Danny McBride: Pitching For Laughs In 'Eastbound And Down' Comic actor Danny McBride stars in Eastbound and Down, a new HBO series about a washed-up baseball star who becomes a substitute gym teacher.
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Pitching For Laughs In 'Eastbound And Down'

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Pitching For Laughs In 'Eastbound And Down'

Pitching For Laughs In 'Eastbound And Down'

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is actor and writer Danny McBride. Last summer, he was in two hit films. In the comedy "Pineapple Express," a hybrid of a stoner film and an action film, he played a drug dealer who was beaten and shot and shot and shot, but like a lot of characters in far-fetched action films, he just kept on going. In "Tropic Thunder," a comedy about actors making a jungle war movie, he played the pyrotechnics expert on the set. McBride co-wrote and starred in the comedy "The Foot Fist Way," as the narcissistic head of a martial arts school for kids.

Now he's starring in the HBO comedy series "Eastbound and Down," which premiered last Sunday. He 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 major leagues. He reluctantly takes a job as the substitute gym teacher in his old middle school. Here he is in front of his first class.

(Soundbite of HBO series "Eastbound and Down")

Mr. DANNY MCBRIDE (As Kenny Powers): What's up? I'm Kenny Powers. I'll be your new PE teacher till Coach Booth's back is fixed. Yeah, I'm famous, ladida, big (bleep) deal. Now at this time, I'd like to field any questions anybody has. This is the time to do it. You, big kid.

Unidentified Student #1: Do we have to run the mile?

Mr. MCBRIDE (As Kenny Powers): I'm talking about me. These are questions about me personally, as a superstar. You know, you got this moment in time here with an American icon, you're going to waste it asking a question about the (bleep) mile? Next question.

Unidentified Student #2: Is it true you were in jail?

Mr. MCBRIDE (As Kenny Powers): No, babe, rehab.

Unidentified Student #2: Did you hurt yourself?

Mr. MCBRIDE (As Kenny Powers): No, I didn't hurt myself.

Unidentified Student #2: Because Coach Booth said after his back surgery he has to go to rehab.

Mr. MCBRIDE (As Kenny Powers): Oh, OK. Yeah, I hurt myself. I hurt my nose. All right, got time for one more. Timid kid.

Unidentified Student #3: My dad said you ruined baseball.

Mr. MCBRIDE (As Kenny Powers): You know what? I can already tell that I don't like you. And I'm probably not going to like you no matter how many pull-ups or push-ups you do. Anybody who wants to pick on anybody in class, aim for him because I ain't watching.

GROSS: Danny McBride, welcome to Fresh Air. Would you describe your character of Kenny Powers the way you see him?

Mr. MCBRIDE: Well, Kenny Powers is a mess, I think first and foremost. He is a burnt-out major league pitcher who lost his fastball, and this show kind of picks up years after his fall from grace. He kind of has run out of options and places to turn, so he finds himself on his brother's couch, substitute-teaching gym class at his former middle school back in the town he grew up in.

GROSS: So how did you and your collaborators come up with the idea for this series?

Mr. MCBRIDE: You know, we came up with it several years ago. Ben Best, who is one of the other creators of the show, he was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I, at the time, was substitute-teaching in Virginia. I had lived in L.A. for a few years and hadn't really got to where I wanted to be, so I had moved back home with my parents and was subbing and bartending and trying to write.

And I was over at Ben's house one day in North Carolina visiting, and we were sitting in a baby pool in his backyard, if I recall, and drinking beers and trying to come up with good ideas for TV shows, something that we could make money and pull ourselves out of our current situation. And Kenny Powers was a character that kind of grew up in that baby pool there. And we kind of pocketed the idea for a while, and then we met Will Ferrell and Adam McKay after we did "The Foot Fist Way," and we pitched it to those guys and they dug it.

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

Mr. MCBRIDE: Than shaping your minds.

GROSS: 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: Describe your look in the series and how you came up with it.

Mr. MCBRIDE: You know, Ben Best and Jody Hill, the other creators and I, you know, surprisingly enough, none of us really know that much about baseball. We always have been like music and film guys ever since we were little, and so, you know, a lot of what we've taken from the show in regards to baseball is just kind of what we've gleaned from headlines or from, you know, spotting baseball cards with just guys who, you know, just look insane.

And so, yeah, Kenny Powers, we kind of just got that look from just different players we had seen. He has a nice curly mullet. He has a pretty awesome handlebar mustache, and the curly hair is all mine, but the mullet is not. It was an extensions...

GROSS: Oh, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: Yeah, I didn't have to wear that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Glad you're not stuck with a mullet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, when you were planning a film career, did you say to yourself, I think I'd like to play a jerk?

