"I’ve said a million times that we truly never, ever get out of high school."
Having worked in education for ten years, there is much about HBO's dark comedy Vice Principals that rings true for me and colleagues I've worked with in the past. Not that I witnessed exploits as outrageous or cutthroat as those of co-administrators and frenemies Neal Gamby and Lee Russell, but what showrunners Jody Hill and Danny McBride have brilliantly nailed about school culture and environment is the constant tug-of-war over power, control, and voice among the faculty and staff, especially when egos and agendas get thrown in the mix. Oftentimes, the most overlooked employees -- the custodial or cafeteria staff, for example -- observe the most details.
Sheaun McKinney, a Los Angeles-based actor-writer-producer, plays Dayshawn, a laid-back cafeteria worker who is also a confidant and advisor to Gamby (played by Danny McBride) during the latter's quest to overthrow the school's new principal (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and take control.
PopWrapped: Vice Principals can rightly be described as hardcore. Some of these scenes are shocking to watch just from viciousness alone, but the characters are so magnetic and focused on their agendas that you get sucked into the drama of it all. The energy just crackles. Do you think this boils down to chemistry or solid writing or something else?
Sheaun McKinney: I think, sometimes, in whatever you do in life, you do get fortunate enough to come across these very magical moments, and this cast and this crew has definitely been the greatest experience I’ve had on film. Danny McBride and Jody Hill and the whole Rough House team did a very good job of setting a tone from the beginning that everybody was friendly, approachable, and down-to-earth, and we all got along, hung out, and talked. It’s a combination of all that: the writing is incredible, and the writers and creators were extremely generous in giving those of us with improv backgrounds the leeway to improv. Sometimes you just walk into a situation that just really, really works. Danny is a real genius, a quiet genius, and getting to work with him and do scenes with him and improv with him -- he’s a pro.
Individually, there was so much talent on the set and that came out in the scenes. I think you hit it on the head in that really what you see is these outrageous, magnificent characters that are so driven in what they want that they have no regard for anything else. Within that chaos, you get this show because everyone has to react to what these two guys are doing.
PW: This show is hilarious but also personally meaningful to me as a former educator. There is so much truth in these episodes; you can’t make some of this stuff up. Are there current or former educators consulting on the show because how do they get so many instances spot-on in this campus setting?
SM: We did film at a real high school. I’m sure the writers did their due diligence and did reach out to educators. I do remember some of the extras were educators and definitely a lot of the kids were actual students. Again, that’s a credit to how well they crafted this show. Every time you watch this show, at some moment, you’re going to go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did that,” or you’re going to find something you can identify with because we all remember high school. I’ve said a million times that we truly never, ever get out of high school. Everything we do is always the same -- it’s just like being in high school, and that’s why it identifies so well with so many people who get the humor. It’s outrageous, it’s crazy, but then you watch it and just go, “Wow.” I’m almost positive that there were educators that they reached out to and definitely some students and people on set that worked in the school industry.
PW: This show is clearly about power and control -- qualities none more embodied than by the new principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). She’s amazing to watch as a woman of color in an executive position with what seems like mostly a white staff and two assistants under her who are also white men. The difference between Gamby and Russell and Dr. Brown is that, while they are conniving, she is strategic. The men may think they are strategic, but they’re not: they play it on their sleeve while her strategy is a lot more complex because of what she enters into and, then, what she has to deal with. You see this resilience in her. What do you think of the position Dr. Brown is in at North Jackson High?
SM: It’s immediately reflective of men and women anyway. Women are a lot smarter than us. The only way we know how to deal with it is to physically react or find some other way to cope. She is very strategic, and she is strong and beautiful. Kimberly is extremely talented, and she handles it all so well in that these two guys really want to be principal and are blinded by their ambition, but, no matter what, she runs the show. They have to fall in line, or they’re going to have to get out. This show makes no apologies, and that’s what I love about it, and Kimberly’s character makes no apologies in that she’s the boss and that’s how she’s going to run it. The show touches on so many issues -- obviously in a comical way -- and I love it because I think we can watch that stuff, and we need to be able to talk about race, we need to be able to talk about politics and gender and what it’s like for a woman -- especially a woman of color -- to work in a department where nobody around her looks like her, and she’s the boss and she’s running the show. When you can watch it and you can take out exactly what you said about how she operates and that she is strategic and they have to pretty much acquiesce to her: that’s just the world that we live in. I love that the show makes us talk about and think about these things.
