Hallelujah, Danny McBride is back on HBO!
The star and co-creator of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals is going from the baseball field and classroom to church. As well as creating The Righteous Gemstones, McBride stars in the new HBO comedy as Jesse Gemstone, the oldest child in a family of televangelists who look out more for themselves than their followers. Filling out the rest of the greedy clan is a star-studded cast that includes John Goodman, Adam DeVine, Edi Patterson, and Walton Goggins.
Ahead of the series premiere on Sunday, McBride chatted with EW about turning the Gemstones from the antagonists to the protagonists, landing Goodman to play his dad, and convincing his Vice Principals costar Goggins to play Baby Billy (the character is as perfect as the name).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Having previously tackled minor league baseball and high school, how did you now land on religion and megachurches?
DANNY MCBRIDE: I moved to Charleston, South Carolina two years ago with my family, and just seeing the amount of churches down there just reminded me about my childhood, growing up in the South and how much church was such a big part of that. It made me curious about what church is like now, because it’s been a while since I’ve been. I started researching these megachurches and megachurch pastors, and just looking at some of the optics of that lifestyle, whether it’s flying around on private jets or wearing expensive sneakers. In a weird way, it felt like a world that was ripe for the kind of stories that I’ve told previously on HBO.
I feel like the easy thing for people to do if they see a billboard or description of the show is to think you’re making fun of religion, but you’ve made it clear that’s not what you’re doing, so what are you hoping to convey with Gemstones?
I think it’s really just an interesting place to set a story. Not to compare ourselves to this by any means, because this is one of the greatest shows ever, but I feel like when David Chase made The Sopranos I’m sure it wasn’t a takedown of the mafia, but just setting a story with characters that were relatable in a world that you really hadn’t seen explored that much before. And that to me is what this megachurch world is.
I read that the original idea had the Gemstones as the antagonist. Is that true? And if so, what made you switch directions?
Yeah, that was the original idea. I knew I wanted to do something on a minister, and I started writing it and built this megachurch family that was sort of the antagonist and was blackmailing this minister. And the more I wrote about it, the more it was doing what I kind of didn’t want it to do, which is that it was all about the church, it was all about religion. I started reevaluating the story and I was having the most fun writing the Gemstones and the dynamic amongst them was what I was looking for. So shifting the story and making those guys the main characters instantly turned it into more of a show about a family, which I felt was more relatable and interesting.
The world here is much bigger than your previous shows, so how would you say the tone differs from Eastbound or Vice Principals?
I think it has a little bit of the same sensibility to it, but we really aimed to make an ensemble, so there’s a lot of characters in this. On those other shows, we rarely would follow any other characters besides my character. With Vice Principals season 2, we got to the point where we started following Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) around, and just as a writer, I like that, I like seeing a story where I can spend time with other characters outside of the character I was portraying. So I just really wanted to have a big ensemble, and with an ensemble it gives you the ability to shift tones depending on who you’re with and we’ve always enjoyed doing that.
Tell me about casting John Goodman as your dad, Eli. I talked to Adam and he said John was already basically his TV dad growing up, so this just made it official. Was it pretty surreal for you to cast John and then work so closely with him?
I spend so much timing writing these things that I don’t think in that process about who we’re going to cast in it. So I found myself in the position once the pilot go the go-ahead, they asked me, “Who is Eli,” and I had no idea. Our casting director suggested John Goodman, and I was just in like the mindset of “Well, duh, of course he’d be amazing to have in this, but I can’t imagine he’d want to be.” We sent it to him and I ended up on a phone call with him like the next day. Listening to his voice, it was just surreal. My whole career has constantly been filled with meeting people that I’ve always looked up to and then having the insane experience of working with them, and Goodman has to be one of the most classics. He was doing TV when TV wasn’t cool and still could show up in blockbuster movies and arthouse films like with the Coen Brothers. I’ve just always admired his trajectory and the idea that he and I could work together, it’s been unreal.
I mentioned Adam, you, him, and Edi Patterson have such great chemistry as the Gemstone siblings. Having just worked with Edi on Vice Principals, was that dynamic as a trio pretty easy to discover?
When we first started talking to Adam, he flew himself down on his own dime to come meet with us, and I just thought that was so nice of him and cool. He got that it was important that we all have good chemistry. That was really important to me because I feel like all the shows I grew up on that were family sitcoms always had a warmness to those families and that’s part of why you like watching them together. And so it was important for us to have that chemistry amongst each other — and it was a pretty easy fit. As soon as the cameras started rolling on Edi, Adam and myself, I felt that chemistry pretty instantly.
We need to talk about Walton Goggins, who plays your uncle, Baby Billy. Walton had been known more as a serious actor for stuff like Justified or The Shield, but he proved how funny he can be with Vice Principals. Did you just really want to include him here? Or did you have the character first? Or could you just not get old Walton Goggins out of your head?
As soon as we sold this, I had the idea for Baby Billy and I wanted it be to Walton. I pitched him early, “I’ve got this idea, I want you to play an old man,” I could just picture it in my head. He was like, “I’ll do anything,” but he was on the fence, he didn’t know what this character was, and I basically told him to let me write these episodes and I’ll send them to you to give them a read, and he got it and thought it was funny. He was just worried whether he’d be able to pull it off. It was amazing to watch him transform into this 67-year-old man. Walton just disappears in every role that he’s in, I think he’s one of the most talented actors I’ve ever been around. He’s so damn funny and he can break your heart and we were honored to have him step into this.
You’ve now pulled off a third HBO comedy series in basically the same amount of time that Game of Thrones ran. So what is it about this relationship with HBO and this form of storytelling that you’ve really taken to?
I just really enjoying working with them; they always just got my and Jody and David’s sensibilities, and they’re fearless in their acceptance of embracing what we want to do, and that’s a hard thing to find out there. And I like the format of television and the ability to craft a story this way and to be able to approach how the story unfolds more like a novel than a 90-minute screenplay. I don’t think these sorts of comedies would survive in the feature film marketplace, people just tend to not show up for these things. And I think with TV you have the opportunity to build an audience more organically, which I think is helpful when you’re trying to do something a little bit off the norm.
What would be your pitch to prospective viewers?
If you tune in, you’re definitely going to see the most incredible television show that has ever been made, with characters that will win your heart 10 times over.
The Righteous Gemstones premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.