HBO long ago established a reputation for producing some of the best original dramatic television in history, but recently the network has hit its stride in the comedy department as well. Of course the network has its fair share of incredible comedy shows from the past, ranging from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Eastbound and Down to The Comeback, but its new spring comedy block is something to look forward to in the first quarter of every year. Girls, Silicon Valley and now Togetherness offer viewers a variety of different more light-hearted fare to dig into, but perhaps the most purely funny of HBO’s current crop of comedies is the phenomenal Veep.
Hailing from executive producer Armando Iannucci (In the Loop), the series provides a candid look at the world of U.S. politics through the eyes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Vice President Selina Meyers, who just can’t quite manage to nudge her way into the political world’s inner circle. Gleefully irreverent, profanity-laden, and flat-out hilarious, Veep is quite simply one of the funniest shows currently on TV.
In anticipation of the show’s Season 4 premiere, in which Meyers finally takes over as President of the United States, I was able to hop on the phone with actor Timothy Simons, who you know as the scene-stealing Jonah. Simons does a magnificent job of bringing this unendingly embarrassing character to life in a way that’s hilarious but never off-putting. All the other characters hate Jonah, but as a viewer it’s hard not to root for the guy.
During our conversation, Simons discussed where we find Jonah in Season 4, what the character would do if he ever met Jay-Z, how many of the insults hurled his way are made up on the spot, the amount of improvisation in the series, and what it was like to add Hugh Laurie to the cast this season. Additionally, we talked about his experience working with Paul Thomas Anderson on Inherent Vice, his work in the upcoming Melissa McCarthy comedy Michelle Darnell, and Goosebumps.
Read the full interview below. Veep Season 3 is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD and Season 4 kicks off on Sunday, April 12th on HBO.
Collider: So you guys finished filming a while ago, yeah?
TIMOTHY SIMONS: Yeah we finished right before Christmas.
I was just curious because the HBO schedules are sometimes kind of odd. It feels like Girls is already getting ready to shoot its next season when the current season airs.
SIMONS: Yeah no we’ve always been on this schedule of shooting in the fall and coming out in April. But yeah I remember when Girls came out the same time as us and then they were shooting their second season I feel like when we were airing, like they got picked up really quick and got right back into it. We waited for a while.
Well at the end of last season we saw Jonah is now back in the White House, working for Selina’s administration. How’s he doing in Season 4 when things pick back up?
SIMONS: It’s funny, he ends up back in his same position as the liaison obviously because he’s really amazing at it of course (laughs), but also I think they just want to get him away. It’s the easiest thing to send him away, so they’ve kind of relieved him of any real responsibility in the White House—which is probably what the former President did too, we’re just seeing it from the other side. But initially when he starts working with the Vice President he finds that it’s a very different vibe in the new Vice President’s office, and I think he really enjoys that at the very beginning. It’s a little more of a jocular vibe when it’s first introduced.
So he’s still trying to get into Selina’s inner circle and he’s boxed out of there?
SIMONS: No I think he feels a little bit like they’re clipping his wings. I think he had a little bit of hope that he’d rise up the ranks there, but I think he feels like they’re not using him and his talents to their full effect.
Jonah had a hilariously dynamic relationship with the internet in Season 3. Where do things stand between him and the web in the new season?
SIMONS: You know I don’t think it comes up too much in this season. You never really know what’s gonna end up in the final cut; I think there were references at different points to the fact that the internet hates him, and I think that continues to hold, that his internet relationships have been severed and he can’t act in that capacity anymore. And there have been references to it that I know that we shot, but I don’t know if they ended up in any of the final cuts. But I feel like that has to be sidelined until the internet stops hating him (laughs).
That’s fair. Jonah has a lot of zingers thrown at him, and also has quite a few in his own back pocket as well. Do you come up with some of the insults yourself, or is that all Armando and the writers?
