Danny McBride has a special flair for playing obnoxious loudmouths — the kind of outwardly cocky yet inwardly tragic jerks that he’s brought indelibly to life in films like “The Foot Fist Way,” “Pineapple Express,” “This Is the End” and the HBO series “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals.”
So when he was first approached about joining the cast of Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi horror film “Alien: Covenant,” he had a pretty good idea what the gig would entail.
Or at least he thought he did.
“When I got the script, I was like, ‘I’m sure they’re just going to make me tell a bunch of jokes and then I’ll get my head ripped off,” McBride said. He was sitting in the offices of Rough House Pictures, the production company he co-founded with two longtime film school friends, directors Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, as a home for projects too left-of-center for the mainstream studios. The offices are decorated with suitably defiant knickknacks, such as a statue of a hand giving the finger and a painting of a devil on the toilet.
But as it turned out, McBride was totally wrong.
For the latest installment in the long-running “Alien” franchise, Scott gave McBride the kind of part he almost never gets: a sweet-natured character for whom you only wish the best. As a colonization-ship pilot named Tennessee, McBride shows off his dramatic chops in a performance that is devoid of a single crude joke, bong hit or moment of cringe-inducing, Kenny Powers-style hubris.
“I’d seen Danny on TV and in other things,” Scott said, “and he reminded me somehow of Slim Pickens, who most memorably played a B-29 bomber pilot in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ I thought, ‘Let’s give this a little bit of a nod to Stanley.’ I thought it would give him a different characterization than you normally find in this kind of film.”
McBride, as it happens, is full of surprises. Over the course of an hourlong conversation, the 40-year-old actor, gamely fighting off a cold he had picked up from one of his two young kids, revealed a few things even his many fans might not know about him.
1. When he was growing up, comedy wasn’t his thing.
“Comedy was probably the genre I watched the least,” said McBride, who was raised in Virginia and went on to attend film school in North Carolina. “I was never someone who was out there trying to cut up for my friends. That kind of stuff would actually annoy me. When we were at the North Carolina School of the Arts, we film-school guys would purposely sit away from the drama people in the cafeteria because those people were always doing bits and performing — and I was like, ‘Ecch.’ ”
2. Contrary to what you might think, he is nothing like the egotistical redneck bullies he plays so well.
“I get it all the time: People assume that it’s not a performance, that I’m just this guy,” McBride said. (That he played a boorish, self-absorbed actor named Danny McBride in 2013’s “This is the End” probably didn’t help.) “But I wasn’t a dude, like, running around with a shotgun, hunting. I grew up around lots of those guys but it wasn’t who I was. I was the kid running around in middle school and high school with a video camera, making movies.”
“Danny is not like Kenny Powers at all,” said Hill, who co-created “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals,” in which McBride plays a fairly loathsome and vindictive school administrator. “He’s one of the smartest guys I know. The rest of the world knows him as a certain type of performer but I’ve always known Danny as a great talent.”
3. He doesn't even swear around his parents.
“I grew up in a religious house where I had perfect attendance at Sunday school,” McBride said. “I went to a Baptist church, and my parents did puppet ministries there.”
When he started appearing in R-rated comedies, he said, “I think for my mom it was a moment of, ‘Whoa, he’s doing this stuff on-screen and I don’t know if I’m ashamed of him or not.’ ”
4. He is a lifelong horror buff.
“When I was a kid, all my sister and I would rent were horror movies,” he said. “You’d go to the video store and look at the covers and decide what you wanted to be scared by that night.”
The original 1979 “Alien” was a particular favorite. “I don’t remember the first time I saw it but I can remember being afraid of the idea of something like that chest-bursting scene happening to me at a very young age,” he said. “Every time there was a grumble in your stomach, you’d be like, ‘Is it going to be that?’ ”
Getting cast in “Alien: Covenant,” then, was a dream come true for McBride, says Green, who has directed the actor in films like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.” “When Danny told me about ‘Alien,’ I just started laughing,” Green said. “We’re still just 11-year-old nerds on the inside, geeking out about what we get to do for a living.”
Green and McBride are currently working on the screenplay for a new “Halloween” movie, which Green will direct later this year. “There’s no comedy in this at all,” McBride said. “It’s just a straight horror movie.”
5. He was traumatized at a young age by “Gremlins.”
“I remember when ‘Gremlins’ came out, I wanted to watch it so badly and my parents were like, ‘No way,’ ” McBride recalled of the 1984 horror-comedy. “I’d draw pictures of Gizmo and put them on the refrigerator and leave them on their pillow and just be like, ‘Please, please can I see this?’
“Finally I broke them down. I sat in the movie theater and as soon as the gremlins started multiplying and Spike came out, I was scared [silly]. I just sat there, like, ‘Oh my God, I wish I’d never come to this movie.’ But I couldn’t admit it.”
6. The whole comedy-stardom thing has just been one long, unexpected detour from his first love of writing and directing.
Back in film school, McBride only began acting in projects for friends like Hill and Green because he happened to be around and had a surprising knack for it. “I never envisioned a career in acting,” he said. “I never really thought about it.”
Now that he has built up some clout in the industry, he’s looking to use it to nurture other filmmakers. “Rough House became an extension of what Jody and David and I did as friends back in film school — finding filmmakers or scripts that we like, sharing them and trying to figure out if we can help get them made,” he said.
Rough House has produced offbeat indie comedies like “The Catechism Cataclysm,” “Donald Cried” and “Flower,” which premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival. Now the company is expanding into new offices and production facilities in Charleston, S.C., where McBride and his family will be relocating next month.
Having directed a couple of episodes of “Vice Principals,” which returns later this year for its second and final season, McBride is also looking to helm his first feature film soon.
“I’m just finishing a script that I want to direct when ‘Halloween’ is done,” he said. “I wrote it as a vehicle for an actress that I think is funny as hell. It’s a mother-son story that has a nice heart but also is funny. It’s sort of inspired by movies like ‘Paper Moon’ and ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.’ ”
7. He has a script for a fantasy epic involving dragons sitting in a drawer that’s either completely terrible or Hollywood’s next blockbuster franchise.
“Right when we got out of college, my friend Ben Best and I wrote this script called ‘The Draven,’ ” McBride says. “It was about a half-man, half-dragon, and he was a hunter who had to hunt other dragons. It’s a straight-up fantasy-action movie. There is not one moment of levity in the whole thing — it’s disastrously serious.
“But I cracked it open recently and I was like, ‘You know what? As lame as this is, it’s actually written kind of well! The right person could actually make this pretty cool.’ ” He laughed. “‘The Draven.’ ‘The Draven 2.’ You could do 30 of them!”