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Comic actor Danny McBride has a common name—he shares it with a former indie actor, an actor-stuntman who co-wrote the Underworld film series, and “Dirty Dan” McBride of long-running rock outfit Sha Na Na. The latter once told him to change his name, so for one film, he billed himself as Danny R. McBride.
But that film, The Foot Fist Way, ensured that McBride wouldn’t have to appease has-beens ever again. The micro-indie starred McBride as an obtuse tae kwon do instructor whose world unravels when his wife cheats on him. The film made it into Sundance in 2006, then quietly disappeared. As McBride and his writing partners/friends, Jody Hill and Ben Best, returned to their crap jobs in L.A., the film found its way to some of Hollywood’s comedy tastemakers, including Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell, and Adam McKay. Ferrell and McKay’s production company got Foot Fist released quietly last summer, and McBride became a star: He stole scenes in Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, and his 2009 looks even bigger. On February 15, his new comedy series, Eastbound & Down—co-starring and co-written by Hill and Best—debuts on HBO, and he has a meaty supporting role opposite Ferrell in one of the summer’s expected blockbusters, Land Of The Lost. While finishing post-production work on Down, McBride recently spoke to The A.V. Club about blowing auditions, meeting Judd Apatow, and not shitting himself over his career.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with Eastbound & Down. Where did the idea for the show come from?
Danny McBride: I can remember the day we came up with it, actually. It was a long, long time ago, right after we had done All The Real Girls with David [Gordon] Green, and me, Jody Hill, and Ben Best were in Charlotte sitting in a baby pool in our buddy’s backyard, drinking beer. We were just trying to toss around ideas for fucking bullshit shows that we thought would be funny, and we’d come up with this idea about this kind of washed-up ballplayer, the anti-hero, the guy who’s succumbed to the steroids and the cheating and all that shit. We thought it would just be funny, someone like that coming back to the town they came from, and what a shame it would be to everyone around them. That was the initial idea, and we just pocketed it for a while. After we met Will [Ferrell] and Adam McKay through Foot Fist, they asked us what other shit we wanted to do, and we said, “This is an idea we’d love to do.” We were interested in doing a story that didn’t necessarily have to fit into that hour-and-a-half format of a comedy, where you have to hit all these fucking traditional beats of, like, “This is when this happens, this is when this happens,” and we thought a TV show would be kind of cool. We could stretch the comedy out a little bit, and we could go into some areas that you wouldn’t really expect.
AVC: So you were thinking of television all along?
DM: Like most people who enjoy comedy, we love things like The Office and Spaced, and just a lot of British comedies in general—Alan Partridge, all that stuff. I thought they could just take their time with the comedy and do funny shit that wasn’t expected, and we wanted to play around with that. We weren’t interested in doing anything that was like 24 episodes in a season. We wanted to keep it small, how those shows do. It just seems like it’s more special and unique, and you don’t have to turn the comedy into a formula. You can just make it its own unique little thing. We never really saw doing it on any other network; we wanted to always do it on HBO, because we felt like it could be just as nasty and dirty as we wanted it to be there.
AVC: It’s only six episodes long, right?
DM: Yeah, this season is six episodes. We constructed it like a three-hour movie, basically. Every episode locks into the next one; it picks up exactly where the last one left off. If HBO gives us the middle finger and pisses all over us and says they hate this television show, it will stand on its own as its own complete story in one season. But if they wanted to get into bed with us again, we definitely have an idea of where we would take it from where it leaves off.
AVC: Like you said, the show is about a disgraced major-leaguer coming home. Did you have any specific ballplayers in mind? John Rocker seems like an obvious inspiration.
DM: Well, that’s the thing that’s kind of funny, is me and Jody and Ben, we probably, out of everyone I know, know the least about sports. None of us follow any teams or anything. A lot of what we knew about baseball was what we would just see in the headlines about Pete Rose or these other ballplayers who had fallen down on their luck, got busted for steroids, or whatever kind of shit ballplayers are fucking being accused of. That’s kind of what our exposure to the sport was, and we thought that was always such an odd, interesting thing. You got these guys who are like American heroes, and it just seemed like you’re seeing them in a courtroom, being accused of cheating, and it’s not good. There wasn’t really one particular ballplayer that we modeled this after—it was sort of a culmination of all the shady ballplayers we’d been exposed to.
