Spoilers below for Veep season seven.
In Sunday night’s episode of Veep, Jonah Ryan’s anti-vaccination stance comes back to bite him in hilariously tragic fashion. Jonah gets chicken pox and gives it to several other people, including his own father/stepfather/father-in-law (John Carroll Lynch), who dies as a result. Even for Veep, it’s a dark turn.
The whole final season has been a pretty dark turn for Jonah, who’s been played for seven seasons by actor and comedian Timothy Simons. While running for president against Selina Meyer, Jonah has spewed ridiculous, often racist rhetoric that somehow seems to only build his appeal with the public. (Wow, that sounds really familiar for some reason…)
Ahead of Sunday’s episode, “Oslo,” Simons spoke to Vulture about why Jonah’s presidential campaign isn’t just a Trump joke, the “absolutely idiotic” stupidity of the anti-vaccination movement, and what he’ll miss most about working on Veep.
This episode is the rare one where you really feel bad for Jonah.
However bad you might feel for him, he will always make you regret it. This is probably the worst you’ve ever felt for him because, momentarily, he has the thing that he has always wanted, which is a dad who likes him and thinks he’s actually okay. So that’s the worst you ever felt for him.
He has that change of heart with his dad in the middle of this episode, where he forgives him. What do you think motivated that?
For as much bluster and anger and frustration that Jonah has, I don’t think his ability to want to forgive his dad is very far from the surface. He’s like a kid in that way. It’s very easy to distract him from something that he is very dug in about. For him to completely reverse course, that’s just something that’s there. This is something he always wanted. He’s like, “Okay, all right, fine. You want to be my dad, fine. Be my dad. That’d be great.”
He’s also physically sick with chicken pox, so maybe he’s weak.
We always look at our lives differently when we’re sick. Whenever I’m sick, I’m like, “I want to be nicer to people from now on. I’m going to be more patient, be kinder, and I’m going to do better things in the world.” And then you feel better and you’re like, “Nope, back to being exactly who I was.”
There’s a scene at the funeral where Peter MacNicol shows up as Uncle Jeff, howling with laughter. I can’t imagine you got through that with a straight face easily.
No, I barely did. Like, when he’s falling against the coffin? Get out of here. He has to steady himself against the actual fucking coffin because he’s laughing so hard. I’ve never been able to keep it together during Peter McNicol scenes. I maybe did a better job only because of the head space that Jonah was in. Instead of failing seven times out of 10, I failed five times out of 10 to keep it together.
The measles outbreak has become a huge story. It’s happened a million times on Veep, but it’s crazy when these things become part of the conversation right as you guys are dealing with it on the show.
This is one that I wished had never come true. I don’t know if everybody was as aware of the anti-vaccination movement as I had been, but it’s been around in L.A. for a long time. It’s something that I’ve been incredibly passionate about, trying to educate people on the idea that it is silly to not vaccinate your children. It is inherently short-sighted and massively selfish.
I like the idea of being a blunt instrument to show how absolutely idiotic it is. But also, the human part of me knows that you’re never going to convince an anti-vaxxer to vaccinate their children by screaming at them and telling them how fucking dumb they are. We all want our children to be safe and healthy. If we try to bridge that gap through compassion, then I feel like that’s going to get more kids vaccinated, which is the point. The behavior is selfish and stupid — truly, the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever encountered — but in real life, it’s just scarier.
Of all the characters this season, Jonah comes closest to engaging in Trumpish behavior, with Selina being a close second. What kind of feedback have you been getting about Jonah’s campaign?
It hasn’t been as much Trump-related as it has been, “Holy shit, that was next-level terrible.” That has been the common refrain, how truly awful he has become and how much more awful he has been than in seasons past. Which I do believe was hard to do.
Congratulations. You pulled it off.
They said it couldn’t be done.
Everybody who’s been on Veep since the beginning has a profound attachment to the show. And there’s a group of you whose careers were really catapulted by Veep. Does that make it ending even more sad?
It does, and I’m definitely somebody that owes anything career-wise that’s happening directly to this show. Both my personal and work life completely changed when the show was starting. My wife and I had kids. After finishing the first season [in Baltimore], I wrapped, I got on a plane and went home, and 12 hours after I landed, we had kids.
You have twins, right?
We have twins. They were born early, so I had to leave very suddenly in the middle of episode seven of season one and it was all very scary. But there are so many things that changed right when this show happened, professionally and personally, that there just is a lot of stuff wrapped up in it. Fortunately and unfortunately, everything after [Veep] is going to be defined by it.
The scripts and scenes are constantly changing as you’re making an episode. It seems like that could be tough, but on the other hand, it’s like, “If this isn’t good enough, we’ll fix it.” How is that for you?
I don’t mind the chaos of it. In a way, I almost don’t trust it if it doesn’t change. If it’s just right right away, I’m like, “We haven’t fucked with it. We haven’t fucking pulled it apart and put it back together to see if it works.” Sometimes we pull it all apart and put it all back together and it’s like, “Oh, that first one was the right one.” I do wonder if I’ve gotten to the point with scripts where I’ll just always need to work with people who are willing to collaborate in that way. I wonder if it’s ruined me for just believing that something is good the first time you read it.
I have a friend who worked for Obama, and he has said more than any other TV character, Jonah reminds him of people he worked with in government.
When [Jonah] first started, there was the whole idea that he wouldn’t have an office. He would get dressed in his car. He didn’t care if he looked like shit. All he cared about was having access and proximity to power, specifically the president himself. As the seasons went on, he was still that same guy — maybe he started spending more money on clothes — but the only thing that mattered was how close you were to the president.
All the people we were talking to [in politics] when the show first started up — they were in the Obama administration generally, but we met with some Republicans — it was all the same shit. As we met more and more of these people, all of their Facebook profile pictures were pictures of Obama where they happened to be in the background to show the physical proximity that they had to him, which then meant that they were important. I can’t imagine that’s an Obama-specific thing. No matter what, Jonah is going to care about that more than he cares about anything else. He’s not there for policy, or to do the right thing, or to have any moral center. He’s there to get a picture that’s in the proximity of the president.
Maybe that’s why people attach to it. Maybe it’s refreshing to them to see somebody who wasn’t lying about it, who’s just like, “That’s what I want.” If it was out here [in L.A.] it would be like, “I want to be six feet from Chuck Lorre. I don’t want to be Chuck Lorre, I just want to be six feet from him so everybody knows I’m fucking Hollywood.”
I was thinking recently that so many good shows — Brooklyn 99, The Good Place, Forever — sprouted from the relationships created on Parks and Recreation. Do you think Veep might have a similar legacy?
I hope for that. Not only for my own success, but for Tony [Hale’s] and for Matt [Walsh’s] and Sam [Richardson’s]. Like for me, none of that would be possible without this. This is the first television show that I’ve been on. There’s no reason for those people to trust me in any way. But they did. Everyone was given weight in the rehearsal room from the beginning. Remembering that going forward — that’s going to be important.
This interview was edited and condensed from two conversations.