple of weeks later, he heard back that the actor would be “honored to play Principal What’s-his-name.”
While Eastbound & Down was all about “ego and celebrity” — with Kenny Powers at his core a “self-centered person who was really just out for himself, out for his own glory and his own fame” — McBride does not believe his newest character is a “selfish” person at all. “The type of stuff he does, he thinks he’s doing what’s best, that it’s for the greater good,” he says. Neal Gamby may be fundamentally “misguided,” but he’s not an “egomaniac” like Kenny Powers.
When McBride played a version of himself in 2013’s apocalyptic comedy This Is the End, there was more than a hint of “egomania” in the way he interacted with former co-stars and supposed friends like James Franco and Seth Rogen. Things came to a head late in that film when McBride became the leader of a cannibalistic cult who kept Channing Tatum as his sex slave on a leash.
But McBride insists he’s nothing like the emotionally-disturbed characters he tends to portray. “I just find it more interesting to create these stories around characters that you’re not used to seeing,” he says. “Trying to take somebody that’s so different from you or I and figuring out how to make an audience see the world through their eyes.” By contrast, he says he would find it “boring” to tell stories about normal, well-behaved people, adding, “I think the world’s more complicated than that.”
Not too long ago, Goggins appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and referred to McBride as “the Woody Allen for flyover America,” which can make his “misguided” characters seem like comedic avatars of the stereotypical Donald Trump voter. Reiterating that Vice Principals began its life a decade ago, McBride says it was certainly not his “intention” to reflect the current political climate with his show. But, he adds, “the fact that this story about this crazy power struggle is happening in an election year is just lucky.”
With his history of violence and rejection of political correctness, Kenny Powers seems like exactly the type of former sports star who Trump would love to have speak on his behalf at the GOP convention this month. But presented with the proposition, McBride says Powers would never endorse someone like Trump and prefer to mount his own campaign instead. “I think he’d want to challenge Trump,” he says.