In his exit interview with GQ, Goggins talks about committing hard to those frosted tips and why the race controversy over Season One was “pandering.”
In his exit interview with GQ, Goggins talks about committing hardto those frosted tips and why the race controversy over Season One was “pandering.”
Walton Goggins has long had one of the most recognizable faces in entertainment, but now he’s finally building a name for himself to match. The character actor had back-to-back standout turns in beloved dramas The Shield and Justified, and more recently joined a very exclusive club of people who have survived a Quentin Tarantino movie.
He’s also one half of the crass, awful pair of vice principals in HBO’s Vice Principals, in which Lee Russell (Goggins) and Neal Gamby (Danny McBride), are enemies-turned-friends with the sole goal of becoming the principal at a small South Carolina high school. Created by Jody Hill and McBride, who also conceived Eastbound and Down, Vice Principals is an often hilarious, often sad character study of two men locked in a ceaseless battle not so much with each other, but with themselves.
The show comes to an end this Sunday after two seasons, which was the plan from the beginning. For fans, and for Goggins, it’s a bittersweet ending to a show—and character—that were often deeper and more profound than their reputation would suggest. Goggins took some time out of his schedule (he’s currently filming villainous turns in two highly-anticipated blockbusters, Ant-Man and the Wasp and Tomb Raider) to talk about how the loud, fey villain Lee Russell came to be, and how the hell to relate to a character who burns down houses and compulsively lies to his wife.
The show is very funny, I swear.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get this role, Lee Russell?
I knew David [Gordon Green] from the independent world; I’ve known him for the better part of 13 years, 14 years. I actually read for Season Four of Eastbound and Down. I walked into this audition and there were literally five comedians from Saturday Night Live and me! I thought, “Well, this is never going to fucking happen.” But I was like, “Ah, fuck it. I don’t care. Let’s go in and let’s play.” I ultimately did not get the role. It went to [Jason] Sudeikis. And they were wise to do that.
But! Vice Principals came along and they were going back and forth about how they wanted to approach it. They thought about a traditional comedian for Lee, and then David, I think, threw out “Goggins” in the room and they all went, “He’s the fucking guy! That’s it. It’s gotta be Goggins.” So Danny reached out while I was doing The Hateful Eight and sent me the script, and I just got it.
How much of Lee Russell was written or conceived before you came into it? The weird shirts and the accent itself, and the frosted tips?
The frosted tips were there, and the first thing Danny said to me was, “Listen, you don’t have to frost your tips.” I said, “Oh yeah. Oh, I’m frosting the fucking tips.” The tips will be frosted! Hair that you see and hair that you don’t see will have tips frosted. [laughs]
I don’t know I really knew Russell until we got on the set the first day. I was full of fear. I just literally wrapped Hateful Eight at 9:30 in the morning and went straight to the airport, got on a plane, landed, got to the house and 11:30 at night. Frosted my tips and woke up at 6:00 the next morning just to become Lee Russell.
How did you approach them as lead characters, Russell and Gamby? Protagonists? They’re tonally not heroes, or even antiheroes, for that matter.
I don’t think they are. I don’t think they are protagonists. We’re exploring a side of ourselves or our society that we all know exists without giving the audience many things to cheer about. Unless you can cheer at the truths of how deeply insecure they are, and you can cheer or root for a person once you understand why they are who they are.
When I came into this, I said, “Buddy, there are things here about this guy, once you really kind of get in to him, that are very painful.” I don’t know that they anticipated it resonating or vibrating on that deeper level with me. I don’t know that they fully understood my interpretation of the depth of Lee Russell’s pain.
Do you consider it part of your job, in a way, to get people to like Lee, maybe despite themselves? Even in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen him lose his wife under circumstances that he truly deserves and then spend this spring break episode essentially leering after a teen.
He does, in a very harmless way. I also think in that episode he’s also saying, “Gamby, just relax, buddy. Kids will be kids. Maybe if they were given some freedom, maybe they won’t turn out like us.”
I really don’t think it is my job to make people like the antagonist that I play. My allegiance is to three things and three things only: First and foremost, making this fictional character three-dimensional and respecting them as an autonomous human being. Second is to the writer, because words are my Bible. What is it that we are trying to say? What is the writer trying to say? The last thing is protecting my director and giving him many different options that are within this tone and that are within the truth of my interpretation of this character. I am very protective of the people that I play. I don’t say the same thing the same way twice. Human beings don’t do that.
I remember one of the criticisms that I saw a couple of times, from the show’s very early days, was that it was a show about two guys trying to bring a powerful black woman down. Looking back, do you think that was fair?
I think those two or three critics that talked about that were pandering to their constituents. In my opinion, they thought that they were, in some way, saving the day. They were looking for a pat on the back, standing up to the insensitive nature of this particular narrative when they had no fucking idea what this story was about.
I just think the people that made those criticisms need to ask themselves, “Would you have felt better about this behavior if it was done to a white woman or a white man?” Who is looking at this through the prism of race? It isn’t the filmmaker. It isn’t. It’s you. I understand it simultaneously because of the times that we are living in. But Belinda Brown, who is imbued with such humanity by Kimberly Hebert Gregory, is really the moral center of this entire story.
This was never a show about two white men against a black woman. This show is about two individuals who are deeply flawed, deeply insecure and are looking to fill that void with the acquisition of power. At the end of the day, the only way that you are going to find peace in this life is to examine your own life and live right. That’s where real power comes from.
Are there particular Russell moments that you hold close to your heart?
Oh God. There are so many, buddy. We were talking about the spring break episode before—Russell is getting the lap dance and they’ve been doing cocaine, and Gamby says, “Hey Lee. Do you want to hang out?” So Lee Russell says, “I am fucking hanging out! Why don’t you go hang out!” [laughs] It’s all of it. I love it so much.
A part from this season that’s stuck with me is Russell loudly playing an Avril Lavigne song to get out of an argument.
Yes! Susan [Park], who plays my wife, she’s got to sit there with a straight face. She’s so wonderful. You talk about favorite moments, the coming-together breakfast with Susan. That was so extraordinary. I laughed so hard. “Look at us working it the fuck out!”
It it bittersweet, ending things on your terms but also just having to walk away from a character you love?
I’m going to miss it. I think we’re all going to miss it. This is one of the highlights. You look for these moments over the course of your career and not just the acquisition of friends, but the seared memories that were forged over the course of this eight months together.
I don’t know. Never say never. You never know if Lee Russell and Gamby might come back. It would have to be something completely different. That would be fun.
You and Danny McBride clearly love working together.
Yes. The big scene from the latest episode? Danny directed that episode and he had such a specific idea for the big fight. This one particular sequence happened when I’m running then he hits me in the locker room and throws me through the window, it’s almost one take. The stunt guys were doing this one hit, and it didn’t look right. I just said, “Buddy, we’ve got to go over this hill. We can’t go around it. Let’s go. Let’s get in there. Hit me.” We did it. Two times. We went and had a big beer afterwards.
I think a lot of people are going to discover this show in a year or two and feel like idiots.
As Lee Russell would say, “I told you so.