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My Knight With Danny McBride

After attending the premiere of Your Highness, I got a chance to grab a drink with actor and writer Danny McBride in The Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Dublin. “This place is older than my country,” Danny jokingly observes we take our seats. He promptly explains why we’re gathered in this rather casual faction. “We thought about doing the standard thing, the interview in the hotel room, but we figured it would be a bit awkward with the lights and everything, so we thought we’d just go out and have a drink instead.” And, if there’s one thing about Danny McBride, it’s that the comedian is never awkward. He seems surprisingly at home in this establishment, no sign that he’s been out touring the world promoting his new movie – this could just be a nice after work pint.

We’re barely there and Danny’s already nursing a pint of Harp at the table. “We discovered this while shooting in Belfast,” he explains, “this and Budvar – we can’t get it in the States.” McBride has fond memories about shooting in Northern Ireland, joking that his only previous experience of the region came from reading Garth Ennis comic books. “I was wondering where Arseface was,” he jokingly references the Northern Irish writer’s Preacher, before briefly considering Ennis’ handling of the Troubles in his Punisher series. “The stuff he did with MAX,” Danny is quick to clarify, “not the Marvel Knights stuff.”

That’s the thing about Danny that grabs you right off the bat. He knows his geek stuff. With the notion of geek chic coming into fashion, it’s easy for any sort of creator or actor to “talk the talk” in appealing to a nerdy audience, but it’s immediately clear that the writer and actor knows exactly what he’s talking about. When we wonder if he even exists on Facebook, Danny whips out his iPhone and reveals he’s already a generation ahead. “Do you guys use Path?” he asks us. “It’s all about communicating with pictures. It’s a bit more private than Facebook. You can only have fifty friends.”

He recently spent six months filming his latest movie in Northern Ireland, and it shows – the movie makes the most of its absolutely breathtaking scenery, including tourist locations like the Giant’s Causeway. “We moved over here around about June,” he recalls. “It’s about the time that it starts to get really sunny in Los Angeles, around the start of summer. And then we get over here and it’s all clouds and rain.” The Irish writers at the table do attempt to console him, assuring him that he did catch the best of the Irish summer.

It’s immediately clear that McBride enjoys this sort of engagement with the internet community. He’s done this a few times to help promote his television show Eastbound and Down. When pressed to give his favourite sit-com, Danny immediately champions a little-known (at least over here) show called Portlandia. “It’s shown on the IFC – the Independent Film Channel – and it’s very good.” When it comes to his own show, Danny is quick to point to influences outside America.

“We looked at shows like Fawlty Towers and The Office,” he confesses. His own television show follows a similar sort of style – the first season ran for six episodes, the second for seven and he’s currently looking at a third season that might run to seven or eight. “I look at those British television shows which only ran for so many episodes, and they always left me wanting more. You look at sit-coms that put out twenty or more episodes per year and it seems like it doesn’t matter if you miss one or two episodes here and there, and we didn’t want that. We basically wrote it as one big movie and then sort of cut it up into six pieces.”

There are other areas that are influenced by those iconic British shows as well. “There’s this idea in British comedy that you don’t need a likable protagonist,” Danny outlines. “We don’t really get that on American television. The main thing that we got notes about from the studio was to make the lead character ‘likable’. “He has to do the morally right thing” and “he can’t do this” and that sort of thing.” He admits that he had some difficulty with these notes initially. “I kinda tried to fight it at first and explain why we couldn’t do this or it wasn’t funny, but eventually I learned it was easiest just to take the notes and then do what we were going to do anyway.”

A lot of McBride’s appeal is his edge – the fact that he doesn’t water down his comedy. He acknowledges that this was a problem in pitching Your Highness. “David [Gordon Green] and I really wanted the film to look like it was made on the budget of Lord of the Rings, even though nobody was going to give us that money to make dick jokes.” So, in that regard, Belfast was a lifesaver. “They gave us space down by where the Titanic was built for free, to build our sets and all that.”

