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Interview - Danny McBride (Your Highness)

10 Aug 2011
Your Highness hits cinemas on April 13th but before that we've had some words with the star himself, Danny McBride. Read on for his thoughts on making the ultimate stoner fantasy film.
Born in Georgia in 1976, Danny McBride came to Hollywood’s attention when he co-wrote and starred in the 2006 low-budget action comedy The Foot Fist Way. His Performance led to roles in comedies like Hot Rod, The Heartbreak Kid (both 2007), Drillbit Taylor, Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express (all 2008). He created, co-wrote and starred in the hit HBO comedy series Eastbound & Down, and has gone on to star in the likes of Land of the Lost, with Eastbound & Down producer Will Ferrell and Up in the Air (both 2007), along with Despicable Me and Due Date (both 2010). In Your Highness, which he co-wrote and executive produced, he plays a wayward prince, who, along with his nobler brother (James Franco) and a warrior princess (Natalie Portman), bids to save their father's kingdom from doom, encountering sorcerers, dragons and Zooey Deschanel along the way.

For more from McBride, in person no less, check out our competition over here which puts you in with a chance of winning tickets to a special screening of Your Highness in the company of Kenny Powers!

Is this film your love letter to the swords & sorcery genre?

Absolutely. This film is a love letter to a lot of films I grew up on as a kid and liked: Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, all these bad 1980s terrible fantasy action movies. David [Gordon Green, director] and I are old buddies and we went to film school together, have known one another a long time and this is a genre that we always have been secretly entertained by. So to get the chance to actually make one of those films has been pretty cool. The first draft of the script was like a two hundred million dollar movie. We wrote to our imaginations’ delight. There was a floating ice city in it and all this s**t we were never going to be able to film and so as it became more of a reality that we might actually make it we had to conceive of how we could pull it off. It’s a dirty, filthy, little adventure. And I think what makes me and David laugh is baby behaviour, like grown men being jealous of another guy’s friendship, the kind of stuff that is very relatable in a modern sense and then setting that back in this fantasy world. We’re dealing with insecurities that you wouldn’t ever normally see in these movies and that is what makes it funny.

How have those 1980s fantasy films influenced you?

A lot of it was inspired from those sort of films and the kind of characters you would see in those films and us trying to breathe a new take on some of those characters and some of those archetypes. For example, Natalie Portman’s character is loosely based on that strong female character like Red Sonya, being a female warrior who whips everyone’s ass but that’s all you’d see in those films. In this we try and imagine what it’d be like trying to be involved with someone that’s probably got intimacy issues after she’s murdered 20 people in one afternoon! We like to breathe a little irony into these different things.

Is it hard to find the balance between poking fun at a genre and ripping it to shreds?

That was something that David and I spoke about. We wanted to make a fantasy movie that was funny, but not making fun of fantasy films, because one of the things that’s brilliant about the kind of comedy that David always tackles — from Pineapple Express to Eastbound & Down, and even the stuff we did in film school — is he would score laughs but never make the characters into clowns. It was always just finding the humour in their situations and finding some reality, even in the craziest situations. That’s what hooks you into the story, so at the end of the day we knew if it was just a parody and we didn’t really invest in the characters then there would not be any tension or suspense. For the action to feel real you would have to be invested in the outcome. You have to find a way to have the audience latch onto the characters and not just see them as a punch line.

Did you ever feel as though you pushed the boundaries a little too far with the bawdy humour in the film?

It gets pretty f**ked up. It certainly does. There were times on the set when David and I were looking at one another and all these people are trying to co-ordinate something very disgusting and foul and we’d say, ‘We can’t believe it. Our parents will be so embarrassed.’
I think both David and I have dark twisted senses of humour. The stuff I find the funniest borders on tragedy, where you are laughing but at the same time it is very sad and heartbreaking. We do that more in Eastbound & Down. In this it just borders on funny almost to the point of being disgusting.

Was it difficult getting Natalie Portman on board?

Oddly enough, she was one of the first people who was locked in. Her and David had been talking for a while and they really wanted to work together and when he told her that he was doing this she wanted to be involved. It was the same way with Franco. We just wrote the character for him. We told him about this idea and he was in. We just kind of constructed it for him. David and I saw this video that Franco had done, highlighting his training that he did for Tristan & Isolde. And it was insane. He could really do all this action stuff. He trained for eight months on horseback riding so he was a pretty easy fit. I have always been a humongous fan of Portman’s and it was really cool to see her slip into this. It is interesting to see how different actors will take to how David works, with him shouting out new lines and feeding ideas. Natalie fell in easily. It was crazy to watch. David feeding her all these terrible foul lines, which she just took, and delivered them and she just kills it. She did great. She’s super funny in this.