Mr. MCBRIDE: You know, that's what's so crazy is I never really had any ambitions in going into acting at all. I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, the film school there, and I met David Gordon Green there and Jody Hill and Ben Best and these guys, and you know, I was there for directing and writing. And so my plan was always to kind of be behind the camera, and I only stepped in front of the camera just out of necessity. You know, David Green had an actor drop out of his film "All The Real Girls" about a week before they started shooting, and I had written a lot with David, so he kind of got that I knew this character's sensibilities, and so he just trusted me and pulled me in to do this.

And from there, I think, you know, Jody Hill, who directed "The Foot Fist Way," he, you know, liked what I did in that and then approached me about writing "The Foot Fist Way" with him and acting in that. And then from that, it's just all these other opportunities have come from there, so I just figured if it was a way - if me being in a movie added any value at all it would just be another method for us to get our own material out there.

GROSS: So how do you like acting?

Mr. MCBRIDE: It's not bad. I mean, you don't have to carry cables and move things around, which is cool. People give you stuff for free, like gum and meals, and I like that. But it's been great. I mean, I do like writing, and that's what I think was so fulfilling about this TV show is, you know, I like the acting and that's great, but the fact that it's like our story and it's something that we've written and produced and seen from page to screen, there is a real fulfillment in that.

GROSS: Now, Will Ferrell is one of the producers of "Eastbound and Down," and he is in the second episode of the series playing the owner of a local car dealership who pays you very little money to do a guest appearance and sign autographs to promote his cars. So how did you and he get to meet in the first place?

Mr. MCBRIDE: You know, Ben Best, Jody Hill and myself, we wrote "The Foot Fist Way," which got into Sundance in 2006, and the movie didn't get domestic distribution after Sundance. It got international distribution, but we kind of left Sundance with our tail between our legs still looking for a home for our film. You know, nothing really had kind of come from it.

And then one day we just get a phone call that the movie happened to get into Will Ferrell's hands, which blew us away that, you know, we love that guy, that he would have watched our film and that he wanted to actually meet with us and talk about the film. So Jody and myself went to meet Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, and they talked about how much they dug the movie and told us how they were starting this new company, Gary Sanchez, and they wanted to have this be the first film that they released under their banner. So we were, you know, as you can imagine, just completely flipped out, and we just kind of struck a friendship with those guys after that as well because they're such cool guys and I think we have a lot of the same sort of thoughts towards comedy, and we just got along really well. So you know, that's how a good friendship began from that.

GROSS: If you're 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."

I want to talk to you a little bit about a terrific movie you were in in the summer of 2008, "Pineapple Express." In this film, you play a drug dealer who finds yourself in the middle of a struggle between your suppliers and two of your customers. The customers are played by Seth Rogen and James Franco. And Seth Rogen has witnessed a murder that the drugs suppliers have something to do with, so they're trying to get him, and Seth Rogen and James Franco are trying to get them, and you're just trying to save yourself.

So in this one scene, Rogen and Franco come to your home to get information, and you all end up in this huge fistfight and throwing things at each other. Then they tie you up with duct tape to a chair and try to get some information out of you. Here's that scene.

(Soundbite of movie "Pineapple Express")

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Red) OK. All right. OK, I'll talk. Ted Jones, he knows you witnessed the murder. He found your roach. He sent two guys over here, Budlofsky and Matheson, two real big (bleep) and they're basically out to kill you guys. Yeah, and they're gonna kill me too unless I turn you all over. So, you guys are basically (bleep).

Mr. JAMES FRANCO: (as Saul) I thought you were my friend, man...

Mr. SETH ROGAN: (as Dale) How many cops does he have on his payroll? Tell us.

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Red) Well, there's the woman cop, Carol, and...

Mr. FRANCO: (as Saul) It's the lady cop.

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Red) I don't know, he could have a bunch. I mean, this dude is like super well-connected and he has like a really awesome hideout, too. It's pretty bad-ass.

Mr. FRANCO: (as Saul) Oh, (bleep).

Mr. ROGAN: (as Dale) What else?

Mr. MCBRIDE: (As Red) OK, he's at a war right now with the Asians. They're like in a drug war right now.

Mr. ROGAN: (as Dale) The Asians? What Asians? Indians are technically Asian.

Mr. FRANCO: (as Saul) It's true.

Mr. ROGAN: (as Dale) What Asians?

Mr. MCBRIDE: (As Red) I don't know, what, Chinese or Korean or...

Mr. ROGAN: (as Dale) Viet Cong?

