Plenty of actors are capable of stealing a scene—Walton Goggins will convince you it belonged to him the whole time. He has one of those faces you never want to take your eyes off. It’s unpredictable; you never know what it might unleash next: malice, tenderness, a smile with those teeth that don’t look quite suited to a human mouth. It’s a good face for a villain, like racist cop Shane Vendrell on The Shield, the role that first brought Goggins television acclaim. It’s an even better face for an antihero. That’s probably why producers decided to turn what was meant to be a one-episode appearance in the pilot of FX’s Justified into a starring, Emmy-nominated turn as Harlan County, Kentucky’s most lovable career criminal, Boyd Crowder.
What The Righteous Gemstones creator and star Danny McBride realized is that if you take that face—scheming, warm, mercurial—and slap on a silver wig and fake tan, it is also incredibly funny. Baby Billy Freeman (affectionately known as Uncle Baby Billy), former child star, singing pastor, snake oil salesman, naked striver, might be merely pathetic or loathsome in lesser hands. With Goggins, he is electric: He preens, he struts, he tap dances, he plots how to climb over anyone and everyone in order to reach the level of fame he believes he is owed, he receives road head from his much, much younger wife, Tiffany. Goggins has once again made a terrible character on paper into someone you want to see win.
This season, having wrestled with his grief over Aimee-Leigh and received the forgiveness of his abandoned son, Baby Billy is free to concentrate on his next big idea: a blatant rip-off of Family Feud with questions about the Bible. We met recently over Zoom to discuss McBride’s unique comedic voice, why Goggins is so drawn to characters who strive for more, and, of course, Baby Billy’s Bible Bonkers. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
GQ: You know, I actually have a little terrier mix—like, a little shaggy dog—who, when I first got him, seemed very much like a kind of mischievous scamp but maybe with the soul of a poet. So I named him Walton Doggins.
Walton Goggins: [Laughing] Walton Doggins? I want to take him out to dinner!
Next time you’re in New Orleans, we can make that happen.
Fantastic! Are you in New Orleans? It’s one of my favorite towns in the world. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time there. We did Django there. I’ve done, like, four or five things there. We just recently did I’m a Virgo with Boots [Riley] there. You know, I was conceived in New Orleans. It’s just so near and dear to my heart. What a great life you have.
You’re not doing too badly yourself! You’re in Italy right now. Actually, that got me thinking about something: When most people think about religions that are kind of opulent and theatrical, they probably think about Catholics. One thing Gemstones does really well is it highlights the strange, maybe tacky theatricality of American evangelicalism. When you’re starting to approach a character like Baby Billy, are you thinking: Okay, I’m going to play a preacher? Or are you thinking of it in terms of playing an actor—some type of showman?
I looked at Baby Billy as a person who had just never had the opportunity to reach his full potential, and therefore he’s deeply insecure about his place in the world. So he has a lot of bravado. I didn’t really think about him as a preacher, I didn’t think about him as anything other than a man who is supremely flawed. And, I just kind of came at it from that angle. And once you turn yourself over to an imaginary set of circumstances, and you put on a wig and makeup that makes you look 72 years old, it’s pretty easy to kind of slip into him. But that’s how I approach everything, really—from the inside out. Walk a mile in their shoes, that’s what I do for the people that I play. Even riding on the subway in New York or walking down the street in Los Angeles, or even here in Italy. I just spent a lot of time looking at people and thinking about their lives, and their joys, and what makes them happy, or what makes them sad. And just projecting onto them l what their day is like, I do that all the time.
Baby Billy is definitely a flawed man. In my opinion, Danny McBride is our best chronicler of a certain type of American masculinity—frustrated, overcompensating, bombastic, but still capable of love and loyalty. Baby Billy, I mean it’s right there in the name, he still wants things in the way a child wants things.
