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Timothy Simons on the Slow, Inevitable Rise of Veep’s Jonah Ryan

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Jonah Ryan, sometimes White House staffer and eternal punching bag, spent four seasons on HBO’s Veep falling upward through the political world. But in the fifth season, he’s stumbled into a new high: a congressional campaign in the great state of New Hampshire. Like Jonah, Timothy Simons is enjoying the time in the spotlight — just ask him about the elaborate social media Easter eggs the Veep team has cooked up for Jonah’s campaign — but he’s a lot more clear-eyed about Jonah’s prospects. “The lovely thing about him,” Simons jokes, “is that he manages to fail upward while never succeeding at anything for any great length of time.” Vulture talked with Simons about Jonah’s eternal optimism, what it’s like to work in a new city with a new showrunner, and the secret to his hilarious partnership with Sam Richardson’s Richard Splett. 

Jonah is really having a big season. When did you first find out that he would be running for office?
I think that David [Mandel, Veep showrunner] told me in the second round of rehearsals — or maybe in the first round of rehearsals — this past summer that it was on the table, that they had the idea that maybe it would happen in the second half of the season. I started hearing whispers of it right when the room started getting together, and I tried to play it really cool, not to get too excited. In my head I was like, “I absolutely want for that to happen. I will kill myself if that doesn’t happen.” I was so excited about the prospect of it, I tried to detach from it emotionally. As it got further into the first couple of episodes it became more clear that it was definitely going to happen.

It has a cruel inevitability for everyone on Selina’s team, while Jonah gets to be on the up-and-up again.
That’s one of the amazing things about him: He is not lying when he says he’s like herpes or a MRSA infection. You don’t get rid of him. And there’s something that can be respected in that dogged approach, where he just wears people down. Even if everybody hates him, he doesn’t care. He is doing what he wants to do. I suppose there’s something lovely about that.

I’ve been watching some of the “Jonah Ryan for Congress” videos you guys have been putting up. Did you spend a lot of time working out the details of the campaign?
We tried so many different things. The photo shoots for those posts, like the “I’m Listening” stuff, all of that; I assume they were like what an actual congressional campaign photo shoot would be. We talked the optics of every single thing: We need some with you looking rugged, we need some with you as the “old Jonah,” and we need some in the rebranded “Dan Egan Jonah.” Every single thing: axe on shoulder, holding the axe in front of you, axe at your side. I think they were going to go back through and figure out what were the correct optics for each one.

Do you remember who came up with the glasses?
I can’t remember who came up with it. But you see it when it happens in real life, politicians will just course correct. Consensus is people don’t think you’re smart, so wear glasses and they’ll start thinking you’re smart. Unfortunately, I think it works, otherwise they would’ve stopped doing it. “Oh, people think you’re too hard-edged,” so then you get a picture with your family. That sort of thing. I don’t remember who came up with it initially, but I think it had to be a pretty drastic change from what I was before.

Speaking of Veep’s immaculate production design, what is the story behind the photo of young Jonah that his mom has in his house? 
I just gave them a bunch of photos of me from when I was a kid to decorate the house. My dad was a photographer and he took the studio portrait, black-and-white pictures of me and my sister and my brother all on the same day, and they kind of matched and were hung up in the living room. And they saw that, and I don’t know whose idea it was, it might have been Jim Gloster, who is production designer, and who is unbelievable. I think they thought it would be really funny if his mom was just that into Jonah. They played up the awfulness of the photo. I didn’t have a pink sweater in the photo, but they changed that for the painting. The pink sweater and the popped collar were not in the original.

One of the other things that has been so funny has been the pairing of Jonah and Sam Richardson’s Richard Splett, which is great because the power dynamic between them keeps shifting. What was it like to work with Sam even more this season?
We started getting paired up in the second or third episode of last year, and it’s just amazing. Number one, Sam is unbelievably talented, incredibly funny, and just fun to hang out with on set.  There’s something about Richard’s buoyant positivity that always plays well compared to Jonah’s weird negativity and aggression and defensiveness. No matter what, if he just keeps being sunny and I keep being doom and gloom, it always works.