SIMONS: I would say 95% of them are on the page. I’m not great—generally when it comes to insults, the ones I come up with tend to be a little bit too blunt, and the writers are much better at shaping them and making them a little bit smarter and not so harsh and like, you know, “You’re a dick!” or whatever (laughs). Reed Scott is really good at coming up with insults. He had one that just crushed me one time, it completely blew a take because I couldn’t help but laugh at it: he called me “Hepatitis J”. And it’s funny, Tony Hale does not like coming up with insults because I feel like Tony Hale just wants to be nice to other people, so I don’t think that Tony would come up with too many on his own. Or if he does, his insults will be tailored towards like, “You’re not a very good person and you will live an unhappy life.” It would be that kind of insult (laughs).
The dialogue between the characters feels loose but also so quick, it’s kind of like if Aaron Sorkin lost his romanticism and had a dirty mouth. I’ve always been curious, how much room is there to improvise on set? Because the vibe that comes across onscreen is so natural and organic.
SIMONS: You know a lot of that vibe of that connection between the cast is sort of built in the rehearsal process, that’s been a huge part of the show since the beginning. A lot of times the improvisation happens in the rehearsals and then the writer will go away and incorporate, so by the time we get to set we’ve fleshed out most of the scenes and the really good stuff that came out of the improvisation ends up in the script, so by the time we’re shooting it’s not as much about improvising. But there’s always kind of a chance. In the first couple of seasons it was always, “Okay we’re gonna do it straight through the script and then at the end there’s at least one,” but as the time has gone on and as we’ve gotten tighter and tighter as a cast performance-wise, we kind of know when we can try something without them saying explicitly, “This is a free take” or “This is a script take”.
We kind of know what we can and can’t mess with. I think one of the directors at one point in season 2 or season 3 said, “We don’t give a shit how you say ‘Hello’ to one another, but when it comes to policy we’ve vetted this, we wanna make sure it stays realistic.” So that stuff has to be to the letter. Or if you just come up with a funny idea, sometimes a funny idea is too hard to explain, so now that we’ve been there for a while you might take a little bit of a liberty and try a bit or try a line or try an idea or an attitude toward something just to see if it works, because sometimes it’s too hard to explain it. It’s like, “We’re just gonna put it into action here and see if this works, and if it gets laughs we’ll do it and if it doesn’t we’ll just jettison it.”
Well one of my favorite lines on all of TV last year was just a throwaway line of you going, “Sittin’ on the corner!” and then just running. I had to pause my TV I was laughing so hard.
SIMONS: (Laughs) Man that one was fun just because like, there’s this backstory with Jonah that he’s got that sort of grindcore, metal scene that he’s into, but I do feel like he’s the kind of guy that believes that he and Jay-Z would get along because they’re moguls. I think he does listen to hip-hop and I think he takes that swagger very seriously, and so I think that when he watches The Wire, he’s one of those guys that’s like, “I’m good. I know how to handle myself in a bad neighborhood.” (Laughs) So embarrassing.
One of the things I’m really excited about this season is seeing Hugh Laurie come into the fold as part of the cast. What was it like to work with him on set?
SIMONS: I mean we were all super excited, like crazy excited to have him on. The Brit writers and directors all know him from Fry and Laurie and so they were all kind of geeking out about him from there, and we all know him from House so we were all geeking out about his dramatic ability. Having him on set was great. He worked really well, he was gracious, he was up for anything, he was just super cool to have on set.
There was one thing he did that—we had to start a scene by laughing, like he had just told this great joke and that was the beginning of the scene and that led up to this other thing. What he did was—and I’ve used this since, it’s such an amazing thing—he would just say, “Okay guys I’m gonna tell a joke and the punchline is just gonna be the number seven.” And he got us into the scene every single time by just telling the last line of a fake joke that ended with the number seven. He would just be like, “And so I looked at the guy and I said, ‘Well, seven.’” so it was a fake punchline with no set-up that ended with a number, and it killed every time.
It was just amazing, and thrown into the fact that he’s so good at an American accent that at the end of the day you’d be walking to the trailers and he’d slide out of an American accent and back into an English one and you forgot that he even had one. But no, it’s pretty stellar having Hugh on set. I think everybody would find themselves not-so-subtly getting close to him to hear a story or catch a couple sentences with him just because he’s so cool.
