Talking to Timothy Simons of the New HBO Series Veep
As a newcomer to the world of TV, actor Timothy Simons is joining a very impressive group of writers and performers for his first big role in the HBO political comedy series Veep. Created by Oscar-nominated auteur Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, The Thick of It) and boasting a cast that includes Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matt Walsh, Anna Chlumsky, and Tony Hale, Veep has a more impressive pedigree than any TV comedy in recent memory. I’ve seen the first three episodes of Veep, and Timothy Simons holds his own against these heavy-hitters. It’s a funny show that lives up to the high expectations set by Armando Iannucci’s previous work, and Simons is really funny in it. While fans of TV comedy may not be familiar with Tim Simons, they will be by the time Veep starts airing, as he’s poised to transition from virtual unknown to fan favorite just like as Jack McBrayer did in 30 Rock a few years ago.
As the rabble-rousing White House staffer Jonah Ryan, Timothy Simons is able to score big laughs and make a strong impression in a cast full of dynamic, iconic performers. I recently had the chance to chat with Simons about Armando Iannucci’s process, researching his role in Washington, D.C., and the human side of the “shit-stirrer” he plays on the show.
What’s your experience as an actor before this?
I don’t have a lot of credits that L.A. would pay attention to — not a lot of TV or film credits. But my background… I studied theater in college, and I was in Chicago for six years doing small off-Loop — or the New York equivalent would be just Off-Broadway – weird plays. So, I just come from a small somewhat-experimental theater background. I love Chicago, but everything that would come through town television-wise—– which is where I wanted to ultimately end up because that’s more what I grew up with — [they would cast] big parts in L.A. and they would come to Chicago for the smaller parts. I moved out to L.A. in the hopes that I would get a full-time gig.
Can you tell us a little bit about your character on Veep?
I’m the White House liaison who has very little power outside of delivering messages. I don’t even have any responsibility for the content of the messages. I don’t know if it ever makes it into the show, but at one point, Matt Walsh’s character Mike calls me “the human form of text message.” He’s really just a message deliverer, but he enjoys the power that message delivery gives him.
Do you have an interest in politics? How familiar were you with that world?
I’ve always had an interest in politics. I was raised by very politically active and socially active people. Both my mom and my dad. I remember going to Gulf War rallies with my parents when I was in middle school or grade school, however old I was when that was going on. I’ve always had an interest in it and throughout my life, I’ve tried to stay up on it and tried to stay involved. I’ve tried to have informed opinions about it, but over the last few years, like a lot of people I’ve become frustrated with how the rhetoric seems to be dialed up so much that I just had to stop paying attention because it would be ruining my days. I loved watching Keith Olbermann, but I was so upset about things. In order to better my own life, I’ve had to stop paying attention to it so much.
Did they have you guys research or study people in the politics to get a feel for that world?
Yeah. As a cast, we took research trips up to D.C. And then, me and some of the other castmembers also took a few other side trips up to D.C. to talk to people. We took a tour of the Eisenhower Building, we had lunch with a lot of people from the process. And before I left for the pilot, I’d spoken to a friend of a friend who works for the current administration, and he gave me the one thing that I really latched onto with [playing] Jonah, which is that the status that you have, that’s what you buy things with. Whereas L.A., the amount of money you have determines your status. In D.C., it’s your proximity to power.
It was one great thing about working with Armando [Iannucci] and Simon [Blackwell] and all the other great writers and Tony [Roche] and Sean [Gray] and everybody…we would go to D.C. and pick up on phrases that they would use. We’d report those back, and a lot of times, they would end up in the script. I remember sitting down for drinks with some people in D.C., and they taught us the term “pencilfuck,” which actually ended up making it into the pilot. That’s when somebody comes in and does exactly what Jonah does, which is take your speech and say, “You can’t talk about this, you can’t talk about this.” You’d say you just got “pencilfucked” then.
So, there were a lot of little things that those meetings with D.C. people helped, for both the larger character choices and also just the nitty gritty. A lot of time, Jonah would have two phones. That was a conscious choice on my end because everybody would have two different phones: one for fundraising and personal calls and another government-issued one.
It seems like Jonah’s kind of a fun character to play. Is it nice playing somebody who’s a little lecherous and kind of the punching bag of the group?