But one of the things I liked about the power shift at the beginning of the season was how quickly Richard just takes that mantle. The man has two Ph.D.’s in veterinary sciences and recount strategies in the West, and he is okay just getting people coffee. But when he got that power, he so easily took it on. But he’s so passive sometimes, he won’t ever hold on to it, which is terrible, because he is the one that should be in power. He is the one who should be running for Congress and for office. He is smart and he works well with people, and he’s kind. But he doesn’t seem to have that dogged determination.

Last season, Jonah went through the crucible of having the “Jonad Files” read aloud during testimony. What was it like to shoot that scene? Have you ever contributed a Jonah insult?
I don’t think I’ve ever contributed any — let’s be very upfront about this, they’ve never had lot of trouble coming up with them. I’ve never been put in the position where I’ve had to contribute any. When it comes to the Jonah Files, we never talked about it. I do know that Simon Blackwell, who was one of the head writers and had been with us from the beginning up until this year, he’s a huge fan of list jokes. Any list that’s ever existed in our show, Simon Blackwell has probably put that in there. That probably had a lot to do with Simon. There was a part of me that thought, they’re so good at coming up with these, I think at the end of the season they just realized, “Man, we thought up all these great nicknames and we never found a good place to use them. How do we get them in there?” And they were just like, “What if we just listed them all off?”

They were just too good to pass up.
But I love that for Jonah, this is another way you can’t get him down. He starts off thinking this is going to be embarrassing for Dan, because it will point him out as a workplace bully, and very quickly he realizes it’s just giving all of his enemies fodder and really good nicknames and they’re gonna stick. He thinks if he throws in “Tall McCartney” at the very end, that will swing the tide in his favor, and people will be like “I forgot about all those other ones. I’ll just call you Tall McCartney.”

I’ve talked to people who work in Washington, and they’re always talking about the Jonah of their offices. Have you met many people who seem like they are real-life Jonahs, and does Jonah seem like a model for them? Or does no one want to admit that they’re a Jonah?
This is how it always seems to go — nobody’s ever going to admit that they’re a Jonah. So in that case, I’ve definitely met some, and some people it’s not super-clear. I’ve met a couple that are definitely Jonahs, but nobody’s ever going to admit that. It’s like admitting you’re the sucker at the poker table, or you’re the mark at the poker table. And this is the other thing I really do love: In five years of doing the show, we’ve had a lot of occasion to go to D.C., and we’ve had a lot of occasion to meet politicians, and it is a universal thing that every politician thinks the show is making fun of everybody else but them. That is an absolutely 100 percent universal thing.

That’s one of your advantages, because you don’t go into the policy specifics, so you can cut in all those different directions.
Because we don’t play to a particular party, we can make fun of both of them, and we can make fun of all of them. It’s pretty great. One time, I think Rolling Stone did a sidebar article where they tried to guess who in the current administration was most like their characters, and I think at one point we met the guy who Rolling Stone had guessed was Dan. And, I’m gonna tell you straight up, he acted like a fucking Dan. I have never wanted to not be in the company of somebody quicker than that person. Just immediately, I was like, I want all of this to be over.

Part of the change in this season of Veep, and this might be due to your new showrunner David Mandel, is that there seems to be more digging into the backstories of the characters. We see Selina’s mother. And now, Patton Oswalt has come back to haunt Jonah. Was that something you guys talked about looking at more?
I don’t know. Dave really likes to spend his time on things. Because one of the amazing things about Dave is he’s so funny, and the writers are so funny as a group, that you could have the entire season take place in one day and it would have never lacked for a funny situation. They can mine funny out of anything. Dave really likes having things pay off down the line, in the way that the Chinese hackers were mentioned in episodes one and two, and they end up paying off in three. He likes the idea that Jonah’s uncle, who’s mentioned for the first time maybe in season three, ends up being a huge part of this. Amy’s sister comes back.

