'Righteous Gemstones' Breakout Opens Up About His Lovable Ex-Satanist

Tony Cavalero's biggest role before playing fan-favorite Keefe Chambers on Danny McBride's HBO marquee comedy was the lead on Nickelodeon's series adaptation of 'School of Rock.'
Ryan Green/HBO
Tony Cavalero as Keefe — who is real busy with barley and hops — on HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones'

[This contains spoilers for the season of HBO's Righteous Gemstones, including the finale.]

Keefe Chambers — the gentle, soft-spoken, reformed Satanist in Danny McBride's HBO megachurch comedy The Righteous Gemstones, which wrapped its first season on Sunday night — likes to have a soak and turn it up real hot. Which is fitting, because the actor who plays him, Tony Cavalero, is about to get real hot, too.

The audience is introduced to Keefe early on in the pilot. When Adam Devine's Kelvin — the youngest of the three Gemstone siblings — walks into his living room after returning from a family baptism marathon in China, Keefe pops up off an inversion table shirtless, with a massive '666' tattoo on his chest that looks like it's a few treatments into laser-removal package, and gets right to carving his statue for the pantheon of Greatest Recent Supporting Characters in Comedies alongside Janet from The Good Place, Barry's NoHo Hank and Tracy from Atlanta.

Cavalero, whose biggest role before landing as a series regular on an HBO marquee comedy was the lead on Nickelodeon's series adaptation of School of Rock (which ended its three-season run in April 2018), auditioned for Gemstones after what he calls an "uneventful pilot season." The original casting breakdown for the Keefe character called for an obese 40-year-old — which Cavalero is not — but he won over executive producers McBride, David Gordon Green and Jody Hill with his take as a painfully awkward (possibly literal pain as Keefe is constantly wincing), sweet-natured weirdo whose look seems as natural a fit for a broad comedy as a Harmony Korine movie.

"How I try and interpret this guy is, everything's new for him — he's like a baby!" Cavalero tells The Hollywood Reporter. "He's trying to figure out how to look, what to do, how to talk to people. Even his human contact, he's like, 'How do I shake someone's hand? How do I hug?'"

The actor can next been seen in TBS' Miracle Workers alongside Daniel Radcliffe and Steve Buscemi. Cavalero also has a role in the Hulu feature The Binge with Vince Vaughn and Gemstones co-star Skylar Gisondo, and he continues to write and create with his wife, Annie, a Groundlings alum. They recently released a trailer for their latest project, SLOP: The Podcast

Cavalero, also a member of The Groundlings' main company, calls the fan reaction to the character "overwhelmingly sweet and kind." Aside from the outpouring of sympathy over Kelvin's rough treatment of Keefe in episode eight — and ideas for a Keefe spinoff series — the actor says he gets lots of messages saying "'I can't wait to see Keefe rebel' or 'I can't wait to see him go crazy.' … That's what's so exciting for this character that he is such a mystery that people are always just like, 'What is his deal?'"

Ahead of the Oct. 13 finale, Cavalero spoke with THR about Keefe's whole deal.

How did you get hooked in with McBride et al.?

Well, it's just one of those things, man. So my wife is a writer and actor as well — we met at The Groundlings — and she was working with one of her friends writing, and her friend showed up all dressed in her Sunday best. And at this point School of Rock had been canceled and I had had an uneventful pilot season, and my wife asked her why she was all dressed up and she goes, "Well, I just auditioned for this show The Righteous Gemstones. It's Danny McBride's new show about a televangelist family." And my wife was like, "Tony, you have to get in for this." So originally I had been trying to get in to play Adam's character. And then I got the audition and got this crazy ex-Satanist character as the breakdown. And I was like, "Uh, it says that this guy is like a big, fat guy. And he's 40." But I'd just done this Ozzy Osbourne role and I kind of made a big choice with that. And I had done this web series a long time ago called The Insecurity Guards. And my wife was like, "You should do a version of that guy." He was just constantly insecure, had trouble talking to anyone, and I kind of took that as the starting point and created this guy who was so uncomfortable in his own skin, almost like really being totally reborn. He just does not know how to function in the world at all. And mix that with a little bit of love for Kelvin — however you wanna interpret that. (Laughs.) All he knows right now is the love of Jesus Christ and this guy Kelvin, who saved him.

And the audition process with Danny and Jody was just an actor's dream. They were laughing and made you very comfortable, and [casting director] Sherry Thomas was just incredible and so supportive and kept saying, "Don't cut your hair." She said Danny had sent her a video of a real ex-Satanist and I looked just like him. And the whole time I'm kinda like, "I'm sure there's a 300-pound, 40-year-old man that's auditioning for this role that is exactly the character that they want," but it turned out, luckily enough, they loved my take and — God, it's so surreal to even think about it.

Well, let me get this out of the way. I did notice that you have a great head of hair, and I have a note here that just says "Keefe haircut" — 

(Laughs.) So for [the Mötley Crüe biopic] The Dirt I got this crazy-expensive haircut to match Ozzy Osbourne's hair in the '80s. He had this crazy bleach-blond, gnarly mullet. And so, I tucked the hair back and turned it more into a feathered mullet for the audition. And then when we got to shooting the pilot, we added in some super-dark roots, and then Ike Barinholtz in Eastbound & Down had the crazy hair with nothing on the sides, and I was like, "What if we cut off my sideburns completely?" We took a couple inches off and I was like, "Nah. I think it's gotta be like Tatanka from the old WWF." (Laughs.) That was my inspiration. And so we ended up going all the way up on the sides to the skin, which is just insane, like who would ever have this haircut? But it ended up being such a weird, funky look with the Lost Boys cross earring. Keefe just has no idea what's cool, what's not cool. That's how I try and interpret this guy is, everything's new for him — he's like a baby! He's trying to figure out how to look, what to do, how to talk to people. Even his human contact, he's like, "How do I shake someone's hand? How do I hug?"

