It might be a little cocksure to assert that Walton Goggins is the best thing about The Righteous Gemstones. But when Goggins didn’t show up for the first handful of episodes in season 2, donning the white-haired wig, tinted glasses, and fake liver spots signature to his look as “Baby” Billy Freeman, some fans were legitimately on edge. Goggins broke through the show’s first season as the standout in 2019, offering his vocals to an earworm known the world over as “Misbehavin’” and, at one point, hanging prosthetic dong. In Danny McBride’s most recent HBO endeavor (the third installment in his now-triptych of comedy series alongside Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals), Goggins has emerged as something of a dark horse. Though he doesn’t lead the series as he did as the foul-mouthed, effete Lee Russell on Vice Principals, he has yet again made, as was once written on him for The New York Times, “a habit of being the best thing about the television shows he’s in.”
With his outlandish name and unique look, Walton Goggins became initially most recognizable from his principal roles in the popular crime series Justified and The Shield, as career criminal Boyd Crowder and corrupt cop Shane Vendrell, respectively. He’s one of our best working character actors, embraced by an ardent base of Goggins Heads like myself due to his penchant for popping up in supporting and bit parts and running away with them. But Goggins has cultivated something of a mean streak in his on-screen performances across film and television. He’s built up a rapport for portraying sadists, agitators, and flamboyant criminals. He’s played cops (House of 1000 Corpses), bandits (Cowboys & Aliens), racists (Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight), heavies (American Ultra), rapists (Predators), and even a Marvel bad guy (Ant-Man and the Wasp).
Goggins’ is an easy face to pigeon-hole into straight antagonistic or anti-hero personas. He’s got a real estate on his forehead and wild eyes sheltered by a low brow, a toothy Grinch grin and Georgia-bred drawl which can heighten into an eldritch howl that makes it even easier to typecast him as a prejudiced hick (as in Django). But you can’t quite cast Goggins as your average, ignorant southerner, even though he tends to take on roles that capitalize on certain aspects of this archetype. What ties Goggins’ distinctive appearance together, and what would make it something of a disservice to simply cast him as your run-of-the-mill white trash stereotype, is that he’s got the cartoonishly villainous face of a man who’s always scheming. It’s why he gets cast so frequently as conniving rogues and lowlifes—less that he’s unconventional-looking and easy to manifest as an antagonist from that simple fact, and more that he’s got a perpetual twinkle in those crazy eyes.
Goggins is, thus, a natural fit for the southern-spun comedy stylings of Danny McBride. In Vice Principals, Goggins plays Lee Russell: the foppish and smartly-dressed yet equally coarse foil to McBride’s Neal Gamby, two vice principals whose combined narcissism joins forces to take down anyone who might stand in the way of one of them becoming principal at their high school. Of course, their cutthroat struggle to the top only results in the gradual degradation of their own already unfulfilling lives. The difference between the two unpleasant and deeply xenophobic characters is that, while McBride’s Gamby unveils his own nagging conscience at the pairs’ increasingly corrupt acts of destruction, Russell proves himself to be far more sociopathic.
It’s a fantastic part for Goggins, whose exaggerated, feminine mannerisms, eccentric bow ties, and dyed-blonde tips as Russell position him physically at odds with much of his past work, while capitalizing on the talents of someone whose specialty lies in playing antagonistic. Russell’s venomous, quick-witted bite is the perfect match for Gamby’s more dogmatic bullishness, and Goggins’ skill as an actor is no more apparent than how naturally he slides into comedy. He delivers lines like “You dusty old queef” and “All the teachers are sticking their cocks in my mouth” with such ease that the physicality of his delivery is often funnier than the actual lines.
But in The Righteous Gemstones, McBride (who created the show; creative partners Jody Hill has a minor supporting role, and he and David Gordon Green both executive-produced and directed episodes) makes a meal out of Goggins’ ability to seduce with southern hospitality. As “Baby” Billy Freeman, Goggins plays the financially-dependent, 70-year-old black sheep of the Gemstone family: brother of the deceased matriarch Aimee-Leigh, uncle to entitled heirs Jesse (McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam Devine), and brother-in-law to patriarch Eli (John Goodman). In line with past characters that McBride has either played, or written, or both, Uncle Baby Billy—a character whose ridiculous moniker spoken consistently with utter seriousness already positions him miles ahead, comedy-wise—is an emotionally stunted man trying to get back on top. A former child star alongside Aimee-Leigh, Baby Billy strained his relationship with Eli and his late sister due to his poor influence on the Gemstone children and having sold part of his and Aimee-Leigh’s family land. Now, he’s shacking up in his run-down, childhood home with his much younger wife, Tiffany (Valyn Hall), with designs to weasel back into the opulent arms of his estranged family.
Baby Billy harbors a grudge against Eli for stealing Aimee from him, having welcomed her into the luxury of a televangelist life while leaving Baby Billy to near-ruin. His purported love for his family is a thin veneer over his true desires to exploit them for personal gain, apparent in the way he uses Judy in season one as a stand-in for Aimee-Leigh to ensnare new fans of “Misbehavin.’” As Baby Billy, Goggins is milder than Lee Russell but no less crafty, and he sneers and hurls insults as he’s well accustomed to (“Go outside, nerd,” he barks at Judy’s emasculated husband, B.J., played by Tim Baltz). But unlike Lee Russell—whose wiles are far more abrasive—Baby Billy has a silky smooth, snake-charming gentleness. It’s a duality of character that he uses to worm himself into the good graces of his niece and nephews and attempt to turn them against one another and their father. He even briefly softens the hardened Eli, whose suspicions towards Baby Billy’s underlying intentions are, of course, warranted. Baby Billy is a no-good, scheming hustler, and Danny McBride has made his career off of a fascination with, in particular, emasculated hustlers.
This combination of Goggins’ inherently unusual look, the roles he’s come known to embody and the assets he’s gleaned through them has made him something of secret comedic weapon for the McBride/Hill/Green HBO industrial complex. More interestingly, it’s a weapon that no one else seems to feel quite as comfortable wielding. Goggins notes the humor found in his past dramatic roles, and has picked up guest spots on sitcoms like Community and The Big Bang Theory, and led one titled The Unicorn that was canceled after two seasons. Reviews in the latter note a welcome contrast between Goggins’ portrayal of a grieving widowed father against his past work, showcasing a warmer side of his range. “It’s not an exciting performance. It’s a nice performance,” writes The Hollywood Reporter. Indeed, but is it funny?
Beyond the charming John Bronco short films—a duo of mockumentaries chronicling the absurd rise and fall of fictional TV pitchman and American folk hero John Bronco (Goggins) for the Ford Motor Company—McBride, Hill, and Green are among the only creatives who have allowed Goggins to go full-throttled with his comedy potential. Goggins is happy to go along for the ride, and he speaks of working with Danny McBride and Quentin Tarantino with equal veneration. But, as Goggins understands, the work that McBride, Hill, and Green tend to do runs along a dark undercurrent, always teetering between comedy and drama and allowing for earned moments of pure absurdity. Perhaps this is why Walton Goggins has found such a comfortable home in their work. It’s a hat trick, giving the dramatic actor something seemingly different to do yet still playing off the strengths that made him known to his audience. But even going back to something like The Unicorn, the effortlessness Goggins conveys in jumping to different ends of the performance spectrum solidifies him as one of our very best. And even the best haven’t got a song like “Misbehavin.’”
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.