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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Our next guest is actor Danny McBride. Last summer, he was in two hit films. In the comedy "Pineapple Express" - a hybrid stoner and action film - he played a drug dealer who was beaten and shot and shot and shot again, but like a lot of characters in far-fetched action films, just kept on going. In "Tropic Thunder," a comedy about actors making a jungle war movie, he played the pyrotechnics expert on the set. Now he's starring in the HBO comedy series "Eastbound and Down." The DVD of its first season is now available. McBride plays Kenny Powers, a relief pitcher famous for his fastball and his big mouth. When he loses his fastball and becomes even more obnoxious, he finds himself exiled from the big leagues, so he reluctantly takes a job as the substitute gym teacher in his old middle school. In this scene, he has his kids dressed up as gladiators with fencing swords when the principal walks in.

(Soundbite of HBO series, "Eastbound and Down")

Mr. DANNY MCBRIDE (Actor): (as Kenny Powers) From this moment on, you guys are no longer little kids. You're cold, calculated murderers. This is the mindset you gotta be in if you want to be a champion. You got me? Cutty, what do you need, bro?

Mr. ANDREW DALY (Actor): (as Principal Terrence Cutler) Oh, no. I'm just observing the class. Carry on, please, because I'm awfully intrigued.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRIDE: (as Kenny Powers) Class, do we want the principal of the school in our secret meeting of learning?

Unidentified Group: Hell, no.

Mr. DALY: (as Principal Terrence Cutler) Well, it's really not up to any of you guys. It's just part of my job. I have to observe my teachers.

Mr. BRIDE: (as Kenny Powers) The people have spoken, Cut. Hit the halls, baby.

Mr. DALY: (as Principal Terrence Cutler) Okay. Let's just try and clean up some of our language, and I'll just stand over here. That's fine with me.

Mr. BRIDE: (as Kenny Powers) That'll be great for me.

Mr. DALY: (as Principal Terrence Cutler) I'll tell you. Most of the teachers on the staff don't have a problem with me observing, but…

Mr. BRIDE: (as Kenny Powers) Well, I think you're about to find out that I ain't like most of these goddamn teachers.

Mr. DALY: (as Principal Terrence Cutler) Okay. How's that? Am I out of your peripheral?

Mr. BRIDE: (as Kenny Powers) Anyway, so besides getting shot in the back of the head, do you know what else Abraham Lincoln did? He was a champion wrestler in high school, and I'm not making that up.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Danny McBride, welcome to FRESH AIR. So, you were a substitute teacher before you started working as an actor and screenwriter. Did you take any experiences from your days as a substitute teacher and put them into "Eastbound and Down"?

Mr. MCBRIDE: You know, that was one of, I think, the first ideas of where "Eastbound" came from was, I remember I was subbing, and I'd been living in L.A. for a few years and really hadn't gotten anywhere, and I went back to substitute teaching. I think I was subbing like for a German class or something. I don't speak German or anything, and I can remember introducing myself to class on the first day, saying, you know, I'm Mr. McBride. And I started to find myself, like, justifying why I was there to these high school kids who couldn't care less.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: I just felt like, you know, this is just a stop on the way for me. I don't really plan on doing this forever. And I think it was that sort of arrogance, you know, which has kind of inspired Kenny Powers, of, like, you know, I didn't really mind subbing. I thought it was actually pretty cool and it gave me some good ideas for writing, but I was just thinking the whole time, God, if I didn't like doing this, this would be a horrible thing to have to come home and do after you've fallen from grace.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The funny thing is, too, it's such an insult to the students to say, I don't really want to be here.

Mr. MCBRIDE: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: This isn't really what I do. I should be doing something much better than this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: Than shaping your minds.

GROSS: Then your - yeah. This is just like an unwanted stop along the way, being here with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because you get no respect at all as a substitute teacher.

Mr. MCBRIDE: None. All they care about is what kind of car you drive and, yeah, they don't care.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Danny McBride, and he's now starring in a series that he also co-writes on HBO called "Eastbound and Down." Let's talk a little bit about "Tropic Thunder," and "Tropic Thunder" is about actors making a jungle war movie on location, inspired by "Rambo" and all the other movies like it. And you play the special effects and pyrotechnics expert on the set, so you're the guy who does, like, you know, the dynamite blasts and the fire and the napalm. And I want to play a scene from the film. You're in the jungle talking with the grizzled war hero who's the military consultant for the film. He's played by Nick Nolte. And the movie that you're making is based on his memoir, "Tropic Thunder." Here's the clip.

(Soundbite of movie, "Tropic Thunder")

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Cody) We're gonna light these boys up today, huh? Blow some sense into these young men. Yeah, I don't want to come off as weird or anything, but I might be your biggest fan. Yeah. "Tropic Thunder" is kind of like my "Catcher in the Rye." Yeah, I've never been in the military per se, but I have lost an appendage in the line of duty - "Driving Miss Daisy," first studio gig. Yeah. That's a pretty cool sidearm you got there. What is it?