AVC: The cast is all small names. Probably the most familiar face in there besides you is Deadwood’s John Hawkes. Did you do that intentionally?
DM: We did. Like, one thing on Foot Fist that I think helped the odd humor was that it had this sort of dirty feel to it. I think the fact that it was all unknowns in there just kind of adds to that realism we like to go for with the comedy. So having a bunch of big names in there, I think, was never something we really set out to do. We didn’t try land anybody big. That being said, Will Ferrell does show up in this thing, so we blur those lines.
AVC: You’ve said that you guys wrote a bunch of over-the-top jokes into the pilot thinking HBO would cut them—except they didn’t. What were they?
DM: You know, I think it’s just an old trick that we’ve used a lot. Any scripts that I’ve written with David Green or any of these different guys, we’ve always done that: put in some fucked-up shit that we don’t really think would [make it], that we’re not attached to, in the hopes that that’s the obvious stuff they’ll pull out. With this, a lot of that just had to do with the language and just how fucked-up the character is to other people. We would put stuff in there that made us laugh, but we knew it wasn’t anything that was really suitable for a mass audience. Then we’d get the notes back, and that would be the stuff HBO wouldn’t have a problem with. It would be like the really mundane things we would never think they would have a problem with—that’s where they were drawing the line.
AVC: Like what?
DM: Just little things. Like, you can have a guy fucking blowing rails and driving his nephew to school, but if you make an AIDS joke, then you’re out, you’re not allowed to do that. [Laughs.] But HBO has been really, really good about everything. They let us do what we wanted when we were shooting. They let us employ all of our buddies to work on this thing. And all of that has, I think, really helped keep the vision unique. We never really had to water anything down.
AVC: Did you always intend to shoot it in North Carolina?
DM: We did. When we first pitched the idea to HBO, the stipulation was, we really wanted to shoot it in North Carolina, being that this guy teaches at a school, and so much of it is about him being back in this town. We didn’t want to cast people from the valley putting on Southern accents; we really just wanted those unique characters. We all went to school down in North Carolina. Every time I get off the plane back to North Carolina, it locks us into that mindset we were in when we were back in school, where you weren’t really thinking about what’s selling or what’s hot, and you’re just kind of thinking about what you think is funny and fucked-up. That kept us all in a good mindset. You know, being back there, you got that interesting thing where you go get barbecue somewhere, and the guy behind the counter has this great Southern drawl. It’s so fantastic that you just ask him if he wants to be in a TV show the next day, and more than likely, he’ll show up and do it.
AVC: You’ve said that Hollywood doesn’t get the Southern sensibility right. You grew up in Virginia, but went to school in North Carolina, and those are very different sensibilities.
DM: That right there in itself, I think, is the main thing. A lot of people from Hollywood, I think, don’t see a difference in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia—and there is. The Southern experience of growing up in Virginia as opposed to Alabama is drastically different. And it’s those sort of subtleties that make everything more interesting. It’s not like we’re trying to make some ultimate Southern comedy where we explore all those differences or anything. I think it just is one of those things, having an understanding of subtle things that are humorous in the South, that just plays into our overall tone.
AVC: You were shooting the series toward the end of last summer, after Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, basically when you reached the status of, “Hey, it’s that guy! From the thing!”
DM: Exactly. You know, I’ve been working so much, just focusing on this stuff, that I didn’t get much of a chance to get out there. But when we started to do the show, we got down to North Carolina, that was one of the first times where I had really been out, like, having beers and had some time to kick back and relax. That was the first time where it started happening, where people were coming up and recognizing me and shit. Pineapple and Tropic coming out within a week of each other, I think that’s probably the main reason. But it’s at a point now where it just happens enough that it’s flattering. It’s cool that people are seeing what I’m doing, but it hasn’t gotten annoying or shitty, like it has for some of my other friends.
AVC: You always intended to write and direct, so you came into acting reluctantly. Did you feel unprepared for the demands of it once you started getting these roles?
DM: It’s one of those things where if I ever were to stop and really think about what I was doing when I was stepping into the ring with some of these humongous hitters, I think I would’ve just shit my pants and gone home. It was one of the things where like, when the opportunity was there, there’s no time to really get nervous or to freak about it. You’ve just got to either rise to the occasion, or that’s that. So I just jumped into it, and did what I had been doing with my friends and stuff up until that point, and I just realized that it really wasn’t much different.
AVC: Do you feel like there are any particular skills you have to hone now, like you’re playing catch-up?