I agree with you. Nobody is able to tell that story the way that Danny does. I’d say it’s a certain type of American male, but maybe a certain type of male in general. It’s probably represented in every culture. One who is supremely frustrated and is really kind of living out an idea of what they think masculinity is. Like, it’s antiquated in a lot of ways, but they’re capable of making that transition into a different space. And it’s just really funny! It’s satirical. I don’t think anyone on television is doing satire the way Danny and Jody [Hill] and David Gordon Green do. It’s a very unique lane they’ve carved out for themselves. And I think one of the reasons why we all enjoy it is because we see it—we see these men maybe at a kids’ baseball game, or as a pastor in a church, or a vice principal of a school.
I’ve seen photos of your dad on your Instagram and he certainly strikes me as somebody you might describe as “a real character.” Did he teach you anything about the expectations of what it is to grow up and be a man?
I suppose it was the absence of his participation that taught me what I wanted to be as a father, as a husband, and as a man in the world. And I only say this because when we’re young—and I think Danny explores that a lot, this recurring theme in Gemstones about fathers and sons—in our youth we’re incapable of really seeing our fathers, or maybe it’s our parents in general. I was incapable of having real empathy for my father, and understanding the kind of the road that he had walked. It was only later, looking at him for who he really is and seeing what he sacrificed, not even necessarily for me, but for other people in his life—you know, he didn’t fulfill all of his expectations, as none of us do. And so we all carry around the burden of that on some level. I suppose it’s moving through that, and past it, that allows us to create some new paradigm for ourselves and reach a stage of happiness. And I say this to you about my father because I love him dearly. I really love my dad. And I really love Baby Billy. I have such empathy now for people as I’ve gotten older, empathy for the people that I play, and empathy for the people in my own life that I’ve gotten to know better. I see them for all their flaws and have accepted them for their flaws. I hope my son does the same for me.
But I would be lying if I didn’t say that my father is a character. I grew up with a lot of different philosophies; I was exposed to a lot of things from very early on. I mean, I went to Bible camp, but my mom also had me reading Joel Goldsmith and Paramahansa Yogananda from early in my life, just a lot of esoteric kind of literature. So I spent a lot of time in churches—Baptist churches and Pentecostal churches—as a kid, and got to really see people that have found something that works for them. I have no judgment of it whatsoever. And I suppose when I was younger, what I was so attracted to about the times that people made me go to church on Sunday, was the theatrical nature of Pentecostal and Baptist churches. And when I say it was a performance, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t rooted in reality, or rooted in passion. What I mean by that is, it was a way in which to convey a feeling of the Divine.
But my father, I got to spend a week with him recently in New York, and like Baby Billy, he’s really able to express himself. Whether or not you like him or whether or not you like Baby Billy, they can light up a room.
How could anyone not like Baby Billy?
I feel the same way! And that’s also my father. He dresses the way that he dresses and as he’s gotten older, his version of himself has become heightened. But he lights up a room, much more than I do. I’ve loved watching him over the years, like, make people smile with his style and his philosophy. And it is complicated, but also very, very simple.
The other thing that I appreciate about this show and Danny’s work in general is that it’s a comedy that actually seems to care about being funny. There are a lot of modern comedies where it seems like being funny is maybe a secondary concern to a kind of broader sentimentality.
I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think that at the end of the day, comedy rules. And it’s like, there are jokes, but there are no jokes, right? It’s all situational. It is the people themselves in these situations that make it so fucking funny. But I think we all look to each other, certainly to Danny, for that energy, for their reactions and things, but never trying to one up each other or doing a bit. Most of what we say is scripted, but when we’re in the middle of work sometimes we’ll go off on a tangent and see what happens right over here. And the situation will become something else. But we always usually come back to the text. And every day is so goddamn funny and long. These are long fucking days. But they’re filled with laughter, and usually around that 10th or 11th or 12th hour, people get silly, and then fucking anything can happen.
I assume there’s a good balance between the rhythm of the core group of actors and the openness to have all of these guest stars every season— to have them come in and work so well like that.