Mr. MCBRIDE: (As Red) Yeah, little just - little Asian people, like the Asians with the guns and the drugs and not his friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You're so funny in this film, and it's such - it's a really great film. But you know, as the movie goes on, things just keep getting worse and worse for you. At the end of this scene, the drug suppliers come in, and of course, you immediately tell them where Rogen and Franco are. And then the suppliers end up shooting you twice. And in each scene, you get more and more abused. And by any reasonable standard, you should be dead, but like in a lot of action films, you keep hanging on, and you decide to use the pain as a motivator.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You strap on some guns and go looking for the bad guys. And I don't know, you didn't plan to be an actor, so you probably didn't study physical comedy. What was it like to do all these comedic fight scenes and probably not have any idea what you were doing?

Mr. MCBRIDE: It was actually great. You know, David Green directed that film, and he's a guy that, you know, like I said, I had gone to film school with, and so I had been working with him for a long time. And you know, when he sat us down about that fight scene in "Pineapple," he's like, you know, I don't want this to look like, you know, "Bourne Supremacy" where you guys are just like amazing fighters. This - the whole gag, what this needs to be, you guys lack the ability to knock each other out, and it should just be as sloppy as if this kind of fight really happened.

And so we really realized there was no way for this to really go wrong because I don't know how to knock somebody out anyway, so I don't have to pretend like I can't fight. And so we - it took a week to shoot that fight scene, which was crazy. I mean, they walked us through the fight, I think, in about five minutes on the stage, and they were like, this is what we're shooting for the next week, so it was literally coming into work every day and just getting the hell beat out of you.

And Franco busted that bong over the back of my head and actually split my head open, and Seth, I think, like, broke his finger in that, and you know, we're going through doors. So there's a lot of bangs and bruises, you felt pretty sore at the end of the day, but it was a good way for us three to bond, Franco and Seth and me. We had a good time doing that, and we would never think about using stuntmen on that.

GROSS: At the end of the film, the characters you play - your character, Seth Rogen's and James Franco's - you're all like bromosexuals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: That's right.

GROSS: You're three guys who swear to be best friends and tell each other they love each other. And meanwhile, like, you're still wearing like your neck brace and it has big bloody handprint on it. Your clothes are soaked with blood because you've been shot like seven times. And did you grow up with that kind of buddy movie?

Mr. MCBRIDE: I did, you know. That was the one thing I really liked about "Pineapple." I felt like it kind of, you know, threw homage to those sort of '80s buddy cop movies without like making fun of them. It just kind of became one of those films and, you know, I dug that. And that last scene, I thought was just a nice way to end that film. They didn't really have an ending for the movie, even when we went to shooting it. They had something down but it was nothing that they were ever planning on shooting.

And I guess about three weeks before we finished filming, Seth and Evan, the two screenwriters, they came up with this ending, and they're like, let's just have these guys sitting in a cafe at the end of the day, and it's as if they just had a wild night on the town, and let's just roll the cameras and you guys just talk about the film, and that's how they shot that. There was no real script or anything. They just set three cameras up and made us talk about the whole movie, and then they cut the scene together.

GROSS: That's great, and that probably adds this little bit of kind of awkwardness that you all feel professing your love for each other and your...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: Exactly.

GROSS: Your buddiness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Danny McBride, and he's now starring in the new HBO comedy series, "Eastbound and Down," and he also co-writes the series. He also was in "Tropic Thunder," "Pineapple Express," and starred in "The Foot Fist Way." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Danny McBride, and he's now starring in and co-writing the HBO series, "Eastbound and Down," and his movies include "Tropic Thunder," "Pineapple Express," and "The Foot Fist Way."

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

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, 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 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, and I could hear what he was saying. He was still miked 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's 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 the camera guy and an AD. And they were like, you know, you should be OK 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: Would you like to play a character who's not a jerk, a character who is like smart and refined and you know...

Mr. MCBRIDE: Absolutely not. No, of course, yeah. I mean, I think the - you know, with "The Foot Fist Way," I was playing a character that was - that was what he was. And I think, you know, when Hollywood kind of saw that, they kind of want you - they want more of that, you know. So that's kind of - I think that, you know, I landed a few roles that kind of were hitting that sort of beat, and you know, but I mean, the bottom line is I just like a good story and I like a cool character, and so with "Eastbound and Down," I think we really wanted to kind of play around more with some of the areas we were touching upon in "Foot Fist Way." So that's kind of why we went back there to that sort of character, but that's, by no means were, you know, the only kind of characters I want to play. Just right now, we've been having a good time with that sort of character.

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 is 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: Good. OK.

(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 is 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.

GROSS: Danny McBride stars in the new HBO series "Eastbound and Down." The second episode premieres this Sunday. Later this year, he'll star in the movie adaptation of the TV series "Land of the Lost." I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

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