Walton Goggins on Why HBO’s ‘Vice Principals’ Is a Drama
Created by Danny McBride and Jody Hill (who also created Eastbound & Down), the HBO dark comedy series Vice Principals follows Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), ambitious vice principals who both have their sights set on the principal position at a suburban high school. When Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) stepped in, the two men put their mutual disdain aside to form an unholy alliance to bring down the outsider by any means necessary, no matter how outrageous. Told over the course of a single school year, the first season takes place during the fall while the second season of an already shot additional nine episodes will cover the spring term.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, the phenomenally talented Walton Goggins chatted about how he got involved with Vice Principals, why he wanted to work with Danny McBride, playing a character so concerned with his wardrobe, that viewers will fall in and out of love with these two men, finding a balance between dark and funny, and what made him lose his shit during a take. He also talked about the History Channel mini-series Six, about Navy SEAL Team Six, and his role in the feature film The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, about a doctor and three schizophrenia patients that think they are all Christ.
Collider: You’re sporting a rather phenomenal beard. What’s that all about? WALTON GOGGINS: I’m doing this mini-series for the Weinsteins, called Six. It was an extraordinary experience. And I’m doing a movie, called The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, about dealing with schizophrenia more humanly. It’s with Peter Dinklage, Richard Gere and Bradley Whitford, and it’s a beast. It’s an extraordinary movie. I’m playing Jesus, so it just happened to all work out.
What’s that film about?
GOGGINS: It’s based on a true story about a psychologist in the ‘50s who found this very unique opportunity to study schizophrenia more humanly and treat them more humanly. It was an important period in bringing about a more humane treatment to people with schizophrenia. It’s a comedy, is what I’m saying.
How did you get involved with Vice Principals? Did you get a phone call from Danny McBride?
GOGGINS: I did, yeah. I’ve known Danny, socially, for awhile. He was doing This is the End, while I was in New Orleans doing Django Unchained, so we had a few conversations. And David Gordon Green has actually been a friend of mine for a very long time, from the independent film circuit. I went in and read for those guys for Season 3 of Eastbound & Down, which was after the first season of Justified, and just had a really great meeting with them. I didn’t ultimately end up getting the role, but I did have what I thought I would have with Danny, and that was an insane amount of chemistry. I just think the world of the man. So, when this came about, they were looking around, and then they all looked at each other and said, “What about Walton?” They sent me the first two episodes and it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in my life. Like all good writing, I just immediately understood my place in the story and I jumped at the chance to go play with those guys.
Did you know that you had this character in you, or did you think they were crazy for thinking of you for this?
GOGGINS: I knew it immediately and I thought, “Wow, good for them to think outside of that box.” It wasn’t surprising to me because I think they’re very dramatic filmmakers. I think Observe and Report is a drama. And I think that Eastbound and Down is a drama that happens to be funny. Vice Principals is a drama about a highly dysfunctional human being with way too much power. So, in some ways, I think Danny was looking for someone that he felt could deliver on the topics of a human personality that they’re looking to explore, and that can also make people laugh. Maybe that’s not me, but I’m having a good time.
Have you ever played a character this concerned with his wardrobe?
GOGGINS: I think Boyd Crowder cared about buttoning his shirts up to the top. I think he was a bit of a clothes hound. But no, never to this extent. He’s maybe fashion, a little too forward.
Will Neal Gamby and Lee Russell get to a point where they would rather kill each other than work together anymore?
GOGGINS: Without giving anything away, I do think there’s a place for them to fall in and out of love. Isn’t that the nature of all relationships, really? Even great marriages go through those moments of friction that is well-earned, just because you’re in that close proximity to each other. And what these guys are doing and the road that they’ve gone down happens to be so dark that they are bound to be real obstacles in the way.
Were you ever concerned about finding the balance between dark and funny, and how people would react to the tone of the show?
GOGGINS: No. That balance will go toward one extreme more than another, at times, but if you have a good story and you wake up in the morning thinking, “I’m going to be true to this story,” than let that be your guide. I never approach a conversation with anyone, let alone any artful business decision or creative decision that I make, based on goal orientation. I’m never looking at the result, as much as I am looking at what’s happening in front of me. I figure the rest will take care of itself. When I raise my child and I’m with my kid, I’m not thinking about him, as the person he’s going to be when he’s 21 years old. I’m thinking about how I can listen to him, right now, as a 5-year-old. The 21-year-old will take care of itself, if he’s listened to and respected right now.
