'Arizona' Star Danny McBride On Playing The Villain And Pushing Boundaries In Comedy [Interview]

Danny McBride gives his most frightening performance to date in Arizona. Director Jonathan Watson, who's worked with McBride since season 2 of Eastbound and Down, uses McBride's charisma and comedic powers to make a blonde-haired, golf-playing baddie all the more menacing. There's something unsettling about McBride's comedic sensibilities in a villain like Sonny, who never loses his scary sense of humor throughout the Rosemarie DeWitt-led Arizona

McBride read Luke Del Tredici's (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) script years ago and thought it was "a wild ride," so he sent the script to Watson, helping to launching the well-seasoned first assistant director's feature directorial debut. The first-time filmmaker shows a great grasp of tone with his thriller by nicely balancing the horror and laughs.

McBride recently spoke with us about playing his most villainous and insecure character yet, his work with costumer designer Sarah Trost, his time with Sir Ridley Scott, and the importance and power of sometimes pushing boundaries in comedy.

When you first read the script, how was Sonny described on the page? 

You know, that character just jumped off the page. When I got that script, it was sent to me through a friend, and I had no idea what it was about or where it was going, and I heard that that's the best way to enter this movie. Even just approving trailers for it is difficult because you don't want to give anything away. I think part of what's cool about it is how you don't really know where it's going. That read was definitely like that. Sonny was someone who, when he first came on, I didn't know what his character was. This guy just reads funny. What's going to happen? So, all the dark turns and twists that he takes, they were surprising to me to read, but also made the movie, to me, seem a little more exciting.

I feel like I've seen this character a million times in public, with the hair and how he speaks. What made you decide on that hairstyle and the way Sonny carries himself? 

Yeah, I was just trying to think, "This guy spends all his time on the golf course, what does he look like?" I just figured he'd be pretty tan and he'd have bleached blond hair and stupid sunglasses and a visor. We just started putting him together. Sarah Trost, the costume designer on Vice Principals, she also was on this, and I just wrapped up. She was the costume designer on Righteous Gemstones, the pilot we just did for HBO. She's just so talented. Her designs, when I meet with her before we start something, she'll have already sketches drawn out of what she's imagining the characters to look like. She's been pretty amazing at bringing what's on the page, visualizing what that character is. She really helped craft the look of Lee Russell and Gamby in Vice Principals, and in this, her early drawings of him with the visor, the golf clothes he wears. It was pretty awesome, and it seemed like an unexpected wardrobe for someone who does such bad shit in this film.

Her work is great. How much collaboration and input do you usually have with a costume designer?

It's different with everybody, you know? If you've got somebody that you trust, it's part of what's exciting about it is keeping them excited, letting them have the reigns to push things and go far and see what it's like. I worked with Sarah for the very first time on Vice Principals, and honestly, she's someone that I'll try to force to work with me on anything I do. Just like I would trust Jonathan Watson or David Green or Jody Hill, she's just so good at what she does that I trust her opinions, and I want to see what she'll come up with. It's exciting. It's awesome when you can find people who are so good at what they do that where they'll go with it is half the fun of watching it all come together.

You've previously said the tricky part with Sonny was grounding him, and finding empathy for him. In what ways did you want to ground him?

Honestly, that was one thing that was a little bit easier about this one. I feel like with Gamby and with Kenny Powers, we are wanting people to have empathy for those characters because, ultimately they're people that suffer from character flaws that are holding them back in life. We want people to root for them eventually, and I think with Sonny, he's allowed to be a villain, you know? It can start out where you think, "Oh, maybe this is going to be a guy that I'm going to get behind by the end," but I think that it becomes very clear that this guy has gone over the edge and there really isn't redemption for Sonny. He goes from being this bumbling, aggressive idiot into just being a straight villain by the end.

What qualities of the character did you really want to play up to make Sonny an even more threatening or comical villain? 

I liked how, for someone who commits murder and stuff, he seems insecure. He had these qualities that I don't feel like you see in murderers usually. There's a real insecurity about him. He really wants people to know that he's gone hard. He's still proud of his house, despite everything that's going on. He still really cares what people think about him. I thought that was an interesting irony to have with a character that's splitting people's heads open with kitchen tile and shooting people. The idea that somebody would be that over the line, but still care about somebody's social norms seemed a little funny to me.

When you're on a set or preparing to do a movie, how much of an advantage do you feel you have by also being a writer? 

I think writing has served any performance I've done so much, because I think if you're just writing, you have to understand, you have to do the internal homework of, "What makes this person tick? How do they get from A to B to C?" I think knowing all that stuff definitely helps with a performance. If backstory is not on the page, it's easier to come up with what one is. Also, from doing so much TV now, I just know what what will turn audiences off and what might turn them off a little bit and what might not turn them off at all. It's kind of fun when you choose a character like this that gets very close to that third rail. You just try to figure out how to dance right around it and keep people engaged just enough so they don't turn off.