DM: No, it’s so weird, my whole education in film, from behind the camera to front of it. When I went to film school, we would all act in each other’s films out of necessity. And I think without even realizing it, I just learned a lot about acting. I understand how movies are made, and I understand what you have to do, and so I think that without really realizing it, I did have training in it, even though it wasn’t probably the normal training that most actors out there have—it still was training nonetheless.
AVC: Have you actually auditioned for anything yet? Stories about you in the press have mentioned you’ve had these big roles, but never had an audition or a headshot.
DM: You know after All The Real Girls, I think I was called into like one thing there. I blew the audition, and I was like, “Eh, fuck acting, I’m not interested in that anyway.”
AVC: How did you blow it?
DM: Just, you know, I’m in there, and I was way too aware of what I was doing. I felt like an asshole, like I was just in some fucking office building, just sitting in here pretending to be somebody I’m not. It was like, “What am I doing in front of these people that I don’t know?” I remember getting back into my car feeling really embarrassed about myself, like “I am fucking never doing that again.” [Laughs.] Then Jody approached me about Foot Fist, and I was like, “If I don’t have to audition for it, I’m in.”
AVC: Did you have any inkling that it would catch on like it did?
DM: Honestly, none at all. Really, none at all. When Jody said he wanted to do it, me and Ben Best, the guy who wrote it with him, we were never going to say “No, don’t do it.” Like at this point, we had been living in Los Angeles for a pretty long time, and we were just doing bullshit jobs, camera work and whatever we could find to make ends meet. I think we were all ready for a vacation. So Jody saying he wanted to go back to North Carolina and shoot something was just like “Yeah, why not, let’s go do it!” I think that once we got down there and really started doing it, it was like, “Fuck, man, he’s putting a lot of money on this credit card. This is going to fucking blow if something doesn’t really happen for this.” But there was never a thought [of making it big]. I remember us talking about it, the most we really thought was like David Green, through his films, had gotten to ride that film-festival circuit and go see a lot of cool cities and get wined and dined at all these festivals. So I think in our minds, that was pretty much what we thought would happen with it. Like, “We’ll maybe get to go to some film festivals, we’ll probably get to go on some cool trips, and either will be a good time.” So when it spread around, that was never anything that we were anticipating. It was pretty shocking.
AVC: When did you realize that it was popular?
DM: I got a phone call—we got agents off of the film, which was pretty cool—and they were like “Yeah, Judd Apatow saw your film, and he wants you to come by the set of Knocked Up.” I was just like “Shit, you’ve got to be kidding me! That’s crazy.” So I went over to the set and met them, and they all had seen the film, and I guess had been watching it a bunch. They were sitting there quoting the film to me! It was a really, really surreal moment of like, “Shit, these guys not only have seen it, but they all like it.” Then they were shooting the movie, and Judd asked me to stick around for a while and hang out on the set and watch. So I just remember calling Jody, just like, “Dude, you’re not going to believe this: These guys not only have seen the movie, but they fucking dig it.” And he was like “What?!” I was like “You should come down, man. They probably wouldn’t care if you came onto the set.” So then Jody came, and we just hit it off with those guys. All these guys had the same mindset that we had. It was really interesting watching Judd work, because our exposure to film sets had just been through David Green’s films, which at that point weren’t really comedies, they were more dramatic fare. But Judd works exactly the same way David works. It was all heavy improv-based, and people were yelling out alt lines and stuff from behind the camera. It was just one of those things. We were watching Judd work, and it was like, “Man, this is crazy. These guys are doing this on a big scale, and they’re working the same way we’re working.” There was just that sort of instant kinship.
AVC: Then the other roles came in.
DM: We wanted to make something that we thought was funny, and we did that, and then without us doing really anything, it just started to spread out here. Then we found out that we had fans, so people that were casting me in these films because they were watching Foot Fist, and they liked it. So it was just that lucky period where people were still so hot off that film that they weren’t really needing to sit down with me and audition or anything. Which is crazy, but I’m not going to argue with them or anything.
AVC: No, just with the dude from Sha Na Na.
DM: Yeah, you get to Los Angeles and you achieve your dreams, and you find out that someone else owns your name.
AVC: And it’s a guy from a band no one has cared about in 30 years.
DM: [Laughs.] He literally had a phone-call conversation with me where he told me that the town wasn’t big enough for the both of us.