At the beginning of Justified, you had talked about having been worried about taking on another TV show after The Shield. After Justified, did you feel the same way, or did it feel different?
GOGGINS: It felt very different. This was a finite commitment with someone that I respect and who is on par with some of the greatest people I respect in this business. That was a very easy decision to make. The material was as good, if not better, than anything I’d read in a long time, and to be given the opportunity to work with Danny [McBride], David [Gordon Green] and Jody [Hill] was a no-brainer for me. What I was afraid of, after the end of The Shield, was being further pigeonholed in a way that I didn’t feel truly reflected who I am or what it is I have to say. I’ve been given an opportunity, over the course of the last six or seven years of my career, to broaden my definition of myself. I feel like I’m in a spot where not one thing will define who I am anymore. I have the latitude, I suppose, to be given a lot of space to just create. Whether that’s ever on the level of someone like Brad Pitt or George Clooney is irrelevant to me. I am having a really good time in my life, being able to live out a thread in the coat of my heroes. Ed Harris has never been pigeonholed. Tommy Lee Jones has never been pigeonholed. Robert Duvall has never been pigeonholed. If I can just be a piece of fabric on their coat that’s never pigeonholed, than I will have done what I set out to do.
Originally, Boyd Crowder was supposed to die, so when you signed on for Justified, you really had no idea where that character would ultimately go. But with Vice Principals, you had all of the scripts ahead of time, so you knew what the arc would be. What was that like?
GOGGINS: These guys are really at the forefront of what programming will ultimately become, in this country, and that is a story played out over 18 to 27 episodes. Not only is that where we’ve come, as a culture, for our attention span, but maybe that’s just what a good story needs. It takes people with the kind of clout that these guys have at Rough House Pictures to set that as a precedent. You will make money, as a business model, people will tune in, and the revenue streams will be great, even with only 18 episodes banked. I think that’s really exciting.
Was it easy to stay in character, or were there times you had trouble holding it together?
GOGGINS: Man, I lost my shit! I couldn’t look at Bill Murray without laughing. I literally could not. And I felt that way about Danny. The thing that I hold onto most from this experience was to show up for work every day and be given permission to laugh, all day long. And there were times where that wasn’t called for and that was impossible, and you’ll see them, especially in the second season. But, it was such a reprieve from the dark emotional states of a lot of the characters that I’ve played.
What did you learn about acting and comedy from working with someone like Bill Murray?
GOGGINS: That listening is your greatest and only alibi. In comedy, even more so than drama, you have to be present and right there, and the things that you do are predicated on what is happening in front of you. Whoever has the first line in that particular scene sets the tonality for the entire thing, and when you’re playing at this level, you can bet that’s going to be different, every time. That’s what I’ve built my career on, and it’s certainly how I find the most satisfaction in this job. And it gets crazier. The first six episodes are a precursor for the main show.
Will the viewers’ opinion of this guy change, over these two seasons? GOGGINS: I think so. I hope so. I think that there is room, not just in the American psyche, but in the human psyche, for empathy and compassion whenever the bully gets bullied. And then, I think there’s an even greater capacity for empathy whenever you see a bully change. That’s certainly been my experience. That’s the experience that we’ve predicated our entire society on. We build people up only to celebrate their fall, but to be there to catch them so they don’t fall too far, and then celebrate them on their second run. Maybe that’s the world over, but I know that we and the United Kingdom do that very well. That seems to be a course that people take. Luckily for me, no one knew who the fuck I was during my first fall. Maybe I’ll have another one. I don’t know. But, I’m having a good time.
You also have Six for the History Channel. When you do something like that, that has its own weight to it because you want to do real SEAL teams justice, does it care an extra weight to it?
GOGGINS: I don’t think that the fans of the History Channel, or people who respect the man and women asked to do what they do, on a daily basis, in the armed service branch of our culture really understand the questions and the answers that this show will pose. I asked, before I signed on, if they were willing to go there, and they said, “Unequivocally, yes!” And we went there. I’m very, very proud of it, and I learned a great deal by my experience. Vice Principals airs on Sunday nights on HBO.