Danny McBride: The Rolling Stone Interview

Comedian talks about the beauty of "sucker-punch" humor, how comedy is similar to horror and why he's got to mix things up or die tryin'

On a warm, overcast December afternoon, Danny McBride rides up to a quiet, unassuming beach bar outside Charleston, South Carolina, on a small motorbike. He parks, greets the staff warmly; a waitress offers a friendly hug and invites him to the bar's Christmas party the following Monday. "It's all free, 6 to 9," she tells him. McBride, unshaven, in a gray T-shirt and jeans, smiles and settles into a booth. "I'll be here," he promises, and orders a beer.

In July, McBride packed up his family and moved from Los Angeles to South Carolina. He appears to be settling in nicely. The 41-year-old actor/writer/producer had fallen in love with the area while shooting his most recent HBO series, the pitch-black comedy Vice Principals, around Charleston, and decided, after 20 years, he'd had enough of life in California. He brought with him not only his wife, his six-year-old son and his three-year old daughter, but also many friends and colleagues, including writer-director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Stronger). 

"We'd all been living in cities and traveling a lot for work," says McBride. "Then we suddenly came here and just dug it. So, everybody, one after the other, was just like, 'What if I moved there? Would you move there?' Next thing you know, 10 different families all came down." Rough House, the production company McBride started with his college buddies, Green and writer-director Jody Hill, also opened an office in Charleston. "We're like pioneers in reverse," he says. "We came back from the West." 

Over the past 15 years, the Georgia native has built an acting career out of playing a lot of not-so-smart dudes very smartly. From his on-screen debut as a small-town doofus in Green's indie drama All the Real Girls to early roles as a pyromaniac special effects coordinator in Tropic Thunder and a soft-hearted, soft-headed drug dealer in Pineapple Express, McBride demonstrated a remarkable ability to make unappealing character traits somehow appealing.

Nowhere, however, has he made this into a more impressive high-wire act than in the series of roles he's co-written for himself: first, as a strip-mall Tae Kwon Do instructor in 2006's The Foot Fist Way; and, later, in his two HBO series, playing the down on his luck ex-major league pitcher Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down and the ever-ambitious, morally bankrupt school administrator Neal Gamby in Vice Principals. 

Naturally, McBride is not the selfish dumbass he so often portrays. At the moment, he's in the process of broadening his acting palette and doing more behind the camera. In addition to his recent role in Alien: Covenant, McBride co-wrote the script (with Green) for the reboot of the horror franchise Halloween, which starts shooting this month. Over the past few years, he's had a hand (along with his Rough House partners) in producing a handful of independent films by younger filmmakers. Plus he's also writing a third HBO series, the final installment in what he calls his "misunderstood angry man trilogy." 

In a wide-ranging conversation over beers in Charleston, McBride talked about growing up in the South and returning to it, his childhood forays into filmmaking, his tumultuous early years in Hollywood, the challenge of playing dumb and why he's not going to do it forever.

So why did you decide to leave California?
I was just ready for a change. I love Los Angeles but I've been there for 20 years. L.A. is a city where I'm a workaholic. You run into people from work, there's billboards about every other thing going on in town – it's hard not to keep wanting to work. I was looking at photos of my kids, seeing how quickly time is moving, and was like, "I've got to figure out a way to slow this down a little bit." When we were in L.A., my son [told me], "I want to learn how to ride a bike." I was like, "For what? You're not going to be able cruise down fucking Mulholland on this thing!" [Laughs] Here, we're not living behind walls. He can walk down the road. And none of my friends in L.A. had kids. I'm 40 years old and all my friends were still going to clubs – I felt like I was a teen mom. Here, everybody has kids.

It also gets you out of the L.A. bubble.
It really does. Being around people that have nothing to do with film gives me ideas. I can walk down the street and get an idea for something that I know is unique to here. Whereas you walk around L.A., you're seeing the same thing everyone else is seeing. I've actually written more since I've been here than I have over the last year in Los Angeles. Who knows? Maybe two years from now, I'll be trying to crawl my way back, but right now, it's been such a needed change.

