Kenny Powers has inspired a devoted cult following of real-world fans — Google “Kenny Powers tattoos” at your own risk — but there are still none that can compare to the character’s sidekick on Eastbound & Down, the ever-loyal Stevie Janowski.
Steve Little embodies the lovable sycophant so believably that many people approach him as though they are talking not to an accomplished comedic actor but to the sweet simpleton who thinks nothing of rearranging his life to follow his idol even while absorbing inhuman amounts of abuse from him. Little said he doesn’t mind the confusion, and that he’s even thankful the character’s name is so similar to his own, because hey, just imagine being “George Wendt and everyone’s calling you Norm.”
Series star Danny McBride says Little’s character is Sancho Panza to Kenny Powers’ Don Quixote, and that he “is just as essential to the show. His performance is my favorite part of the series. He breaks my heart and keeps me laughing the whole time.” But, just so we don’t get too mushy here, McBride jokingly added, “Unfortunately, he’s a huge dick to work with. Good thing he’s handsome.”
Little spoke with me in his own signature style — which truthfully doesn’t seem far removed from speaking with a noticeably cooler version of Stevie — about the third season of Eastbound & Down (beginning Feb. 19 on HBO), which finds Kenny having to deal with fatherhood, and Stevie still trying to figure out married life:
Channel Guide Magazine: It’s been a long time between seasons. Is it easy to get back in the groove?
Steve Little: We shoot it out of order every year, so you aren’t necessarily shooting the first episode first. Doing that first scene is really weird, because you haven’t done it in awhile, and … when the audience views it, [they don't know] what was actually the first scene shot. Last season it was me stapling some mullets onto hats or whatever.
You wouldn’t think that was one of the hardest scenes, but it was. I do remember actually before last season there was another long wait, and I had seen Danny in between at times, but when he put on that mullet, it just felt like, “Oh, man, it’s good to see this guy again. Kenny Powers!” You know what I mean? It is kind of weird, for sure.
CGM: It’s a very tight-knit group behind the show, with Danny, David Gordon Green and others. How did you get hooked up with them?
SL: I had never met any of them. I just auditioned straight out like everybody else. I didn’t know any of them and then I just sort of got lucky or fit the part. It’s cool, because they all went to college together, they’ve known each other for such a long time. You’ve got not only Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, but Joey Stephens who does the music, and the boom operator, he went to college with them, and the sound guy and the location scout and one of the prop guys. It’s just fun that they all kind of take care of each other because they all went to film school together and they all kind of trust each other. I just went into the audition cold.
CGM: Are they pretty welcoming to other people then? Do you feel like you’re in the inner circle yet?
SL: Yeah, I think they are very welcoming. But you know how you hear that about some Hollywood guy becoming big time and then getting a bunch of yes men around him? This just feels like they’re all old buddies and they’re all shooting each other straight, if that makes sense.
When I auditioned for it, it was pre-Pineapple Express, so I didn’t even know who Danny was at that time. I went into that room without really knowing who the main guy was. Well, they gave me a copy of The Foot Fist Way, but I didn’t watch it because I didn’t want it to mess up my audition or whatever. But it’s got that family atmosphere for sure.
CGM: You’ve said that you based Stevie on some people you went to high school with. Did the idea to do that come to you right away, or did it take some time to develop?
SL: It’s weird because that first audition I just read two scenes. One was where [Stevie] was telling Kenny that he was his hero, and the other was when Kenny didn’t remember Stevie, and Stevie’s like, “Of course you should remember me because we went to high school together.” So what’s kind of weird is at that point you don’t have all the answers.
I got the next five scripts and it was like, OK, Stevie gets drunk here, Stevie gets mad, Stevie gets sad, and in those first two scenes I didn’t have all the answers yet of like who this person is. You’re still sort of discovering it. One of my friends … he found out that the emotion of [Stevie], it’s sort of based a little bit on him, and I think he was offended. You know, instead of being flattered, he was offended.
CGM: It can be tough to see how other people perceive you, I guess.
SL: I took an improv class and one of the exercises you would do the last week of class is, like, 10 people would go up and one person would sit down and they’d all imitate the person sitting down, their mannerisms, how they act, what they say, all this stuff. So you’d watch 10 people imitate you, and normally it was just so upsetting for the actor to see how the other people are thinking of him. A lot of times people imitate somebody else and that person never even realizes it. Like, an actor will be playing his father and the father won’t ever recognize himself.
CGM: Stevie is such a unique character, so I can imagine that when people come up to you they might confuse you with him a bit.
SL: Yeah, they do confuse me with the character. I think they think I am the character sometimes. And the character’s likable. There was this girl who was hanging out with me and she would say to the people at [her] work, “Oh, Steve’s really nice,” and they’d be like, “Oh, we love Stevie!” And then she’s like, “No, Steve’s a nice guy,” but they were talking about the character and she was talking about me.