PW: Kimberly Hebert Gregory, who plays Dr. Brown, had one scene in Episode 2 where she pulled Gamby and Russell into a conference room somewhere in the teachers’ lounge. They were consoling her and she touched Russell’s hand as if to say, “Thank you so much.” Then, Gamby touched her forearm, and she looked at him -- he didn’t see it -- as if to say, “Why are you touching me?” I caught that right away because she has to be so much in control of the situation because of where she’s coming from and the fact that she is a woman in an executive position. Everything she does has to be strategic, and for him to kind of cross that boundary was very obvious to anyone but him.
SM: I’m glad you picked that up.
PW: I watch her hand gestures, like when she told Gamby he was doing too many referrals and that she was going to change things. She waved him away slightly, and he tried to get loud; instead of saying “Lower your voice,” she said, “Lower your eyebrows,” and the way she kind of waves him away again was flawless. With both of you, your theatre backgrounds emerge in gestures and tone. She’s amazing to watch.
PW: Your character, Dayshawn, the cafeteria worker, also observes a lot. Dr. Brown, you can tell, is watching everything whether they realize it or not, but your character does, too. There are some campus staff that are kind of invisible and might be ignored or disregarded because of their positions in the school. For example, there was one scene where you greeted Neal in the cafeteria line, and he saw Ms. Snodgrass and just walked away from you, but this gives Dayshawn an advantage in being able to observe the actions of characters who seek more of the spotlight. How would you describe Dayshawn’s relationship with Neal Gamby?
SM: I think that Dayshawn definitely likes Gamby. He appreciates that there are no false pretenses about Gamby. I’ve always said that he likes some of Gamby’s principles, I just don’t agree with the tactics. If you work in a certain position, people can overlook your value or what you bring, but Dayshawn is a lot smarter than you would first think. He works in a cafeteria where he sees everybody, and normally, in a position like that, you see everybody a little more relaxed than they normally would be, so you get a whiff of what is going on. Oftentimes, in work environments, when you look at the custodians, the security officers, or people in jobs that you just walk right by: they see everybody, every single day. They have an idea of how everything is really functioning, which is why Gamby comes to Dayshawn to ask who people are voting for or how things are going to go when he thinks they are going to vote for a principal initially. As an actor, you rely on your skills of observation, and that’s what Dayshawn does: he’s just observant. He’s pretty much Gamby’s voice of reason, if you will, and he has a really good grasp of what’s going on and how the school’s operating.
PW: We're going to segue from the show for a bit to talk about your background. Where are you originally from?
SM: Born and raised in Miami, Florida in Coconut Grove and moved to Richmond Heights.
PW: How are those two communities different?
SM: Coconut Grove has more of a name, and it’s a pretty popular area in Miami. It’s an interesting neighborhood in that it was founded by Bahamian settlers, and my grandmother is from the Bahamas. There is an interesting dynamic in Coconut Grove in that, in the past, there were very, very poor areas, and there’s some very affluent areas and some that are simply separated by just a wall, which is kind of where I grew up in the housing projects. There was a wall behind where I lived that separated my house from these huge houses that kind of looked down -- literally, looked down -- on our little houses, but that was just the way it was set up.
The Grove has a lot of history and a lot of culture. It’s been a bit gentrified over the last ten years or so, but it’s a pretty well-known area. Then, I moved further south to Richmond Heights that is not as well-known as Coconut Grove. I spent my teenage years there. I moved to a street where everyone was insanely close and really cool, and I thank God that I did move there because that’s like my family. The whole street is really close.
PW: Do you still get back to Miami and Richmond Heights?
My family is still there, and I’m a part of a theatre company I started with some friends out of college called "Ground Up and Rising." I always try to get home at least once a summer to do a play. I won’t be able to make it this year to do a show, but I’m definitely going to go see the show.
PW: How did you get your start in acting?
SM: I grew up, like most kids in Miami, wanting to play sports like football or basketball. As it turns out, I’m not a great athlete. I can play ball, just not that great.
PW: Recreational athlete?
SM: Yeah, I’m a recreational superstar. When I was in high school, I actually wanted to be a chef, and then that didn’t work out, and my dad let me go to Miami-Dade Community College (now Miami-Dade College). While I was there, some friends and I had a hip-hop group that performed locally, so I would do that and go to class and write. I was taking a humanities course and failing it, and my mom was paying for the classes. The humanities professor ran the theatre department, and, for some reason, she looked right at me and said if anybody auditions for this play we’re doing, you can get extra credit and pass this class. I go home and relay that message to my mom, and she looked right at me and said, “Your ass is auditioning.”