In light of the original character breakdown being so different, were there any changes to Keefe's storyline that swapping you in made necessary? Also, I know McBride likes to hire people with very strong improv skills — which, you obviously qualify — but when I've asked other actors how much is improv versus on the page, they've said it's mostly already on the page.

Honestly, I think the only thing that changed in the [opening scene] after I got the part was — literally — I think in the script it was like, "A fat man is in the living room," and that got changed to "a long-haired man." (Laughs.) But besides that, I mean, obviously those guys just know how to write these characters. And the other thing is you're acting with John Goodman, Adam Devine, Edi Patterson, Danny McBride — God forbid you improvise something and jump on someone's line. That's why for me as Keefe, the place where I got to play were the little physicalities and the looks and the discomfort I was able to physicalize with him. Like in the second episode where Kelvin touches my arm and I go to, like, touch the area where he touched my arm. It was little stuff like that that I'd try to find like, "Oh, wow, nobody's ever touched me like that before."

The other thing that struck me right away was the scale of the show. There's jets and Lamborghinis and G-Wagens and giant compound houses with kitchen islands that McBride can lay down full-length on. Were you surprised by the scope of this?

It was awe-inspiring, of course. But there is such an ease and a family vibe that Danny and David and Jody and everyone in the whole show create that any nerves kind of wash away with that kindness. But it still doesn't take away from, the first time I show up at the North Charleston Coliseum [in Charleston, South Carolina] and there's a laser-light show and a live band onstage and there's John Goodman delivering a sermon and it's like, "Holy shit, is this real? Am I really here right now?" And then we show up [to shoot the pilot scene] at Kelvin's house and it's a frickin' mansion. I mean, every place we shot was bigger than any house I've ever seen out here in L.A. And the thing is, it's Charleston and everybody worships Danny and everybody is so happy to have The Righteous Gemstones shoot at their location. So that's another really cool aspect of shooting out there in Charleston that we don't always get here in Los Angeles.

Keefe's biggest showcase episode was the fourth, "Wicked Lips," which opens with him walking around Charleston eating ice cream and running into his former fellow Satanists. And there's been a lot of talk about the catchiness of "Misbehavin'," but I was more into the "Lucifer" track from that scene.

Me too, man! Where is that for my workout mix?! I've watched that clip a million times and every time I'm like, "I would genuinely pump this jam cruising around." It's so dumb and fun and I'm just like, "Yeah, I totally get why all these Satanists fucking cybergoth dance to this song!"

What kind of reaction have you been getting to the character? 

It's just been overwhelmingly sweet and kind. I feel like he speaks to a unique group of people that may not fit in and may feel like outcasts but are just these kind souls. The response in the second-to-last episode where Kelvin kicks him out [of his house], people messaged me like, "I'm still crying! Poor Keefe!" He's done nothing wrong! He literally asks Kelvin, "Want me to go to the store? Do you need a soda?" I think people really sympathize and related to him. And I've gotten a lot of "I can't wait to see Keefe rebel" or "I can't wait to see him go crazy," and I just don't know if that's part of Keefe's soul, you know? But there are so many different directions that it could go. Would he try to get his ex-Satanists on board and convert them? Will he write a book? The possibilities are endless.

Those Satanists are a deep well. Like, give me a Crypotocore episode.

Exactly, dude! There's also an angle of, "Man. He's become the Baby. What other deep, dark shit could he be hiding?" I just never know with him! Like does somebody need to be murdered and he's just like, "Yeah, I could do that. I know every part of the anatomy." That wouldn't surprise me, either. So that's what's so exciting for this character that he is such a mystery that people are always just like, "What is his deal?"

That's actually another note I have: "What is Keefe's deal?"

That's what everyone asks! "What is happening? Are he and Kelvin secretly banging? Why does he come out with no pants on from Kelvin's house in the middle of the night?" These are all questions…

Well, about the finale: First off, just logistics-wise, we're supposed to believe you're floating in a tub full of milk, correct?

Yeah, but maybe there's also some sort of psychedelic component or that liquid makes the high that much better? That's how I interpreted it, that in order to become the Baby, you have to be fucked up out of your mind and you have to be in that tank full of whatever — 1 to 1000 ratio of molly and warm milk. But in reality, it was disgusting. It was half water and half Elmer's glue. 

And that's gotta be a weird day on set…

For one, I had to use a pint of lubricant to get into that latex suit, and once I'm in the suit I gotta put on that scuba mask, and I can't hear anything cause my ears are under the glue-water. And then it's like, "All right! We're gonna do this scene where you're high out of your mind but it's possibly a confirmation of [Keefe and Kelvin's] love for one another." I remember after the second or third take, Jody [Hill, who directed the finale] was like, "Damn! This is so emotional!" (Laughs.) And it is, right? And Adam and I were both teary-eyed post that scene and we're like, "This is ridiculous!" I'm in a red latex suit with my dong out and we're both basically crying. (Laughs.)