David Mandel knows you might be apprehensive about the return of Veep. Since last season’s finale, when Selina Meyer lost the White House, America has been doing … great! (You know things are rough when actual news footage can be so seamlessly spliced into Veep’s closing credits.) If Obama’s presidency was supposedly going to usher in post-racial America, Trump’s has possibly brought us post-parody America: An era in which Washington Post headlines read like they’ve been lifted out of The Onion. But Mandel, Veep showrunner since taking over from creator Armando Iannucci at the end of season four, thinks even the most jaded, exhausted viewers of the news will still care about the exploits of Selina and her staffers, thanks to the formidable talents of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the “greatest accidental decision ever.”
I want to start by telling you that I was nervous about returning to Veep this season because I thought I couldn’t stomach more politics, even fake politics, in my life.
I wondered about that as well, a little bit. Would anyone even care? But I think you do!
It works out so well that Selina isn’t even in the White House. She’s as far from the presidency as she has ever been.
It’s the greatest accidental decision ever, is what I think. Because honestly, and I’ve said this, if we were in the Oval, if Mike was still behind the podium doing pressers every day, I don’t know what you’d do with the show. You’d look at the show and look at reality and the blurriness would be too great, and in some ways, we would pale in comparison. I think it would be unwatchable.
We’re still about politics and power, and now we’re on the downside of power. And there’s a certain unplanned relevancy with Hillary Clinton: She’s trying to figure out what to do next, she knows she’s probably not going to run for anything ever again. How do I stay relevant? And that’s what Selina is doing as the former president.
When did you write and shoot this season? What was going on in real life?
We really, truly started last June, so it was right as he was locking up the nomination, and obviously people thought it was a joke and she would win. That’s when we started writing in detail. But a lot of what this season is really goes back to two years ago, to 2015, when I first sat down with Julia and HBO and started talking about taking the job, and when they told me about the tie, that’s when I very quickly came up with the broad strokes of the story line: She would lose the tie to another woman, and the show would segue into being a show about a former president, and there would be, “Could she have a library? Does she deserve a library? Will people contribute to it? Will she write a memoir? And what that would be about.” So much of this was pre-Trump-winning, pre-Hillary-losing. Which is sort of wild to think about, the stuff we accidentally stepped on … it’s all wonderful and frightening.
We were shooting in October. We were on our fourth episode the night he won. But I’ll be honest with you: If we’d made a show about her still being president, I don’t know what we would have done because, by the time he actually took office, we practically were done with our season really, shooting. We’d have been locked in, and I think it would have been a real problem.
How did you decide to do a one-year time jump?
So at the end of last season, Jonah was a congressman, he had a possible cancer diagnosis. We were sort of setting Dan Egan up for a media career. That was the start of it: This notion that a year later, à la George Stephanopoulos, he would be a morning news man of some sort, and he would be interviewing Selina for her return to the spotlight. And a year seemed like a good amount of time for everybody to be well entrenched in their new world. It wasn’t about “how did they get there?” but more about where they were. It felt very natural.
It’s also been such an interesting time for real-life ex-presidents. Everyone is waiting to see what Barack is going to do. It seems like both the most glamorous job — all the prestige without the work — and also one mired in so much indignity because, what do you do with the rest of your life?
It was sort of a wonderful coincidence that people kept saying, “Trump, Trump, Trump,” and I said, “Look at Obama.” Because the really interesting part is, he’s leaving office just as we’re coming on to do a show about her leaving office. And he signed a giant book deal, and she signed a book deal that’s not so giant. We do a lot of stuff in the early episodes about private jets. That’s a real Bill Clinton bugaboo; trying to borrow jets and knowing people with jets.
We did a lot of research on former presidents, and it is just a fascinating area. In fact, I don’t mean to bore anybody, but I just read a wonderful book about Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, making the drive from their home in Kansas City to New York and D.C. a couple years after he was out of office, and there was no full-time Secret Service protection, no pension, no office — he had to pay for his own office, his own postage. And they would show up in these small towns and the police would lose their minds that the president was in town and no one told them. It was really Ford who started the notion of taking money to do these things, and Reagan pushed it further. Obviously you then have the Clinton Foundation and all its good and bad parts, and Reagan speaking in Japan for a lot of money.
