Tim Simons, who plays White House Aid Jonah on HBO’s Emmy-winning comedy “Veep,” may be playing a pitiable buffoon at the bottom of the political food chain, but the comedic actor has a lot to say about the goings-on in the world of D.C. and the inspiration of the show’s comedic brilliance in both its storylines and Simons’ own character. Of the observations he’s noted throughout the series are the constant parallels between life and art and just what it takes to succeed in American politics.
“Veep,” which centers on the political career of America’s first female Vice President and the inept White House staff that constantly bungles her chances of success, returns to HBO this Sunday, April 6. In conjunction with the show’s return, Simons has given us the inside scoop on what makes the series such a hit and what viewers have to look forward to in its highly-anticipated third season.
What do you think makes the show stand out as much as it does?
Number one, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is pretty phenomenal at what she does, and I think that’s probably the first thing. It’s like if you have her in a show, it’s gonna stand out no matter what. I think there’s something to be said for — and I don’t want this to sound cocky or anything — but I think one thing the show does really well is that it trusts the intelligence of the audience. It doesn’t dumb things down and it doesn’t presume that you can’t keep up with it. And I think that serves it well. And I mean, the writing is fantastic, it’s very well-directed, but I think that’s a very big part of it. It just kind of, from the pilot on, it just kind of hit the ground running. And it’s like “Cool, you’re here now. Keep up! We’re not going to ease it in very much, we’re just going to hit the ground running.” I think maybe that’s part of it.
How much is the show based in reality and how much of it is purely made up for comedic purposes?
Everything is vetted. We have political consultants that go through the script to make sure that everything happens as it would in real life. Everything is vetted to make sure it’s realistic, and a lot of times what ends up happening is stuff that the writers make up for the show as some sort of outlandish, ridiculous thing for a congressperson to say or some ridiculous thing that a senator gets in trouble for. Ultimately, we’ve had it happen a few times where a couple of months after shooting, a story will hit that’s very much like one of our storylines that hasn’t aired yet. For example, when we shot the pilot, the whole thing with the pilot was this tweet about utensils and while we were shooting the pilot a congressperson got in trouble for a tweet that was written by a staffer that expressed an opinion that they then had to come out and say “Hey that wasn’t me, that’s not what I believe.” So it ends up being life imitating art in some ways.
In terms of the political aspects of the show, do you feel the actual writing is focused more towards the political or more towards the comedy?
I think it’s always going to end up being written toward the comedy. I think ultimately we’d want to be realistic to the political world and to the political process, but they do have an eye toward what can make any scene funnier. I think ultimately it’s written with comedy in mind but as long as it stays true to the reality of DC. So they won’t do anything just to get laugh.
Do you think the show will ever try to push a political agenda at any point?
No, I don’t. I think they’ve done a pretty good job of, just the beginning, they always talked about wanting to make sure it stays politically ambiguous, and I think they’ve done a good job doing that. But I can’t imagine it would ever push a political agenda because ultimately the agenda of the show sometimes is that all politicians are assholes. So if any agenda’s going to get pushed, it’s going to be that one.
Do you feel the show ever veers towards controversy when it pokes fun at the White House? And if so, how do you see that controversy affecting the series?
I don’t know that we’ve done anything really controversial. Because even though we’ve had stories that have included topics that have been controversial, they’ve been handled in such a way that — and this is to Armando and the writers’ credit — that it ends up being secondary.
How will the concept of a female president affect the show?
Do you mean as far as her being on the campaign trail?
Yeah. In terms of portraying women on TV, they’re kind of hinting at the idea of Selina becoming president. How will that play out?
As far as her being a woman, I feel like it’s addressed a little bit in the campaign, but not too much. I feel like in the first couple of episodes this year, she, at one point, rejects the idea of saying “as a woman” before speaking about a particular issue. I don’t know, I guess it’s just not as much an issue as it was fifteen years ago. So I don’t know that it plays in very much to the fact that it’s a woman’s campaign. It doesn’t seem to come up. There are much more pressing issues — like a staff that can’t do much right.