I remember thinking I wanted no part of this, but I went and had no idea what I was doing, but I got bit by the acting bug. I got a very small part in the play with no lines, but I was on stage the entire time. For the first time, I felt like I started to grow as an artist and really blossom because, on stage, I felt like I was in a place where nothing else mattered. I could pretend to be anything. That’s how I got into theatre; shortly after that, I did a couple more plays and the school offered me a theatre scholarship. After I graduated, we started our theatre company called "Ground Up and Rising" based in Miami.
I really enjoyed being on stage, and that’s kind of what I thought it would be -- I just wanted to be a part of a theatre company and be on stage. At some point, as fate would have it, some friends ended up moving to LA. I never really wanted to do film. I barely wanted to be an actor, but I definitely didn’t want to do film. Some friends moved out to LA, and, at some point, I thought I should come out to LA, too. I came to LA and immediately didn’t like the place. Just being in the industry when I first got here -- I just didn’t understand. I wanted to go home and pursue police work and become a cop, and I did it: I left LA and went back home and pursued becoming a cop, but the Lord in all His wisdom brought me back to LA and then Vice Principals happened shortly after that.
PW: How did you get involved in the project?
SM: I’m a strong believer in my faith, and, when I look back, I feel God navigated me to this point. When I was in LA the first time, before I moved home, they have these workshops that you can come to. Casting directors come to these workshops. I was always against doing one, but a buddy of mine literally came to my apartment and said, “I just want you to go do this scene with me.” I go with him to this workshop, and I remember calling my manager at the time and asking if I should go. This person, Russell Scott, is going to be there who works in the office of Sherry Thomas who cast Vice Principals. This was years ago. He said 'yeah, I pitched you to Russell before, you should go to the workshop.'
I remember reading the scene, and they ended up pairing me with this girl, and I had no idea what she was saying because she had a very thick accent. So I thought, “I’ll just play it that way, like I don’t understand her." Russell ended up really liking it, so he called my manager the next morning and said, “Hey, this kid’s a client of yours. I really like him.” My manager says, “I’ve pitched him to you four times already.” They would call me in to read for things every now and then, but, as fate would have it, when I got back to LA the second time, the office had called me in, and Russell called me to read for Dayshawn and the audition went well.
PW: You executive produced two episodes, wrote one episode, and starred in four episodes of a comedy called Make it Happen, partly in 2010 and 2013. The episode titles are hysterical: “Will Smith’s Manager,” “Celebrity Costume Party.” Those sound hilarious: what was the show about?
SM: It was a project with me and my best friend Bechir Sylvain. It is a web series you can find on Vimeo. We were constantly going, “We can’t wait on anybody to open up any doors for us. We should just write our own stuff.” We started out doing that, and he and I have really good chemistry together, so we centered the show around the relationship of these two guys who are in some ways polar opposites in the ways they go about things but their friendship and loyalty to each other will get them into any situation, for better or for worse, and ultimately get them out of any situation. You see two guys who are willing to put it on the line and go after what they want.
Even the titles, we thought 'let’s just keep it as original as we can.' The premise of the first one, “Will Smith’s Manager,” is that my buddy is working at a restaurant and overhears Will Smith’s (fictional) manager ... (lost) a member of their family, and we decided to crash the funeral and, when we get the chance to speak a few words, we do monologues.
In “Celebrity Costume Party,” he convinces me that, once a year, all these celebrities have this major party and dress up like characters that they have played. He’s a dead ringer for Denzel (Washington) and does a great impersonation, and he thinks that I look like Wesley Snipes. We decide to crash this party dressed as Denzel from Training Day and for some reason, I choose to go as Blade. I hope people can watch it; it’s brilliant, and we’re definitely going to do more episodes. It’s actually one of the things that I’m most excited about: being able to create and take everything I’ve learned from being around Danny (McBride) and this crew and create my own work.
PW: What was it like juggling three different responsibilities on a web show?
SM: I have a newfound respect for everyone behind the camera. As an actor, you just want to be able to focus on whatever it is you are trying to portray, but here you have to keep track of finances, or -- if you are a writer -- what the other people are saying and making sure the story is flowing. It was a lot to take on, but we had a great team and still have a great team around us. Lee Cipolla had directed Bechir and myself in a small, independent film in Miami, and he was out in LA as well, so he directed (the show) for us. We had people around us to really help and teach us; it was a great learning experience to see your work coming to fruition.
People that see the show love it and respond to it well. For us, being two young African Americans, everybody that sees that show comes away from it and can’t put us in any box whatsoever because it’s different than what they expect. We’re proud of it and will definitely continue to bring more (all episodes are on Vimeo and Facebook).