Knowing what will turn an audience off, how much do you think that that has changed over the years? Comedy is under a pretty intense microscope sometimes, so do you have to consider that at all?

I think certain elements... Look, I can see a classic comedy on TV and still laugh at it, and I know a lot of people that can. I think that the way that comedy is looked at in the press and in the media has changed. I think that people are looking to rake people over the coals for stepping out of line or for saying the wrong thing. It's not hard to do that if you want to just turn it on to comedies... I mean, that's part of the power of comedy. It can cross lines that you wouldn't in the real world and it can make comparisons and statements that are outlandish and outrageous and not appropriate for everyday life. That's where those things get worked out. There can be truth that can be unearthed by pushing barriers and pushing the line and going over.

I think it's real dangerous when people start thinking that comedy is equated to hate speech or something, just because it has an aggressive character. I think that there's something to be learned from seeing regressive behavior portrayed in all of its glory, and see how fucked up it is or destructive it is or ignorant it is. I think it's more effective tackling taboo situations by showing it than by hiding it. I think that there's more to gain from seeing it, quite frankly, than from avoiding it. I like to provoke, and I like to choose things that are off-center and unorthodox.

I think part of it is because I don't want to make movies like everyone else does. I don't want to tell the same stories that everybody else is telling. I want to try to come at things from a different angle. A lot of times, that's equated with looking for protagonists that aren't really what you see in most films, and finding that unexpected protagonist, or finding that simple goal that doesn't seem like it would be very interesting to follow for a full feature story and then finding a way to have the audience invest in that simple goal enough. I think a lot of the stuff that we do, that I do with Jody or David, or in this case Watson, it is just finding those stories and those characters that are not traditional and are not right down the middle. It makes the audience have to do a little bit more work in figuring out what they think of this behavior, and where do they think it lands, and how much can they root for these people, or how much can they understand where they're coming from.

That was very well put. The tone of Arizona, it has a lot of laughs but they don't undermine or come across at odds with the movie's horrific moments. Does that feel like threading a needle sometimes, or does handling that dark sense of humor just come so naturally to you?

I think that that just has to do with what our taste is. For me, the tricky thing about comedy is making a comedy that people still care about what happens to the characters in the third act. It's really easy to string a bunch of jokes together. What's really hard is to string a bunch of jokes together and after an hour, the people still care enough about what's going on in the story to want to see what unfolds. I think the same thing runs true with trying to blend the suspense horror with this comedy is that you can't let the comedy ever undermine the stakes. The stakes always have to feel real and always have to feel engaging, so that, even if there is a laugh, it doesn't suddenly make you feel the whole movie is a joke and there's not real consequences for these characters. I think it's the same to be said with other comedies as well. We just try to make sure that as funny as it can be, it still feels something emotional by the time it's over.

Were there any classic villains on your mind during the making of Arizona? Any villainous performances you thought about at all?

I'm trying to think of one. I don't know if they really inspired this, but obviously Jack Nicholson in The Shining is one of the greatest of all times. That performance is so creepy and weird and awesome. I think some of Tarantino's villains are that way, where they're charismatic and fun, but then they can blow somebody's head off at the drop of a dime. I think that kind of unexpected sort of villain is honestly what I went towards more here. The idea that they could have you laughing one second and then shoot your head off the next.

You got to face one of best villains of all time, the xenomorph, in Alien: Covenant. Working with Ridley Scottt, are there certain memories from your experience with him that come to mind often? 

All the time. That was probably one of the greatest moments of this whole journey I've had as my career so far. Getting to work with a guy like that. He's been my idol forever. So many movies. Just to be able to ... I'm so interested in directing, that's what I went to film school for. I graduated with a major in directing. Just to watch how a guy like that approaches Alien and see how he shoots it, how he structures his days, what his coverage is like, how he directs actors – it's just an unreal education.

It was wild to see him. It's wild to see how long he's been doing this, and the pace that he can keep up. I think we finished Alien ahead of schedule. I've never been on a movie that finishes ahead of schedule. Everything always takes longer than they say it's going to take. He just knows exactly what he wants, knows how to get it every time a camera is set up. He's rolling four cameras on every scene and every frame looks like a Ridley Scott film. He knows what his style is. He knows what his look is. It's cool to see someone who's been going that long and that confident and just watch them do it.

I recently told Jody Hill how happy I was with the ending of Vice PrincipalsIs there anything in particular you really miss about playing Gamby and making that show?

I loved that experience. I loved every bit of it. Honestly, I think if we hadn't conceived of that as a two season thing, and it had just been a season-to-season thing, I think I would still be making that show now, just because I love that cast so much. Those characters were so much fun. Ultimately, I think there was something bittersweet about that story that needed to be told in that short timeframe. As much as it saddens me to not go back to that world, I think the piece as a whole benefits from it being a contained story. I don't know if you would have gotten that ending if you had just seen a few seasons of these being jammed in a school together. I think there was an intensity to how fast that story moved that I think let that ending land.


Arizona is now playing in limited release and available on iTunes.