When Veep premiered on HBO in April 2012, it was a self-congratulatory time for the intersection between American politics and pop culture. President Barack Obama was three years into his first term, with a focus on improving the economy and enjoying (increasingly rare) bipartisan support for creating more jobs. Aaron Sorkin, whose The West Wing inspired a generation of wonks, was channeling his self-serious best with his new series The Newsroom. NBC’s Parks and Recreation, which celebrated politicians and civil servants at all levels of government, was finishing a fourth season that ends with Leslie Knope being elected as a Pawnee councilwoman after running against a wealthy moron. There was a simultaneous sense of hopefulness and earnestness to such TV, like the adults were finally in charge of the government again and we were all better off — and then came Veep, in all its smirking, sneering excellence, to interrupt and mock all that sentiment.
Veep didn’t invent political satire, but the series’ seven fantastic seasons have proved to be a practically impossible act to follow. From the laser-focused criticisms of creator Armando Iannucci, and later showrunner David Mandel, to the Murderers’ Row ensemble cast led by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep depicted the selfishness, opportunism, and ineffectiveness that can spread outward from the Oval Office with winking wit, turn-on-a-dime pacing, and creative vulgarity. Much of the series’ humor and drama came from how practically every character in the Veep world was out for themselves, with one exception: Sam Richardson’s Richard Splett, the hapless-cum-brilliant book-tour assistant turned three-time president of the United States and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Three years after the Veep series finale aired on May 12, 2019, Richardson is everywhere — starring in the Apple TV+ comedy The Afterparty and horror-comedy film Werewolves Within, appearing alongside best friend Tim Robinson on the wonderfully bizarre sketch-comedy series I Think You Should Leave, and going against type on Ted Lasso. Amid his busy schedule, Richardson sat down with Vulture to revisit the relentless optimism of his Veep role, “a little dot that just kind of slowly grows and then encapsulates the whole world.”
Roxana Hadadi: Did you know there’s an hour-long Richard Splett compilation on YouTube? It’s one of the most-viewed Veep videos.
Sam Richardson: Really?
Yeah. It’s like No. 3, behind two far shorter best-insults videos.
A lot of profiles and interviews still introduce you as “Veep star Sam Richardson.” How do you feel about that?
I feel two ways about it. First, I’m incredibly honored, and I will forever be grateful. I think about that show constantly, and it really allowed me to have a career. I loved playing the character of Richard so much. Sometimes, though, I do try to push away from it a little bit so that I’m not playing shades of Richard but that Richard is a character who I played. To be remembered as that character is certainly a blessing, but there is a fear that that will be the only thing that people allow me to be.
I read that you had auditioned for a couple of other roles on Veep before being cast as Richard. Do you remember which ones?
One of them, he was supposed to be, like, a Cabinet mathematician who was looking at, like, polling numbers. And then they were supposed to be presenting the numbers to Selina as a song, and it was supposed to be like “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” They made the song a parody of that. Kumail Nanjiani ended up playing that role. And from doing that, I was like, Well, I’m just never gonna be on this show. When I got called in for Richard, I was like, They don’t even really wanna see me. I’m wasting their time, I’m wasting my time — I probably shouldn’t go.
Then I was like, What are you talking about? You are unemployed living in Los Angeles, and you have rent. Go to this audition. And then I was like, Well, I think I see what Richard is, but maybe they don’t know. Because you have to have the ego enough to be like, Look at me do this! You know, but also you have to have the, like, Is what I’m doing right? Every audition is its own performance, and I’m very bad at auditioning.
So then you get cast as Richard — you’re getting bumped up. When did you personally feel like, Oh, I’m part of the fabric of this show? Was there ever that moment?
That moment came pretty quickly into my first season as a regular: season four. I came in as a guest in season three, episode one, and it was supposed to be one episode. It went well, so I got brought back for the second episode of that season. The last episode was where I was, like, there, but it felt like I was there for no reason, or as a joke. And then I got asked to join the cast. Episode one of season four, I’m with Amy as her partner — I’m driving her nuts because I’m too earnest and she needs things to get done exactly as she wants them — but then Amy kind of trades him as currency to Jonah and then, when he’s in the White House, he pretty quickly found his rhythm in the group. It felt like, Oh yeah, Richard is, like, in the mix.
You had spoken once about Veep having its own comedic language. I’m thinking now when you look back on it, what constitutes that language?
I think the comedic language of Veep is in the pace of it, the … making a statement and then somebody making a commentary on that statement. Everybody’s still on track with the same thing, but they’re adding pieces to it, zhuzhing — like, everybody talks on top of each other. And also everyone insults everyone. Except for Richard. Richard doesn’t get any insults. The hard part was, like, I didn’t get to participate in the insults, but also it was hilarious because you would be in a scene and then the writers would come up with an alt insult, and it would be the most devastating attack. Like, you — you went away for two minutes and came back to a life-ending insult. You have to have tough skin, especially around Tim Simons, ’cause he would just, man, get every which way but loose.