You were born not too far from here, right?
Yeah, I was born in Statesboro, Georgia. My parents went to Georgia Southern there. It took me until later in life to realize they probably didn't mean to have me when they were juniors in college. [Laughs] I was probably conceived at some frat party. We were there until they finished school, and then moved to California for a little bit. My dad worked as a prison guard in Lompoc. Then he got transferred to D.C. to work with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, when I was in first grade, so the family moved to Burke, Virginia, for about a year, then out to Fredericksburg, which is where I grew up. It was a farm town with a little shopping mall. That was it.

What did your mom do growing up?
At first, we were a pretty religious family. We went to church every Sunday, Bible study on Wednesdays, so I spent a lot of time sitting around waiting for my parents to finish teaching Bible school. When we moved to Virginia, she got into puppet ministry. She bought these puppets, her and my dad built this stage, then she'd do these children's ministry things at church. She did that for a while, then got a job working at a department store.

Did the religion stay with you through the years?
No. My parents got divorced when I was in sixth grade. My family had dedicated all this time going to this church, and now, it was just my mom, me and my sister. We expected the church would help us out. Instead, it was people wanting dirt on my mom and talking about the divorce. She stopped going and was like, "I'll still take you and your sister." For a few months, she would drop us off. Then finally, it was like, "What are we doing? Fuck church!" [Laughs]

What were you into as a kid?
I was really just into movies. I campaigned my family to get a VCR. When I got a little older and a kid in our neighborhood got a video camera, we started making movies.

What were they like?
Terrible! They were all rotten. But I have them all still. Everything was always horror movie-influenced. We'd take the most simple concept and then it would always end up with all of us killing each other, screaming, chasing each other around with guns and knives.

"I don't know in regards to Donald Trump – I don't know what people respond to with him." 

Were you funny growing up?
I was exactly how I am now. You look at those movies and they suck – but it's the same exact sense of humor. I'd make these radio tapes when I was in second grade, third grade, where I'd do fake interviews with like Pee Wee Herman or Mr. T. I'd do all the voices. I found one of those tapes and I'm doing some commercial for a fake nacho stand, called Dan's Nachos and Lemonade. It's just me as a second grader with this little kid voice, talking about, "If you don't like nachos, come to the back: We've got cocaine, beer and cigarettes!" [Laughs]

How'd you end up in film school in Winston-Salem?
It's really funny: I equate my whole career to one afternoon when I was a senior in high school. In the middle of English class I had to piss. I walked down the hall to go to the bathroom and passed this kid who'd moved to the school a year earlier. I was like, "Where are you going?" "I'm going to drop this application off for North Carolina School of the Arts." "What's that?" I'd been looking at film schools, but back then it really was just USC or NYU, and there was no way my parents could afford to send me to those places. So I was trying to figure something else out. This kid said, "There's a film school there that just opened a year ago." I went home, researched North Carolina School of the Arts and I could afford it, so I applied. I got in. He didn't. [Laughs] I stole his spot!

You're living the life he could've had.
I robbed him! But at that place my first year, Jody Hill lived on one side of me, David Green lived on the other. I've worked with those guys ever since. It's just crazy: Of all these big choices you make in life, something like my bladder telling me I have to piss alters the direction of my life.

When you first met David and Jody, did you guys click right away?
I met Jody the first night there. Both of us didn't know anybody – but we were both wondering where we would get weed. [Laughs] So the first night, I went on some journey with him to try to find weed at our new school, then we smoked it together. It was a lifelong friendship after that. David was a year ahead of us; I met him right at the beginning. But then I was watching a bunch of people's films from last year and David just had this crazy movie called Would You Lather Up My Rough House? It made me laugh so hard. You could see he had a vision and a voice. I just instantly thought he was awesome. 

What was cool about that school was that it wasn't in a big city. It was pretty far from where they were making movies, so the handful of people there all felt like they needed to have each others' backs. Because there wasn't really much of a community to support it there. It really cultivated the type of working relationship we have now where anytime any of us are doing something, we're always curious what our buddies think or if they have any ideas. I mean, I still do the same stuff with my friends now that I did when I was a freshman in college.

