The Washington staffers in “Veep,” the first American TV series from “In the Loop”‘s Armando Iannucci, are a caustic, backstabbing lot, forever scheming to advance themselves or at least hold off the underlings gunning for their jobs. All of them, that is, except for Gary, the starstruck aide played by “Arrested Development” star Tony Hale. As the “body man” to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s second in command, he’s responsible for meeting her needs even when she can’t identify them. During one moment of crisis, she calls him into her office, and yells, “Get me… something!” In a world where everyone’s out for themselves, he’s the closest thing to an altruist.
Hale has amassed a long string of credits over the years, including recurring roles on “Chuck” and “Ctrl” and one that found him wooing a hairless Malin Akerman in 2010’s “happythankyoumoreplease.” But his signature role is as the hapless — and, eventually, handless — Buster Bluth on “Arrested Development,” which he’ll reprise for a much-anticipated 10-episode run on Netflix next year.
“Veep” was created by Armando Iannucci, whose British show “The Thick of It” was developed for an American remake by Mitchell Hurwitz of “Arrested Development.” Was that a coincidence?
I hadn’t made the connection when I was going in for meetings, but it came up in conversation with both Mitch and Armando. What I discovered is that they’re massive fans of one other. I remember hearing about [“The Thick of It” pilot] because John Michael Higgins was in it, but that was a long time ago and I’d kind of forgotten it.
Your character, Gary, is a sort of all-purpose aid to the Vice President. How did the research you did in D.C. inform the role?
They took us on this behind-the-scenes of the White House tour and the Eisenhower Building, and I met guys who had worked as body men. I realized that these guys were 24/7 with their people, and did it for two or three years in their twenties. It’s exhausting. Now they look back and it was a great time, but while you’re doing it, your life is their life.
What I love about Gary is that he should have left this position a long time ago, back in his twenties. He’s been with her a long time. But he’s still there because he worships this woman, and his life has literally become her life. His identity is so enmeshed in hers that if he were to lose his job, he would completely have a mental break, because other than that all he’s got is a lot of cats at home.
In Sunday’s episode, he brags about being the person closest to the Vice President, “her moon.”
When it comes to life in general, I think he’s probably not the most socially functional person, but when it comes to her, you do not mess with him. He will come at you. And he will do whatever it takes to protect her, and her name. If anybody comes out saying that I’m anything other than her moon, or her everything, that’s a massive insult.
What’s interesting is that Gary’s not interested in power. It’s not about having the Vice President’s ear. It’s about having her lip balm.
I’ve got her lady unmentionables, if she needs them. I’ve got an extra pair of shoes. I’ve got vice presidential M&Ms. I might even have a letter of resignation. I’ve got everything she needs in that bag. He doesn’t know a lot about policy, the ins and outs of passing a bill. That kind of stuff is like Chinese to him.
What he does know is these random factoids about people he whispers in her ear. He knows if someone she’s talking to has a brother in Rage Against the Machine. He knows that somebody has just had triplets. I love that he’s like a walking Wikipedia. You tell him something and he will never forget it — which is very unlike Tony Hale, because I will forget what you told me an hour ago.
The third episode closes with a very funny sequence of Selina working the receiving line at a party celebrating her 20 years in Washington. You keep slipping her these increasingly outlandish details of the people whose hands she’s about to shake, like “Pro-gambling, loves to kill,” and she has a fraction of a second to come up with an appropriate greeting. It seems like an ideal situation for improvisation. How much of it was improved?
It’s very rare to have rehearsal time on a television show: You get scripts, you show up, and you do it. We probably had five to six weeks of rehearsal for this show. We were given a script, and the words just started to move. Everything was mobile. The best thing about the environment is that there are no egos clinging to the words that have been written. They know that organically it can go somewhere completely different, and we were given the freedom to do that.
When were doing that [sequence], I remember just sitting down with Julia and throwing out ideas. There was one where I whisper in her ear, “He’s a triathlete,” and I remember seeing the person they chose, who was probably in his late seventies. And she whispers back to me, “No, he’s not.” The thought of Gary getting something wrong is like, “Kill me now.”
How did the rehearsal process work. Did you rehearse the whole season in advance, or rehearse, shoot, rehearse, shoot?
