The Righteous Gemstones Tim Baltz on Baptism and Improv


Photo: Rachel Luna/WireImage

Spoilers ahead for the second season of The Righteous Gemstones

Practically every member of the titular family on The Righteous Gemstones is a jerk in their own way. The second season of Danny McBride’s HBO comedy has filled in the surprisingly violent backstory of seemingly benevolent patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) while maintaining the myriad pettiness, neuroses, and competition between siblings Jesse (McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam DeVine). And yet as they’re all working various nefarious angles, Judy’s now-husband Benjamin Jason “BJ” Barnes, played by Tim Baltz, is always ready with an encouraging word.

BJ comes from “an innocent, earnest place,” Baltz told Vulture, and that sincerity fuels his decision to be baptized by father-in-law Eli in the fourth episode, “As to How They Might Destroy Him.” (Well, and because Judy told him to do it.) The baptism is a disaster, resulting in a failed outfit reveal, a fissure between BJ and his family of origin, and a tantrum that ends with cake splattered on Daddy Gemstone’s face. It’s not BJ’s finest hour.

Overall, though, the character’s arc this season is a multifaceted showcase for Baltz. He spoke with Vulture about acting alongside fiancée Lily Sullivan, the Lynchian vibe of BJ’s baptism, and training for the Rollerblading scene in “For He Is a Liar and the Father of Lies.”

I want to ask about the baptism outfit. Was it always a pink lamé romper with glittery loafers? Were there other options?
I don’t know how many options there were. I do know that Sarah Trost is in charge of wardrobe; I think we all believe that she deserves an Emmy for what she did in season one and definitely this season. For that particular one, I’d been told that it was a romper, and my initial reaction was “Okay, yeah, great, that’s really funny.” Each time I came in, there was another different pink or shiny element added to it. The first time that I walked out in that thing, all the extras just kind of stopped. Every time I would walk past a new group seeing it for the first time, there would just be a gasp followed by giggling.

I can’t say the romper was not a joke, but I feel like you wore it fairly well! BJ is really confident in it.
Yeah, you see him come out when he first appears in it, and he really believes this is a show-stopper outfit.

The swagger is very evident, and he has that little pirouette that he does for Judy. Did you come up with that?
I think there might have been a spin in the script. Danny [McBride] directed the episode, and he and Jody [Hill] and David [Gordon Green] are really great at giving us agency and incorporating our choices. They trust their casting and they trust the instincts behind how we’re playing the part, so a lot of times there would be something in the script and they’ll be like, “Well, whatever you feel. How do you want to play it?” That spin probably came out, and if it got a laugh, it stayed in, and if you want to try something else, you do it. I just felt like, he feels like a special little boy in that outfit, so why not twirl?

The twirl is in the middle of this huge emotional swing. He has the baptism and then he has the tantrum. How did you prepare for that big of a transition?
I think BJ feels like the most earnest, sincere character, along with Keefe [Tony Cavalero] and Aunt Tiffany [Valyn Hall]. They really mean what they say. They’re not vying for power. I think BJ’s vying for respect from the family and not getting it. I just try to focus on making sure that his sincerity is coming through, his purity is coming through emotionally. In the tantrum scene, Danny came in the room and explained, “This is going to be a super-cut, so it’s just going to be your tantrum all over the place. You have from this side of the room to this side of the room to just go nuts. Scream as much as you want.” I think we had six or seven different rompers that were stitched in a way that would allow me to rip it off. He was like, “I think that’s plenty,” and it ended up being plenty. I think I ripped through four of them, and then sat on the toilet and screamed as loud as I could.

For the photo-shoot images that decorate the baptism, was it just you and Edi going in there and vibing?
We had a few poses and then it quickly became about the vibing. Very quickly. It’s hard for us to be together and not try to make each other laugh. They had a vision board for how it was supposed to be, which was a cross between pious, like a baptism boy, and also kind of Christian hard-rocker model who’s being very pouty while showing how much they love Christ. We had a handful of props and we’d be posing and Edi would be grabbing my butt and looking off forlornly. Edi and I have a chemistry that goes far beyond these characters and extends to decades of improv experience. She got me immediately, even from the HBO test for the show. We just feel like a kid in a candy store when they give us a wide-open space to play in like that.

Did you have to pose for the “Hello God, It’s Me” cake?
I had to pose a lot for that cake because that’s motion capture, super-fast frame rate, and they do kind of a 3-D [render]. They take so many pictures so they can put it into the rendering software and then create that for your head. And then on the day, there were seven or eight of those cakes, just lined up. It was really bizarre. It looked like some David Lynch thing. They were all slightly different, so they all kind of looked like me, but some of them are like dead on, others are misshapen in one eye, others the chin is too big. It just looked sick.