When you were in film school, what was your grandest ambition?
Man, I thought that I'd move to Los Angeles, sell some screenplays, become a director. Then I get there, became a waiter, started working at the Burbank Holiday Inn, was P.A.-ing, ran out of money and didn't have time to write. I went out there thinking I'd replicate what I was doing in film school. I studied to direct there; I didn't have anything to do with acting. I was really trying to make that happen, and I quickly learned, so is everybody in that town. I struggled a lot in my early 20s, but looking back on it, I liked how dirty and grimy and dangerous it got. It was living on the edge the whole time.

Among the jobs you had before your film career started, which were your favorites?
I was a pretty good waiter. I worked at the Crocodile Café and was like Neo in The Matrix. I mastered how to do it. One day I came to work and just saw all the patrons as numbers and knew how to get all their orders in, bring their bread out, not get stressed out or pissed off about it. I'd wait tables and meanwhile, figure out how to change something in the second act I was working on. I'd work 10 hours, come home and write. I mean, all of it sucked, but I was trying.

You got drafted in to play that part in All the Real Girls when some other guy quit, right?
Yeah, at the last minute. I was doing [this cameraman] job for Behind the Music and the History Channel, and David called and said, "Hey, will you come and quit your job?" I'm like, "I just got benefits, dude!" But I knew, "This isn't what you're here to do."

At that point, you hadn't really done any acting. Did you have any concerns whether you could?
I was worried I'd ruin David's opportunity. But at the end of the day, he's a smart dude and I trust him. If David thinks I can do this, then I'm not going to waste any time thinking I can't. I'm just going to go try to deliver what he wants. I found that that came in helpful for everything that happened in my career. Because I went from waiting tables to, six months later, acting with Owen Wilson in Drillbit Taylor, acting with Ben Stiller in The Heartbreak Kid, doing Tropic Thunder with Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise. Literally, a year earlier, I was stoned on my couch watching these motherfuckers on my TV. Now I'm being thrown into scenes with them. It was crazy. It really was just a matter of just not getting in your own head about things.

All the Real Girls was a completely different era of movie-making. If you could get your film seen in theaters …
That was a big deal.

Movies like that now would just be on Netflix.
They'd get buried. It's so depressing every time I fire up Netflix or iTunes. You know how much work goes into every show, into every movie – and there's so many things that deserve attention that aren't going to get it just because there's too much of it now.

Even beyond independent films. How many mid-budget comedies make it into theaters now?
Yeah. In a way, it's discouraging when you see how few people show up for those movies. Superhero movies come out and fucking crush $100 million on a weekend. A successful comedy comes out and breaks $20 million. There's good and bad. There's more opportunities to work and more jobs, which is good, but I think it's at the expense of the medium as a whole. We have Apple TV in my house. My kid has his fingertips on every movie that's out there. For him, I don't think movies are going to be as special to him as they were to me, where it was a big deal to go to the video store on a Friday night and be allowed to rent one movie.

After All the Real Girls, did you decide to pursue acting more seriously?
No. I didn't have any ambitions to do more of it. I just was trying to write and figure out what was next. That's when Jody was like, "Why don't we write something together for you to act in?" We felt at the time, just because I was in a movie, maybe that would help us get it made. That was when we started talking about Foot Fist Way. We wrote that script, went back to North Carolina, shot it and our careers took their next step from there.

When you were making Foot Fist Way, what did you think would come of it?
We had no idea. It was our Hail Mary, all going on credit cards – like, "Either this is going to work or we're going to have to figure out how to pay this debt off." We shot it in 2005, in the summertime. That fall, I got a call from Jody that it got into Sundance. We were like, "We're on our way!" Jody went into his boss's office, flipped everybody off and quit. Then it goes to Sundance ... and nothing happens. [Laughs] We started looking at all the other movies that had gotten into [the festival] since it began and we'd never heard of any of them. I was like, "Oh, shit." 

