This interview contains spoilers for the Season 1 finale of “The Righteous Gemstones.”
The problem with being a blowhard is there’s usually some kind of blowback. Danny McBride’s characters have a tendency to learn that lesson the hard way, their arcs traversing a kind of warped hero’s journey from cockiness to comeuppance, through chagrin and bodily injury to redemption. (Sort of.)
For his character Jesse Gemstone in the HBO comedy “The Righteous Gemstones,” that journey included cocaine, prostitutes, blackmail, multiple attempts at vehicular homicide and, by the end of Sunday’s Season 1 finale, getting shot by his wife — a tough run for any Christian minister. His redemption is still pending.
As in his previous HBO series, “Eastbound and Down” and “Vice Principals,” which he cocreated, McBride’s character in “Gemstones” embodies a particular brand of unreconstructed male, less oblivious to his privilege than untroubled by it. In “Gemstones” he follows form, playing the blinged-out heir-apparent in a family of mega-rich Southern megachurch ministers, headed by the cunning and recently widowed patriarch, Eli Gemstone (John Goodman).
Near the end of the finale, Jesse’s conniving uncle (Walton Goggins) is struck by lightning and then revived by a stinging bee, in a way that leaves open the possibility of divine intervention. McBride, who with “Gemstones” notched his first credit as a lone creator, said the ambiguity was by design: He was interested in skewering hypocrisy, but not faith per se, even that of the Gemstones.
In a phone interview last week, McBride, who was born in Georgia and lives in Charleston, S.C., talked about struggling with church as a child and what he hopes the series can accomplish. (It was renewed for a second season.) He also talked about an interesting query he received from Kanye West. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
That bee in the finale: Was there a reason that you were drawn to that specific image?
The idea just came to us that there would maybe be this sign that the family would see, and you don’t really know what that is. When you’re brought up religious, it’s easy sometimes to see things and be like, “That’s the Lord working through that.” But someone who doesn’t agree could just be like, “That’s a [expletive] bee that came in at the wrong time.” So we just tried to keep it vague.
The headline of this show is about megachurches, but it feels more than anything like a story about fathers. Did you think of it that way?
Yeah, that definitely was at the core. Even the Bible, the New Testament, is just a big story about a father and son, so it felt like that was the right angle to take on this season. In particular, you have Jesse dealing with where he’s failing his youngest son, and how he’s failed his oldest son. Then, you even get that peek back into Jesse’s childhood and how he tries to emulate how his father disciplined them, like smacking people at church lunch. But it just doesn’t have the same effect. Hopefully, if we get a chance to do this show for as long as we want, we’ll get a chance to explore all the different dynamics that arise in a family.
Does it feel personal for you in that way? This grappling with the father-son relationship?
I think it is for anybody, you know? Once you have a kid, it starts to make you think about everything around you differently, and about how you want to do things, or how things were done when you were a kid. [McBride has a son and a daughter.] I think that’s what was interesting about setting this story with religion. Because in some regards, that is what religion does for a lot of people. It lays out a path: “This should work for you; this should get you what you need.” And the Gemstones, they’re preaching about what people need to do to make it work. But when you see behind the curtain, it’s so obvious that they’re struggling deeply with how to make things work.
I’ve read that you grew up going to church but struggled with it once your parents split.
When my parents were together, we went to church all the time. And then when they split up, and we tried to stay at that church, people were a little judgmental about my mom getting a divorce. This was in the mid-80s, so it was more of a stigma than it is now.
So my mom just kind of stopped going. And then it trickled down to us. She would drop us off at church, me and my sister, and we would go to Sunday school, go to church, and then she would pick us up afterward. After a little while, it just became like: “What are we doing? Why are we going to this place that my mom’s not even comfortable stepping into?” So we just kind of stopped going.
Certainly another theme seems to be about how women get shoved constantly into the background. Was there a conscious attempt to engage some of the current discussions about gender equality? Or was it coming more from that personal place?
It’s probably a combination. Whenever we’re trying to come up with ideas, I won’t say that we go and look at headlines and try to figure out what is important today. But I think subconsciously it does affect your decisions. We always try, if we can, to stay one step back from exactly what’s happening now because in some regards, you could attach yourself to a story that might not be timeless. But also my own childhood growing up, and being raised by a strong woman, that seemed like a natural fit for Edi Patterson’s character as we were creating her. [Patterson plays Jesse’s sister, Judy.]
I’ve heard you were inspired to tackle this subject by your surroundings since moving down to Charleston.
When I moved back here, there are so many more churches that it made me think about my own childhood going to church. I really hadn’t thought about church in ages, and yeah, it made me curious about what church is like now. When I started seeing these megachurches, it just felt like the right kind of world to set our story in.
Have you gotten any pushback down there personally?
I haven’t, really. I’ve got to say, I get messages from people all the time, and they’re like: “I’m a Christian, and I love the show. I think this is hilarious.” I think most people go to church because they do make mistakes, and they’re not perfect human beings. So having that sort of view on the show, in a way, makes it more relatable than if it was something where we’re just railing on believers. To me, that just doesn’t seem interesting.
You’ve talked about this show as a critique of hypocrisy. But the finale seems to complete a redemptive arc for Gemstones. Is that what you were going for? They’re not going to stop being hypocrites if they’re still raking in millions, right?
They might be moving forward, but at the end of the day, the victory is pretty cheap [laughs]: They got back the money that was stolen from them that they stole from other people. I think ultimately, though, the family suffered this incredible loss and they needed to find a way forward. And they ended up finding that way by relying on each other. I think that’s relatable. Does it redeem a character for what they do? I don’t know.
I think there’s a way for characters to be relatable, and you can sympathize with them, but at the same time root for them to get what’s coming to them. We always talk about liking the Sopranos. You don’t need to keep being told that being in the mob is bad. You get it.
Judy’s monologue in the finale … I don’t even know how to describe it. How much of that was improv?
That was Edi, 100 percent. It was originally a monologue that she wrote for Episode 6, when she was going to kind of have this dark moment where she explained this love story to B.J. [Tim Baltz, who plays Judy’s fiancé], and it didn’t end up working in there. That monologue, when Edi wrote it the first time, just made me die. I was, like, crying when reading it. I always wanted to make sure we captured it on film, so we squeezed it into the finale. We were able just to let the cameras roll, and just let her crush that.
You said on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” that Kanye West had approached you about playing him in a movie. Is that happening?
I mean, he’s such a busy man, but if he ever found the time or interest in it, I would be interested in doing it. [Laughs.] I think it’s pretty awesome idea.