You mentioned earlier that you knew, two years ago, Selina would lose the tie to a woman. Why was it so important for you that Selina lose to a female opponent?
Julia pointed this out the other day – one of the fascinating things about Selina is how much she hates women. I think it goes back to her parents. And yet she will use the woman thing when she needs to. She doesn’t enjoy doing it, but she does it when she has to. What little she has of her legacy is she was president for a year and technically the first woman president. And what would make losing the presidency worse? To lose to a woman who is a little younger, has a happier family life, and possibly, as Selina would say, big tits. It goes into Selina’s makeup. And I think the nice thing about it is, in some ways, perhaps our little fake Veep world is slightly more enlightened in that we’re on our second female president in Veep-land, and in the real world we haven’t yet had one.
In Veep, there haven’t been any presidents of color yet, right? Is Laura technically the first?
She’s sort of not really Latina. She married into it. She probably thinks she is! And I’m sure people are happy to embrace her as such. She’s not really that in the Barack Obama way.
America has seen some of our ex-presidents get a lot of public love once they leave office. But that affection does not seem to be in the cards for Selina.
I think she’s got a long way to go before she can get to “Oh, we miss her!” And she wasn’t there quite long enough. But we do always like to point out: There were people who liked her and voted for her, at some point. She got close. She did tie in the Electoral College. It goes back to what’s going on in America: Just because someone else wins or ties doesn’t mean you got zero votes. Some people did want her to be president. And I think people underestimate Selina. You have to remember, she was in Congress, she was a senator, she fought her way to the vice-presidency, and there are times when you see that street-fighter toughness in her. That’s one of the fascinating things about her. She didn’t fall upward. She is a real political animal and she can sense weakness, and she can jump on it.
How did you decide to end Selina’s plans to run again so quickly? It’s really killed by the end of the premiere.
It honestly came from the fact that, I did feel like we had moved on, just in terms of my own head. We weren’t writing about Hillary, but it is one of those things, as people are moving forward from the election, we want to know: Who are the new candidates going to be? In four years, we want to see new faces. Hillary didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, but we want to see new faces. And I think that’s very similar in Selina’s world.
Selina wouldn’t be able to move forward with things like her library and her fund and her foundation if all she really wanted to do was win again. So in some ways, to have her live the life of a real ex-president, I felt we needed to shut the door. If we didn’t do it in the first episode, everyone would be sitting at home waiting for her to run again. So we really needed to shut that door hard, nail it shut, and to make sure that Selina could move forward with being an ex-president.
This is a bit of a wonky question but I am fascinated by Selina’s finances. Is she broke? How is she paying her staff? Mike seems to be this unpaid intern.
Mike is basically unpaid. The former presidents are given X number of dollars to run an office, and that’s how the rent of that place and Richard are being paid. She was basically cut off from her mother’s money, which was left to Catherine and Marjorie, so they have her on a very high allowance. There’s a famous story about Trump — when all his casinos were going bankrupt, he was spending [too much], and they had to put him on a [$450,000]-a-month allowance, and he had to wait in the lobby for his checks. For Selina, that is her personality. So she’s getting a very nice check every month, she has money from the government, she lives in this beautiful brownstone with her daughter and is crying poverty. But it is a real motivation. The Clintons, when they left office, they had no money. And that is what drives you into the world of speeches and whatnot. For all her years in government, she wasn’t really making a lot of money. So it’s one of the fascinating things about what it is to be president and post-president. And what’s too much? What are the speeches she can turn down? She’s not endorsing products, yet.
Did you watch Buffy?
Because this reminds me of when Buffy had to get that job at Doublemeat Palace because she was broke, and she was like, Didn’t I stop the apocalypse? Don’t I save the world from evil? What am I doing here?
And that’s a little bit of what Selina is trying to deal with! Wasn’t I President of the United States? Didn’t I try and do something? But unlike Doublemeat Palace — and obviously there are no demons or anything —
Aren’t there demons, though?
