Danny McBride has been offered roles from Judd Apatow, the Farrelly brothers, and Ben Stiller—without ever having to audition. He doesn't own a headshot. And he didn't set out to become an actor. "I know," he says with a good-natured laugh. "All my friends who are actors hate me."
With his easygoing manner and self-effacing humor, McBride makes it difficult for anyone to resent him for long. And his sudden success isn't just a matter of luck; his career was launched by co-writing and starring in The Foot Fist Way, an offbeat comedy made for less than $100,000 that premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. In the film, McBride plays the unapologetically crass and arrogant Fred Simmons, a tae kwon do instructor in a small-town strip mall who is a legend in his own mind. The gritty, no-frills indie found many fans in high places—namely Will Ferrell and his business partner, Adam McKay, who are making The Foot Fist Way the first theatrical release under their Gary Sanchez Productions banner. The film has also led to a slew of offers for McBride's acting skills; he was recently seen as Owen Wilson's homeless buddy in Drillbit Taylor and will star in two of the summer's biggest comedies: Pineapple Express, opposite Seth Rogen, and Tropic Thunder, alongside Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. And McBride is currently at work opposite Ferrell in the big-budget film adaptation of the campy 1970s series Land of the Lost.
McBride was born and raised in Georgia and attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, with the intention of becoming a film director. While there, he met Jody Hill and Ben Best, who would become his frequent collaborators and with whom he would eventually script The Foot Fist Way. The three found themselves forced to act in one another's projects, as the theatre school discouraged its students from working with the film school. "I guess they didn't want inexperienced film students to ruin what they were trying to teach," McBride offers. "So I never set out to be an actor; it just happened from necessity."
Upon graduation, McBride moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to write screenplays. He found himself working random jobs, including shooting motion control for the History Channel and working production on a cheesy reality show called Battle Dome. He got a call from one of his former classmates, David Gordon Green. An actor had dropped out a week before shooting was to start on Green's sophomore feature. "I'd written some things with David, and he knew I'd get the humor of this character," McBride recalls. "So he put me in it." Thus came McBride's film debut as Bust-Ass in the acclaimed indie All the Real Girls.
McBride also has had luck with writing, selling two screenplays, which he credits with giving him the means and the confidence to leave Los Angeles for the summer to make The Foot Fist Way in North Carolina. Hill had come up with the idea of pooling their resources to make a movie. "Jody and I were both doing jobs we weren't really proud of, trying to survive," McBride admits. "We finally said, 'Let's stop waiting for people to hand us an opportunity. Let's go out on our own and see what happens.'" The film was financed on credit cards and shot in 19 days.
McBride had studied karate as a kid, and Hill is a black belt who once ran a tae kwon do center, and the pair knew the arena was ripe for comedy. "We toured a [martial arts] studio in North Carolina, and a bunch of memories came back for both of us," McBride says with a laugh. "We said, 'This is a gold mine!' " However, they weren't interested in mocking martial arts but in finding the comedy in the characters who were obsessed with it.
Thus, Fred Simmons was born. The clueless, obnoxious instructor might be a distant cousin of Steve Carell's character on The Office, with a slightly meaner streak. He thinks nothing of aggressively hitting on a female client or using profanity in front of his young students. And the brilliance of McBride's performance is how completely he immerses himself in the character, without trying to soften him. "One of the screenplays I sold just before shooting this, I had a lot of arguments about the main character with the studio," McBride reveals. "They laid out all these rules to follow and all these qualities he had to have. And I didn't want a character you had to admire or identify with."
McBride wasn't the only one of the film's writers who wound up with a breakout role in the movie. Hill, who also directs, has a scene-stealing turn as Simmons' creepy buddy Mike McAlister. And Best found himself playing the role of their idol, Chuck "The Truck" Wallace. "Ben had no interest in doing the movie," McBride notes. "We wanted a martial arts star like Michael Dudikoff, but we couldn't track him down. A few days before shooting, we just said, 'Why not have Ben do it?' He was right under our nose the whole time."
The trio chose to shoot in North Carolina partly because they had friends who could crew and who were familiar with the area. The filmmakers also welcomed the opportunity to use tae kwon do students, not professional actors. "I've known films where that approach hasn't worked," McBride admits. "But [the students] were all wonderful, and it really added to the realism of it." The filmmakers took care to film some of the more profane scenes away from the kids, though it ended up not mattering. "We put them all in another room while we shot my coverage of me yelling and cursing at them," McBride says. "But when I finished, there was all this applause, and I looked up and all the kids and their parents were watching. So we said, 'Okay, I guess they don't care.' We were corrupting them, but we had the endorsement of their family."
After shooting, McBride moved to Virginia to concentrate on writing, thinking maybe the film would make it into a few festivals "and that would be that." Instead, he says, "Things have gone insane." After playing to packed houses at Sundance, The Foot Fist Way left the '06 festival without domestic distribution. Though there were offers, Creative Artists Agency had taken an interest in the movie and felt the filmmakers could get a better deal if they set up screenings in Los Angeles. Soon, the movie was being passed around, and word was out. "It was like a cool, underground mix tape," McBride marvels. "It just kind of caught fire, and I would hear about all these different people seeing it."
McBride began meeting with Apatow, Bob Odenkirk, and others. "All these comedy gods got it into their hands," he says. "And here were these people I've admired for so long wanting to meet with me. It was surreal to be talking to Ben Stiller and Seth Rogen and wanting to gush about what they've done, while they want to talk to you about what you've done."
McBride confesses the last two years have been remarkably surreal: He recently caught a glimpse of the poster for Pineapple Express, which features a three-shot of Rogen, James Franco, and himself. But he says he's in denial about how his life is going to change. "It just seems very foreign," he says. "I have no idea what's going to happen. I come from the point of view of a pessimist and think this is all going to go away tomorrow. So I'm just trying to leave as big of a mark as I can before it does."