Kenny Powers and the Unlikely Rise of Danny McBride

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

Danny McBride as Kenny Powers in 'Eastbound & Down.'
Fred Norris/HBO
Danny McBride as Kenny Powers in 'Eastbound & Down.'
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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."

And his biological father?

McBride exhales sharply. "Obviously, you get stuff from both of your parents. So my dick and balls come from him. They're probably like his dick and balls." For college, McBride attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, a ragtag film school far from the USC/NYU power axis. In his freshman dorm, he was flanked by Jody Hill on one side and David Gordon Green on the other; all three now collaborate on various projects, including Eastbound. "Danny was one of the superstars of school," Hill recalls. He remembers being impressed by McBride's film It Only Hurts When I Cry: two rednecks get over love troubles by hitting each other as hard as they can. (Fight Club was still years away.) McBride had no interest in acting – he aspired to be a director and screenwriter.

After graduating in 1998, McBride moved to L.A., hoping to achieve his filmmaking dreams, and found work as a waiter and as the night manager of the Holiday Inn in Burbank. In those days, he was the type of guy who liked to float down a river drinking beer at 5:30 a.m., and then show up drunk for work. After a few years of toil, he got a steady job in the movies as a motion-control cameraman – meaning that he would zoom in and pull back on photographs for documentaries like Dogtown and Z-Boys, or on VH1's Behind the Music. "To me, it was like I had reached the goal," he recalls. Then McBride got a call from Green, who was shooting the indie romance All the Real Girls. "This actor bailed on the movie," Green says. "I didn't have a backup, so I just called the funniest guy I knew." McBride quit his job and headed to North Carolina. Although he acquitted himself well in the film, the role didn't lead to any more work, or even headshots.

In the battle of Danny McBride versus Los Angeles, L.A. was winning. "It's a tough city for a guy with $15 in his pocket, driving around in a 1990 Hyundai Elantra," McBride says. Around 2002, he decided he would give up and relocate to North Carolina. Right before hitting the road, he went to a Super Bowl party and met Ruiz. They started dating, and she decided to accompany him East, if only for the drive.

In Zion National Park, near Vegas, they ate some magic mushrooms: "Thirty minutes later, we were hiding in the tent, scared shitless. 'That family, what are they cooking? Is it people? No, it's hamburgers.' But in this drug-induced meditational moment, I'm thinking, 'I can't believe I'm going to leave this girl and move back to North Carolina to fuck off with my friends.'" By the time they got to North Carolina, he had decided to head back to California with Ruiz, whom he would eventually marry.

Still broke, McBride got work as a substitute teacher, covering everything from earth science to German. "This is how I taught a German class," McBride says. "I put in a tape of Cops, and said, 'You guys don't fuck with me, and I won't fuck with you. I'm going to read, and you guys are going to watch the legal system at work.'" Years later, memories of his teaching days would fuel Kenny Powers' overly aggressive career as a phys-ed teacher.

Then McBride did another favor for a college friend: When Hill wanted to direct a feature, McBride co-wrote The Foot Fist Way with him and starred in it as a delusional tae kwon do instructor whose life falls apart after his wife gives her boss a hand job. It became a Sundance hit in 2006; Will Ferrell and his partner Adam McKay's production company scooped it up. "I had never met anyone famous before," McBride remembers. "One day you're a fan watching their movies, and then suddenly, they're asking you what other shit you want to do. It was nuts."

Seth Rogen loved Foot Fist, and when he finally met McBride, he was nothing like Rogen imagined: "I was expecting a dude with a camouflage vest and a shotgun," Rogen says, "but he was wearing glasses, he was shy, and he was kind of a movie nerd."

Soon, McBride was everywhere, appearing in movies ranging from Tropic Thunder to Up in the Air. "He's one of the funniest improvisers ever," says Rogen, who worked with McBride in Pineapple Express. "Danny's fun to write for. He has an epic nature to his speech, something Patton-esque, even though the characters he plays are usually so stupid and reprehensible."

McBride's baffled as to why everyone is convinced that he's anything like these loser-maniacs he's constantly playing. "Maybe it's a compliment because it's so believable that people think it can't be a performance," he says. "But at the end of the day, we're getting paid money to fuckin' play make-pretend." He does, however, have his own moments of blinkered idiocy, like the time he traveled all the way to South Korea and decided to eat at an Outback Steakhouse.

McBride's mother, Kathy, says that sometimes co-workers will bring up the language in her son's work – "But I don't get embarrassed, because I know that's not Danny. But my mom is now 86, so I don't like for her to see some of those parts." When Eastbound & Down premiered, Grandma was living in a Florida retirement community; she got some friends to watch with her. Afterward, Kathy reports, "none of them really talked to her anymore."

Last year, McBride hit a bump when his stoner swords-and-sorcery comedy, Your Highness, was a critical and commercial flop. It's probably the only movie McBride will ever make where he wears a Minotaur penis around his neck. "The movie didn't work," he concedes. "That's the risk you take when you push the levels of decency and good taste. It may appear that we lost, but honestly, we didn't lose – the movie is exactly what we set out to do."

Kenny Powers may be ruled by the standards of success he adopted when he was a teenager; McBride has been more flexible, but has still achieved his dream. As a kid, he'd "wrangle whomever I could from the school bus," and end up making a war movie in his backyard with the quarterback from the football team and a drum major. Now, McBride gets millions of dollars to make demented comedies, and he has all the trappings of success he ever desired. "I have all the pay cable channels," McBride says, "so my 16-year-old self would be happy with that." He smiles – a smart man who knows exactly when to play dumb.

This story is from the March 1st, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1151: March 1, 2012
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