David Gordon Green & Kimberly Hebert Gregory on Why ‘Vice Principals’ Isn’t a Traditional Show
HBO’s new comedy series Vice Principals afforded long-time friends and collaborators David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Jody Hill the opportunity to reunite and continue working together. But of course, they also had to bring some newcomers into the fold, and one of those newcomers is actress Kimberly Hebert Gregory.
She stars alongside McBride and Walton Goggins as the celebrated Dr. Belinda Brown who essentially pulls the rug out from under their characters when she’s named the new vice principal of Lincoln High instead of one of them. Up until that point, Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Goggins) are at each other’s throats, trying to sabotage the other in an effort to score the VP gig, but when that opportunity is handed to Dr. Brown instead, they decide to call a truce and work together to bring her down.
Back in March when the show debuted at SXSW, I got the opportunity to talk to some of the folks behind the new series. We already shared the interview with McBride and Goggins but now, with Vice Principals just days away from its July 17th premiere, we’ve got the conversation with Green and Gregory for you as well. Check out what they had to say about the casting process, the different directing styles, what it was like for Gregory to join this group that had been working together for so long and more in the interview below.
DAVID GORDON GREEN: It’s so funny just having known Danny for almost 20 years now, but his intellect sneaks up on you. You meet a funny guy and then all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Well, no. He’s a very fucking smart funny guy.’
That’s a good place to start actually. After working on Eastbound & Down with Danny, were you just like, ‘We’ll do anything together now?’
GREEN: Yeah, so Danny and Jody and I, we all lived on the same floor in the college dormitories in North Carolina together so we went to college together. So we’ve been planning our strike for a long time. [Laughs] And then yeah, after we had a great time on Eastbound and HBO was very supportive of a unique style of comedy …
KIMBERLY HEBERT GREGORY: That’s a good way to say that.
GREEN: This is a script that they’d written years ago and I remember reading it as an idea they were having of something they’d been cooking up for a while and I was just always eager to see it fulfilled. And to be a part of it is pretty amazing, and to surround the guys behind the scenes with people in front of the camera that are so beautiful and talented, it’s awesome.
Kimberly, you really command the screen here! When you walk in, it’s like, ‘I’m listening to whatever she says now.’
GREGORY: Well, that’s good to hear because sometimes I would say, I don’t know if I always feel that way in real life, which is sometimes shocking, but I don’t always feel like when I walk into a room everyone wants to hear what I have to say, but I think the role was written so clearly. She had something to prove and it’s always nice to play a character where it’s like, ‘I have something to prove and I also need this to work because all the other stuff in my life is not working, so this piece really has to work.”
Is it intimidating stepping on set with Walton and Danny?
GREGORY: Yeah, yeah! The first day I really was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do it!’ [Laughs] ‘I really don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do it!’ But I have to say this about Danny and Walton, they were so gracious and generous. And they were just like, ‘Clearly you can do it, so just do it,’ and there was never a moment where I felt like I’m letting the team down because I always felt like the team is like, ‘Go, go. We trust you. We believe you.’ So that was a really great feeling.
I definitely got that sense just from talking to them for ten minutes before.
GREEN: Casting is my favorite of any of this process. You know, you have an idea in your head or you read a script and you have your interpretation and it may or may not coincide with what Danny and Jody have conceived and just kind of throwing the ideas around, and seeing people walk into a room with their own interpretation, and then all of a sudden you just see that person walk in that has something to say that is just the answer to what you’ve been asking. And it’s just so fun to see it all kind of fulfilled. And there’s a lot of surprises in casting as well as the content of this.
Did any of the roles change drastically during the casting process?
GREEN: They evolved a lot. We did 18 episodes and I came on for the second half so they were fast and furiously restructuring things to, honestly, to take advantage and exploit the great talent that we had, and open up the narrative and open up some of the characters and surprise ourselves. We really kept the last couple episodes under lock and key and didn’t even let the crew know where we were going with it. It’s just kind of fun.
How was it for you coming into this in the second half? TV directors in general fascinate me because my mind is very film-centric where someone can create one thing their way and stick to it, but in TV you have to do your thing but while sticking to what was created before.
GREEN: Kind of, this isn’t that though. This isn’t a traditional show. And it’s not structured or executed like a traditional show. I don’t mean that because it’s weird, but it is weird. [Laughs] But it is more, we all come from movie backgrounds and that’s kind of the way we do it. Danny directed some episodes too, so he got in the director’s seat for the first time, which is exciting. And I think just the kind of partnership between Danny and Jody and I, the shorthand relationship and also the trust, there’s a distinctive difference between the way Jody would direct an episode versus when I would direct an episode versus when Danny would do an episode and we embrace that. Rather than say, ‘That’s not this show,’ we say, ‘It is what it is.’ Eastbound & Down was more mixed up, but people who really know the show can tell the fingerprint of a director on it, but I think this one is more evident. There is a different take on everything from the look of the episode, the lighting of the episode, the way it’s shot, the manner of performance even to a degree.
Is there anything about your style here that people can look out for?
GREEN: I like the discovery, the way people can find out how to tell the difference of it. But it is different, and I like spending time on Jody’s sets and learning from him and watching the way he works is very different from my own approach. Even when he was doing Observe & Report, I had nothing to do with the movie, I just flew to Albuquerque so I could hang out with those guys and watch them make a movie.
What does the set look like? Did you have an actual school?
GREGORY: It was both.
GREEN: A real school [that] we could shoot there on weekends, and then we had a set for some of the offices and stuff.
What about filling the halls with extras? It’s easy to overlook, but it really is packed with kids and I could imagine that might make things a little difficult.
GREEN: Yeah, it does. It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s worth it. You know, you gotta figure it out and it is ambitious for a half hour comedy. There’s not a whole lot that’s like this, but that’s the adventure of it. You know, try something new and it’s not just a rehash of Eastbound. I think it’s something fresh. It’s a great ensemble, an expansive world and it’s just fun to play.
It goes to extremes in ways I didn’t expect.
GREEN: And it’s only just begun. [Laughs]
GREGORY: And I just wanted to say a little bit about these guys who have worked together for so long and coming in as sort of a new person in their community, because what they’ve created it’s really a community that you see on the set, or that you feel on set. And I think that it allows you as an actor to kind of go in and it frees you up because you know, ‘Hey, the guy behind the camera and the sound guy, they all know these guys,’ so everybody is taking care of you in a special way. So, with things that happen to my character down the line, you feel freer to say, ‘You know what? I’m gonna take a bigger chance and I’m gonna really go …’ [Laughs] Sort of.
GREEN: I got to hang out with Kimberley before she watched the shows for the first time. She watched the whole first season. That was fun.
GREGORY: I did, yeah. This is interesting because he’s like, ‘I want to see what your reaction is going to be,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, me too. I want to see what my reaction is going to be.’
GREEN: More than anybody in the world, I wanted to watch her watch it. [Laughs]
Does working on this make you view your past vice principals or your schools in a different manner?
GREEN: I was always friends with the principals because that way I got away with a little bit more. I never really got into trouble because I always had the right side of the law as my friend.
GREGORY: Yeah, I wasn’t in the office a lot, and if I was I was probably asking them to start a new club or something nerdy and ridiculous like that.
Given the poster, what was your doodle of choice?
GREGORY: You know what? I actually like the lightning bolt and cube. Those two I can really relate to because those were the only things I could probably actually do. [This poster] is just remarkable.
GREEN: It’s a noisy, messy show just like that.