But then we got the call one day that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay had started a production company. They saw the film and wanted to meet with us. Just the idea that those guys had even seen that thing blew our minds. Then I got invited to meet with Judd Apatow on the set of Knocked Up. It was the night Leslie Mann's character is trying to get into the club and Craig Robinson is the bouncer. That was Craig's first night working with those guys, so we struck up a friendship. I met Seth [Rogen], [Jason] Segel, Jay Baruchel ... all those guys. Next thing you know, Judd invites me to his trailer, those guys are all in there – and they'd been watching The Foot Fist Way. They're quoting it back to me. It was the craziest thing. I called Jody and was like, "Dude, you've got to get down here. These guys have all seen the movie."

"I put a lot of time into Kenny Powers and Neal Gamby. If, 10 or 20 years from now, people are still even remembering those characters, that's fucking fine with me." 

Eastbound & Down was your first big project as a writer and producer. How did HBO react to it when you first turned it in?
They were like, "What is this?!" We were getting notes back in the beginning like, "No one is going to like this guy. We need to soften him." Our mantra was, "Well, that's the point. This guy is an a-hole and we're not going to soften him too much. It's a growth, not a formula." People can get away with that with dramas, but for some reason in comedies in America, that was a concept they didn't love. The British had been doing it for years, but here he had to be likeable. You had to have hearts of gold and lovable losers ... all this stuff that I just thought was boring. I don't write characters like that, I didn't want to play a character like that. I didn't want to watch a fucking story about a character like that. 

They were like, "If you guys don't listen to our notes, we're not going to market the show. We're not going to get behind it." Man, I'm from Virginia. I've never seen a billboard for an HBO show anyway. I don't give a shit if they don't market it. It'll be on. [Laughs] That wasn't everyone. Casey Bloys – who is running HBO now – he got it from the get-go. What was amazing was we stuck to our guns and they were cool. When people responded to it, HBO was awesome. In the second season, they were like, "You guys were right. Do what you guys want to do."

There is a thread that runs through the characters you write for yourself. They're not smart but they're a particular kind of not smart – often arrogant and completely lacking in self-awareness. What do you like about playing that as an actor?
You know what it is? It's like a fucked-up Don Quixote or something. It's just this delusional person that's on one journey in their mind and to the rest of the world, it's a completely different journey. We set these stories in these mundane suburban areas with these characters who see their own story as something of epic proportions. When people set their sights high, it allows them to have their heart broken as well, so that enables us to fuck with the genre a little, make people laugh and feel sad. Jody and I are getting ready to do another show for HBO now – this is sort of our misunderstood angry man trilogy: Vice Principals, Eastbound and now we have this third one we're going to shoot next year. It's very much inspired by British comedy and Seventies cinema, these character pieces where they wouldn't wrap themselves up in neat bows – like the ending of Five Easy Pieces.

How big of a problem is it that people assume Danny McBride is, on some level, the same kind of guy as Kenny Powers or Neal Gamby?
It's not really a problem because I get paid regardless of whether people think it's me or not! [Laughs] It's a compliment. The performance must hit so much that they don't think it's a performance. I'm okay with that.

I imagine you get offered scripts asking you to play characters like that quite a bit. Or directors hiring you to do that.
For sure. I'll get versions of Kenny Powers a million times. That really doesn't interest me. That was my biggest fear when I met with Ridley Scott for Alien. I was like, "This is amazing." But in my head, I'm like, "Oh, fuck, what if we wants me to do Kenny Powers?!" Which probably was the fear of anyone who was Alien fan too. Then when I saw it wasn't that, that he really wanted me to do something different, it was cool.

It can't have escaped your notice that this particular collection of character traits – narcissistic, not self-aware, not that bright, a feeling of constant persecution – has much in common with our current president. Do you think there's anything to be learned from the surprising appeal of such seemingly despicable character traits?
I don't know in regards to Donald Trump – I don't know what people respond to with him. But this sort of comedy and this sort of character, it's similar to why people go on rollercoasters or into haunted houses. We love to have the shit scared out of us. When you watch somebody who says fucked-up things, there's a certain thrill to it. There's some weird release watching people be cruel to each other and saying fucked-up things we wish we could say. That's what cringe-comedy does for me. People watch horror movies because they want to be scared. I like to watch things and be uncomfortable, like, "I can't believe he said that."

