With Emmy nominations being announced on July 12th, it’s the perfect time to look back on and spotlight stand-out TV that qualifies for recognition. One of the more memorable performances in comedy over the last year was that of Walton Goggins as Lee Russell, the scheming and seemingly sociopathic co-vice principal and frenemy of Neal Gamby (played by co-creator Danny McBride), on the HBO comedy series Vice Principals.
Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat with actor Walton Goggins about his experience on Vice Principals and why he’s sad the show is done, telling a story that was designed as a two-season story, how it was one of the greatest experiences of his life, the freedom of playing a character that you don’t have to try to make sympathetic, the joy of working with Danny McBride, and why being stuck with each other is exactly what Lee Russell and Neal Gamby deserve. He also talked about how much he’d like to work with Justified creator Graham Yost and co-star Tim Olyphant again, the great time he had shooting the pilot for L.A. Confidential (which CBS has not picked up, at this point), and what makes him feel satisfied about a project and performance.
Collider: It feels strange and sad to be talking to you about a show that’s finished and we know we won’t get to see any more new episodes of, but I’m happy about the possibility that it could get some Emmy recognition and love.
WALTON GOGGINS: You know, I feel sad that the show’s not on anymore. I’m talking to you because I wish it was, but no.
Did you ever try to convince Danny McBride to just do one more season?
GOGGINS: I think it was a really hard decision for him. It was a hard decision for all of us, but it was designed to be the story that it was. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s really hard to say goodbye to people that you’ve grown to love, you know? That as certainly the case for the rest of us, and I know that was the case for Danny. I think it was one of the best experiences he’s ever had. We all became so very close that it was just hard, and it’s hard not to see everyone, every day.
So, it’s safe to say that, if he called you up with something else, you’d take the phone call.
GOGGINS: Exactly! Anywhere, at any time!
When this idea initially came your way, what was your reaction to it? Did you initially think that it sounded nuts, or were you immediately like, “That sounds awesome because I’ve never played a character like that”?
GOGGINS: It was written by Danny McBride, so I said, “Yes, absolutely!” I read the first three episodes in a trailer, on the side of a mountain while I was doing The Hateful Eight. People were walking by and one person knocked on the door and said, “What are you doing in there?” I said, “I’m reading this script that Danny McBride wrote.” I just fell in love with it. From the first page, it had me. I just wanted to find out who these people were and where the story would go. I’m so happy that I got the invitation to come and play with those guys because it really is one of the greatest experiences of my life.
You guys did an interview where you said that you weren’t worried about making these characters sympathetic. Is it freeing, when you go into something and you don’t worry about making the character sympathetic to the audience?
GOGGINS: Yeah, it’s liberating. I suppose it’s also very freeing to know that HBO is going to air all 18 episodes, and that you’re going to film all 18 episodes without anyone seeing one frame, so that the actors, writers and directors aren’t influenced by the audience’s reaction to it. It wasn’t put through any filter. It was a pure experience. For all of us, that was very gratifying. It’s the first time that’s ever happened for me, in my career, on something that hasn’t been a movie, and it was liberating. That was very freeing.
These seem like guys that you probably shouldn’t like, but you just really can’t help it.
GOGGINS: Yeah. I suppose humor has something to do with that, too. They have their brand of comedy, that I happen to, and a whole lot of other people happen to, find extremely funny and tragic, simultaneously. I keep going back to the first season of Eastbound & Down, and how much I had laughed, watching that with my wife, and then the tears came to my eyes when he left his girlfriend at that gas station. I thought, “Wow, there are very few people that can pull off those two extremes, where they can co-exist inside of your experience, simultaneously.” We had that, so often, in Vice Principals, and it was just a great experience.
There was something satisfying about these two guys, who were both awful sometimes, being stuck with each other.
