The third episode of HBO’s new comedy The Righteous Gemstones introduced the family’s alienated uncle, who returns to the fold when Eli (John Goodman) brings him on to run the Gemstones’ newest church. Best known for his turns in The Shield, Justified, and The Hateful Eight, Goggins, 47, takes on the hilarious role, reuniting him with McBride, the star and creator of Gemstones and Vice Principals, which the duo costarred together on.
“As soon as we sold this, I had the idea for Baby Billy and I wanted it be to Walton,” McBride recently told EW of casting his old friend. “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 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.”
With Baby Billy officially out in the world, EW chatted with Goggins about his initial response to the part, why he’ll do anything for McBride, and how quickly we really got to know the old man.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first reaction when Danny asks you to play a 70-year-old pastor named Baby Billy?
WALTON GOGGINS: I started laughing, because I didn’t think he was serious. And then he was just looking at me while I was laughing, and was like, “No, I’m serious, I want you to play Uncle Baby Billy Freeman.” I said, “As a 70-year-old?” And he said, “Yeah, I’m not joking.” [Laughs] I’m like, “Oh, okay, alright, yeah, let’s do it. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but let’s do it.” I’ll do anything he asks me to do, anywhere, anytime, because I’m such a fan of what [McBride and executive producers Jody Hill and David Gordon Green] do creatively, and Danny as a person. But I was really kind of blown away by the story, and I thought, like everything else that those guys touch, that they would just set the room on fire in this particular world, create a stir, probably piss a lot of people off, and then also make a lot of people laugh. They do those things simultaneously better than anybody, and so I just said, “Absolutely, are you kidding me? I’m in, buddy.”
You said you’ll do anything for Danny, so what is it that you love about working with him and what he brings out in you comedically?
I’ve been a fan of his for such a long time and admired his ability to convey his particular brand of comedy, which is not really comedy, it’s also drama. I was so unbelievably intimidated by it when I got the invitation to come and play on Vice Principals, even though I thought that something really special could come from it. Once I was there and got into it and the way he is as a person and the way they structure their sandbox, it just allows for real creative freedom, and it is so open and free from judgment — and you laugh. I’ve laughed harder with him, both onscreen and offscreen, than I have with any other person in my life. Whenever you find a situation like that, that allows you to express yourself with full support, then you run back whenever you can. It’s the same thing for me as working with Quentin [Tarantino]. Those are two people and environments that allow for magical things to happen. It’s sublime for me as an artist.
After a career of some heavier material, you’re on a pretty good comedy run with Vice Principals, Gemstones, and The Unicorn. What have you liked about getting to dive into these waters? Was that an intentional transition?
No, it wasn’t intentional. I just go where the best writing is, and it just kind of moved in this direction. With Danny and David and Jody, those guys make dramas as much as they make comedies, but it allows for this absurd behavior before it distills it down to the essence of what they’re trying to say. And that’s the kind of comedy that I feel like I’ve always been doing. I think The Shield was actually one of the funniest shows on television, and Justified is Elmore Leonard, so you don’t get much funnier than that, but it also doesn’t shy away from the emotional dramatic elements of that story. So, for me, it just fit. It was like, “Wow, this is what comedy can be. There’s artifice here, it’s still moving in a direction and we’re telling a story that amounts to something and says something,” and that’s what I’m always looking for in the work that I choose, certainly at this point in my life. When there’s a strong sense of direction and a filmmaker behind it like Danny that really have a purpose for doing what they’re doing, that’s when I’m most comfortable and where I think I can contribute the most. And so the fact that I wake up today and find myself in this new arena, somehow it all makes sense, even though it’s a big diversion from the way people normally see me — and that’s a good thing. I can’t believe it, to be quite honest with you. There is great joy in laughing 90 percent of the day as opposed to needing a shrink after work.
Specifically with Baby Billy, what went into crafting this very memorable look? Were you involved with that magic?
From the very, very beginning, I was involved. Danny said listen, “This is a collaboration, what do we want to do?” We didn’t want it to be farcical, we wanted to find that line between their comedy and reality. And, to be quite honest with you, I just didn’t know that I could pull it off. We didn’t have the time to do prosthetics and I could only spend so much time in the makeup chair. So, after going back and forth and sending each other a lot of photos and talking about who this guy is and doing a lot of research on my own, I called a really good friend of mine, Jake Garber, who is one of the best makeup artists in the business and one of Quentin’s guys. We sat there in front of a mirror and Jake said, “We’ve got to do this in 45 minutes, we don’t have prosthetics, so I’m going to go to work.” I closed my eyes and opened them 45 minutes later and looked at my face and said, “Who the f— is that? Oh my god.” The wig was a temporary wig that we found, and it was the shock of white hair and it was so unbelievably believable, like no one’s hair really looks like that but it kind of works. Like a lot of things like this, I think you just back your way into it and find it.
And then Sarah Trost, who was our costume designer on Vice Principals, was instrumental. As soon as I stepped into those clothes, Baby Billy came alive, those turtlenecks and the suits. He’s a man who is in an arrested state of development and is living a life of nostalgia, because he thinks he should somebody other than who he actually is. Over the course of this show, as he gains confidence, his wardrobe changes. And it’s not evident in any other place more profoundly than the last episode. That’s all I’m going to say, because you’re going to freak the f— out on what happens. [Laughs] But it was a collaboration. Danny is a very collaborative person, and so is David and Jody, that’s what they’re all about. They hire the people they want to work with, and you no longer just have a working relationship, you become really good friends. And in my case, luckily for me, he’s one of my best friends.
They couldn’t have given you a more wild introduction. It’s only been two episodes, but when “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” begins it almost feels like a totally different show as we go out to this serene setting to meet a naked, bath-taking, milk-drinking Baby Billy Freeman.
I’ve said to my friends, when you meet Baby Billy, you get to know Baby Billy, and then 10 seconds later, you really get to know Baby Billy. [Laughs] That was very surprising when I read that. I thought, “Oh, okay, uh, how are we going to do this, fellas?” And then we did it. You see him, and then you see him.
You’ve already got me excited with the finale wardrobe talk, but what else can you tease about the rest of the season?
I would say that you have to circle back and look at what Danny always does. For me, I go back to the first year we all watched Eastbound & Down. I spent that season laughing my ass off, only to come to that convenience store where Katy Mixon walks in and Danny drives away. I was so profoundly touched by that and understood his deep insecurity, and I felt such empathy for him. I would venture to say whatever Danny has to say with this show, he will get to it in those last two episodes — and it will be worth it. It was for worth it for me, and it’s always worth it for me. That’s what he does.
The Righteous Gemstones airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.