I hope that this is the inspiration for a future Cronenberg project, just a creepy cake.
[Laughs] It was very surreal to have to reach into my own head and then whip a huge chunk of cake at John Goodman.

How many times did you have to do that? If there are numerous cakes, is it because you’re doing it numerous times?
They wanted to get it in one fell swoop. There’s a camera seeing me reach into the cake and then there’s one behind me as I turn to see my throw toward John. I think the first two takes, they were like, “Aim for his tie, we want to see it hit his body because he’s wearing all white.” I grew up playing baseball, so I was like, “I can do this, I can hit the target.” But that stuff disintegrates the second it leaves your hand, so then after those two takes, they were like, “Try to hit him in the face.” And I was like, Oh God, I gotta hit John Goodman in the face. And it’s like 30 feet, so it’s not easy. It’s not a huge target. But then on the fifth take, I just absolutely nailed him right in the glasses, and the gasp that came from the entire crowd was like, “How dare you do this to a national treasure?” And then as soon as we yelled “Cut,” John — who didn’t flinch a single time — goes, “Did you hear everyone’s reaction?” He was so happy. It’s so cool to see him react to something when it goes well and he’s stoked about how well it went. He’s been around for so long and he’s seen so many things that he always is incredibly professional, but then when it works, and he’s excited? You’re like, “Well, that must be a cool moment because John’s excited.”

Speaking of Goodman, something I am continuously fascinated by on this show is that everybody has a different way of pronouncing “Daddy.” When BJ says “Daddy,” Jesse and Kelvin are grossed out. Was there any pressure for you to nail that pronunciation right?
That’s a great question. I feel like “Daddy” is an ongoing joke off-camera, that people just say that in various ways. There’s no wrong way to say it, it’s just however it comes out. You know that how BJ says it, everyone’s gonna be grossed out by it. I wasn’t too worried. I knew that however I said it, again, if I say it earnestly, people are gonna be like, “Ew. Sick.” Because the siblings are not earnest at all, so I know that if I just come in pure, they’re gonna be grossed out and they’re gonna knock me down a peg, which is the point. So much of the comedy comes from that for BJ, so that’s all I focused on. Grossing them out.

We meet BJ’s family in the baptism episode. How intentional is it that his sister KJ sort of looks like Judy?
Hard not to read it that way, huh?

Just a little!
I remember reading that script and wondering how they were going to play it and being excited to see the wardrobe kind of come together for the family. That wig ends up being I think one of the wigs that Edi may have worn in the pilot, before they found a slightly different one that fit her better. So that was a funny wrinkle. The other funny wrinkle is that my sister is played by Lily Sullivan, who is my fiancée, soon-to-be wife. So in the script when BJ kisses each family member on the mouth, I was like, Well, at least one of these is someone I’ve kissed on the mouth before.

She is in what is probably my favorite I Think You Should Leave sketch, with the nachos. Congratulations. 
Thank you.

I’ve read some various reviews that call BJ “sexless” or a “doormat,” which I think is a disservice. Do you think BJ is a secret freak?
Yeah. In season one, he’s like,Take me right here on the stairs.” So yeah, absolutely. Clearly Judy is a freak, she leads with it in almost every episode. There’s no way she’s going to be with a guy who can’t match that.

Let’s talk about the Rollerblading scene in the third episode. How much of the Rollerblading was you? 
I can stand on my own two feet on skates, but my center of gravity is two inches behind my Adam’s apple. I had months to train and then when we got there, there was a stunt guy, T. Ryan Mooney, and he looked a lot like me. Normal skating in there, that’s me. That’s legitimately me. But the tricks, even the simple tricks, he would do them so easily and so impressively. God, everyone should work in a restaurant so they know what that’s like, and everyone should work with a stunt person so they can feel like a baby. The things that this guy was able to do so easily, and he was so game for it, even the crash — I think the crash is the first take. They might have done two takes, but the guy nailed it that quickly. And he just popped up like, “I’m okay!” And I’m like, “How are you doing this, man? I feel like a toddler next to you.” So I trained as hard as I could, but eventually, the stuntman just looked way better.

Do you have a favorite BJ outfit? There’s the romper, the baby-blue Rollerblading outfit, the really nice camel overcoat. BJ has some fits. 
Yeah, he does. You can tell Judy is dressing her man. Obviously I have to say the romper because it’s such a special piece. God, I hope that next Halloween, people are making these rompers themselves. That would be absolutely wild.

There was one outfit in episode six, I think it’s a turtleneck and peacoat on top of it, and I was like, “My God, I look like Margot Tenenbaum in this thing.” That one made me laugh really hard.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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