HBO’s new comedy The Righteous Gemstones is filled with characters that are hard to like but you can’t help but sympathize with. If you’re at all familiar with the men behind it — Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green — that dichotomy shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Gemstones is the trio’s third HBO series after Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, both of which operate on much the same wavelength.
The Righteous Gemstones centers on a famous family of televangelists, who preach the word of God to the public but practice less than holy ethics behind the scenes. McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, the eldest son of Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), whose misfortunes kickstart the series as he, his sister Judy (Edi Patterson), and his brother Kelvin (Adam Devine) are forced to scramble to set things right.
Leading up to the series’ premiere, Polygon sat down with McBride to discuss the show (which also stars Vice Principals’ Walton Goggins and — of all people — Marla Maples), as well as the new Halloween movies, Alien: Covenant, and Real Housewives.
Polygon: You’ve referred to Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals, and The Righteous Gemstones as your “misunderstood angry man trilogy.” At what point did you realize these could or would have this overarching theme?
Danny McBride: I said that in an interview. I think I was kind of trying to bully HBO into picking up [The Righteous Gemstones]. There are elements of that which are true, but I think as I developed the show, it became more of an ensemble piece. I’ll change it to “the evolution of the misunderstood angry man.”
It also seems like all three shows are based on your personal experiences.
There are elements of certain things. This was just an interest. I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, two years ago. Me and a lot of the guys I work with all moved down there, moved our families down there. There are so many churches down in Charleston, and living in L.A. for 20 years, it had just been a long time since I’d even thought about church. I went a lot when I was a kid. It just made me think, like, “Oh yeah, church, I used to go to that all the time, and people still do it.” It made me curious about what church is like now, so I started researching these megachurches. Down there in Charleston, you’ll even see these old closed-down box stores that people will put churches in. I started reading about a lot of these different characters and these different ministers, and it seemed like the setting was right for what we’d like to do.
Were you skeptical of church as a kid, like Jesse’s kids are?
When I went as a kid, it was definitely kicking and screaming. My parents would drag me to it. I would do stuff where I would pretend to be asleep so I wouldn’t be getting in the shower in time. I kept hoping, “Maybe they will forget, and I won’t have enough time to get dressed to go to church and I can stay home.” But that never worked, not even one time. Looking back on it, I’m glad that I went when I was a kid. I feel like it instilled ethics in me that I still hold to this day, and I also think that being forced to sit between my parents for an hour every week, listening to something I didn’t want to listen to — it would just make me escape into my own head and think of other things. I think that that time period actually was kind of useful for me. I think it helped me try to entertain myself.
Is everything in The Righteous Gemstones based on something you found in your research?
Some of the stuff is. Ultimately, these characters and stuff are completely from our own, my own imagination. They’re not really based on anyone in particular. It was more or less headlines or things that I was seeing that people would get away with. Some of the business aspects of it are from things I researched; I was reading about how the mindset of some of these churches is to put a church in a town where there are already other churches because there’s already a market placed there for a church. Church building through the eyes of capitalism is something that I’d never imagined. They went hand in hand. But it makes perfect sense of why they do, and why they choose to operate that way. I just thought it was fascinating. It was unexpected.
Can you tell me a little about the look of the Gemstones?
I wanted them to be like southern celebrities, like what country singers were like in the late seventies and early eighties. Kenny Rogers, Alabama, Oak Ridge Boys, Conway Twitty, just these massive southern celebrities. I wanted Jesse to have that vibe. Jody and I always wanted to make a Dixie Mafia movie. We always wanted to do something about the Dixie Mafia, and a lot of those guys dressed like Elvis and had the big mutton chops, so that was something we incorporated into what Jesse looked like.
There are some glimpses of a poster of Aimee-Leigh, Jesse’s mother, doing puppet ministry, which I know your mother did; are we going to get to see her performing?
It’s just a little detail that’s thrown in there. Tammy Faye did puppet ministry as well back in the day. I just thought it was a nice little nod to my mom just to throw in there.
Has she seen the show?
I’ve shown her the first episode, but she hasn’t seen anything past there. I think she just is always surprised that I making a living doing this, and she’s proud that I’m not homeless. [laughs]
I think this is the first time we’ve seen so much of Jody Hill in front of the camera.
Oh, yes. He was in The Foot Fist Way, and then he was in one scene of Eastbound & Down. When I started writing this, I told him, “You’re going to be a regular in the show,” and he just laughed. I was like, “No, you are. I have an arc for Levi.” He went with it. He was really nervous about it in the beginning. He was afraid of what David was going to make him do, because he’d seen David humiliate me before on camera. I think he liked it by the end. I think he understood that [affects voice] what I do is not easy! Come on!
