Created, written and executive produced by Dana Gould (The Simpsons, Parks and Recreation), the IFC horror-comedy series Stan Against Evil follows perpetually disgruntled former sheriff Stan Miller (John C. McGinley), who was forced into retirement and, as a result, has trouble relinquishing his authority to the new sheriff, Evie Barret (Janet Varney). But after they realize a plague of unleashed demons have been haunting their small New England town, they must team up to save their town and themselves.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, co-stars John C. McGinley and Janet Varney, along with showrunner Dana Gould, talked about how this show came about, the limitless possibilities for these characters, how much Stan evolved, the oil and water dynamic between Stan and Evie, why there are so many demons in this small town, and working with all of the gore.
Collider: Dana, how did this show come about?
DANA GOULD: I’m known as a comedian and a comedy writer, but I’ve always been a horror movie junkie. I grew up on Cemetery Street and my last name is Gould, so I embraced it. The original concept of this was that I thought it would be a fun little three-minute digital series, just so I could play in that world and have a monster and fight it. But I wanted it to be funny, so I thought that if it was my dad fighting it, it would be funny. I had never dreamed of it being a television show, honestly. I thought it was a fun thing I could do on the weekend. But then, it basically became an experiment of, what if I wrote a straight out horror show, like any show that I would watch, and then took a character that didn’t belong in that show and put them right in the middle of it. It was a fun writing challenge, and it just bloomed like a flower. It just worked so well. It grew out of that and was its own little thing. And then, I backwards engineered the tagline about, what if my dad was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Once I landed on that idea, it wrote itself. It was easy to write and really, really fun to write.
How does writing Stan Against Evil compare to writing for The Simpsons?
GOULD: Writing The Simpsons episodes is like being in Navy SEAL training. The worst feeling in the world is sitting down with a blank computer screening and knowing that you have to start writing an episode of The Simpsons. This was just great. I had so much fun. I’m already mapping out the second season.
Are the possibilities for these characters just totally limitless?
GOULD: Yeah, and I knew these characters, right away. I had my father, and I had Janet [Varney]. Janet and I are friends, and we’ve been friends for a long time. She was just perfect for Evie. Evie came about like that. I know Janet well enough that I knew what she would do. Those characters just worked for me, on the page. And then, we had to find Stan, and it became a different thing because John C. McGinley is not my dad. He’s playing a different character. What’s he’s playing is so much more grounded and real than what I envisioned. I envisioned a much more two-dimensional persona than what John brought to it. He made it so much better. Everything just fell into place.
John, what did you see in Stan that made you want to play this character?
JOHN McGINLEY: Right after they made the offer to me, I got to creatively get on the same frequency as Dana Gould. He came out to the house and I said, “I don’t want to kill the comedy of this, so what I’m about to say, please integrate it into your hard drive with an asterisk. Stan has to be reeling from loss, and we have to see it a couple of times. It doesn’t have to kill any jokes, but his authenticity and what will separate him, as it did with Archie Bunker and his love of Edith, is that he can’t get out of the way of caring.” While Stan doesn’t have those sensibilities, he doesn’t know how to process loss. It’s not that it’s not appropriate, but he’s skipping a step. He has to process the loss of his wife, before he can just put all of her stuff in storage. He’s talked himself into a corner and he hasn’t reconciled the loss of Claire. I told Dana Gould that I can do the comedy stuff in my sleep and the action stuff blindfolded, but there has to be something missing with this guy. For the first time in 27 years, she isn’t there anymore, and that has to resonate. Otherwise, I didn’t want to do the show.
And I wasn’t being a tough guy because I thought the script was hilarious, but you can’t gloss over what will distinguish this guy and separate him from other protagonists. He put it on the page and laid it out. It wasn’t something I came up with. My take away from what he put on the page was that this guy hasn’t reconciled his loss, which will actually make the jokes twice as funny because he overcompensates. That makes the landscape twice as rich. As soon as I saw that Dana Gould was cut from the same cloth as Bill Lawrence – and that’s the biggest compliment I can give you – I said yes. I also said I had to be a producer, so that I could be involved with post. I’m very comfortable in post and I like to be a part of post, and the answer was yes. I don’t want to be a fly in the ointment. I know every frame we do, better than anyone except Dana. I want to be a part of shaping the tone. Stan lives and dies on tone. Dana and I are both obsessed with tone, and it goes back to Stan’s loss. It grounds Stan.
How much did Stan evolve from what you first read, in that first script?
McGINLEY: Dana wrote Stan, originally, as about 65, and I’m 57. Right after I said yes to the role, they sent me to do make-up tests because everyone was obsessed with aging Stan up. The make-up people were trying all of these prosthetics and I said, “Stop! I’m Stan. I’ll grow a beard and it will come in a little white. We can age up my hair a little bit. I’ll put him in pain. We can age him up three or four years. We can darken his eyes a little bit and put some liver spots on him, and age him up a little bit. But, I’m not doing prosthetics on my eyes. You can’t have #1 on the call sheet in the make-up chair for an hour and a half, every day.” And they processed that. I wasn’t saying it as a bully. I just said, “Whatever you read on the page, I’m Stan.” And if you make Evie’s physicality ten times better than Stan’s, that’s much more interesting.
