Gary Cole feels right at home in offices, whether it’s the oval one on Veep or Initech’s corporate headquarters in Office Space, where he created his signature character, the TPS-reports-obsessed VP Bill Lumbergh (mmm-kay?). In Veep’s third-season premiere last night, Cole went full boss once again, with his political operative Kent Davison firing “West Wing Man” blogger Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) with the line, “The party is over — there’s a dead guy in the pool, and that dead guy is you!” Vulture spoke with the 57-year-old Cole about whether he’ll return to The Good Wife, how he channeled Robert Reed’s polyester soul in the Brady Bunch movies, and what he means by the term “the Christopher Walken rule.”
You played the vice-president on The West Wing. Have you given Julia Louis-Dreyfus any advice about being the VPOTUS?
Well, no. But that job is really ripe for comedy, because outwardly it has all this, you would think, incredible power and prestige, when in reality it’s a thankless job. You’re so close to power, yet basically you don’t have any. It’s always been a target comically and cynically in the press. You can always hammer on the vice-president. You’re the world’s No. 2. And nobody likes being No. 2.
Kent is a consultant, campaign-manager type. But what exactly does he do?
In Washington, there are jobs that have official titles: chief of staff, campaign manager, director of communications. Then there are all these vague and murky headings over people who are just special consultants or advisers. We really don’t know what their gig is. My character worked for the president as a polling guy for the campaign and election. Then there was a drop in the president’s approval ratings after he was elected, and they called my character in to fix that. Now he’s been commandeered for the vice-president’s presidential campaign. He’s morphed through a lot of different roles.
You’ve played lots of authority figures, but have you played the president?
Uhhhh, did I play the president? I’m only hesitating because I can’t remember the exact plot, but when we finally did a third Brady Bunch movie, we moved into the White House, and I can’t actually remember if I was the president. [Note: In the 2002 made-for-TV sequel The Brady Bunch in the White House, Cole’s Mike Brady was, in fact, elected president, and appointed Carol as his veep.] So my only experience being president is in polyester.
When you played Mike Brady, it was amazing how deeply you committed to the role. How did you get into the Robert Reed zone?
That was what everybody wanted — to remember those other actors. The fact that our characters were stuck in the ’70s and everybody else had moved ahead, it was like a monster movie. Everybody regarded them as these creepy alien creatures. I felt as vacant and as bewildered as I could be. Mike hardly ever made sense, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Robert Reed had a distinct delivery, and I tried to match that. He was very earnest, always the teacher. “The moral of the story is …” was his whole thing.
Is it true you don’t ever get tired of people quoting Office Space lines to you?
Yes! Sometimes that never happens in a career. That movie’s 15 years old, and it’s still relevant. That’s the exception, that’s not the rule. I’m grateful for that. People say you get identified with a role and you get stereotyped, but I haven’t found that to be the case. We were all surprised by the fact that the movie had legs like that.
Any chance you’ll be coming back to The Good Wife? And were you shocked by Will Gardner’s death?
I went, Wow, okay — they’re really going over the edge! I’m still hoping they’ll bring me back. I did a few earlier in the year, but I haven’t heard anything about me working again this season. I assume at some point I’ll show up again. I never know — I just get a phone call. But I love working with Christine Baranski, and it’s a great show.
You’re able to move back and forth very easily between comedy and drama. You always hear actors say comedy is harder — is that true?
I don’t know that it’s harder. It’s harder to disguise. Funny is funny, and if it ain’t funny, it’s not funny. If it doesn’t work, it’s painfully obvious. In a drama, it’s not that easily detectable. People are going, Is this good? I don’t know. In that sense, I guess comedy is harder. Maybe it’s a little riskier. But I never look at them any differently.
So even though you’ve done cult comedies like Talladega Nights, Dodgeball, and Pineapple Express, you don’t consider yourself a comedian?
No. There’s only a handful of people who are just purely, inherently funny, and I’m not one of them. I need content and a situation. I don’t just walk on the screen and people go, “Ha ha ha!” There are people like that, and they can do almost anything. It’s the Christopher Walken Rule.
Christopher Walken could literally read a phone book and fill a theater and it would be interesting to watch. I’ve often wanted to produce a show and ask him if he’d do that. All week long, he could read the As on Tuesday, the Bs on Wednesday, we’d see how long it would last. The package is just so interesting. Not only is he talented, but it’s how he comes off — his voice, his look.
Have you played a superhero, other than voicing the Spectre in DC cartoons?
No, only animation-wise. I might be a little long in the tooth for it now, unless there’s a geriatric superhero league who disguise themselves in nursing homes during the day.
You’ve done voices for Scooby-Doo. Have you ever gotten to say the immortal line, “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids?”
I don’t think I’ve said that yet. It’s a good line, though. I wish I did say that!
What can you tell us about your role in Tammy, the Melissa McCarthy–Susan Sarandon comedy coming out this summer?
Melissa and Susan go on a cross-country trip and get involved in a lot of mayhem. I’m a roadhouse drunk in a bar they wind up in. They have a little escapade with me and my son. I pop in for a few minutes, then I’m gone, and they roll on for the rest of the movie.
This is a stupid question, but I’ve wanted to ask you for years: Have you ever been mistaken for Gary Coleman?
All I can say is when I first got to L.A. in 1984 and I started going to casting offices, that was usually the first thing out of casting directors’ mouths when they’d open the door: “May I introduce you to Gary Coleman … oh, I’m sorry, Gary Cole!” I was fresh off the boat from Chicago and that was the peak of Gary Coleman’s career at NBC.