It’s also always a pleasant surprise to see these actors who are generally considered dramatic heavyweights on your shows, like John Hawkes in Eastbound & Down, Shea Whigham in Vice Principals, and, to a certain extent, Dermot Mulroney here.
With a lot of these worlds we create, it’s these heightened characters as bulls in a china shop. In order to get that, the world around them has to feel grounded. If the world around them seems like everybody’s a clown, then their actions don’t stick out as much. We tend to lean more towards dramatic actors to help establish that realism so that everybody is not a buffoon in the world.
What was your initial conversation with John Goodman to get him on the show?
I sent him the pilot to show it to him. I said, “Do I need to lob a phone call in? Should I set this up?” “No, that’s not how he works. He’ll just read the material, and if he likes it, then you’ll hear him.” And I heard from him the next day. He said that he thought it was funny and he liked the characters and liked the world. I was just ecstatic. I didn’t ever in my wildest dreams think that we would get a chance to work with John Goodman.
It’s been kind of fun to do this whole journey with guys like David and Jody, because when you’re on the set, and it’s just like, now we’re doing this and John Goodman is here. It’s an acknowledgement of, like, “Fuck, this is crazy that we’re still doing this and we get more and more impressive people every time we show up to do it.”
How did you end up getting Marla Maples?
I didn’t even know who she was — when we got these auditions and I was looking at them on my phone, I didn’t know that that was Marla Maples. I was just scrolling through them, and went, “Oh, she’s great. This is exactly what I imagined.” And then Jody and David were both like, “Yeah, that’s Marla Maples! That’s who I like, too!” It just worked out.
And when did you know you wanted to bring Walton Goggins back for The Righteous Gemstones after working with him on Vice Principals?
I knew that whatever I was going to do, I wanted him back here. I just love Walton so much, and I had a vision of him as an old man, and him as an old man, nude, in a bathtub. That was the idea I had for him, and then I created the story around that.
There’s a startling amount of male nudity on The Righteous Gemstones; there was such a hullabaloo over Euphoria having a lot of penises on screen, but Gemstones might have more.
There’s a lot of male nudity. Early, I was joking around, like, I feel like frontal male nudity is a very Old Testament thing to do for some reason. Then it just started showing up. Sometimes, I would see what Jody and David were shooting, and was like, “Oh, there’s a cock in this. Okay. I didn’t imagine that.” And then we were trying to out-cock each other. Then we heard that Euphoria had a lot of dicks, so we just wanted to make sure that we were able to compete with them. That’s what we knew everyone was going to be wanting.
Was there anything else that surprised you in how what you wrote translated to screen?
Everything kind of came out the way we kind of imagined it. The craziest episode was episode 5, the interlude episode that’s all a flashback. There was never any intention on having that episode of the show. We had just joked around about, “Oh, what would they have been like in the ’80s?” John Carcieri and Jeff Fradley, the other executive producers of the show that I do a lot of the writing with, we had just finished up our pass on episode four where there’s a cliffhanger, and we were getting ready to get into the next episode and we had two days before we were scheduled to get onto that. I looked at them, like, “We’ve got two days, what would it be like if we did a flashback episode? What would we have in there?” We started talking about it, and within four hours, we came up with the idea for the episode, broke it down, and then wrote it and then never, ever touched another word of it again.
Usually it takes us a few weeks to crack an episode. That one, we wrote the whole thing and thought of it in four hours. It was just kinda crazy and it instantly, to us, brought the whole entire series to life. It was something that the show needed. It gave clarity to us about what was wrong with these people, and what they were missing and what they needed. It was fun to watch that episode in particular be filmed. Even David finding the kid who plays me and the kid who plays Edi, it was a fun episode to watch come to life.
That episode startled me because we get a lot of Goggins, and I hadn’t realized he played such a major role on the show.
He’s got some pretty heavy shit in the back half, too. To us, Walton is our way to explore Aimee-Leigh and her past. Since she’s not there, he’s a way to have people deal with the vacuum of her being gone. We always had an idea that he would play big into the last half of this, which, [foreboding] you will see what happens.
You’ve spoken about how much of an influence British comedy has had on your work, which is funny given how stereotypically American I feel like these series are perceived. How would you characterize the divide between styles of comedy?
I feel like, now, a lot of American comedy has morphed into what the Brits were doing for a long time, which is this idea of rooting for bad, conflicted people. I feel like the Brits were ahead of the game on that. Guys like Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan, even John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, we’re rooting for people that are jerks or don’t operate the same way that people are supposed to operate. I liked that.