Perhaps! Good point. But unlike Buffy at Doublemeat Palace, most people would look at Selina’s life and go, “This is incredible!” And that is Selina’s troubling outlook on life. She’s leading quite a nice life. But for her, it’s not enough. And when I look at all of Veep, the show has always been about power, the desire to have power, how to hold on to power, and now it is the other side: How do you make yourself relevant when you’ve lost power?
I asked you this last year, but I’m curious if it’s changed: Does Selina have any issues she genuinely cares about? We’re seeing her scramble for causes for her foundation, but those choices are totally driven by what she thinks the public will support.
At the end of the day, probably not. I think she’s just happy to grab onto whatever will work for everybody else, which is a little bit sad. I do think she has interests. She’s into riding. She probably liked horses back in the day. But when it comes to charity, it’s really what looks good. And it’s sort of sad. That’s the other wonderful thing about Julia: We can make Selina sad and horrible, and yet you still care about her.
You know who isn’t sad, though? Gary. He seems to be living the dream, just hanging out with Selina in her PJs and eating Chinese food with her.
He’s in seventh heaven. If you think about the year they’ve had together, even with the hints that she’s had a rough time, he has her all to himself. And when we tune into that first issue as she is reemerging into the public, you can watch his lack of comfort with the new members of her staff. He’s bothered by these people. What are they doing in her house? He just wants to eat Chinese food and play backgammon. The loss was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Of all the staffers, who has the new job that you’re most excited about? Or was the most challenging to write?
It’s like, who’s your favorite child? I’m very excited by Dan’s story this season. I think people don’t always realize that because they reduce the Dan character to sleazy. But his new world in morning television and the politics of morning television and how it connects to real politics, it is a real fun revelation. It was fascinating to pair up Kent with Jonah — the world’s most rational man compared with the world’s least rational man. I loved seeing Ben at Uber and him not fitting in, him with millennials and decks and all these things he doesn’t know or care about. Ben suffering with Jonah as well seemed like a lot of fun. And it was disarming Selina, in some ways, of her best adviser. She and Ben have a very special relationship, and it’s Ben who has to deliver that coup de grâce. So in removing him, it’s another thing that she’s without.
And Amy is the most removed from Selina now.
Amy is sort of interesting. She is quite the creature herself. Ostensibly she’s with a fiancé, but it’s hard to tell whether she loves him or whether she’s just happy to have him running for an office. In her little effed-up world, she went out and found a boyfriend she could run, which is an effed-up thing in a wonderful way.
What else has been challenging about this new season?
It was a great loss to lose the Oval in the sense of the set that we were used to. And really to try to figure out, where is she? She could’ve been anywhere. She could have stayed in D.C., gone to L.A. or Chicago. We went with New York because that’s where it seemed a former president, à la Clinton, would go. But trying to figure out the new set, her offices in the South Bronx, it was a real challenge. It was definitely something I didn’t think about when the season ended. I wasn’t sitting there going, “Oh, where does she live?” A living room and a kitchen, these are not things we ever had to see before. You got used to those hallways and the Roosevelt Room.
How much of Selina’s second-class status among former presidents is driven by the fact that she wasn’t really elected and because her term was so short, and how much of it is because she’s a woman?
It’s a two-parter. I think her time in office has her being an asterisked president. It’s a little bit like Gerald Ford, no offense to him. It’s like, “Oh yeah, her!” Because ultimately, she was a placeholder for about a year. Had she won it would be very different. And I think it speaks to the casual sexism. Believe me when I say, I don’t want to be a man talking about this to a woman, but as the father of a daughter, it’s the casual sexism that in some ways is the worst problem. It’s finding out you weren’t invited to that meeting or you weren’t asked to participate in that phone call — and this is not just with sexism, it speaks to racism, it’s the casual sort of quiet version that’s worse. It’s when people don’t think they’re being sexist but you realized it’s ingrained in them.
Speaking of people who get excluded from everything: Early this season, Jonah has a hard time getting anyone in Congress to acknowledge or include him.
The thing with Jonah that we’re having fun with is we envisioned him as kind of the Ted Cruz of Congress. He is the most hated man in Congress. So Jonah is going to be disrespected no matter what. And him with power is that much worse.