The first season of HBO's Vice Principals ended with a shocker that upon reflection felt inevitable: after spending a season watching Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) terrorize their coworkers and rivals, all in pursuit of becoming principal of North Jackson High School, Gamby was shot by a mysterious assailant and left for dead. Although the show shared much of the same DNA with Eastbound and Down, Vice Principals turned out to be an even more uncomfortable portrait of toxic masculinity than that beloved ode to a megalomaniac baseball player. It was often hilarious, and it was clearly building toward that near-fatal denouement, but it left a bad taste in some critics' and fans' mouths along the way.
The second and final season of the show kicked off last night as Gamby, convalescing after the shooting, sets forth to find out who shot him with the help of now-principal Russell. If the first season was about watching these characters lash out at the world, then season two is about understanding why they are as they are. We spoke to Goggins, one of the greatest TV character actors of the 21st century (The Shield, Justified, Sons Of Anarchy), about what's ahead in season two, why he thinks some critics didn't give the show a fair shake, and whether there's any chance of a Justified reunion.
Before the tape started rolling, we started out talking about my love for his work in "Justified," the Elmore Leonard FX adaptation which ended in 2015 after six seasons.
Is there any chance of a Justified reboot or return? I don't know if there are any reboots in production, but...we've talked about [continuing], and what that would be like. We've had conversations. But, it was such a fulfilling end to that journey, I think it would have to be real special for our showrunner, Graham Yost, to want to do that.
But with him or with Tim [Olyphant], I would be there, in a moment's notice. It's really hard to lay Boyd Crowder down and it's hard to lay down the relationship that I had with Tim's character, Raylan Givens. You know, I even miss saying the name..."Hello, Raylan."
The way you just rolled it off your tongue... such relish, such fire. It meant a lot of different things at different times. It's like, how many meanings does Sam Jackson have for "motherfucker?" It's the same thing for "Raylan Givens."
It would be really hard to improve on the final line, "we dug coal together." Which was such a perfect, poetic end for a show that never tried to be fancy with its storytelling, but got to the heart of this very unique relationship. Absolutely. It wasn't a world that was supposed to be fancy. Raylan doesn't talk very much. He's taciturn by nature, whereas Boyd Crowder is an eloquent, poetic killer. And a charmer.
Speaking of men who aren't that fancy, we start the second and final season of Vice Principals with Lee having finally ascended to the throne at the school. The king! The king of all kings!
And he's also remade the school in his image, which is really something. Yes, like America, know what I'm saying? [laughs] I'm joking. Yes, he has remade the school in his image, because you know, he's a narcissist. I'm surprised he didn't put up more mirrors.
I really like the painting [an over-the-top one of Lee that I won't spoil here] that he has in the office. That's one of my favorite production touches.[laughs] Me too man! When they wrote that, I just had no idea what they would really look like, and then they showed them to me for the first time, and I just could not stop laughing. But they only showed me one at a time, because in the story something happens, and there's a new painting installed in the principal's office. And it's even funnier and more perfect than the first one.
How would you describe Lee's sense of style in general? Whimsical. One of a celebration, just a rainbow of joy and happiness. Sarah Trost was our wardrobe designer, and I think it's the first time she ever worked with Danny. And I'll never forget the first day that I met her, and the conversation that ensued, and what she pulled out of her case. As wardrobe designers do, she fundamentally dialed into what Lee was going to be for me. I think Danny would say the same thing about her.
You know, we know a lot of people in the South—both Danny and I, and Jody and David for that matter [Editor's Note: Jody Hill is co-creator, director and executive producer of the show, and David Gordon Green is a director and executive producer on the show; both are frequent collaborators with McBride]—that you don't know whether they're gay or they're straight. You know, they're these effeminate kind of guys in the South that are so lovely, they're so wonderful, and this was kind of an amalgamation of a few of those people that I knew.
I had read an interview with Danny in which he said that part of the character of Lee was based on someone he knew, who was emasculated and beaten down by his mother-in-law in real life. [Editor's Note: the quote in question: "Russell’s storyline in his home life? That is strictly ripped from a friend’s life. His relationship with his mother-in-law is exactly what you’re seeing unfold."]: Wow, I didn't know that. Maybe, was that based on me? No, I'm just kidding.