Even just as a writer, I feel like it’s more of a challenge. We’re constantly trying to set a table on which it’s very hard to execute a good meal. We always pick these things, these detriments, and figure out ways to overcome them. Sometimes that’s even why we will have such grotesque comedy and then a heartfelt moment afterwards. It’s really a test of, “Can we do this?” Can you make someone laugh at this, and then 30 seconds later make them feel sad for some reason? I think that comes from the different sensibilities that Jody, David, and myself have. That’s, in a weird way, all of us exerting what we like and try to figure out how to make it all work.
How did you feel about the reaction to Vice Principals? It felt like the overall shape of it only became clear a few episodes in, but a lot of people took it at face value.
That was an interesting experience. I was more interested, as an artist, in shifting into TV, because I was seeing what was happening to comedies in the marketplace and for motion pictures. There are so many things competing for people’s eyeballs that if the marketing department doesn’t have a clean hook of what’s your movie’s about, it’s very hard for them to translate why people should show up for it. With all the stuff we’re doing, I just identified that our shit’s not gonna fit into that mold. We’re never going to be able to have a good, simple trailer that will just appeal to the masses. Our stuff takes a deeper look. It’s just stranger than what I think people would would just inherently want.
TV was a way to find a more organic audience; people can just watch that at their own pace. Even numbers don’t even really matter on HBO the way they do on network TV. We were avoiding all of these things that I felt like were traps with movies. But then that’s the thing, is you release something on TV, and even the way TV is reviewed, you give a handful of episodes and then a critic sums up what the whole series is about even when they haven’t been able to see what it’s all about. Maybe it works for some shows because some shows operate on a formula and so it’s easy to know what it’s about, but definitely what we’re doing is something where everything has a purpose. You remove one episode, and something doesn’t track, so the idea of creating an opinion based on the beginning is — to me, I would laugh at the people who misread it. I felt like they were idiots and that they had spoken out too soon. They didn’t realize that the reaction they were having is exactly the reaction that we intended for them to have.
But I think it’s also just because we hadn’t been doing this for that long for people to know who we are and who we’re coming from. If you hadn’t watched Eastbound and you see a clip of me standing there with a Confederate flag boogie board with weed on it, I could easily see how you would draw, like, “Fuck, who are these motherfuckers making this shit?” But people will have to make up their own minds. You just have to get a tough skin and just know that, hopefully, at the end of the day, the people who do stick with it will see where you’re coming from and that you’re not trying to promote or endorse hate crimes.
It’s felt like these series have gotten progressively more dramatic, too; is the lean away from straight comedy something that’s been intentional?
I think a little bit of it has to do with the length that we’re able to do. HBO has been a little bit more lax with the running time, and I think that that allows you to land drama more. 30 minutes to land dramatic moments is kind of tough when you have to bounce from one scene to the next. Them even letting us do an hour-long pilot, I think it allowed us to stretch out a little bit and let things play out quieter and simpler. I think we liked what we got from that, so it started to inform a little bit of what we wanted to do this season. Ultimately, it also comes down to it being an ensemble, and that everyone’s arc isn’t the same. You can have characters that are grappling with stuff that’s a little darker and a little bit more serious without the whole entire tone of the show being that.
So is The Righteous Gemstones meant to be multiple seasons?
This one, I’ve set to be longer than anything we’ve done before. If I had my way, when this is done, it’s like this epic, sprawling tale, like the fucking Thorn Birds or something. You’ll know everybody in this family, cousins, great uncles, all these people. In my eyes, this season is chapter one. It’s just setting the table for who all these people are and what’s about to happen. I would like it to go on longer than what Vice Principals was. Vice Principals was us not really ready to commit to another show we wanted to dedicate six years to, so we decided to just do a coordinated strike, do something that we knew what the ending was going to be, and execute it all at once. That gave me time to think about the bigger story I wanted to tell.
You mention The Thorn Birds: A lot of the influences that you talk about in interviews — and also some weird character moments in all of these shows — are very highbrow or auteur cinema-adjacent. In terms of working those into these shows about pretty crude people, is it just kind of finding moments where they’ll land?
We constantly are doing that. David, Jody, and I went to film school, so we’re connoisseurs of arthouse cinema. Even just the idea that we came into the scene and were invited into the industry as comedy guys, that’s always made us laugh because we never have seen ourselves as strictly genre guys. Yeah, just the idea that Kenny Powers knows what a fucking Criterion Collection Blu-ray is, is just ... that shit’s just there to make us laugh.
You’ve spoken about wanting to write and direct a feature film, is that still in the works?
