Walton Goggins Takes Baby Billy's Journey on 'The Righteous Gemstones' Very Seriously
Whether he's pulling a newborn baby from a toilet or letting Macaulay Culkin punch him in the face, he's going to find the truth in the moment.
In the second season of HBO's comedy The Righteous Gemstones, no character goes on a journey quite like Walton Goggins's white-haired, scripture-quoting scoundrel "Baby" Billy Freeman. A fan favorite introduced back in Season 1, Goggins didn't appear in the first three episodes of Season 2 as creator and star Danny McBride moved around the familial chess pieces around the board, setting up an intricate plot involving the sins of fathers, the weight of legacy, and a gang of motorcycle ninjas. But you knew Baby Billy would be back.
Returning with a storyline that stretches across time and touches on all the show's key themes, Baby Billy is a wildcard who also holds the entire series together with his combination of pain, charisma, and faith. McBride and the other writers certainly tested him with a series of self-inflicted challenges: Baby Billy begins the season with a flashback where he abandons his son Harmon in a mall, then returns to the present day where he flees his very pregnant wife Tiffany (Valyn Hall), goes on the run selling COVD-busting snake oil elixirs, reunites with Harmon as an adult, and finally learns the deeper meaning of family by pulling a newborn out of a porta-potty. Job had it easier.
Serving as the show's tortured soul and its chattering id, Baby Billy is the type of complex, conflicted character that any actor would jump at the chance to play. Goggins, who first worked with McBride on HBO's similarly unhinged Vice Principals, rose to prominence with acclaimed supporting turns on the FX dramas The Shield and Justified, and he's gone on to appear in films from directors like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, and Spike Lee. Yet he feels perhaps most at home in the absurd, yet grounded zone McBride has carved out with his frequent collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green. The second you see Goggins in that hair with those glasses, you start to laugh—then, 10 minutes later, maybe you start to cry.
As the new season of Gemstones draws to a close with the Hill-directed finale "I Will Tell of All Your Deeds," Goggins was more than happy to jump on the phone and discuss his work on the show, his tender reunion with his character's adult son (played by Macaulay Culkin), the wild "toilet baby" birth in the finale, and how Baby Billy's struggles tie into the character's background of growing up in poverty. Like the show itself, a conversation with Goggins can be thoughtful, poignant, and hilarious at the same time.
Thrillist: Your character goes on such a journey in Season 2. When the show was first renewed for a second season, how did Danny and the rest of the creative team pitch this arc to you?
Walton Goggins: I'm trying to think back on it. Danny is one of my best friends, so we talk a lot about a lot of different things. I don't know if he said anything beyond, "I think you're going to love where it's going this season." And I said, "I'm sure I will." At some point when it got close and they sent the [script for the] flashback episode, which was what we started with, we really got into it that this is a season about fathers and sons and sons that become fathers. I was really blown away by it and we talked generally about it without getting into specifics. But as we often do, I got the first episode and we really talked at length about, "Well, what does this mean? What are we trying to say? Why is Baby making that decision?"
I kept coming back to poverty, man, and what that does to a person and what they are incapable of providing. I think everyone was a little shocked by how difficult it was for Baby Billy to walk away from Harmon. Danny wasn't, but a few other people said, "I thought it was funny he made the decision he was out." And I was like, "No, this is the last thing he wants to do. He worships his son. He loves his son." So that was a really interesting conversation.
If you look at the decisions that Baby Billy makes, they're all predicated on never wanting to go back to poverty again. I think that's the truth for a lot of people. I'm a poor kid from Georgia. We had more than some but less than most. I had food, but there were some lean times growing up and it's a very tricky thing. It's always there in the back of your head. Not to get too serious about a very funny story. But it is also very serious. I take comedy very seriously.
That scene where you put the Oakley's on your son is very poignant and moving—
But fucking ridiculous, Daniel!
But also really sad!
That's what Danny does better than anyone. So sad and pathetic and narcissistic and so strange.
When you're shooting a scene like that, I assume you're just trying to keep it as real as possible and not sell the jokes or "be funny" in any way.
I don't ever think about jokes or not jokes. I don't ever think about the drama, the joy, the sadness, or anything. I've been around a long time, and Danny and I have worked together a long time now. Everyone has their process, right? Quentin [Tarantino] said it better than anybody: "90% of what I do is hire the right actor."
For me, I'm pretty quiet. I stay off on my own at work because it's so gratifying playing pretend for me. I absolutely love it. I'm not there to socialize. I'm not there to hang out and talk to people. I'm there to play pretend. That's what I do, and I derive great pleasure from it. At this point, there's a shorthand, and Danny has that with a lot of people. Same with David [Gordon Green] and Jody [Hill]. They call "action" and who knows where it's going to go? No one knows. We're getting a picture taken in front of Santa and I'm about to leave my son. I have no idea what's gonna happen and no one does, and that's what's so thrilling about doing this for a living. It is alive.
In some ways, it's "alive" in a way that life, when you're in the machinations of life, isn't. For me, on that particular day, it just evolved over time. This young, wonderful actor who plays Harmon was so present and so there, and we just set out and went through it. I'm sorry to be as vague as that, but sometimes those are the best words to describe it.
I have to ask you about the toilet birth scene that happens in the finale and essentially serves as the ending for Baby's journey this season. What was your reaction to reading it for the first time and what was it like to shoot?