PW: It’s great that Make it Happen is a web series; that’s kind of an outlet for people that are trying to get their name out and make independent projects happen.
SM: Social media and the Internet opens the gate for all artists to express yourself and do what you want. The biggest thing is not sitting back and waiting on anything and pushing forward with whatever ideas you have. If you’ve got a camera, just shoot and film and don’t worry about what you don’t have.
PW: Is Dayshawn revealing all he observes or playing it close to the chest?
SM: Dayshawn is a straight shooter; he’s gonna give it to you just like it is. People that continue to watch will be shocked by something or someone every episode.
PW: Gamby and Russell are so manic in their mannerisms, but Dayshawn is so cool and composed, no matter what. Is that coming from you or how the character is written?
SM: My first reaction to (the character) was that it was written that way. I appreciated that because I didn’t want to do anything that I felt was going to be physically silly or over the top. What I remembered with the people who worked in the cafeteria when I was growing up, there was always one or two people, whether someone in the lunch line or a janitor, who were the epitome of cool. You would never really see them rattled, and, as a kid, whenever we would ask them for advice about a girl or a teacher or schoolwork, they would be as cool as can be and give it to you just like it was. I’m fortunate that the writing is great, and they gave me room to improv, but I think Dayshawn is just that: he’s the coolest dude you know.
PW: Do Jody Hill and Danny McBride allow for spontaneity and ad-libbing in the dialogue, or is the show pretty script-driven?
SM: They absolutely allow for it, and it makes it so much fun. They are ready for whatever you throw at them. Everybody on the show is great at it -- like Miss Abbott, played by Edi Patterson, who is a brilliant improv artist. I just recently saw her at the Falcon Theatre in a Tennessee Williams unscripted show, and she, in particular, is great at improv. Danny, of course, is brilliant at improv.
There were certain takes, especially in the first season, where it would be over and Jody Hill would yell out “Keep Going!” The spontaneity made it so much fun and allowed for moments to be creative that you don’t have to think about -- they just came about on their own. They gave you all the room in the world for that.
Danny is a real genius -- and not just in his comedic abilities -- but as an actor and artist and in his writing. He’s a great dude and really cool, which is so great to see in this industry; he’s really friendly and really approachable. As a young artist, this is the biggest thing I’ve ever done, and I never once felt like I was in any sort of trouble or things weren’t going to go right. They accepted me and worked with me, and I’m so excited to see where Danny’s going to go from here because he’s just starting to get the recognition that he deserves.
PW: In addition to power and control, this show is also very much about masculinity: the characters’ self-regard of it, how the males present themselves in public (for example, in Episode Five when Dayshawn assumes Gamby and Russell are lovers and Gamby’s response is he isn’t “g,” as he refuses to say “gay”), and also how the males present themselves to females -- not just females in power but also colleagues and family. Where do you think the two vice principals, Gamby and Russell, are coming from to act the way they do?
SM: I think some of it is a direct reflection of outrageous male society, and we all see it. Kudos to the writers that we see the ridiculousness of it. For both of them, it’s a highlight on male insecurity at its highest. What [Gamby and Russell] think might be masculinity is just blatant insecurity, and there’s Dayshawn and this ignorant disregard for other people and their positions. Again, it’s reflective of male society and people tripping off power and blinded by what they see as ambition but we just read as being immature.
The great thing is you see all that stuff about each of them, but I’m telling you there are moments where you will find yourself rooting for every character on the show (as silly as they are). It is a wild ride, and the story lines are building and will continue to build even more. It’s going to get more outrageous and hilarious.
PW: Will you write and develop more projects in the future?
SM: Absolutely. Coming off this show and watching Danny and Rough House and their crew and hearing their story of how they got together, it’s extremely inspiring for me as a young artist knowing that they’re from North Carolina and they had made their way to be pretty much top-tier creators in this industry. It inspires me to continue to do that, to know that we do have a little web series under our belts that people have received very well. As we continue to grow and mature, we’ll continue to write content that gives us the voice to express ourselves.
I have other things going on that I can’t say right now, but, as far as what I’m doing for myself, what I’m most excited about is creating my own work. Before the end of the year, we hope to have something in the bag, some film done by us.
There’s always going to be more content coming. Even our theatre company back home has people who write great shows. The president of our company, Arturo Rossi, is a brilliant writer, and we’ve done some of his work. Our ultimate goal is to get everybody from our crew out here and be able to do our thing with our own production company, Moon Teams.
Eighteen episodes of Vice Principals have already been completed, nine per season. The finale episode of Season One, in which Gamby and Russell go for broke against Dr. Brown, airs September 18. Season Two returns in 2017.