From creator/executive producer/writer/director Danny McBride, executive producer/director Jody Hill and executive producer/director David Gordon Green, the HBO comedy series The Righteous Gemstones tells the story of a world-famous televangelist family that has as much of a tradition with greed and deviance as they do with charitable work. And with blackmailers seeking to sully the reputation of eldest son Jesse Gemstone (McBride), patriarch Eli’s (John Goodman) plans to expand the family’s empire could be in jeopardy.
While at the HBO portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with Danny McBride and co-star Cassidy Freeman (who plays Jesse’s ambitious wife, Amber), who talked about putting together such a great cast, the warm and inviting atmosphere that allowed for creative freedom, what it means to be a Gemstone, either by blood or by marriage, the challenges of shooting the big baptism scene, and finding the show’s tricky tone. McBride also talked about being a part of the creative team behind the new Halloween films, how there was always a plan to expand the story beyond one film, and why he thinks the legend of Michael Myers will continue, once they’ve finished telling their story.
Collider: First of all, Baby Billy Freeman is an insane character. How on earth did you think of Walton Goggins for that character? When you see that character, you don’t exactly immediately think of him?
DANNY McBRIDE: Yeah, that was the idea behind it, I guess. I love Walton. I think he’s one of the best people I know, and he’s such a talented actor, so I really wanted to kind of create something for him here that was just completely different than Lee Russell and have him go in a completely different direction. Him, as an old man, was just making me laugh. It just felt like something that I wanted to see.
Beyond just Walton Goggins, a lot of this cast really feels unexpected.
CASSIDY FREEMAN: Yeah, it’s fresh.
Cassidy, was that part of the appeal of doing this, for you?
FREEMAN: Oh, absolutely! I’ve been wanting to do something that feels like this, for a long time, and it’s a total dream, to get to go and play. There’s something about drama, when you’re doing drama, where it’s very much about the individual and you’re like, “How did I do? What about me?” And what’s cool about comedy, that I’m learning from these jokers that are so freakin’ talented, is that, at the end of a scene, you look up and go, “Was it funny?” It feels much more like a team mentality and like you’re in it together, which is nice.
Were you nervous, at all, jumping into scenes with these guys?
FREEMAN: No, never! I think a little bit of stress is always good. If someone isn’t a little bit nervous, before they go on stage or do something, they’re dead inside. I never felt nervous because they created such a warm and inviting and kind atmosphere, to be creative and to be free, and that’s all you can be.
McBRIDE: And she’s razor sharp. We were blown away by Cassidy, when she came in. She just had this down so well. I remember that scene in the pilot, where she dresses down the church lady who asks about the private jets, and we were just so impressed about how quickly she could turn that on. It was just awesome.
As someone who’s married into the Gemstone family, how does Amber feel about fitting in with them?
FREEMAN: Oh, Amber chose it. There’s a scene where she says that she came from a rural area, and Judy Gemstone calls her a poverty person. She chose this. She was very adamant about the kind of life she wanted to choose, and she knows exactly what she wants and a good idea of how to get it.
What was the appeal of this lifestyle, for her?
FREEMAN: To be a rock star. I do believe that she is a believer. I don’t think it’s purely for materialistic things. I do believe that she thinks she’s doing good, but I also think that it feels good to be taken care of and feel like part of an important family, in that world.
Danny, your character seems like he’s just going along with what his family has established, whereas his younger brother would prefer to change things up. How does he feel about all of these things that are going on around him?
McBRIDE: The essence of Jesse is that Jesse is the first born, so there’s this natural idea that the kingdom would go to him. But he doesn’t really have the moral compass, or even the ability, so he finds himself following these traditions and rules that aren’t really him. He’s trying to emulate how Eli raised him. You see him get slapped, even as an adult, and he uses that on his son, in the beginning, and it’s not getting the effect that it needs. Part of Jesse is that he’s holding onto these traditions, whether they’re biblical or whether they’re parental, and he needs to listen to himself a little bit more, but he’s so wrapped up in the industry of the family that it doesn’t occur to him to be like more authentic.
There’s a little bit of fear there, with the family patriarch, that allows Eli to keep the family in line, whereas that definitely doesn’t work, in the same way, for Jesse. If he had that, do you think his kids would actually listen to him?
McBRIDE: 100%. I think it all comes down to authenticity, and that’s like what his problem is. He so clearly does not want this world, and he’s jamming himself into it. Ultimately, what this show is about is hypocrisy and about being a hypocrite, and Jesse is victim to that. Because he can’t be authentic, he has this false home life, and he’s doing a job and getting up in front of people, saying things that he doesn’t necessarily believe in, which causes his whole life to unravel.
I love that this show opens with that big baptism scene, which is so great and says so much about what the show will be because so many things go so wrong. What was it like to shoot that?
McBRIDE: That was surprisingly more fun than I thought it was gonna be. I thought it was going to be crazy. Luckily, all of those extras that showed up were all awesome. They were having fun, and John was having fun. Originally, that was written to be in the day. It was supposed to be a baptism in the day, but then, a week before we shot it, the water park we were gonna shoot at was like, “Yeah, we can’t have you guys here during business hours. There’s too much liability, with all of these kids around on water slides. We just can’t do it.” So, we were like, “Well, fuck, what do we do? Do we just take this to a river, or what?” And then, I was like, “What time do you guys close? Can we come in, after you guys are closed?” And they were like, “Yeah, if you can get out before the park opens the next morning, then you can do that.” So, we changed it to a 24-hour baptism, and just decided to make it hour 17, in the middle of the night. It photographed better than I think it would have, if we would’ve done it during the day. It ended up working out in our favor.
Was it fun to do the big church moments, throughout the season?
McBRIDE: It was a blast. That was part of what was essential about the authenticity of the characters and the world. We wanted this world to feel massive, on a large scale. When you compare that with all of this crazy shit that they’re doing, and then you see them step in front of millions of people, there’s something inherently funny about that and how they’ve managed to build this giant empire. We were always trying to keep the scope of the show big. It was important to us.
FREEMAN: And those days do you feel real. After an hour or two of being in that atmosphere, it feels really real. Everyone is in it and like ready to be a part of it.
We learn pretty quickly that Jesse and Amber’s son is up to no good, which is also an important part of the story and really keeps the family dynamic going. What can you say to tease how that will play out?
McBRIDE: You’ll have to wait and see. It all percolates. These people have been following the wrong trail, for a long time, and everything is catching up to them.
Danny, you definitely have a great little family going with Jody Hill and David Gordon Green. What have you enjoyed about that collaboration, and what makes you want to keep that collaboration going?
McBRIDE: I just feel lucky. Those guys are truly some of my best friends in this world, and I respect them as filmmakers. When I look back at the last 10 years of things that I’ve worked on, the moments on set with those guys are some of the highlights of my adult life. Everybody still likes doing it, and we don’t hate each other. In fact, we enjoy it, more and more, so why not?
This series has such an interesting balance between the comedy and the seriousness of this. Does that tone come easily, or is it very tricky to find the right balance?