Jonah has become very successful by basically going full tea party and attacking Selina. Because real-world politics have gotten so ridiculous and over-the-top, did you want to come up with an angle on it that wasn’t just “this is actually something that would happen”?
We’ve always tried to stay away from reacting to what is happening in current politics and trying to keep it within the world of the show. Ultimately, most of the decisions we made about his campaign just came from the fact that Jonah and Richard and Dan are so well-established that we didn’t have to look outside of those three characters. And then having Peter MacNicol [who plays Jonah’s uncle] come in, with those four characters being so well-established, it seemed like “let’s just have those guys run for Congress and it’ll work,” rather than “how are we going to make this if we have to tie it to politics?” I like the idea that his being angry at Selina finds its way in. He gets so frustrated it’s not even a tactic. It’s not part of a larger scheme to get to win. It’s just that he’s mad because she’s never respected him. That comes out onstage. Normally, that should sink him, but everybody hates her so much that it starts helping him. It’s the worst politician thing you can do — you get emotional and start talking off-the-cuff.

And then he has another blowup in the next episode, so it’s not that likely to turn into a movement.
The lovely thing about him is that he manages to fail upward while never succeeding at anything for any great length of time. And I love that this is one of the first times he’s actually done something right. That campaign event goes great for him. He and Paulie have a fun connection, they get along really well, they have a good time working together. And he stood up to his abuser [Patton Oswalt] and said, I’m not going to allow you to affect me like you did. This has gone great. It’s the only time he has done anything right, and it ends up completely fucking him.

With the congressional election, you guys have set up a Selina Meyer Twitter account. I saw that there’s a “RealJonahRyan” account that has not done anything yet. What would Jonah tweet?
What he would tweet would be something awful that would be quickly deleted, but nobody cares enough about him to have ever gotten a screenshot of it. I feel that’s the thing that’s going to be handed off. He is going to be so far from that Twitter account, almost immediately. He wouldn’t ever be allowed. He’d probably accidentally tweet out him just hitting on local reports that were covering his campaign. That’s the sort of dumb shit he would do.

But the entire social media campaign they’ve been doing has been unbelievable. Over the weekend, they took out a full-page ad in the New Hampshire Union Leader. They just relied on people finding it.

You guys have also moved to California from Maryland for shooting this season. You’re further from the D.C. world, but you’re closer to L.A. entertainment land. What has that change been like?
We loved being in Baltimore, and the crew was amazing in Baltimore. We spent four good years there. There’s only one New Yorker in the cast, Anna, so she’s had to travel back and forth this year, but pretty much everybody in the cast has kids and has family in L.A., so I think we were all really happy to spend time with our families on the days off. It makes everything go a little bit easier. If I have a day off, I’m not just wandering around Baltimore sort of depressed. I actually then get to see my kids, which is great. But also, there was a big learning curve, because normally, there’s something to be said for, we all just go away to summer camp, and we only think about work the entire time, and when I come back to L.A., I only think about family. There was a learning curve of how to balance these two things in a way I never have before. But by the end of the season, it all felt very good.

In days off, it is a little easier to go to meetings or work on writing projects with other people. When I was in Baltimore, it was always, “When I get back from Baltimore, we can start working on that.” Having it be in town, I was able to jump for a day on The Disaster Artist, right before Christmas, because I didn’t have to fly back to L.A. to do it.

That’s the James Franco Tommy Wiseau movie, right?
Yeah, it was just one of those things where I went in for a scene and had we been shooting in Baltimore, it probably wouldn’t have been able to happen. I mean, I love Los Angeles, I love living here. It’s a great city, but I think in the same way that if you live in D.C., it’s really important to get out of D.C., it’s also really important to get out of L.A. for some lengths of time. That has both been a little harder to come by when you’re shooting in town. You tend to get a little buried here. But overall, the move to L.A. has been incredible.

Timothy Simons on Playing Veep’s Jonah Ryan