In ‘If’, his famous ode to growing up, Kipling spoke of keeping your head while all about you are losing theirs. He may as well have been talking about Sheaun McKinney’s character Deshawn in Vice Principals, HBO’s black comedy about two dangerously unhinged teachers.
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Deshawn works in the school canteen, giving him a vantage point to watch the utter insanity as Danny McBride and Walton Goggins alternate between ruining each other’s lives and trying to take down their new boss.
Created by the same team behind the equally chaotic Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals delivered two seasons of pitch perfect black comedy before heading off to that teacher’s lounge in the sky, allowing McKinney to move onto CBS’s new series The Neighborhood.
That far more family-friendly offering sees him play the son of Cedric The Entertainer, a proud patriarch contending with the first white family moving in to his black neighborhood.
For a broad comedy series on a major network, it’s commendable how The Neighborhood reverses a tired old sitcom trope and uses it to comment on the importance of putting aside our differences and finding the commonalities beneath.
McKinney took time to chat with us about the end of Vice Principals, the beginning of The Neighborhood and his impressive two-episode turn in FX’s drug drama Snowfall.
I guess the logical place to start, seeing as I've just been watching it, is Vice Principals, which I'm a huge fan of. I've just finished Season One today. I understand it's not coming back?
No, they only wrote that as a two-season thing. We knew going in that it was just a limited series. They initially wrote it as a movie some years ago and then Danny [McBride] and Jody [Hill] found it in their crates of scripts that they have, and decided to turn it into a short-lived series.
We knew going in that it's only going to be a two season thing. It gets real crazy in season two, so just prepare yourself.
I look forward to that. I mean, it's not exactly sane through Season One, so I can only imagine what that means.
Yeah [Laughs]. We had so much fun filming that show, man. It was such a good crew.
It seems like it. The one thing I love about Dayshawn is that he seems like he's pretty much the only sane person in that whole school.
Yeah, he is. He's pretty much the voice of reason for Danny's character [Neil Gamby], who's driven by his own blind ambition and will. I think Dayshawn may be his only true friend, or the only one that will tell him what something looks like.
In everyday life, most people are in some normal range of sanity, and you might have one or two crazy people; but to have that flipped and be the only person who seems to have any grasp of reason... Is that an interesting thing to play as an actor?
Absolutely, 'cause I think most actors, most artists are always on two opposite ends of the spectrum… 'cause you're an artist, right? You're either really freaking insane or you have a great grasp on reality.
There's no real in-between. I think at times we all feel like we're on either end of that spectrum. It was just fun to go in there and just watch this world of chaos that happens and not only be able to comedically be the only sane one, but just to watch all that chaos take place. It was really fun.
My experience from friends of mine who are teachers or who work in schools is that there is generally quite a huge degree of animosity between the staff. I don't know why, more so than any other place, there just seems to be crazy, crazy politics going on. Was it like that among the cast or were you guys just a big happy family?
I have to say, man, from day one we all got along so well. Most of us spent seven months together filming in Charleston, South Carolina. We work hard and we probably played even harder.
I can tell you that Roughhouse Crew is one of the best crews you can ever want to work with. We absolutely never had any issues with anybody. Everybody got along fine and that spun to the top. I felt like Danny McBride and Jody and his whole crew set a tone from the beginning that they came there ready to work, ready to play, ready to listen.
We all got along great and there were never any of those stories that you hear about people not getting along, or this person fighting with this person. It was a big party train and clearly they're great at what they do when it comes to their work. They're able to play that way when it comes time to just relax.
Was David Gordon Green involved in this as well?
Yeah, David Gordon Green directed the second season. That's why it gets so dark [Laughs].
That explains it. Those guys have worked so much together. Is there any kind of feeling for you – and for everyone else coming in who hadn't worked with them before – of having to work your way into that circle or is it quite open?
It was very open. When I went in to audition, I went in once with the casting director and then the second time I went in was with Danny and Jody and a couple of the producers. Once I got cast, and I got to South Carolina, they had told me I was the first person cast in the entire show.
Danny said the moment he saw my face he said, "You are our guy." That made me feel extremely welcome. They sat down individually with each actor on the show and just talked about the role and the world they were trying to create.
They also gave me license as an artist to bring whatever it was I wanted to, to make my character as authentic as possible; which, I thought was great. Even small things that people might not recognize; like being African-American and being from the ‘hood', or somewhere we talk a certain way. If you're not black, you might write something a certain way and not understand that we just don't articulate things that way.
They were cognizant of that and would say, "Hey, this is not the way you would say this. Say it in the way that you would." A lot of writers won't give you that rein to go ... "Put this in your own voice."
That's an interesting thing; the split between writer and actor. As an actor, you've got to really inhabit that character and become them and understand them in a way that the writer may not have when they wrote it. That must be interesting to get that freedom to be able to mould the language into how you see that person speaking.
Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes it's a delicate balance. You do work with people that, as we say, are married to their work, and rightfully so. If you write something and feel like it's Shakespeare and not one word can be touched, then, hey, that's great.
There are some people who are like that, but then as an actor you also have to make things your own, sometimes. It can be the simplest little words that you can change that will allow something to flow out of your mouth better.
