Walton Goggins celebrated last holiday season as part of “The Hateful Eight,” Quentin Tarantino’s brutal western involving a pair of bounty hunters, a female fugitive, a band of outlaws and others holed up at a stagecoach lodge. By the final reel, Goggins, as the racist incoming sheriff of a town called Red Rock, was neck deep in bloody mayhem.
The role in many respects was an extension of a gallery of multidimensional bad guys Goggins has played since his breakthrough as a member of a rogue police unit in the landmark FX drama “The Shield.”
Armed with a wide smile that is simultaneously disarming and sinister, Goggins has stamped his smooth-yet-charming menace on many other projects, including “Justified” and Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” He also surprised viewers with his humorous but poignant portrayal of the transgender character Venus Van Dam on the biker drama “Sons of Anarchy.”
On Sunday, Goggins goes from “The Hateful Eight” to a “hateful two” in HBO’s “Vice Principals,” in which high school administrators Lee Russell and Neal Gamby (Goggins and Danny McBride), who despise each other, join forces to bring down their new boss, the outwardly pleasant Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).
“Vice Principals,” created by McBride and Jody Hill as a follow-up to their previous HBO comedy “Eastbound & Down,” is a revelation for Goggins watchers, representing both his first major lead and a distinct change of pace — the only body part he’s taking aim at this time is the funny bone.
But just because Goggins is showing a lighter side doesn’t mean he’s fooling around.
“While I haven’t done an outright comedy, I don’t think Danny and Jody make comedies,” Goggins, 44, said recently. “I think they make dramas that happen to be funny. [Danny] did not want to hire a comedian to go on this journey with him. He wanted to hire an actor who has been given an opportunity to be funny in a lot of dramas. And we do have a real chemistry together.”
That chemistry consists of a flood of foul-mouthed quarrels and physical high jinks as Russell and Gamby continue to snipe at each other even as they unite to take down their common enemy. In the second episode, when they break into Brown’s house to unearth incriminating dirt on her, their eventual ballet of destruction displays a fierce comic force.
McBride said he was looking for a partner who had dramatic chops, who had a “dangerous streak as well as a comic sensibility. I didn’t want the character to be just a cartoon. We sent Walton a few scripts and he called us back talking as if he was Lee Russell and we just laughed our butts off.”
Goggins maintains that, although “Vice Principals” is a comedy, it isn’t always a laughing matter. There is a measure of sadness in Russell, which he said is a common thread with most of his characters.
“Lee Russell is as impotent as they possibly come,” he said. “He wakes up every single morning with one thought — ‘How can I acquire power?’ It’s a very painful place to be when you’re willing to go to the lengths he goes to.
“I’d give anything to be in a romantic comedy,” he added. “But I’ve been fortunate or privileged enough to play individuals — both funny and serious — who are in a great struggle and coming from a great deal of pain.”
In addition to “Vice Principals, Goggins has a featured role in History’s upcoming series “Six” about Navy Seal Team 6, playing a former Seal who is taken hostage.
Relaxing in the spacious backyard of the Hollywood home he shares with his wife, writer-director Nadia Conners, and their 5-year-old son, Augustus, Goggins marveled at his evolution from an aspiring actor who had little more than hope when he moved from Georgia more than two decades ago: “It took a lot for me to move here. When you’re a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, it takes a lot of courage to sit down with people who are Ivy League educated.”
He attracted attention soon after arriving. His first role was in Billy Crystal’s 1992 showbiz dramedy “Mr. Saturday Night.” “I played a nervous kid in a scene that was eventually cut from the movie but wound up on the DVD extras,” he says. When he ran into Crystal last year at a performance of the Lyndon B. Johnson play, “All The Way,” the veteran comedian remembered him.
“He said, ‘Hey, nervous kid, you’re not so nervous anymore,’” recalled Goggins.
Although “The Shield,” which premiered in 2002, was a showcase for Goggins, he has a special connection to the FX series “Justified,” where he played Boyd Crowder, a career criminal turned preacher engaged in an epic conflict with Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant).
In “Justified,” which was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard and set in Harlan County, Ky., Crowder was originally supposed to die in the pilot. But the character, with his molasses-flavored accent and swastika tattoos, proved such a perfect yin to Givens’ yang that he survived the six-season run of the show, which ended last year.
“Boyd represented so much of who I was and who I am,” said Goggins. “He was an autodidact who desired to rise above the station in life that was predestined for him. His need to be loved made him so much more than how he looked.”
He added, “That has been my experience in this city, and it’s taken a long time for me to love me. Boyd really had a fully lived, three-dimensional understanding of who he was. It took six years and everything he went through to get to that place, and it’s taken Walton Goggins that long too. I was on a similar journey for a very long time. At 44, I’m finally able to say who I am.
“It’s been a great run and you never know when it’s going to end. You know it will end on some level, so you keep swinging for the fences, putting yourself in uncomfortable and vulnerable positions hoping people will like it. If they don’t, you know at the end of the day your heart is in the right place.”