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Kenny Powers and the Unlikely Rise of Danny McBride

The small-town hick who became the raunchiest man on television

February 19, 2012 10:05 PM ET
Danny McBride as Kenny Powers in 'Eastbound & Down.'
Danny McBride as Kenny Powers in 'Eastbound & Down.'
Fred Norris/HBO

Inside a cottage with a quaint white porch, just yards north of a quiet stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, Danny McBride sits staring at himself on a television screen, declining the opportunity to eat shrimp from another man's butt hole. He's in an editing room, considering a scene from the third season of his brilliantly raunchy HBO comedy, Eastbound & Down. "I'm not like these characters that I portray," McBride insists, and then shrugs. "But I definitely have played a bunch of fucking assholes."

None is a greater asshole than Kenny Powers, the character McBride plays on Eastbound: a loudmouth, racist meathead with a busted baseball career and limitless self-regard. McBride, on the other hand, is a seemingly gentle, quick-witted screenwriter who stumbled into an acting career.

Here, in this friendly frat house of a production company, Rough House Pictures, which McBride shares with some old friends, including director David Gordon Green and Eastbound co-creator Jody Hill, McBride, 35, is clearly the king of the slacker-film nerds. He is dressed casually, in dark corduroys, an unbuttoned blue shirt and sneakers. A half-dozen similarly garbed staffers are nearby comparing notes on the previous evening's prank phone calls – a drunk editor made a round of calls just before midnight, pretending to be McBride in crisis mode, which meant deepening his voice and adopting a bad Southern accent. The joke ended when the editor, a little too sauced, mistakenly dialed McBride. "That's your impression of me?" McBride asks. "How drunk were you?" McBride was home because he now has a five-month-old son, Declan; a year or two ago, he probably would have still been at the production office, pulling another all-nighter. "I feel most like myself in here," McBride says, talking triple-time after excessive early-morning consumption of Diet Dr Pepper. "I'm surrounded by guys I've known a long time – we just hang out and crack dirty jokes."

On Eastbound & Down, McBride is executive producer, co-creator and co-writer of all the episodes, and the star. He brings a demented intensity to Kenny Powers, a washed-up major-league relief pitcher who nurtures delusions of returning to the big time. "There have been many great leaders throughout history," Kenny declaims. "Jesus was dead, but then came back as an all-powerful god-zombie."

Like any true narcissist, Kenny is convinced everyone else on the planet worships him; if he's not a stand-in for the United States, he at least feels like an American antihero for our times. Or as Kenny puts it, "If there's one thing I hate, it's losing. If there are two things I hate, it's losing and getting cancer." McBride says that he and co-creator Hill "grew up around these alpha-male rednecks and all these dudes with this crazy confidence that didn't really have anything to back it up. Kenny's an amalgamation of the people that we were intimidated by growing up."

Kenny Powers is a character whose life goals haven't changed since he was 16. While Kenny expresses the self-indulgent section of McBride's brain, McBride brings a vulnerability to Kenny to keep him from becoming unwatchably vile. Unlike most American TV characters, Kenny never pays a price for his racism, or his cocaine consumption. McBride says, "The beauty of it is having a character this fucked up, but not using him to teach anyone any lessons."

Kenny rocks a spectacular mullet, courtesy of extensions to McBride's actual hair. "We based it on what haircut would look terrible under a baseball hat," McBride explains. Kenny's other defining quality: his deep love for his Jet Ski. Some of the show's funniest sequences are of Kenny being contemplative while motoring around a lake.

The third season of Eastbound finds Kenny living in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, playing for a minor-league team, hoping to get called up to the majors. He's also a father, which doesn't mean he's matured – he fashions diapers out of duct tape and declares, "Hand me my son. I have a life to ruin." For all the slapstick humor – like when Kenny tries to clean out a gunshot wound with margarita mix – Eastbound can be remarkably dark. McBride says, "My favorite stuff on the show are the things that aren't jokes, like when this miserable man takes a gun out on the baseball field and shoots a soccer ball. Even when we're filming it, the extras think they're going to see something funny, but then people are silent, like, 'What did we just take part in?'"

In the second season, Kenny fled to Mexico, where he tracked down his father, played by Don Johnson. "Those guys are doing something unique and brave," Johnson says of the Eastbound team. "Stella Adler describes acting as a children's game, played with adult rules. But the difference with Danny is that he's playing a children's game with children's rules. That means there aren't any!"

As a young child, McBride was quiet to the point of invisibility: He stopped wearing his favorite cowboy boots when they garnered too much attention. He grew up in the small city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, a magnet for Civil War tourism. "I didn't get into trouble," McBride says. "I had a big imagination." Even as a boy he wanted to go to film school, despite not knowing anybody who was obsessed with movies the way he was. "Before we had HBO," he says, "I would sit with a boombox and record the audio of the scrambled movies. I remember riding around my neighborhood on my BMX bike, listening on my Walkman to Mr. Mom."

Around sixth grade, McBride started filming movies in his backyard. His mom, Kathy Rudy, recalls a film where Danny's friend Jeff jumped off the porch and broke his arm: "So you saw Jeff lying on the ground, screaming, and somebody is still filming."

When McBride played these movies recently for his wife, Gia Ruiz, he grew uncomfortable – he hadn't realized how bleak they were, filled with jokes about child abuse and murder. Around the time they were made, his parents split up – could that be the reason? "Quite possibly! I was lucky that my stepdad, Doug, came on the scene and has been an awesome dude." McBride's mom and stepdad both work as civilian support at Quantico Marine Corps Base. Asked what qualities he inherited from his parents, McBride talks about how his mom did sermons for children at church, in the form of puppet shows. "She doesn't flex that muscle now, but I think my interest in telling stories comes from her."

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