Walton Goggins is one of the most interesting and innovative actors working today. He’s played everything from a slave overseer to a transgender prostitute, though his characters are generally gritty, somewhat sadistic, and always a little off-kilter. In HBO’s Vice Principals, which premieres this Sunday, July 17, Goggins plays Vice Principal Lee Russell, a two-faced Southern gentleman who both faces off against and teams up with Danny McBride’s Neal Gamby as the two battle to be their school’s much-lauded principal. As Russell, Goggins is sweet as pie on the surface, but dark as night when he steps out of the spotlight, a duality the actor seems uniquely qualified to embody. The A.V. Club talked to him about that duality, as well as about the insane amount of time he spends combing through each script.
The A.V. Club: Lee Russell is a complicated dude. How much did you know about him going into the show? Did you have his whole arc?
Walton Goggins: Well, out of the gate I’ll say it was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read in television and comedy. It was incredible. But they had written the first nine episodes. I was actually doing The Hateful Eight and they sent me all nine episodes, and I just read them in the trailer in the snow. I couldn’t believe that they were able to take their own brand of comedy to a whole new level. And I just said, “Sign me up. I’m in.” I’ve always wanted to play with these guys.
AVC: Did you immediately know who Lee Russell was? When you were reading the script, did you think, “I’ve met this man”?
WG: I did, oddly enough. You know, you kind of get that. Whenever you read, like, a Quentin Tarantino movie, you get it in the writing. Everything is there; you just have to show up and then execute it. I felt that way with Justified and I feel that way with this. It was all on the page, and it was up to an actor’s interpretation of it, but for me it was crystal clear. I saw myself as Lee Russell, in the way that he moved through the world. It was that specific.
AVC: Why do you think Lee wants to be principal?
WG: He is a very complicated guy. I think he is extremely impotent and he is lacking any real authority in his life. He feels that an answer to his problem lies in being number one on the call sheet, to use a film metaphor. That’s where he feels that he will finally, I think, have some peace—if he is the most important person in the room. And sadly, that is absolutely not the case.
AVC: Well, he seems put together. He has the outfits and he looks great. He’s Mr. Chitchat.
WG: Yeah, yeah, but aren’t a lot of people that are trying to acquire power? Isn’t that how they have to present themselves? It’s so thinly veiled once you look behind the curtain.
AVC: There’s a point in the show when you see his home life, and that reveals a lot. His mother-in-law is no picnic.
WG: Yeah, but why is she mean to him? Because he’s not worthy of her respect. I think you’ll see as the story goes, because I really do believe that the first season of this show is about who these people are, and the second season is about why they are who they are. A lot of that will come into play and a lot of those questions will be answered. They certainly were for me.
AVC: You’ve been cast a number of times as a guy that’s a bit of a loose cannon. Why do you think producers, directors, or casting people look at you and think, “This guy can do that”?
WG: I take it as a real compliment that people believe that I can in some ways mine the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the somewhat off-center—psychologically speaking—people in our society, and bring a real humanity to them, and make people see what would otherwise be a person that you would hate. Find a reason to love them and see the world from their point of view.
AVC: When you’re playing a character like Lee Russell, how well do you know him? Do you know what he’s doing at 80? Can you see past the boundaries of a show?
WG: Well, no, because I don’t think human beings for the most part have any idea who they’ll be in a week. It’s all contingent on what happens in your life. But I do know that I have enjoyed a string of opportunities to answer those questions for these people and to be along for the ride. I quite like being given an opportunity and playing pretend in a way where you don’t have all the answers. The one thing that I do is I read these scripts like two or three hundred times. That gives me a real handle on where this particular person is in any given moment. What’s so great about really good writing is, you don’t know where it’s going to go next. And that’s what these guys have done.
AVC: You’re from the South originally. Did the fact that Vice Principals was shot in South Carolina make you slightly more interested in the project? Not that you weren’t in just based on the script.
WG: Well, yeah. I did a movie in Charleston, I don’t know, almost 18 years ago, and I fell in love with it. But to be quite honest with you, if it were Danny McBride and Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, I don’t care if they were making the show on the moon. I would have signed up.
AVC: You recently decided to take a little time off, correct?
WG: Yeah, I did. I had a 14-month run, and then we had a couple of months of press on The Hateful Eight. But I just said yes to a couple jobs. So you can take a little bit of time off, but not too much time.
AVC: It’s got to be tempting to keep working if there are good projects rolling in.
WG: I think at the end of the day, the best advice I’ve ever been given is, “You’re an actor, and actors act. You’re a storyteller. Storytellers tell stories.” I am my level best when I am able to go between my personal life with my wife and my child, and a story that I love.