I think there were five scripts written beforehand, and we had done the pilot. We rehearsed in London for two weeks, because that’s where Armando lives, and then we rehearsed in L.A. a bit, and then we rehearsed in Baltimore before we shot. It was just taking each script and putting it on its feet, letting go of the words, seeing where it happens.
To be honest, I love improv and I love to play, but having a theatre background, you’re used to having that script in your hand. You want to respect the writer. So it took some time to put that down, and trust that we were allowed to do that. The great thing about Armando, he’d always say, “Don’t try to find the funny bit. Let’s just see where the chaos of the situation plays out, and that’s where the humor lies.”
People often ask how much improvisation there was on “Arrested Development,” and you invariably answer, “None.”
Exactly. There was a group of writers with Mitch, and they had spent a lot of time on the scripts — not that these guys didn’t. It was just a different way of working. On “Arrested,” the situations were so extreme and Mitch had spent so much time on callbacks, you trusted that this really had been specifically crafted to his vision. We would try to improv a bit, but it didn’t fit into the matrix.
Whereas with Armando, because of the way “Veep” was shot and the fact that it takes place in D.C., which is obviously a real environment, we really had to find the truth in those situations, and the organic relationships.
Fans have never given up hope for more “Arrested Development,” and Netflix recently their plans to release 10 new episodes simultaneously next year. How far along are you in that process?
I don’t really want to to know. A big part of that show, which I treasure, is the element of surprise. I love coming to a reading and being like, “Holy crap, my hand is coming off!” So I actually don’t want to know anything until we start getting together and doing readings. All I know is that it’s happening in the summer, and we’re all opening ourselves up for it. I haven’t gotten any details — that’s the fun mystery of it.
There’s not a huge overlap between Gary and Buster, but there’s a common quality they share.
There’s definitely an anxious throughline. I think Buster could probably use a Gary in his life. What’s funny about Buster is that if he were placed in the situations that Gary was placed in, he would have about a thousand mental breaks. I love that Gary, even though he’s driven by a tremendous amount of anxiety, and he’s on edge a little bit, he steps up. He steps up to what she needs, and the situation, and he protects her. I think where Gary protects, Buster needed protection.
The underlying joke of the show is that she doesn’t really need protection, since no one would bother harming her. The best Gary can do is throw himself between her and a sick person’s sneeze.
But in my world, she needs about a thousand motorcades around her. She is so precious to me. If I had my way, I would hire the entire Secret Service to be around her 24/7.
He assumes everyone else reveres her as he does.
Oh, sure. Why would they not? She’s pretty much a god. The thought of anybody criticizing her, I’m not only blown away but devastated. That doesn’t even enter my world.
What effect did the behind-the-scenes research you did for “Veep” have on your feelings about the political system as a whole?
It’s really not any different from what I’ve taken away from being in the entertainment business. It’s meeting people who have been put on such a high pedestal, and then you meet them, and granted, they’re nice people, but they should not be that high up. You lose their humanity, you lose the fact that everybody is on the same page, trying to keep their job, living life, having ups and downs.
What’s fascinating about D.C., the exteriors are these elaborate structures, this gorgeous architecture and beautiful stonework, and then you go inside and it’s crap-looking — apart from the White House, which is beautiful. The Eisenhower Building — the furniture is mismatched, everything is just bad decor and bad quality. Everybody’s looking down at their Blackberry. It’s a really frantic, mismatched environment. But on the exterior, it’s this whitewashed, gorgeous building. It’s a fascinating contrast.
I’m always fascinated that people think that these people have not made mistakes. They’re a container for so much pressure, so much criticism — you cannot put that on somebody. People are going to make mistakes. Even in the press, “They have everything! They’re huge celebrities! Why would they do this?” Because they realize, “That’s a lot of pressure. I can’t match that.”
At the moment, members of the Secret Service, who are the most important bodyguards in the world, are in trouble because one of them short-changed a Columbian prostitute.
And let’s acknowledge, those are not good choices. But as a public, why are we so surprised? I’m not saying it’s our fault that it was done. But it’s our fault for the expectations we place on them. The higher up they are, the farther they’re going to fall.