What did you do to prepare to play this character?
McGINLEY: I had about a month or two to get ready, so I did what I always do. I keep a space in Malibu for rehearsal, and it’s a sacred space with no phones. It’s a loft-ish place with nothing to do except rehearse. We just grind the lines, so that the words are second nature. I have this guy come out, who’s as much an acting teacher as he is a shrink, and we dug into loss processing. The most indulgent and fun part is figuring out what’s going on. I take about six or seven weeks, and then I’m wired and ready to go. And Dana would come out once a week and tweak things. That process was exciting. I can memorize the phone book, hit a mark and say whatever you want to pay the bills, but I don’t want to do that. That bores me. I want to be a part of the storytelling. That’s more fun.
Janet, what did you think of this character and this world?
JANET VARNEY: I cannot believe it all worked out. When you’re lucky enough to have someone with a brain like Dana write something for you, the first thing you think is, what will be the thing that happens that makes it not possible for me to do this? Will someone else say no? Will he change his mind? Will I be unavailable because I’m doing something else? What will prevent this perfect thing from happening? We love to protect ourselves, in this business.
GOULD: And we had to have a conversation to agree that we would still be friends, when something prevented this from happening. That’s really true. Because of the realities of show business, Janet had to win the part. I think she was the second person to read, and she nailed it to the wall. Nobody else got close, and that’s just a testament to her abilities. If I had the power to just ram it through, she would have never had to leave her house. But she came in and just knocked it right out. It was just one of those things that was exactly what I thought it would be.
VARNEY: All of the stuff that he has in his brain, that he thinks is scary and funny, he’d leave me little drops to think about and I would just be like, “Yes!” I had the wonderful good fortune of playing a pretty tough character in the animation world, with Korra in The Legend of Korra. One of the things I loved about that was that I got to do stuff on that show that I thought no one would ever let me do on camera, as an actress. And then, a year later, I got to carry it through to the next level. Whether Dana knew it or not, he tapped into a very deep-seeded desire of mine to be an action hero.
GOULD: In the show, Janet is Harrison Ford without the pilot’s license. She’s really beautiful, in the way that Harrison Ford is really handsome, but also incredibly relatable and down to earth, in the way that he is, and she’s also an action hero. I don’t think of Janet as an ingenue. She’s like the female Harrison Ford.
What’s the dynamic between Stan and Evie like?
McGINLEY: Oil and water. He prefers to work alone and he has, in his little fiefdom in New Hampshire. He’s lost the woman who he’s loved desperately, for 27 years, and now he’s been fired from his job and replaced by a woman who’s probably infinitely more qualified to do the job than him and will certainly be better at it. Unbeknownst to Stan, his wife has been protecting him from witches for 27 years. As we’ll find out, she’s been going out and battling demons, and one of the demons killed her, which Stan didn’t know anything about. So, when the new sheriff, who’s a woman, comes and suggests that I’ve been protected by Claire for 27 years, it just sounds like the most irrational feminist blah blah in the history of the world. He’s like, “My wife wasn’t going out and fighting witches! I would know that!” But, he had blinders on and didn’t know squat. He’d go to bed, every night, and Claire would tuck him in, and then go fight witches. When you have a blindspot as a protagonist, it’s great.
Because he’s stepping into the space left by his wife’s death, how does he feel about having to fight and kill witches and demons?
McGINLEY: What we’re doing with this story is that this guy is supposed to fight witches, and that’s not his thing. What are witches, anyway? He’s been pulling people over for moving violations and going after kids breaking windows. So then, he can function from a place of authenticity. It’s the most passive objective I’ve given a character, which is to get back to his La-Z-Boy chair. Now, there’s a witch in the way, so he has to kill the witch.
Is he better at killing demons than he was as the sheriff?
McGINLEY: I think he’s good at conflict resolution, whatever it is. That’s what a cop has to do. Now, the conflict that needs to be resolved is dispatching this things, so that he can get back to his chair.
Does he have to get rid of all of the witches and demons, or is there a specific goal or mission?
McGINLEY: As we’ll come to find out, there were 173 witches who were burned at the stake when the Salem witch trials happened, a couple towns over. If that means you have to do 173 episodes, those are good problems.
Janet, what was it like to work with all of the blood and guts?
VARNEY: There were definitely moments, after we would shoot something, where Dana would come up and say, “Janet, I’m so sorry that I had this idea in my kitchen. I guess I didn’t imagine what it would actually be like when we were shooting it.” And I’d say, “I forgive you, unconditionally.” It didn’t matter how miserable I was in those two seconds. The minute the goo was off my face, I was so excited that I’d had a bunch of goo on my face.
GOULD: It was early in production and we were quite literally in a swamp in Georgia at 2:30 in the morning, and we were rigging up a hose to a bucket of goo that was going right onto Janet’s face, for a good 20 to 25 seconds. I literally couldn’t watch it. It was all my fault. She was a really good sport.
Stan Against Evil airs on Wednesday nights on IFC.