I’ve always wanted to direct features. The TV stuff is what’s been occupying my time, so getting to direct the pilot [of The Righteous Gemstones] was a way to kind of get back in there. Edi Patterson, after I worked with her on Vice Principals, I just think she’s so fucking funny, and she’s a great writer, too. She and I wrote a screenplay together after we finished Vice Principals that I wanted to direct, but nobody was interested in it.
It’s called The Kevin Bacon Movie. Edi’s son is a child actor and she lives in Texas, and her son books two days as a background actor in a Kevin Bacon movie in Hollywood, and it’s just this fucked-up mom-and-son story about their three days in Los Angeles where she just loses her mind with her 13-year-old son. The world needed it, but unfortunately people aren’t showing up for those kinds of movies anymore.
Do you feel like the industry has changed significantly since you guys made The Foot Fist Way?
Oh, a hundred percent. I felt the industry change when we made This Is the End. It kind of felt to me like that was the end of that era of studios investing real money into R-rated comedies, and everything since then has been preexisting IP or superheroes or franchises, and things that just launch bigger pieces. Nobody seems interested in the singular work anymore. Everything’s about how it can be a part of something bigger. I think some of it is driven by a lack of creativity when it comes time to market things, but maybe some of it is driven by the idea of people liking binging and being so into TV shows that people are trying to emulate that and in the marketplace for movies that will make people feel like part of something that’s gonna keep going on and be bigger and bigger. There’s pluses and minuses for it, I guess.
What have you seen recently, or have you even had the time to see anything?
Oh man, I am so bad with watching shit. I never watch TV, and the only shit that’s ever on at my house is, like, Bravo. I’ve watched every Real Housewives. I’ve seen it all, because after I’m writing, I’m not in the mood to invest in another story.
So your Criterion Collection Blu-rays are collecting dust?
Exactly. I’ve seen all that shit. [laughs] I tried to do this thing — I went on a vacation this last Christmas and there was no TV in the house that we rented, and it was actually pretty awesome. When I first heard that, I was like, “Call this fucking person up. I can’t believe they wouldn’t have a TV in here, are these people animals?” And then by the end of the trip I was like, “Man, that was pretty good. I liked not having that.” So I made this commitment to myself where I’m like, “Every time I get bored, I try to pick up my phone or read the news or just zone out, I’m going to try to read a book,” I set a goal, “I’m going to try to read 50 books this year.” I think it’s more books than I’ve read in my entire life, and I am cruising. I’m on book 32 right now. I’ve been motoring. That’s where I’ve spent any downtime, has just been my face in a Kindle.
So do you prefer the Kindle to having a physical book?
I used to be someone who was like, “Oh, I’ll never read on a Kindle, I like the physical book.” Fuck the physical book. I’m all about the Kindle now. The Kindle, you don’t have to turn the lights on the house. It can be dark in there. You can read at nighttime, which is usually when I can read. I’m all about that Kindle.
What books have you liked?
I’ve read a bunch of shit I’ve loved this year. Blood Meridian is probably the classiest book I’ve read, I love that book. I read Kill Creek. I’m into horror. I love horror. This guy, Grady Hendrix, wrote this thing, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which was awesome. I’ll go all over the place from that, or Jeff Tweedy’s autobiography. I just bounce over whatever I’m in the mood for that moment, but it’s been a lot of good stuff.
On the horror note, I do have to ask about Halloween. Are the next two scripts already finished?
Halloween 2 starts filming in like three weeks. That’s already off to the races. The script is almost finished for the third one. Hopefully that’ll go at the same time next year.
And has there been any movement on Kanye West wanting you to star in his biopic?
[laughs] If the show doesn’t get picked up for a second season, maybe I’ll shift gears and start working on it.
I read that you were initially nervous about being cast in Alien: Covenant because you thought Ridley Scott was going to ask you to basically be Kenny Powers. That wasn’t the case, but did you ever found out which of your work had caught his eye?
I heard that he had liked Pineapple Express. I never asked him what specifically it was, but I can remember being in my own head, like, “Fuck!” Because I love the Alien movies. I’m like, “Oh, my god, I can’t be that annoying comedian that shows up and ruins this fucking movie.” So I was working really hard, like, “Alright, I gotta just be real. I gotta be grounded.” And then I remember he said, “Hey, we cast one of your friends in the movie.” And I’m like, “Who?” And he’s like, “James Franco!” I was like, “Fuck! The first scene I’m going to do is with James Franco. How is this not going to be something that instantly takes people out of it?” But then they burned him alive, so I don’t think too many people were making a Pineapple Express comparison.
The Righteous Gemstones premieres Aug. 18 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.