I think if you go back to the way in which they cast their shows from the very beginning, from Eastbound, they have a gift for finding people that are able to give them what they need. And Danny has a real good eye for that. Even though it may seem kind of out of the box, and a little weird, he understands how everybody will work together. I feel that way about every actor, certainly back on Vice Principals. There you could just pass the ball to anyone, they’re gonna score. And it’s the same thing about this group of actors. Everyone brings something very unique to the table. Tim Baltz is infinitely watchable. I can watch him all day long, and his relationship with Edi Patterson is just so good.
Marriage is another really central theme on the show. None of this world exists without Eli and Aimee-Leigh, and even Baby Billy and Tiffany, I think, seemed more like a real partnership this season.
I think they have the best relationship on this show. You’re right that relationships and marriages and unions and partnerships are at the heart of this, and whenever there’s a disruption to that chemistry or that energy, that’s probably when the show was at its best, right?. And I’m so fascinated with Danny’s relationship with Cassidy [Freeman]. It’s come a long way from him doing cocaine off of a hooker’s ass.
So these characters want to be redeemed in the religious sense, but they’re sometimes, in their better moments, also trying to redeem themselves in the earthly sense through love—romantic love, familial love, whatever. That struggle for redemption reminds me of Boyd Crowder, another character who feels himself ill-suited to his circumstances, maybe not entirely dissimilar to Baby Billy. At least they both want more for themselves, right?
Because I want more for myself.
Is that what attracts you to these sorts of characters?
No, I’m kidding. I’m so satiated. I am so happy with my life, and have been for a very long time. I don’t know why I’m attracted to these people. Thinking back through all of it, you’ve got [The Shield’s] Shane Vendrell too. These are human beings who see themselves as something more than what they are and are willing to go to almost any lengths to prove that to the people around them, but honestly, I think that they’re just trying to prove it to themselves. And that is a lonely place. The human experience can be very lonely, and maybe that’s why I’m attracted to these people. To be quite honest with you, I don’t know that they start off that way on the page. I don’t think that’s really got to be a part of who they are, but I think that’s my way into their humanity. It’s even this guy in Dreamin’ Wild, this thing with Casey [Affleck] that’s coming out. I guess this is turning into a therapy session. I don’t know why people are attracted to me for that experience, or why I kind of find that in people. Maybe I think it’s in all of us, man.
Are you prepared to have people yell “Baby Billy’s Bible Bonkers” at you on the street from now on?
It’s so good. Yes, absolutely, I’m ready for it. You know, when I read the first few scripts I had no idea it was going to come to fruition, they’re pretty secretive about stuff, so when I say it was going to happen it was great. But I had to practice saying it like, a thousand times.
Who on the cast would win at Baby Billy’s Bible Bonkers?
Like in real life? I’m going to say John Goodman. I’ll say John just because he’s so smart and he’s been around a long time. Actually, Danny would probably win. I don’t think I would win. Danny or John.
They would have to go head to head to determine the winner?
You know what, we’re going to do that. We’re going to do that live on your feed.
So part of the satire is the show really looks at a particular sort of greed. It’s a greed that exploits this very human need for beauty, meaning, and storytelling. And I was wondering, with that particular sort of greed in mind, if you had any thoughts about how the studio heads are approaching the WGA, and SAG-Aftra at this moment?
Oh, God, what a fucking wild time. It’s so wild. You know, I suppose the only thing that I really have to say about this, to quote a line from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard, “Things have to change in order for them to remain the same.” Whatever that means to you, I know what it means to me. But I think that it bears repeating, in these times, certainly in this negotiation, but also in our own lives, things have to change in order for them to remain the same. And that certainly has happened in my personal life, you know, over the course of the last three years, in so many other people’s lives. Maybe that speaks to what’s happening right now, because it speaks to me that way.
SAG-AFTRA members are currently on strike; as part of the strike, union actors are not promoting their film and TV projects. This interview was conducted prior to the strike.