What else was challenging about playing Richard?
Certainly the speed at which I would speak as Richard because he also gives a lot of information. Richard was a very good character to give some exposition, but with that I’m also trying to thread the needle to fit a joke in between two other people’s bit of information. I’m also introducing a new idea that none of the other characters have thought about, or sometimes it’s a distraction.
For Veep, I learned pretty quickly to not memorize scripts because you would get there on the day and scripts would change in a heartbeat. If you were locked in to what was on the page three days ago, you’re gonna have a hard time when that monologue gets changed 75 percent. Things need to move so quick. We’re shooting for that [half-hour] show — typically you shoot 22 pages for a script that’s 22 minutes long, or 30 pages for a 30-minute script. Our scripts were, like, 55 pages. And you certainly didn’t wanna be the reason you couldn’t make the day, you know?
I’ve always been pretty good at memorizing lines, but it certainly took some concentration early on and also, like, subtle cheating. You know, it’s a show where everybody has their phones. We used to have a little green-screen app, so it’d be fine to use on the show. But then when it’s backward to the camera, you could just have your lines on there. Not all your lines, but, like, if you’re, like, listing off stuff or saying like, “Oh, we got an email,” you could just, like, see it on there. Cheating!
You guys would get the scripts and then put the script aside and sort of improv lines. Are there any that you remember now that you had for Richard that you still hold on to?
I got to improvise a lot of Richard lines, and some things that come to mind are “What’s your favorite Robert De Niro movie? And you can’t say Meet the Parents because that’s automatically No. 1.” Richard was a character who I felt I could play without telling jokes. He can just say a joke, you know? Most of my favorite lines were written by the writers. One of my favorites was “Nice to meet you. My name is Richard T. Splett. I dunno why I said T — my middle name is John.” That’s, like, my favorite Richard line.
My favorite, that is quoted a lot in our home, is that you’re trying to get the handle on your dad’s email.
Yes! That was definitely written. And it was so important to me to get the rhythm of that joke, you know? ’Cause he’s offering information; he’s trying to be helpful here. So it’s like, “It’s email@example.com. Splett1’s my dad. I’ll be sad to see him go, but I can’t wait to get that handle.”
Like, it zigs and it zags enough where you want every piece to land and then to surprise you. I grew up on The Simpsons, and they would do jokes like that, where pieces of it would just keep on feeding. My favorite Simpsons line of all time is they’re going to Itchy & Scratchy Land, and they’re on the helicopter with the pilot going, “Welcome to Itchy & Scratchy Land, a place where nothing can possib-lie go wrong … possib-lee go wrong … that’s the first thing that’s ever gone wrong.” It’s my favorite joke, so I was trying to do that with the performance of that joke. I’m glad it resonated.
How did you craft your line deliveries for Richard? Like, by a certain point, did you know him so well that it came naturally, or how did you practice them?
Well, I just knew him so well, and there was a very specific pattern that I found for Richard pretty early on. On the first day of filming on Veep, I was talking to Julia in the trailer, and she was like, “You know, you talk really fast.” And I was like, “Oh, sorry.” She’s like, “No, use that.” So then I was figuring out what the patter of this is and sort of the idea of someone who’s speaking faster than they’re thinking, but they also can think very well, but there’s no filter. So how fast would that person be talking to do that? And then what’s the funniest rhythm and patter to get all the words out before anybody can interrupt him? The rhythm I would try to find would be, Information, information, information, information, side note: This thing, but that probably doesn’t matter.
It got pretty ingrained in me. I could read a script and just know how he would say it and then also improvise within that. The game was that Richard would talk faster than he would think, catch up to himself, and then have a sidebar because that made him think of something else. Not to talk about he-who-must-not-be-named, but it’s funny when you would watch Donald Trump do speeches. You could see where he was reading a part he hadn’t read before because then he would, like, comment on it. Like, “We got a thousand new jobs — a lot of jobs!” I’m like, Yeah, buddy, that’s what was said in the speech. That’s why that was there. You said that — the information is coming from you!
And with Richard’s physicality, something I noticed is that everyone else on Veep carries, like, the exhaustion of what they’re going through, whereas Richard has this very straight-backed, happy-to-be-here posture. So was that also something that you worked on? How did you land on that?
It was just the energy. I always feel a little pretentious talking about my acting method or whatever, but in improv, we would do physical experiments like, If you’re leaning with your head while you walk, what does that do to you? Now be very conscious of your legs. You’re walking with your legs. What does that do? With Richard, he was very straight-backed and also very open. So he’s not crouching, he’s very excited and chest-forward, but chest openness in, like, Oh, my heart is bared. You know? Because that optimism lets him exist like this and also, like, counter to Jonah, who’s like this Crypt-Keeper.
