Pop Culture

Danny McBride on the Return of The Righteous Gemstones and His Love for 90 Day Fiancé

Plus: that time he watched beefy Christian muscle men rip phone books in half.

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Danny McBride.Kevin Winter / Getty Images

On Sunday, HBO premiered a new season of its acclaimed comedy series about three fuckup siblings idiotically vying for control of their perpetually disappointed father’s corrupt empire. That’s right, baby: The Righteous Gemstones is back!

Danny McBride, one of our greatest chroniclers of male buffoonery, created the show and stars as eldest son Jesse Gemstone who, along with wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman), believes he’s meant to helm the family megachurch when father Eli (John Goodman) steps down. His sister Judy (Edi Patterson) and brother Kelvin (Adam Devine) beg to differ. This season finds Danny and Amber linking up with another charismatic televangelist named Lyle Lissons (the great Eric Andre), Judy married her doormat partner BJ (Tim Baltz), and Kelvin plus his ex-Satanist BFF Keefe (played to mulleted perfection by Tony Cavalero) running a “God Squad” of ripped evangelical dudes who make gains while living Biblically. Add in a murder plot and we’re cooking with gas.

GQ caught up with McBride a few days before the season premiere to talk about developing season two, Christian muscle men, and his love of 90 Day Fiancé.

Cassidy Freeman as Amber and Danny McBride as Jesse in season two of The Righteous Gemstones. 

Courtesy of Ryan Green for HBO

GQ: I remember you mentioning that for the first season of The Righteous Gemstones some of your research involved talking to church pastors. Did you hear from anyone after the fact who was upset with how the show played out?

Danny McBride: It’s funny. Any type of response I’ve gotten from the religious community has been supportive of it. They’ve been of the mindset that they like that the show doesn’t take pot shots at religion, but these assholes are the butt of the joke. And I think if you’re a religious person, you don’t like to see a megachurch pastor profit off of the good word.

When you were first conceiving of this season, where did you want to go?

One thing that’s been fun about this show is just the idea that it’s an ensemble. Writing for Eastbound, the show was so limited in the amount of characters it had and I just was ready to kind of do something different. The idea of Gemstones was always, every season, to sort of expand upon the mythology and on the backstories of these characters. We got a little bit of the backstory via Baby Billy and Eli about Aimee-Leigh in the first season and we always saw in the second season that we could go deeper into Eli and kind of start to tell the story of where he comes from and what he’s built.

And we find out he used to be a pro wrestler. Are you a wrestling fan? You can really see how those two worlds of wrestling performance and televangelism connect.

They do. I’ve always been fascinated with Memphis wrestling, in particular. In the late ’60s, that was such a cool time period for wrestling and these guys were making up these elaborate stories and characters. I’d always kind of wanted to tell a story in that world. And as we were digging into Eli’s backstory, it just started to kind of feel like it would be an appropriate origin for him.

I’m really into Kelvin’s “God Squad” fitness group. Were they based on anyone real?

I went to church growing up as a kid. And yeah, there was this touring muscle man group in the ’80s that basically would rip phone books and stuff and show you what the power of Christ could do for you. And it always made an impression on me. I always thought that it was just kind of incredible.

No way. So you would be at church and they would just come in and rip up phone books?

It wouldn’t be your typical service. It would be sort of like, your youth group would make you go to it. They would come to D.C. or something and you would go to some church and they would have this group of these touring muscle men that would just show you the awesome power.

How did you figure out how you wanted to style them? They have a really specific look, all of those matching gauzy linens.

Sarah Trost is our costume designer. I’ve worked with her since Vice Principals and she’s just a genius. Kelvin kind of sees himself as a Jesus sort of figure. So we had the concept that they would kind of have an apostle sort of vibe, but mixed with like MC Hammer pants and muscles. She just took that concept and ran and added a few hip packs.

“Misbehavin’” ended up being this runaway viral hit last season. Did that inspire you to go big with the musical moments this time around?

The Gemstones are, in their own mind, rock stars. So we always figured the performances and stuff, it’s a part of what the world is. But I think now that Judy is more front-and-center with the family and she participates more, it allows us to have more of those big musical numbers. I feel like when you go to those megachurches, that’s what’s so enticing about them, is it is very entertaining and big and it is fun. Really showing what that rock spectacle is in some of these more massive churches felt like an appropriate thing to show.