There's also an element of the truth being buried in there. You see that with Larry David – or Ricky Gervais in The Office. I'm not saying people always agree with it, but the impulse is understandable.
It is. We're in a time period where everybody is very conscious of each other. They want to make this world safe for everyone but that's the only thing I ever take pause with – the assault on comedy or trying to put limitations on what comedy can do. Because when you identify those behaviors in Larry David or Ricky Gervais, it helps enlighten people more than if you didn't address those things. By seeing how ridiculous those notions are and understanding where they come from but seeing how they're still not right ways to think, it helps people evolve, more than if you just blocked it off. "You aren't allowed to see people joking about these kinds of things."

"Anyone who thinks it's low-brow, they don't get it. It's using the low-brow sense of humor as a fucking sucker-punch."

Will you be upset if your legacy as an actor is that sort of angry, clueless white dude character?
I put a lot of time into Kenny Powers and Neal Gamby. If, 10 or 20 years from now, people are still even remembering those characters, that's fucking fine with me. The beauty of the position I'm in is: I self-generate. So if, 20 years from now, I'm still telling the same stories, that's on me. That's why I'm doing stuff like Halloween, which isn't a comedy at all and I'm not acting in. It makes sure that I don't rely on things I've done before.

Do you find people expect Halloween is going to have that sense of humor?
I've tried to be clear that it's not. But think about Jordan Peele and Get Out: For some reason, people can get their heads around comedians making horror films more than around comedians making dramas. Comedy and horror do the same thing in that regards. They're never about what they're about – they're always about something larger. You have to know how to play the audience, how to set them up to pull the rug out from underneath them. A lot of the same type of beats are used in both, to anticipate where the audience is going to be at exactly that moment.

A lot of times the humor in your films or your parts is described as low-brow, or dumb humor. Does it feel like that to you?
Anyone who thinks it's low-brow, they don't get it. I think it's very high-brow. It's using the low-brow sense of humor as a fucking sucker-punch, like, "Hey, look at this here." Then you hit them with the other fist when they don't realize it. But look, we've never had universal acceptance of anything we've done. People not getting what we do and being misunderstood doesn't really bother me.

Although the characters you write are funny, they don't know they're funny. You're always playing it straight. It's not like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, where he's reeling off one-liners.
I actually go through scripts and strip jokes out. I strip out punchlines. I just feel like these guys don't know that they're in a comedy. They think they're in a serious, dramatic situation. So anytime anybody seems too clever, we just strip it out of there.

Much has been made about the shared sensibility among various camps of comedy filmmakers and actors – guys like Judd Apatow Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Ben Stiller, you. What do you think the connection is between all of you?
I don't know. Obviously, we're within several years of each other so I think the influences are similar. But if you look at the summer that The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers came out, that was the same year we were shooting The Foot Fist Way. That was the return of the R-rated adult comedy. For years before that, that wasn't around. People were relieved to see people cursing in movies again. I grew up on everything from Airplane to Bachelor Party to Porky's and for a while, that was kind of neutered. Comedy got into a weird zone, where a lot of them were built around one comedian and no one else in the movie was allowed to be funny. Those movies are only as good as people's interest in that particular comedian. So when you see this ensemble, when you see these guys who come out and pop in different ways, it gives you more chances to lock into someone's comedy style.

Even though you never set out to do it, do you like acting or would you rather just be behind the camera?
I like all of it. Right now, I'm in the mood to be behind the camera. I love writing and I'm in the mood to develop a new world. But to be able to write a whole series like Vice Principals, then finish that and disappear in Australia for a few months to make Alien, where it's someone else's vision ... [that] keeps me healthy. I don't get burnt out doing one thing. It's nice to show up on a movie and not have the responsibility of the whole fucking thing.

Everyone always says success doesn't change them, but it changes everybody, just like failure does. If you're being honest, how are you different as a person than you were back before the film career took off?
I definitely have changed. I have kids now and shit. I don't go out and get drunk every single night, but that part of me is still there. It might be every other night now. [Laughs] At the end of the day, the same stuff is important to me: My friends, my family, being original, doing something other people aren't doing. I still hold sacred all the same stuff I did when I was 18 and had 10 bucks in my pocket.