It's a delicate balance, but at the end of the day if everyone’s on the same page and willing to collaborate, it usually makes the work better.
When you're first auditioning for a character, do you get the sense of where you're going to need to change it and would you try and do that at that early stage, or is it a case of, "Well, let's get the job and then see how much I can play with this"?
I feel like if there's anything that I'm saying from the script and it's not flowing out of my mouth the right way, then I go ahead and make it flow out naturally; 'cause if it doesn't feel natural I don't feel like I can serve any purpose in whatever it is I'm trying to do.
Most of us, starting out in theater, we know the only words you don't touch are Shakespeare or other classics. It just depends, but at the end of the day you have to be comfortable with the words you are saying. If you don't believe you as the actor, then it's gonna come across that way; that you are forcing words. When I did Vice Principals, I had so much rein to improv and ad-lib and change things.
I then had a learning curve when I went in to audition for network shows because network, they want you to be much more tied to the script. You also can't curse in network and actors love cursing. We love to drop f-bombs wherever we can.
I'm guessing there's a different energy as well? When we spoke to Malcolm-Jamal Warner a while ago, who played Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show, he was saying it took him a long time to lose that network comedy energy.
Yeah. There's a certain rhythm to it that sitcoms have. It can feel a little forced, or whatever, but once you get into the rhythm of it, you understand it.
I think for me the trick has been not only being able to try to write as much as you can, but keep yourself busy auditioning for other things. Auditioning for plays or putting yourself on tape for other things so you don't just get stuck in that rhythm of network and sitcoms.
I guess it's kinda like exercising different muscles, right?
Yeah. I had never done multi-cam before The Neighborhood. It's very similar to theater, with a live audience, so I've been able to fall back on that. It's just like theater except we stop and go and stop and go.
Speaking of The Neighborhood, you're three episodes in, right?
Three or four, yeah. We just had our tape night last night and they just announced that we got picked up for full season. We taped our seventh or eighth show last night. So far, so good. People are responding to it very well.
That's good. For the people who haven't seen it yet, how would you sum it up?
Honestly, man, it really is a show about communication, you know what I mean? That is glaringly missing in America right now. It just happened to sit in a very neat pocket and it's naturally topical because you have a black family, you have a white family and America still hasn't dealt with what that means.
You're naturally gonna have these topical story lines that pop up. At the end of the day, it's just about two families that live next door to each other in the same neighborhood. It hearkens back to these old classic shows, but there's also a very, very modern take on things because it's dealing with what we're dealing with now, like a black Archie Bunker.
Cedric comes from a different generation, so he sees the world in a certain way. His kids come from a different generation, so they see it a different way. That's kind of what's happening in America, you know what I mean? We live in a time where all these opinions and all these feelings and emotions are coming to a head, but whether we like it or not, we all live next door to each other.
We're either gonna get along, or it's gonna go the opposite way. Our show, comedically, it's able to deal with things and it's not about race; it's not about politics.
Those things do come up, just because they're naturally there. We're able to deal with it through a lens of humor, which is so disarming. I feel like with Vice Principals, man, all my boys or my parents could watch Vice Principals, but I couldn't sit my little niece and nephew down in front of that show. As much as I wanted to, I can't.
Yeah, fair enough!
I could sit anybody down in front of this show and they can watch it. Hopefully it'll just start some dialogue between people.
You were also in Snowfall for a couple of episodes, which is kind of the same part of the world, but 30 years earlier.
Yeah. Snowfall is very intense. It's a great show. It's interesting 'cause when I do get recognized from Snowfall, people are just in shock because of what I did on that show.
The character that I played on that show versus me playing somebody on a sitcom now… it's interesting. When I came out here to L.A., I was very intent on being a very dramatic, serious actor, but for some reason people saw me as funny. Hey, I'll take the paycheck. Work my way into drama later.
We briefly touched on the constant cycle of renewal and cancellation. With a network comedy, you're not only waiting to hear if the pilot becomes a series, you also get halfway through your first season and have to wait to find out if you'll get to finish it. Is that constant waiting for good or bad news difficult for an actor?
Yeah, it is. We found out last week that we're picked up for the whole season. I think once you get involved in this industry, you understand what it is. You understand that you could be working today and tomorrow could be very different.
Once you have an understanding of that, I think you go forward just doing the work. That's it. Just focus on the work. You just can't control that other stuff. Trying to worry about it is going to drive you insane. You focus on the work, just do what's in front of you, go there and perform the best that you can. At the end of the day it's gonna take care of itself, 'cause everything that you do is your calling card to the next thing.
I'm gonna go every day and perform the best that I can and if that doesn't work out, somebody will see what you've done and that will reach you to the next thing. I try not to worry about it.
Do you have anything you do in that period between pilot and pickup to take your mind off it?
I try to write as much as I can. I have other things coming out, I’m in an episode of HBO's anthology series, Room 104. I shot a film in Atlanta called Boss Level with Frank Grillo and Mel Gibson.
That'll be out next year some time. You just keep working. Keep yourself busy, or you may need to just relax. Some people like to get away and just relax. I like to try to stay busy if I can.
Photography by Gerard Sandoval