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And you got Joe Jonas to come in. 

We got Joe Jonas, yeah. He reached out to us after the first season and just told us that he was a big fan of the show and we met with him because we like him and think he’s cool. As we were writing this season, we needed to have a celebrity there that would feel legitimate there and also would be sort of appealing to Jesse and the gang. So we reached out to Joe to see if he would be down and he was kind enough to come and do it.

You have this great Kanye West story about how he came to visit you in Charleston, you hung out all day, and then he asked you to play him in his biopic. Was there ever any follow-up to that?

There hasn’t been. It seems like his life has gotten very busy and I’ve just been on Gemstones and the pandemic hit. So I have never circled back to it. Not yet.

One day. I’m curious about what you watch in your spare time. I’m sure a lot of people have made the Succession comparison to you.

What’s funny is I need to watch Succession. There’s no reason why I haven’t. I don’t really watch much. I find that most of my watching of TV happens around the holidays because when we’re writing on the show, my mind is too fried at the end of the day that I can’t handle narratives. I am all about reality TV. That’s what I put on after we’re in the writer’s room, I just sit and watch fucking every episode of 90 Day Fiancé.

The best.

I love 90 Day Fiancé. I cannot get enough of it. It’s on all the time in my house. But then the narrative stuff that I’ve watched that I really liked a lot was I went through all the seasons of The Crown last year and loved that. I feel like that was one of the best things I’ve seen in years. White Lotus, I thought, was awesome. I just kind of feel overwhelmed sometimes. Whenever I turn on any of these streaming apps and there’s so many fucking shows and they’re all five and six seasons deep, I get intimidated.

Well, you’re set with 90 Day Fiancé, because there are thousands of episodes.

So many spinoffs. That’s the thing is, I didn’t understand how to enter 90 Day Fiancé and so earlier this year, I think I started by that version that’s Happily Ever After where it’s people who’ve been on the show and they’re married now. And then I got really into that and then as I got that Discovery Plus app, I started seeing that like, “Oh, shit. There’s like Pre-90 Day Fiancé, 90 Day Fiancé: The Single Life, The Vacation Life.” And so that’s all that’s been on in my house the last few months.

Do you have a favorite couple?

There’s so many of them. I feel like I’ve been watching all of the Pre-90 Day Fiancé [’90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days] and Paul and Karine, that got me into that season. I’m also a big Bravo reality fan too, but I feel like the more those people are on the shows, the richer they become and then the less like real people they are. 90 Day Fiancé is awesome because you just drop in with these people from all over the world. It’s almost like a character study.

You are a documented fan of The Real Housewives. There does seem to be a real parallel between how the cadence of how people fight on that and how they fight on your shows. 

I know. We need to do more throwing wine in people’s faces. We haven’t done enough of that in the show.

There is a really quintessential type of Danny McBride character. You’ve called Kenny Powers, Neil Gamby, and Jesse Gemstone your “misunderstood angry man trilogy.” They’re all arrogant, selfish, they lack self awareness. Do you think you’re done with this kind of character with this trilogy or are there any other settings where you’d want to explore him?

You know, I’m not really sure. When we first started with Eastbound & Down, I remember we had sold [our movie] The Foot Fist Way and we sat down with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. They bought it and they wanted to know what we wanted to do and we pitched that we wanted to go make a TV show. They were shocked about that because everybody was trying to make TV shows [in order] to make movies. And now it feels like TV is so saturated and there’s just so much of it. But I feel like when I turn on iTunes or pick up the paper to see what’s playing in the theaters, I’m not seeing the kind of stuff I would want to see. Part of me wants to just shift back into that again.

What’s your secret to writing characters that are inherently very unlikable, but still getting the audience to like them?

I don’t think it’s trying to humanize somebody that’s vile, but I do feel like humans have a great, great capacity for empathy. It doesn’t take much to see in another person your own struggles. At the end of the day, we all tick in very similar ways. We want to be accepted. We want to find love. We want to have a life that we feel like we’ve earned or deserved. And so I think when you see characters struggle with that, even if it’s somebody that’s vile, it’s very hard for humans to not understand what that strife is all about. And then I think when you show them sort of deal with the same things you deal with, but they deal with it in such an outlandish, fucked up way, I think it puts it back on the audience to maybe understand their own journey.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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