“We really wanted the movie to kinda capture all the different styles of the sorts of fantasy that we grew up with,” he tells us, with fond memories of Krull (which, he concedes with a chuckle, “doesn’t hold up very well”). “So there was CGI and practical effects and prosthetics and even puppets.” McBride smiles at the mention of the puppet scene, taking great joy in explaining how that sequence developed into what was seen on screen. Apparently it was written as a very straight-forward exposition scene, with the wizard giving the characters plot-relevent information.

“We generally do one or two takes of the scene as written,” he assures us. “And then we do a few takes just messing around and improvising. then we try to get the balance right in the editing room.” For that particular scene, he recalls how James Franco threw some ideas out there that took flight. “Franco started to subtly suggest that maybe this old puppet wizard had been doing something inappropriate with the whole ‘we used to take our shirts off and jump around’ bit – and then the two guys working the puppet, and the guy doing the voice, just sorta played into that with the even creepier ‘yeah, but don’t tell anyone’ line. I think that was the weirdest improv I ever did.”

He also laughs at the gift that director David Gordon Greene, who attended film school with him, gave him on wrapping up filming. “He gave me this prosthetic minotaur dick,” Danny says. “And my wife says there’s no way I’m bringing that into the house, so it just sits in the trunk of my car for a few months until I just forget about it. Until one day, I’m pulling up to a hotel and the valet is helping me with my bags when he notices it. I don’t explain it or anything, I just say, ‘don’t scratch the car.'” There’s a good-natured sense of fun about the guy, who genuinely seems as impressed and surprised by his own success as anyone else is.

“I used to sit on my couch watching movies with Ben Stiller in them,” he jokes, “now I’m in movies with Ben Stiller.” He recalls, in particular, filming his bit in Up in the Air with George Clooney. “Yep, so I just arrived and they were like ‘we’re ready for your scene with George.’ There’s not a lot of acting in that scene – I mean, my character is apprehensive about his work and his life, and I’m terrified that I’m standing opposite George Clooney.”

Undoubtedly McBride’s surprise stems from the fact that he wasan accidental actor. He explains that he just ended up playing the lead in Foot Fist Way by pure chance. “We didn’t know any actors,” he concedes. “So Jody [Hill] and I just filmed it and figured, ‘hey, we’ll be in it.’ At least we could be sure we’d remember our lines.” Again, there’s that smile and that chuckle, the one which seems to acknowledge his phenomenal raise and seems genuinely humbled by how well it has all worked out along the way. Of course, it didn’t seem so clear cut at the time.

“We graduated film school in 1999,” he recalls, hesitating a moment to make sure he got the year right. “And, like all film school graduates, we moved to Los Angeles and became waiters. After a few years, we kinda figured that we’d just make this movie with our credit cards – that it was better to work in a restaurant to pay off debts for something we wanted to do, rather than do it just to scrape by.” And the gambit paid off.

If McBride had one word of advice for any budding film maker, what would it be? “Today you can easily get a decent video camera which can produce footage ready to screen,” he tells us. “I’d get out there and film. It’s a lot easier to show somebody what you can do than it is to just ask for money and assure them you can do it. I think it’s easier than ever before.”

7 Responses

  1. Wow, that’s awesome.

    No other words apply for the moment, but good on you for your fortune here and nicely done on writing up your chat with him. Insightful stuff, and shows what it is about McBride that makes him such a real-deal magnetic talent.

    • Thanks man. Yeah, it was a bit of luck. Apparently he does this for Eastbound and Down in the States, so it was pretty cool to have a drink with him. Really nice guy, very honest and genuine, but seems to be really happy where he’s at – which is cool, because it’s easy to imagine getting a bit caught up in all he has going on.

  2. When I see it all written down I can remember him talking about it. Never thought to try keep notes of it all though. 🙂

    • Neither did I. There was some furious iPhone typing on the way home as I tried to get most of it down. 🙂

  3. Great interview, Darren. Although I’ll definitely remember not to be a valet at any hotel he’s staying at.

    • I thought that was hilarious. In fairness, I think he made the most of that situation – it’s not really the kinda thing you can just explain. “It was a gift.”

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