Well, more specifically, how will the concept of Selina becoming president affect Jonah’s role on the show?
Well, I think the idea of Selina running for president is something, as you said, you see the seed kind of planted in the last episode where we find out that she’s going to run and the president isn’t. One thing that Jonah is really good at is knowing where the prevailing winds are headed and whoever has power. He’s really good at sidling next to them and being a total brown-noser. And I think that now that the president’s not going to run anymore and that Selina’s going to go out on the campaign trail, he’s going to try to ingratiate himself as much as he can.
What can we expect for Jonah this coming season both in and out of the White House?
I think we’re going to see a lot more of his circumstances outside of work, and his circumstances are pretty dreadful. You can look forward to that. You’ll see a little bit more of his home life. I think work-wise, you’ll see more power. More actual power than he’s had in the past.
Jonah tends to get kicked around a lot by the rest of the office; do you see him possibly climbing the political ladder?
I think that a guy like Jonah will always end up scaling upwards. I definitely see Jonah just kissing ass into powerful positions. He might not be a talented guy, but he’ll find a way to get a job if he likes. So ultimately, and it’s sad, but ultimately Jonah might be the perfect guy for politics. Like, he might be the one guy who has a future out of everybody on the staff over there.
So you see him as being resilient?
Yeah, he’s definitely resilient. He has no idea of his shortcomings. He generally thinks he’s pretty great in every way. He doesn’t see himself as having any flaws at all.
How do you see your character fitting in with the rest of the ensemble?
Well, I guess the way that I fit in is that they all hate one another, but one of the things that they all agree on is that they all hate me. So I kind of see myself as sort of a unifier in that way. They can all be mad at one another, but when I enter the room, they can all get behind hating me.
How have you seen the relationships between the characters develop so far and how can we expect to see them develop this season?
I think you ended up seeing a lot more of Dan and Jonah’s relationship, which has always been pretty contentious and you end up seeing a lot more of that, a lot more of Dan and Jonah having to work together. And that’s a really fun thing. And that’s one of the things that I’m looking forward to in the coming year, that I’ll be with Reid’s character Dan.
In terms of your character, how much is your role as White House Aid based in reality and how much of it is your own brand of goofiness?
I guess it’s equal parts both. It’s my take on the reality of the position or of the attitude. It’s my take on that person, whereas I’ve never met a person that Jonah is based on and I’ve never really met somebody who actually is a Jonah. I just have to go off the story then and tales of people like him. So a lot of it is based in reality, but then again, the actual action is my take on it.
What’s been the biggest obstacle for you in playing Jonah?
Getting past the thing in your brain that says there’s no way that I should be saying this to another human being. Like, he says some really awful things. Yeah, that’s kind of hard. And it’s also, like, when you have a lot of insults thrown at you, sometimes it’s hard to not internalize them, sometimes it’s hard not to react to them. And I think a lot of times, it ends up having to be, especially with Jonah, that…it’s almost as if he doesn’t care that much, you just sort of have to have a pretty thick skin and not react. You know, so that’s been a thing where, like, we’re in scenes and I’ll try to figure out what the reaction is to the insults I’m hearing, and lot of times it just ends up being ‘Nope, there isn’t one, because he’s perfect.’
Are you and the other actors ever encouraged to follow along with politics and current events to get a better understanding of the show?
I don’t know that we’re encouraged, but we all do. A lot of times in rehearsal, people just show up with stories sometimes, like “Hey, did you guys see this?” It’s like a ridiculous story that happened that could be a storyline on our show. I think that we all make conscious efforts to make sure that we keep up with it just so that we are reminded of the reality.
Do you feel like the show has the potential to influence people in terms of how they view or deal with politics?
If it does, [laughs] it won’t influence people to treat politics with any sort of reverence or respect.
Fair enough. And one last question, what’s your favorite part about Jonah?
My favorite part about Jonah is that he gets to say and do whatever he feels like. And that’s a really fun thing to play. Someone that has absolutely no shame.