Kenny Powers and the Unlikely Rise of Danny McBride

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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.

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