And as a writer on the movie, you can decide which character she has her romantic tryst with?

Yeah, as soon as I knew she was in, I was like, ‘Right…’ (laughs). Franco doesn’t get a look in!

Is it tempting to write yourself the best lines?

One of the other things I really like about the stuff David does, even in Pineapple Express, is that he really fills out the world; there are laughs coming from everybody, not just one person. In America in the ’90s so many of the comedies were based around one person being funny and everyone else just standing around, like paper targets, just there as set dressing. To me the funny stuff is when everyone who steps on screen has laughs and they are all very memorable. For this I find more enjoyment in watching the other characters come to life. I felt like the relationship with Franco and my character is the most important thing.

How are you at the horse riding and swordplay?

I am terrible at sword fighting and horse riding so it kind of fits my character but at the same time it is essential for the comedy: Franco’s character is the type that we usually follow in one of these movies — the noble hero — and he has all these skills. So we wanted to pair him with someone who should not be involved in one of these kinds of films! We were just trying to set Thadeus up to be more like the polar opposite of what his brother is: lazy, without any of his brother’s skills, and he has no charm like his brother.

There’s a similarity with Eastbound & Down then, in that we’re following someone that we wouldn’t normally follow?

At the beginning Thadeus is an anti hero but yes, like in Eastbound Down we actively chose to take a character that you wouldn’t usually follow in that story, a bad guy, and then find a way for the audience to sympathize with him. But we haven’t gone to that extreme here. Thadeus is just a guy at the beginning that lacks courage and lacks heroic things but tries to find that in his own way along the way so we definitely aim to have more of an arc with this character than with some of the other stuff that I’ve written.

What kind of weed is it that your character smokes?

I don’t know really. Wizard’s Weed! Some kind of magical herb. It was kind of funny because you would think that the marijuana would be something that the studio would want us to cut down but they were actually telling us to put more of it in. For us, though, it was never one of the big story points, just one of the elements of this guy, one of the bad habits he has, so it’s not in the movie nearly as much as in Pineapple Express. It’s kind of where we find him at the beginning. There’s no time to smoke weed when you are killing dragons and fighting bad guys!

Wasn’t the initial idea that he was going to be a weed-smoking dragon-killer?

Yes. That was the original idea David and I had back in college. It was just going to be me running around in chainmail, getting stoned and fighting dragons and some of that has remained intact. We called that idea Your Highness, so the title remains the same!

Which comedians did you find most funny growing up?

When I was a kid I liked everything from Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, I was a huge fan of Monty Python, and now with what is going on now I love the stuff that Seth Rogen is doing and I am a good friend of Will Ferrell, and he is great, and Ben Stiller, and all these guys. It is weird because when I went to film school I went there to direct and to write, and had no intention of getting into acting. So when I grew up I wasn’t focussing on one or two comedy guys. It was just movies in general that I was drawn to, films like this and the Indiana Jones movies. And once we were out in film school it was Scorsese and all these guys who we started to like. I didn’t ever see myself going into the world of comedy. But that is where I am now.

So how did it pan out this way?

Another class mate, Jody Hill, and I, we moved out to Los Angeles for a few years not really doing anything, trying to get scripts sold. We just ended up writing scripts ourselves and then we got into Sundance with The Foot Fist Way. It was financed on credit cards and we put ourselves in the films, because we didn’t really know any actors and that movie got distribution and that’s what got us other opportunities. At the same time David was at that point in his career where he had been garnering a lot of critical success, so us teaming up to do something seemed a good idea for some reason!

Do you think the swords & sorcery genre would have survived without The Lord Of The Rings? This genre had died in the 1990s…

I think it definitely gave it a boost. When a studio sees how much money a movie like that takes in, it’s got to make the money signs appear. With the Harry Potter films as well it definitely proves that magic isn’t dead. People still want to get lost in fantasy. It is still there. You have just got to make good ones, I guess.

How much was Monty Python an influence in the film?

Not too much. We watched it before we shot this. It had been some while since I’d seen it. A lot of what is so hilarious about that film was what breaks away from the world that David wanted to create here. Here though we tried to get the recklessness of that film, and I hope the spirit of that is in here. We do have horses, though, and not coconuts!

Has making the movie rekindled the eleven-year-old within you?

Yes, definitely. Much to the dismay of my fiancée.