I think people feel like they know you, and they feel also endeared to you. I think the fact that the name is so close to mine is actually kind of a nice thing, because if you were Norm from Cheers, that would be kind of tough — if you were George Wendt and everyone’s calling you Norm. So I think it’s kind of a blessing that it’s so close to my real name.
CGM: Well, you don’t really go walking around looking like Stevie. But yet people still have a hard time differentiating the two of you?
SL: I did this other movie where I had a beard and then somebody was like, “Who knew that Stevie Janowksi could grow a beard?” And it was just like, well, you know I’ve had beards sometimes, or longer hair, or shorter hair or whatever, but Stevie has that one haircut, and that’s what he has. So it is kind of funny that they think things like that. Stevie’s got a lot of estrogen in him. That doesn’t necessarily mean I do, but yeah, it’s a weird thing being confused with characters.
CGM: Steve is a really put-upon character. Do you play him like he knows Kenny is abusing him, or do you think he’s oblivious or just in denial?
SL: Does he know that Kenny’s not treating him well? I think it may be like maybe you have a girlfriend and something happens between you two and in your head in the moment during a fight she’s saying something crazy and she’s belittling you and you’re thinking, “Ah, this is messed up!” But you’re not quite sure, and then you go out for a drink with your buddies and then they tell you, “Oh, man, she shouldn’t treat you like that!” Maybe that relationship is like that, in the moment Stevie doesn’t quite realize it, but when he has his drinks with Maria or his buddies — well, he doesn’t really have any other buddies, that might be the problem.
CGM: After three seasons, are you surprised anymore about any direction the writers want to take Stevie?
SL: I’m still surprised. Danny and those guys will be writing and they’ll give me some tips or whatever. They’ll say, “Oh this may happen to you.” Then I think it’s going to happen and it doesn’t. For the longest time we shot that pilot and then they said the second episode was going to start off with Stevie in a Christian rock band, and he’s going to be singing and Kenny’s going to get him drunk and he’s going to have an affair with this other girl in his rock band, and that never happened.
Oh, what’s also kind of funny is that the pilot episode, I always thought of Stevie as single, but then we were shooting halfway and Jody was like, “Oh, damn, man, we forgot to put the wedding ring on you!” So we had already shot without the wedding ring, and then it turned out like that was a blessing in disguise, because a lot of the rest of the series is about Stevie’s relationships.
I never thought he was married, but we’d never discussed that. The other thing is that every time I get those scripts, because it’s such a long wait, it’s going to sound corny, but it is like Christmas Day. You open it up and you know what’s going to happen almost before anyone else. It’s just really fun and exciting.
CGM: What can you say about Season 3?
SL: There’s going to be a lot of Myrtle Beach. I don’t know, have you ever been to Myrtle Beach?
CGM: I have, yeah. Sounds like a perfect setting for this show.
SL: Yeah. I feel like, I had never been to Myrtle Beach before shooting there, and it’s just like, all of the things, the tattoo shops, the strip clubs, the minigolf, and the wildness of it, I feel like it’s like a love song to Myrtle Beach. If you grew up there, you’d be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what it is.” Those guys, the writers, Danny and Jody and John Carcieri, they’re from the South. They live and breathe this stuff. It’s not like they’re making fun of it. I don’t know exactly what to say about the overall plot but it’s going to be pretty crazy, and emotional, too.
CGM: Is this the last season?
SL: Yeah, that’s the plan, to just kind of have it be short and sweet and leave them wanting more. So many people come up and they might quote the show or they might say different things or whatever, and I think part of that is because they love the show, but also the brevity of the seasons. Each line or each thing gives it a little weight, and it is more like a movie than a TV show. (NOTE: HBO says there are no definite plans to end the series after this season)
CGM: Have you shot your last scenes then?
SL: We didn’t quite finish, so we’re going to be shooting up till the last minute. There’s still a couple more scenes to be shot, and it makes you enjoy it more. I just enjoy the experience, and living in North Carolina is so fun. It’s just a great group of people. I even asked David Gordon Green, who’s done a lot of stuff, I just said, “Oh, this is a lot of fun, right?” And then he said, “Steve, no, this is the most fun!”
CGM: We know about Will Ferrell returning for a guest spot, and Jason Sudeikis coming aboard. Are there any other guest stars, or is that top secret?
SL: Right now they’re top secret. Before talking to you, because you’re the first person I’ve talked to about this third season, I sent Danny a message that said, “Oh, I’m giving an interview,” and he says, “Don’t say anything!”
Photo: Credit: Fred Norris/HBO