It was so fucking ridiculous. So sublime. Of course that's how it happens. To use a porta-potty as a metaphor for rebirth and coming through the birthing canal and, to me, I'll fucking tear up talking about it, man. On the day, when in a moment you go from being one person to looking at your child and being completely different—that's one of the greatest rights of passage in the human experience. That's what we kept talking about. It's so wrong, like so many things that these Rough House [McBride, Hill, and Gordon Green's production company] boys do, but it's absolutely right.
It was hard on the day. It was really hot. We were in a strange place out on this beach and so much was going on and so much needed to be accomplished in a day, and it was Baby Billy and Tiff's turn up at a bat. We just got in there and did it. I couldn't believe what was happening. It all made sense.
When you see a line like, "Son of a gun, a toilet baby" in the script, what's your reaction? Are you like, "OK, I know how to do this"?
I never think about it in those terms. I wish I could talk to you on that level. I fucking hate acting. I hate that word. I think you hold up a mirror to nature as best as you possibly can and you turn yourself over to imaginary circumstances and you're a storyteller. That's pretty, pretty simple and that's the school that I come from and that's what my teacher that I studied with for a very long time taught me.
Words are very powerful. How you talk about this or anything else in your life affects how you do it. So there are no intonations or anything. I don't even fucking remember that line that you said. I remember it now that you said it and I think that came out of my mouth, but they're just thoughts and one thought leads to another thought. Especially when you have good writing, you never think about the words. Isn't that a funny fucking thing? Hearing you say it is so weird. "A toilet baby, I gotta go in. I gotta go get it!"
I'm from the South: Home births are no joke. That was Tiffany's experience—she talked about it earlier at the dinner table with the hoity-toity couple, the parents of B.J. and they had never heard of it, but for [Baby Billy] it was very normal. And he never wanted that! Again, that comes back to poverty. The fear and insecurity around ever seeing yourself that way or other people seeing you that way or being hungry again. It is so powerful and very, very difficult to get out from underneath, and that's where that was coming from for him. In that moment, because love overtakes it, it doesn't matter. I've gotta save my son.
He holds him and he's like, "I got you." What does that even fucking mean? "I got you." I "got you" out of a thing full of shit? Or does it mean like I "got you" in the sense that "I've done this before and I fucked it up and this time I'm not and I've got you and I'm ready to have you"? That's such a profound fucking line, and it's just "I got you."
I know you're a father. When you're doing a scene like that, do you think about it in those personal terms?
Absolutely. I don't relive my experience with my child, but since having a child—I have a son, as you said—it has opened my heart in ways that it never would have been opened. He has made me see the world through his eyes and through the eyes of caring about something so much in this world that I'm forever changed. Of course, whenever you read something like this, there's a part of your experience now that provides a deeper understanding of what it all means. Then the funny is the funny because it's so ridiculous and heightened, but you believe it as long as it's really happening in that moment. If you believe it, they'll believe it.
Your confrontation scene in the eighth episode with adult Harmon is similarly emotional and absurd. How did you approach that with Macaulay Culkin?
It's crazy. The truth is this: Anthony Hopkins, Bob Duvall, and Jessica Tandy. Those are the people, that's my thing, and those are the people my teacher talked about. I've worked with two out of the three of them and they became friends. They read the script 250 times and they turn themselves over to an imaginary set of circumstances. It's that simple. For me, I read it over and over and over and over and over and over again, so it becomes part of your DNA.
On that particular day, it was heavy. Heavy in the sense that you're seeing your child for the first time since you fucking walked out on them 20 years earlier. That's so heavy! Who isn't a fan of Macaulay Culkin, man? It's so crazy that they got him and he was there. I walked out and I think beforehand we had exchanged some words and said something like, "Hey man, glad to have you here."
Then I disappeared and I came out as Baby Billy and he was Harmon, and I looked at him and stared at him for a very long time, and never said a word to him, ever. He didn't really talk to me. We rehearsed it one time with David [Gordon Green], and David said, "I think you want to get a little closer, a little center." I said, "Yeah, I was feeling that, you're exactly right." Then he called action and that was it, man. We never talked about it. Never had any conversation. Macaulay came there to play and I came there to play and that's what it was. You realize how absurd it is.
When I read it on the page, it was the most honest conversation between a father and a son that I've ever fucking read and that I've ever played. And I've played a lot between fathers and sons. I think that most sons with abusive fathers—if they haven't said it out loud, they've definitely felt it—have felt like, "I want to punch you in the fucking face, man." That it goes there and his reaction to that is so insane! "Well, you really think that'll make you feel better?" And he's trying to get out of it. I really don't want to get hit in the face. And he's like, "Yeah, I think it would make me feel fucking awesome." Then he's like, "OK, but just one time now." It's so insane! And then what happens? There's this great relief and finally I was able to give my kid something he's wanted for a long time, and maybe he's able to love me for a moment, but just as important, I'm able to tell him how much I love him and not think about me. For Baby Billy to not think about himself for one fucking second. I just thought I'd never read anything like that in the history of my career and I was blown away by it.
Baby Billy went through so much in Season 2. Where would you want to see the character go in the third season?
Danny has some ideas. He's got some real ideas about, not just me, but everyone. Where he wants it to go. I don't want to give anything away and I don't know if it will ultimately go this way. But I think once you have money and then you have a family, I would love to see Baby maybe venture off into a different occupation, to use his skillset to really help the family. Whether that happens or not, it doesn't really matter. But I think that could be very cool. I should probably leave it at that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.