Veep’s Sarah Sutherland on Playing the President’s Daughter, Catherine’s Mystery Fiancé, and Feeling Invisible

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Photo: Rommel Demano/Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for the latest episode of Veep.

Catherine, the meek and somewhat surly daughter of Veep’s commander-in-chief Selina Meyer, serves at the pleasure of her neglectful mother. Now that she’s joined the campaign, the slights are piling up: Her sourpuss won’t cut it; America doesn’t like her; and Selina has vetoed her role in an anti-bullying effort. What’s a dour daughter to do? Get engaged! Vulture caught up with Sarah Sutherland to hear how her role has evolved, if having a famous father made Catherine relatable, and exactly who this mystery fiancé is.

You and Julia have got one of the worst mother/daughter relationships on TV!  Did you know how Catherine would be developed? At first she’s just a joke — the forgotten daughter left waiting in the VP’s office.
The process is unusual in that we do a lot of improvisation and rehearsals. In the very beginning, the seeds of their relationship [are] that Selina is incredibly neglectful, incredibly narcissistic. And Catherine is essentially a pawn who gets either the brunt of her bad days or small approval on her good days, which is why she endures the constant humiliation. In isolation, the relationship is profoundly heartbreaking: Selina is constantly picking Catherine apart and not listening to her or taking her seriously But in an absurd comedy, that becomes wickedly funny. Our writers are really masterful at straddling that line where it’s almost too mean, it’s almost too far, but just hugging it enough that people still laugh. I mean, there are definitely moments where Julia and I kind of stop and think, Did we go too far?

Did you model Catherine on any political daughters?
No. There were certain plot points that the writers based very, very loosely on actual occurrences. But in reality, I wanted to keep it separate and not feel a responsibility to adhere to the personality of someone else.

What’s your relationship with Julia like offscreen? Do you keep your distance to maintain the dysfunction?
No, absolutely not [laughs]. During the casting process, my final callback and audition was a chemistry read with Julia. From the moment I met her, she was just so warm and welcoming and gracious to me. And I’ve learned so much from her. When we’re on set between takes, we’re laughing as hard as anyone else at the absurdity of our [onscreen] relationship.

Selina never feels bad about the way she treats Catherine. When she announces her presidential candidacy, Catherine shows up in an identical conservative outfit. Selina’s response: “What in the wild world of fuck do you think you’re wearing?”
There are some rare moments of tenderness or resolution between us. But every single time, it’s completely undermined by something cruel she says either to me directly or behind my back to someone else. So [Catherine] exists as an extension of her narcissism. You’d think Selina would be excited because Catherine usually wears funky things that don’t match, because her style of dress is one of her few assertions of power. But when she tries to do the opposite, she’s met with even more aggression. She can’t win.

Selina’s also clueless about Catherine’s need for validation. When she holds the Bible at her swearing-in, Selina says she couldn’t have done it without her. Catherine asks what she’s done to help, and Selina can’t muster a politically correct answer.
She’s so conditioned to being a politician and having these blanket presentational statements that when it comes to actual sentiment, there’s very little there. But I do think they love each other. In truth, there are parts of Selina in Catherine that come out every once in a while — a sense of entitlement and elitism that indicate she’s ultimately her mother’s daughter.

You must’ve relished last season’s snap-out-of-it speech when Catherine told Selina the only thing that would mitigate her rotten childhood was becoming the president’s daughter.
That monologue is indicative of the part of Catherine that feels a sense of loyalty and devotion to her mother. Although it’s this gratifying moment where she can air her grievances, ultimately she says, “I fixed her” [to Amy and Dan]. So you get the sense that she’s done this before. In a weird way, it makes sense, because at that point, Selina’s been pushed to a state of despair so opposite to the way she typically operates. So it would take the most unlikely person who seems to have the least bearing over her to snap her out of it.

Selina pawns off the job of telling Catherine the public doesn’t like her on Kent. She sheds literally one tear and then lets Selina teach her how to smile — insincerely.
That scene is a rare example where you see how profoundly sensitive Catherine is. And you kind of understand that that experience — which she’s had time and time again — is why she’s so gloomy. When Julia’s teaching me how to smile — her smile just makes me laugh so hard because it’s the quintessential fake smile — Catherine’s response is a halfhearted, strained version. [But] Selina just plows through 'cause she’s more concerned with the volume of Catherine’s hair!

Catherine says “a core role” will get the press to take her seriously. After she picks an anti-bullying campaign, Selina says no, people will think she bullied Catherine.
[Laughs.] The craziest part is she says, “I was bullied because of you,” and Selina says, “No you weren’t.” Catherine can never win because what she says is never what’s conducive to Selina’s idea of their history. And a lot of things she’s saying are right. What a frustrating feeling it is to try to express something in confidence or in earnest and constantly have people treat you as though you are invisible.

Is that why she suddenly gets engaged — for some positive attention, a White House wedding? And who’s Jason? Selina says he photographs well for his age. Is he old?
Jason is a significantly older lobbyist. The engagement definitely is announced in a really sudden way. But it’s appropriate because, again, no one — Selina nor anyone else in the administration — is paying any mind to Catherine’s personal life unless or until it affects the campaign.

You say parts of Catherine are like Selina. She’s completely self-absorbed — missing Jonah’s harassment confession, ignoring that her mother’s been stuck in Iran — because she wants to tell Selina she’s engaged.
In rehearsals, we decided that Catherine’s greatest motivation — which speaks to how desperately sad their relationship is — is that she wants to tell her mom because she knows [she’ll] be mad at her if someone else tells her first. When Catherine tells her, she’s really excited, and she’s met with Selina’s fear that it ages her.

So, who is this guy? Have they been dating long?
She’s been dating him for a while, long enough that Selina has met him and knows who he is. But of course, she doesn’t really recognize how much he means to Catherine or what kind of role he has in her life.

You know what it’s like to be the daughter of someone famous, as the daughter of Kiefer Sutherland and the granddaughter of Donald. Do you use that?
No, absolutely not. Often when I meet fans of the show, they think I bring a lot of myself to [the role], that I’m drawing from my own personal experiences. But that’s definitely not the case. Also my relationship to “being the daughter of …” isn’t something I really identify with. My dad is my dad; my grandpa is my grandpa.

Your Dad’s obviously proud. He told David Letterman he’d offered you two jobs, which you turned down because you want to do this on your own.
That is very sweet. We always keep work things very separate and private. It’s never something we talk about too directly.

Any hints about what’s next for Catherine — besides more brutal treatment?
Yeah, it is definitely brutal. A couple of years ago, a girl came up to me in the grocery store and said, “I love Veep and I think your character is fantastic.” And I said, “Thank you” and smiled. I noticed this sort of trembling vulnerability in her, so I kept eye contact for about two or three seconds longer. She had this look in her eyes, so I asked her what was wrong. And she said, “That’s my mother. That is my relationship with my mother.”

Oh God, you must’ve wanted to give her a big hug.
I did — in the middle of the grocery-store aisle!