For Walton Goggins, the worst part of transforming into Lee Russell wasn’t getting frosted tips; it was covering them up.
Don’t be misled: Goggins didn’t care much for the look (“It’s a lot to live with”). But one night during production of the HBO comedy “Vice Principals,” he went out to dinner in Charleston, South Carolina with a few members of the team, including co-star (and co-creator) Danny McBride and his director, David Gordon Green. Though it went against his set of manners, Goggins just couldn’t bring himself to sport his character’s famous blonde highlights in public.
“I grew up in the South, and you don’t wear hats inside of restaurants,” Goggins said in an interview with IndieWire. “But for me, when I wasn’t working, I want my hat, man. I didn’t want to be Lee Russell when I wasn’t working. Who the fuck would want to be that person when you’re not working?”
But the “distinguished older gentleman” who spotted him that night didn’t know anything about Lee Russell. This was 2015. “Vice Principals” had yet to debut. All that man saw was a hat on top of a head inside of a dining room.
“He just said, ‘Excuse me — young man.’ He said it so loud I didn’t know who he was talking to, and we were all at this table together and he said, ‘You in the hat,’ and I turned and looked at him, and he said, ‘Don’t you know that you do not wear hats inside of restaurants anywhere, son?’ And part of me wanted to tell him that I had cancer or something, but I just looked at him and said, ‘Yes sir, I completely understand, it won’t happen again.’ I mean, that’s all you can do.”
It may seem like the point of this story is no one should wear a hat inside a restaurant (especially in the South), but really the key takeaway is how much Goggins did not want to be Lee Russell — not when he didn’t have to be. Fans of the two-season series know Russell as a maniacal, power-hungry, sociopath; a vice principal who covets the boss’ chair so much he’ll stop at nothing to make it his own. He blackmails his competition; he spits in his co-workers’ coffee cups, then lies about it; he even burns down his boss’ house, where she lives with her children.
And yet Goggins found a way to make Russell engaging, hilarious, and even, at times, empathetic. He threw himself into a role that demanded a certain surrender, and trusted the process to produce someone the audience would become attached to and even root for (though they likely hated themselves for doing it). Goggins has done this before. Be it his sterling supporting turn in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” or his Emmy-nominated role in “Justified,” Goggins makes bad guys fun to watch.
Goggins’ performance in “Vice Principals” drills deep into the heart of the very man he didn’t want to be, and it made the show that much better.
“I felt that way about Boyd Crowder, too,” Goggins said about his Emmy-nominated role on “Justified.” “And I felt that way about Chris Mannix [his character in ‘The Hateful Eight’]. […] It was difficult in the sense that these were two really fucked up human beings who are deeply insecure, but I think we had something to say. I don’t know that Danny was interested in redeeming them or making them good people; I don’t think he was interested in a bad guy becoming a hero. I think he was just interested in exploring who these two people were, and that’s certainly who I was interested in exploring.”
Explore him he did. Three years since he dyed his hair and started shooting, Goggins remembers “getting lost in the journey of these two men.” “Vice Principals” shot both seasons back to back from April through November 2015, and Goggins credits the writers for setting him up with great material to build from; the material wasn’t written for laughs, and they didn’t play it that way. Goggins said he and McBride took it “very seriously,” which then allowed them to react in the moment as these “deeply flawed human beings.”
“The best way I can describe it is watching a kid play,” Goggins said. “When they hold up a lightsaber, it’s a lightsaber.”
Referencing a scene in the penultimate episode where Gamby chases Russell through the halls of their high school, Goggins said he didn’t have to think about the choices he’d make, even if some were improvised.
“You just turn yourself over to an imaginary set of circumstances,” he said. “I’m Lee Russell, and Danny is Neal Gamby. And if you’re going down a hallway, Neal Gamby can kick Lee Russell’s ass on any day of the week, so I just have to outrun him. […] I don’t have to think about how Lee Russell […] would run or if he would snap a mopping thing like Jaws back at [Gamby] — I didn’t think about those things beforehand.”
Crediting the trust he had in McBride, Green, and co-creator Jody Hill, Goggins said he could find things in scenes as they came to him, including an improvised line that cut to the core of both characters.
“It wasn’t there on the page, but I just looked at him and said, ‘You’re an animal. You’re just an animal! Get him out of here!’ And those tears were real!” Goggins said. “That emotion may have been expressed in a way that made people laugh, but that’s without presupposing [it]. I didn’t sit up worrying, thinking, ‘Oh I better do this here.'”
Russell said he still thinks about where Lee Russell ended up after the ambiguous series finale — “But I won’t tell you,” he added — and he’d be open to returning to the character in the future.
“Of course,” he said. “I know Danny is kind of looking at whatever that means, but regardless [what happens with ‘Vice Principals’] I don’t think this is my last collaboration with Mr. McBride. I love those guys.”
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