The first season was largely about seeing what the characters do, seeing them put this terrible plan [to remove Dr. Belinda Brown as principal] in action. The second half is about understanding why they are who they are. Can you talk a little about that, and what is coming in season two? I think that's what was so rewarding, for me to be given an opportunity to have these words written by Danny and his crew. To explore the mercurial kind of insecure, dark, perverted, nature of Lee Russell and where that comes from in a person.
I think we all experience insecurity in our lives on one level or another, and some of us have it more acutely than others, but, for a person like Lee Russell, he was always in arrears with the most important person in his life, his father. The guy—the person, non-gender specific— who he most desperately wanted love from, he never got it, or he never got it in the way in which it could really penetrate him. And that's a big hole. I think that's a big hole for a lot of people.
I think once people see that episode, it will humanize his experience for him. Not that they'll be able to forgive him. Hopefully they'll just move on and continue to laugh, and see exactly where the show is going, and what it ultimately has to say. There is a point to all of this. But in that moment for me, it became very real, and I think that's what's different than season one for these two men.
You filmed the whole show, all in one go, a few years ago right? Yeah it was...2015 I think.
There are all these themes of powerlessness, white male entitlement, and toxic masculinity floating in the mix. A lot of things have changed in the country since you filmed this, even since the first season aired. Do you think the show has added resonance and added relevancy now, with Trump becoming president and white supremacists running amok? Well, Danny and Jody wrote this I think almost 12 years ago. It kind of laid on the shelf. They were going to do it originally as a movie, and just felt that there was a bigger story there to tell.
So, the fact that this release kind of coincided with this latest movement in the country ...do I think it's relevant? Absolutely. I think that Eastbound and Down was relevant. I don't think they're overtly making a political story, I don't think they were commenting on that, but it just happens to be their comedy. But it is a kind of mirroring of this latest movement in this country, and I think it's important to look at it in this way. And, without people that can talk about it, maybe we wouldn't see it the way one can see it from this point of view.
I found it very interesting to think about this idea that both of them are trying to fill something in their lives that's missing by jockeying for power, and I see a lot of parallels with other people striving for power right now. There's this impotence, and they're lashing out in rage at the moment. Right, yeah. For no good reason.
Both Lee and Gamby have been described as abrasive, mean, and divisive. It seems like a lot of critics, after only seeing the first couple of episodes, kind of jumped on season one, and felt uncomfortable with some aspects of the show. Particularly, the feeling that there were these two white men up against this black woman, and what that implied. I was wondering, do you think that viewers have a hard time separating— I think those are the critics, I don't think those are the viewers at all. And, I think if you were to ask Kimberly [Hebert Gregory, who plays former principal Dr. Belinda Brown], if she were sitting here, this was an unbelievable role for an African-American woman and she killed it. She is the most sympathetic person in the story. I mean, she holds the moral center.
So, for those people that had whatever they had to say critically early on, they did themselves a disservice by not seeing the entire thing. And, I don't know, in my experience, and I think Danny's experienced the same thing, but I have a lot of African-American friends, and whenever I'm stopped on the road, on the streets in whatever city, by African-Americans that watch the show, they say thank you for showing this, for talking about it. That is what happens. So their experience is very different than the critic sitting in a room who's very uncomfortable with this, and maybe you should just look at how you feel about it, you know, and understand a story, or attempt to watch the entire story before you pass judgment. That's what I think.
Well, obviously, there's a little problem with that just because people are only given so many episodes at a time, so they can't see the full breadth of the story usually. Right, well then, maybe a person in that position should hold those thoughts until they see an entire movement. You know, it's like listening to "Bohemian Rhapsody," and you just write an article on like the first 30 seconds of that song. Well then, what would that be, in compared to listening to the entire song? That's what I think.
OK. I guess my view was just that there was this weird thing where some people couldn't separate you guys commenting on and discussing these issues, verses identifying with or glorifying them. That they were conflating the two. I don't understand what you're saying.
That some people assumed the story you were telling was one of relishing in the mud, as opposed to commenting and critiquing these men. Relishing in the mud, like Danny McBride and Walton Goggins were relishing in the mud? Well, this was what was written on the page, first and foremost, And you know what, I'm gonna end this really quickly, but I'll just say this in closing: who was the most lovable person in the room? Who were the most despicable people in the room? It's Lee Russell and Neal Gamby, and it is their journey towards a personal, soulful redemption. This story hopefully will be about a journey towards enlightenment. About lifting oneself out of an arrested state of development. Right? That's what I think, and I think...yeah that's it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.