I can imagine. Well I definitely have to ask you, how did it feel to be on a poster for a Paul Thomas Anderson film?
SIMONS: Oh man, that was—I mean it’s just incredible. I’m trying to think of better adjectives than that, that almost seems like too cheap of an adjective for it. I almost don’t even wanna speak to—I wasn’t there a lot, it’s hard to explain man. It was a great experience, it was an incredible movie to be a part of, and I don’t want to speak to anything of why he did what he did, he just seemed to like go and try to figure out the scenes. I’m doing such a terrible job.
Basically me and Sam Jaegar, the guy that played the other Fed, would watch Paul and the cinematographer talk. Whatever he did, we would kind of follow then we’d watch them talk, we’d watch them set up a shot and they’d nod or whatever and they’d figured it out, and then we would look at each other and just be like, “My God it’s just so cool.” Everything he does is just effortlessly cool. I just tried to soak up as much as I could in the short time that I was there, I mean he’s like one of the best directors there is so just being able to be on the set was incredible. I don’t know, just substitute a better adjective for the one I’m using and it’s that.
I love that movie so much.
SIMONS: Oh God it was great. It was great.
So did you film a bunch of different versions of your scene? Because you hear stories of him changing things up on the day. He’s such a singular and unique filmmaker, and yet it’s clear that he’s so open to collaboration and stuff like that.
SIMONS: Yeah that’s definitely the sense that I got. I think there was a part of me that just assumed that I was gonna show up on set and—his movies are so well put together you think like, “Oh well he’s making all of this happen,” and I showed up to set thinking, “Oh he’s just gonna tell me how to do every single thing.” I think of the few scenes I was in there were a bunch of different versions of varying lengths of those scenes, but by the time we got to set I think they had figured out which ones they wanted to use. There were a lot of different things, we would just kind of go through it and then he’d change something and we’d try that again. It took all the courage I had that at the end of our last day I asked him if I could try something and he was just like, “Yeah absolutely, I’m down for whatever.” That was the coolest feeling to have Paul Thomas Anderson say that.
That’s fantastic. Well I also wanted to ask you about Michelle Darnell before you go. Are you filming that now?
SIMONS: Yeah I’m in Atlanta right now, I just left set. (Laughing) It’s so funny, it’s just so ridiculous and so funny.
That cast is great.
SIMONS: Oh my God yeah. I think my last day is Monday and it’s only been a couple of weeks, but we’ve all gotten along super well and I think we’re all kind of bemoaning that the group is gonna get split up, because we’ve been shooting some pretty big scenes that have everybody in them, so you’ve gotten used to hanging out with everybody. But just being on set with Peter Dinklage and Kristen Bell and Tyler Labine and Melissa McCarthy, and Melissa’s husband Ben Falcone is directing and he’s fantastic. It’s just been great. It’s a really fun set too, you can kind of throw anything by them and they’re like, “That’s funny let’s try it.” It’s like a joyous thing of chasing jokes, and it’s great.
I’m also curious about Goosebumps because it sounds like an interesting take on what that movie would be.
SIMONS: Oh I play the town sheriff or the town police officer who’s not particularly great at his job, and I’m partnered up with an actress named Amanda Lund who’s just so incredibly funny. What is the take that’s out there plot-wise?
Basically that Jack Black is playing R.L. Stine and his creations come to life and wreak havoc.
SIMONS: Yeah that’s the gist, and what I like about it is I feel like it’s the kind of thing that’s not just taking one book and making that book. If you’re a super fan of Goosebumps and grew up with it, I feel like it’s one of those things like as you go through the story, you’re gonna see a lot of those nightmare creatures that you grew up with popping up throughout.
It’s definitely a fun take on what could’ve been a straightforward kids movie just cashing in on the Goosebumps name.
SIMONS: Yeah, I missed them man. I think maybe I was one year too old to get into them, but I read this weird Canadian series called Bruno and Boots (laughs). I don’t know if anybody else read those but it was two incorrigible private school kids, something like that. But I missed out on Goosebumps so it was all kind of new to me as we were doing it.