Does anyone play a dickhead as winningly as Danny McBride? Since his indelible turn as the loudmouthed, lovably villainous baseball player Kenny Powers on Eastbound & Down, the 39-year-old actor has proved himself comedy’s leading, and most brutal, satirist of modern white American bravado. His new HBO series, Vice Principals (premiering on Sunday, July 17th), concerns rival high school administrators gunning for the same job — or, put another way, two monomaniacs engaged in a ridiculous war for power. But it’s a total coincidence that the show is making its debut during a savage election year. “The story was something [longtime collaborator] Jody Hill and I came up with in 2006,” McBride insists. “It’s totally random that it’s coming out while the country is facing a giant power struggle. But that’s the way art works sometimes!”
Vice Principals takes place in a high school; Kenny Powers taught gym on Eastbound & Down; and you were a substitute teacher once — what were you like in the classroom?
It was important to me to explain to the kids that I wasn’t like their other teachers: I tried to make sure they thought I was cool. But all they cared about was if I smoked weed and what kind of car I drove. I couldn’t admit that I smoked, and I drove a Hyundai Elantra — so I wasn’t really impressing them that much!
What kinds of classes did you substitute for?
Most of the classes were English, which I knew about, but one day I had to sub for German class. I don’t speak German at all. The teacher left a video for us to watch, but the fucking tape broke. I dug around the classroom and found another VHS tape that had episodes of Cops on it. I was like, “Today you guys are just gonna watch Cops, and that’s that.”
There’s an insane LSD sequence on Vice Principals. You’re on the record about your love of magic mushrooms. What’s your craziest drug experience?
My buddies and I used to do a little vision quest up at Joshua Tree once a year — go eat mushrooms and have a weird little spiritual experience. Acid was never my thing. I tried it one time in college and fucking hated it. Jody Hill did it with me, and I remember him burning holes in his sweatshirt with a cigarette, like, “I think there’s rats on me!” I was like, “Am I gonna start fucking seeing rats?” That sent everything into a downward spiral for 10 hours.
You’ve carved out a niche playing arrogant, obnoxious, frequently racist assholes. What goes through your head when you watch Donald Trump campaigning?
I’m one of the least-political people you’ll ever interview. I don’t have strong opinions either way. I’m kind of right down the middle.
Trump’s not a million miles from Kenny Powers — the big difference being that Trump’s not a work of satire. He’s a real person with real followers and a shot at the presidency.
I mean, do I think some of the stuff Trump says is funny? I definitely do. With Kenny — and a little bit with my character on Vice Principals — the idea is that there’s this image of alpha-male masculinity that back in the day people aspired to, but in the current social context it’s seen as oppressive and narrow-minded. So these characters are trying to behave in the way they think they’re supposed to, but the seat at the table for guys like them is disappearing. How that relates to Trump, maybe, is that it’s always surprising and shocking when people speak their minds in a way that’s insensitive to how other people think — sometimes it can be so shocking it’s funny.
You’re a proud Southerner, but the Southerners you portray are deeply flawed.
I’ll go to parties in L.A. where people flippantly write off this whole section of the country, as if they understand what it’s about and everyone who lives there is one way. I actually think the South is more diverse than Los Angeles: People mingle more, and I meet different types of people more. It also shows you that you can take a character like Kenny Powers, who isn’t someone you’d politically or morally align with, but at the end of the day see how the same things that are important to you are important to them.
Is it liberating to portray loudmouthed jerks, or does it take a toll on you?
Playing Kenny was more difficult than I’d realized: You have these actors coming to set, and you just rip them apart. It was wearing on me – I figured it was the stress of production or whatever, but when we shot Vice Principals, I told my wife, “I’m enjoying making this show more, and I feel more myself coming home.” I think it’s because my character, Neal, as much as he’s a jerk, has a solid heart.
I mean, do I think some of the stuff Trump says is funny? I definitely do. It’s always shocking when people speak their minds in a way that’s insensitive to how other people think — sometimes it can be so shocking it’s funny.”
Neal has a very sweet relationship with his daughter. You have a four-year-old son. Has fatherhood changed your comedy?
You know, kids are little bastards – they change you without you realizing! Like, you asked me about mushrooms: I haven’t done them in a while, but I never made a choice not to do them. [Pauses] But fatherhood hasn’t, like, softened me. I don’t think so, anyway. But maybe I’m just a soft sack of shit now. Who knows?
You’re shooting Alien: Covenant right now. What can you tell us about it?
I’m the pilot of the spaceship Covenant, which is a colonization ship, searching for a planet where we might start life anew. I run the ship.
Are you in a harness for eight hours a day, yelling at a green screen?
No, I didn’t know if it would be all green screen, but most of the stuff is practical effects: when you’re running from an alien it’s really a dude in an alien suit coming after you! The sets are incredible and you’re in them: We go through some inclement weather at one point on the spaceship and this whole gigantic set is on a gimbal, shaking up and down. You don’t have to use your imagination.
What’s the most impressive thing about Ridley Scott?
He’s got so much energy, and he shoots everything with four cameras. We move through stuff fast. When I got here some people said, “Oh man, he does two takes, three takes, tops,” but I love it. It creates this attitude on set of, like, “You better fucking come with it because you’ve got two shots — you better bring it.”