I’m going to ask about some scenes where I was hoping you could give a little context, like your first reactions or how you think about them now. First, how did you feel about the dog mayor of Lurlene, Iowa? Did you meet Mayor Biscuit?
I never met the actual dog in person. So I was bummed about that, but there was another scene, when we get to [Mayor Biscuit’s] funeral, and there was, like, a donkey and a bunch of animals, and a cat, and then Richard actually went, like, “A cat mayor? You gotta be kidding me. Could you imagine?” I’m looking at my cat right now, who’s offended by me saying that. [Speaking to cat] I’m talking about you. You’d be a bad leader. You know it, Conan.
Next, you’re swearing in as governor of Iowa and you have the newspaper photo that very iconically references Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m wondering what you thought about that.
That was cool to do because, like, it was so meticulous, and it’s such a quick moment, you know — it just shows up there. But, like, Dave Mandel wanted it exactly, point to point. And I think we nailed it every part: this little subtle, make-you-snap-your-neck-over moment.
And, of course, I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times about the sperm-donor masturbation scene [from season six, episode five], but just how does it live on in your memory now?
That was, like, another one of those moments where I felt like I got to play almost to the realm of sketch comedy, you know? How do you play the realism of an adult who doesn’t really understand masturbation? So then the idea is you have to play the fear that was ingrained in me, so it was purposely ignored. I had so much fun with that scene. It was truly so funny to peel back a layer of Richard. That was a fun thing about Richard in general: that he was an onion. In every episode, there was a new, fresh, weird thing.
How did you react when you learned that Richard was gonna be president?
It had been a rumor around set for a minute. You know, I think I started hearing that rumor, like, maybe halfway through season five. And then when Dave told me, I was like, Oh, how perfect. What a perfect thing! This character who pops in there, this energy that was in the corner, this little dot that just kind of slowly grows and then encapsulates the whole world. I love it because it’s also a little tinge of hope at the end of Veep you get. And also, he’s found peace in the Middle East with the three-state solution. I’m still trying to figure out what that third state is. I like that Richard becomes the president and he’s the greatest president. You know, truly perfect. And now I also get to say that I’m in the pantheon of television presidents. Like, I was a TV president. I get to say that.
So many people seem to define Richard differently. There is the “flaky optimist” descriptor, “lovable idiot,” “kindly nerd.” For you, who was the true Richard Splett?
There’s a lot of facets to him, but for me, Richard was an incredibly optimistic, subtle genius who was unfortunately mannered, but also overly mannered, who really thought of government as truly being an altruistic entity and believed that all people who are involved with it must be also inherently good for wanting to help people. He catches all the texts, misses all the subtext, but then also kind of has a pretty good macro view of everything.
I read an interview where you called him “anti-cynical.”
Toward the end of Veep, we almost went into this place that was post-satire. And to have Richard continue to be this very earnest force, I think that resonated and still resonates with a lot of people.
Yeah. That anti-cynicism is sort of like how he existed in that world. And it also allowed him to propel because no insult would land on him. He refused to be discouraged, because the idea of being discouraged doesn’t really exist to him. It let him be a character who was a refuge while you’re watching all these terrible people do these terrible things and be so selfish. Playing Richard, I got to watch the show and kind of react as a fan of the show — not as a character who watched the show Veep but as a character who was a fan of what these people are.
As an actor, you do that very well. How much of that is just your personality, and how much of that is based out of your training in comedy and being an actor?
I think it’s an equal three parts, right? One is my personality, where I do want to participate and be present. But at the same time, the No. 1 tool of improv is to listen and respond. And then you respond accordingly through the filter of whatever the character is or whatever the circumstances are, so that’s improv and that’s acting. With Richard, I was trying to play the off notes. If the scene or the characters are like a chord, Richard is a little minor key there. I think it makes the full spectrum a little bit wider. You also see the juxtaposition of the other characters; the juxtaposition kinda lets the comedy be a little bit bolder on both sides. Like Richard saying, “Oh my goodness, that’s a felony,” while people are currently scheming and all that stuff. I guess that goes back into Second City training, where you’re in an ensemble and we’re all creating. Knowing what piece you play — and what the macro view of these ensembles and scenes is — is the goal.
Is it weird to exist as a Funko Pop! figure?
Yes, but I collect Funko Pop!s, so I’ve got, like, over a hundred of them. So it’s truly one of the greatest honors. In Ghana, I brought some Funko Pop!s to my family. My grandfather was a chief, and his father was a chief, and so we got his portrait there and his stool, and so now my Funko Pop! is there among those like it’s an equal achievement. And I’m like, Oh, thank you. My uncle Godfrey, his catchphrase is [Mimics uncle’s voice] “My nephew’s got toy. Have you got toy?” Like, do you have a toy? I don’t think so.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.