Jonah’s a really fun type to play — he has no shame about anything he does. He’s going to go after what he wants and doesn’t really care about your opinion of it. To play the shit-stirrer, the guy who walks in and intentionally tries to get people going, is a really fun thing to play. The only thing that I didn’t like about it is I loved our cast so much that it was sometimes hard to be an actor on the outside of a scene. Like they would all be able to rally together to hate Jonah. I loved the cast so much that it was sometimes hard to be the outsider in a scene. Outside of that, I loved it.
It was just tough to have your character be the black sheep of the group.
Oh yeah. We talked about it one time, everybody that works for her [Julia Louis Dreyfus’s character] might have trouble with each other, but one main thing they all bond over is that they all dislike me.
Were you familiar with Armando Iannucci’s work beforehand?
I wasn’t. Before I went in for the test, I watched In the Loop to get a sense of what his style was, and I hadn’t laughed so hard at a comedy in years. After that, I honestly found anything I could. I started watching The Armando Iannucci Shows and I watched all of The Thick of It. Honestly, I’m disappointed that I’ve wasted this much of my life without watching this stuff. I think he’s brilliant, and it’s really been a pleasure to work with him. The guy’s a genius, and it’s awesome to show up and hang out on set with him every day.
Veep has a really impressive ensemble. What was it like joining the group and were you a fan of some of the other performs?
I didn’t know Reid [Scott] or his work before the show, but I’ve been a fan of Matt Walsh obviously. I don’t know anybody in the world who isn’t a fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Anna Chlumsky, I had actually never seen My Girl. Tony [Hale] was on Arrested Development, which is one of the best shows that’s ever been on television. It was pretty strange… I probably watched Arrested Development four or five times, the entire [series]. To be a guy who watches Arrested Development because it’s amazing and then to get to work with someone from Arrested Development — that took a little time to get used to.
Just understanding that I was supposed to be rude to Julia Louis-Dreyfus — who if I met her on the street, not for a moment would I ever consider being rude to her — that takes some getting used to, but not very long. Julia was very welcoming as a castmate and as a leader of our cast. She really set a collaborative tone, as did Armando. The ensemble got along really well, and I think that shows up in the show. I think how tight we are in the cast shows up in the final product. Like any workplace, if you have a tight group of people that supports everybody in a workplace, your final product’s going to be that much better for it.
As the season goes on, do you feel like you got chances to play your character Jonah’s human side a little bit?
I’d say, 90% of the time he’s in his shit-stirring mode, but there is an episode midway through the season that I think might actually garner some sympathy for Jonah, which I think is really cool. I’m really excited for people to see that one. Even if people hate him, that one episode might give them a little bit of pause. They’ll think, “Oh, I kind of feel bad for him.” But then, he’ll do something five minutes later… “No, he’s a shitheel, fuck him.”
What would you say some of the main differences are between working with American writers and writers from the UK?
Well, I’ve spent my whole life hoping that English writers would find me funny, so that’s one thing that’s different about it. If they laugh at something I do, there’s like a little thing in my brain like, “Oh, English people think it’s funny. That must mean it’s very funny.” When it all comes down to it, it’s all kind of the same jokes. Going in, you think it’s going to be so much more sophisticated, but really, we all joke about the same stuff. It’s sort of a great equalizer — the humor. Just with different phrasing.
It was kind of interesting to get an outside perspective because obviously we’re in American politics just based on the fact that we live here, so nothing seems strange to us, just about the pomp and circumstance of American politics. I think it’s really interesting for those guys, as outsiders. They have a way of looking at and playing out some of the sillier things that our political system does. I think that was a good thing.
The writers are careful not to portray which political party the main characters belong to. Do you feel like that’s important to the show?
I really do because it’s not about one party being smarter than the other, saying “Hey, look at those guys. They’re pretty stupid, huh? Wink, wink. Everybody gets a laugh out of it.” Or at least half the country does. It’s really kind of poking fun at the process of government from either side. That’s something that both sides are gonna find funny. There are things about this show that Democrats or Republicans might find funnier than the other side, but it’s about the process. I do think it’s important that you don’t see any sort of partisan view. That way, everybody in the country can enjoy it and not say, “Oh, that’s a show about Democrats making fun of Republicans” or the other way around. If you keep it ambiguous it doesn’t shut off half the country from the joke.
Veep premieres this Sunday, April 22, at 10pm on HBO.
Photo credit: HBO and photographer Bill Gray
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.