GOGGINS: Yeah, at the end of it, they’ve got each other, and that’s exactly what they deserved. When Neal Gamby says, “I love you,” with tears in his eyes, it’s maybe the first time that he’s ever said that, in his life. Danny just did such a good job as Neal. It was so different to me than what he pulled off as Kenny Powers. I wish that we were talking about Season 3, or maybe Season 4 by now, but whenever you have something that feels that satisfying, I suppose it’s best to walk away from it. We felt that way on Justified. I think that could have gone another two years, if we really wanted it to, but it was time to say goodbye. The story had run its course for the experience that we were all looking for, and the same goes for Vice Principals.
If you ever got the chance to work with Graham Yost and Tim Olyphant again, would you want it to be as Boyd Crowder, or would you want it to be as something new?
GOGGINS: Well, I desperately miss Boyd Crowder and I think about him, all the time. I miss Tim, but I text him, and I saw Graham not too long ago. Michael Dinner directed the pilot for L.A. Confidential. It’s always an adjustment, working with someone that you’re so familiar with, in a new paradigm, but we had a really good time on L.A. Confidential. I suppose the same would be the case with Graham and Tim. I’d work with them, in a second.
Not only will Justified always be one of my favorite TV shows, but as far as I’m concerned, Boyd Crowder is one of the best characters that’s ever been on TV.
GOGGINS: Thank you so much for saying that.
The show also had the best finale that it could have had.
GOGGINS: Thank you! I know Graham appreciates that, and Tim appreciates that, too.
As much as you had it when a TV show that you love comes to an end, that’s always better than wishing they’d left sooner.
GOGGINS: Yeah. With Vice Principals, even though this was shot in a vacuum, Danny’s perspective was really taken into consideration. It’s such a big ask of people, in today’s world, for them to take out half an hour or an hour a week of their time to spend with you. You want to honor, as best you can, the time that people have taken and the journey that you’ve taken them on. You want to really have something to say, if not about the world in general, certainly about the world of these people. We, as the actors and storytellers that are making the product, suffer the same anxiety and depression that I do, as an audience member, when I’m watching something. It’s a real let down when it’s over. It’s melancholy, but it’s a good melancholy. I feel that way about books or vacation, or anything else.
I actually thought it was really cool to hear that Michael Dinner was directing the pilot for L.A. Confidential. What do you feel that he brought to the series, in helping to establish it and set it up for the season?
GOGGINS: I think Michael Dinner is one of the best directors working in television, and I’m not alone in my view, but he reached a new level with the pilot for L.A. Confidential. I know him very well, but it’s great to see him stretch his muscles in ways that even I didn’t know he could, and to really delve that deep into areas that I’d never seen him go before because it’s just a different muscle. He’s exercising a bunch of different muscles. I texted and said to him, “Man, I am so fucking proud of you! You did such a good job!” It’s exciting. We’ll see what happens with it, but I’ve never been one to really think about the end result of anything. We had the experience, and that was amazing.
What is your approach to that character like?
GOGGINS: I think it’s the same for all of us, that are given this opportunity, trying to stand up to the exemplary execution of those performances in the movie, or the work of (director) Curtis Hanson. That’s unattainable. You can’t do that, so you’ve gotta throw that out immediately. You can’t watch the movie. None of us really watched it before we did it. You have to realize that you’re not remaking the movie. You’re telling the story that (author) James Ellroy wrote. You’re delving into Los Angeles in 1952, and what that meant, seven years after World War II, and the dirty secrets that Los Angeles keeps. It was so nice to go back to an analog world, and to show up, every day, and wear those clothes and drive those cars. It was simpler. I really enjoyed that. As for my approach to Jack Vincennes, if you read the novel, he is a person who has committed a horrible crime and is dealing with the ramifications of that. He’s also a person that relies on his personality. You have these three men in the pilot – Bud White (Mark Webber) relies on his fists, Ed Exley (Brian J. Smith) relies on his intellect, and Jack Vincennes relies on his personality.