Mr. NICK NOLTE (Actor): (as Four Leaf): I don't know what it's called. I just know the sound it makes when it takes a man's life.

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Cody) Okay. Damien, we're go for explosion. Ready to kick the tires, light the fires on your say-so. Damien, we're go for explosion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I love the idea that you, the special effects man, lost a finger in "Driving Miss Daisy," which is…

Mr. MCBRIDE: …which was a special-effects-heavy film, of course.

GROSS: Oh, that's such a slow-moving film about, you know, a driver and a woman that he drives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what did you learn about pyrotechnics, playing the pyrotechnics expert?

Mr. MCBRIDE: I learned a lot. I got to shadow - I got to shadow the special effects guys, and I learned how to use a flamethrower, which was probably the highlight of my education there. And it was crazy. It was like going to movie star camp. You know, you're there on location in Hawaii, and there's guys from like Nolte to Jack Black to Robert Downey, Jr. Everyone has such a different process, and you're sitting there just kind of taking it all in. It was really amazing.

GROSS: Well, speaking of process, Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" plays an actor - a white actor who's playing an African-American soldier. And because, you know, the character Downey plays is such, like, the method actor, he starts to convince himself that he is black, and he never gets out of character. So he acts black even when he's not on the set. And since Downey is such an eccentric actor to begin with, what was it like to work with him playing this parody of like the worst cliche of the method actor?

Mr. MCBRIDE: It was pretty amazing. I mean, you would - we would be around Downey all day on the set, and I would just forget it was Downey, you know. At nighttime, we'd see him for dinner, and I'm like, oh, yeah. I keep forgetting that Robert Downey, Jr. is in this movie. That's not -that's him in the daytime. But, you know, one of the things I remember early on, it was like the second day of filming, I think, and in between takes, the sound guys, you know, they'll usually cut off everybody's mics, but for some reason, I think they had - by accident had left Downey's mic on.

And I had an earwig in. I could hear what he was saying. He was still mic'd in between the take, and I can remember just like watching him, and I could, you know - I watched him kind of leave the set. And he was like walking back to the trailers, and I'm like, oh, that's crazy. They're leaving his mic on. I can hear him talking to himself. And he was just still in character going back to his trailer, talking about how he was going to go drain the lizard. And he was just still speaking in his voice from there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: It's like he's not dropping it at all. It was pretty impressive.

GROSS: That's really funny, because he's like doing what his character does, which is like staying in character.

Mr. MCBRIDE: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: He doesn't drop character until the DVD commentary, he says.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really so funny. But he's so terrific in it. So, were you ever afraid being around any of the fires and explosions in the movie?

Mr. MCBRIDE: The only one that was a little tricky was that first real big explosion in "Tropic." They had the rest of the crew like a mile away from the explosion, and I was the closest one to the explosion. They had me up in the tower with a camera guy and an AD. And they were like, you know, you should be okay here, even though we've moved the rest of the crew a mile away from this explosion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: And they literally had a fire blanket up there. They're like, if you feel like, you know, really immense heat, just duck and put this blanket over yourself. And so I'm expecting like a fireball to come shooting into that tower. And then, of course, when it goes off, it wasn't anything too scary. I wish I had been a little closer, actually.

GROSS: The last year or so has been really big for you. You were in "Tropic Thunder" and "Pineapple Express" over the summer, and "Foot Fist Way" opened -when, like a year or so ago?

Mr. MCBRIDE: Yep.

GROSS: And so, you've gone - and now you've got your TV series on HBO. So you've gone from, you know, pretty big obscurity to, you know, some degree of relatively sudden fame. So how's that affecting your life, and how is that affecting your thoughts on what it's like to be kind of famous?

Mr. MCBRIDE: I guess, you know, what I mean, I guess the main difference is I'm just not worried about how I'm going to pay for my car insurance or health insurance anymore. I mean, I've still surrounded myself with all the guys that, you know, that I went to school with, and we all hang out together. And so, you know, my personal life hasn't really changed that much since before all this began. I think I can just rest easier that I'm not bouncing checks right and left anymore.

GROSS: Were you bouncing checks?

Mr. MCBRIDE: I was always living in overdraft when I was in L.A. It was hard not to. I mean, I was just PA'ing or waiting tables, doing whatever I could do to kind of make ends meet.

GROSS: Right. Right. So, you mentioned now you can buy health insurance. So do you have like a group plan? I mean…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because it's not like you have an employer, per se.

Mr. MCBRIDE: You can get very good health insurance through SAG and the Writers Guild, so that's what I signed up for.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Good. okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: All right.

Mr. MCBRIDE: You sound like my mom. She's very proud that I have health insurance. That's probably the thing she's the most proud about with everything. It's like, good, you have health insurance. If something happens to you, we're not going to lose our home.

GROSS: Well, Danny McBride, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. MCBRIDE: Cool. Thank you.

DAVIES: Danny McBride stars in the HBO comedy series, "Eastbound and Down." Its first season is out on DVD. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead profiles Tenor saxophonist Lester Young. This is FRESH AIR.

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