'Veep' Star on the First Daughter's Coming Out and the President's Surprising Reaction

Sarah Sutherland talks to THR about the Catherine moment viewers didn't see coming and the blossoming effect her discovery will have on the usually "pain-riddled" character.
HBO/Lacey Terrell
Sarah Sutherland (left) and Clea DuVall on 'Veep'

"We figured you'd guessed already — I know it's so obvious," said Catherine Meyer while coming out to her mother on Veep.

"Didn't guess, didn't guess ... ah-amazing," stumbled Gary Walsh as Catherine's mother, President Selina Meyer, found herself, for once, at a total loss for words.

That interaction perfectly sums up the first daughter, according to Sarah Sutherland, the actress who has played Catherine for five seasons on the Emmy-winning HBO series. Perpetually neglected, slighted and demeaned by her mother, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it makes perfect sense that as the biggest moment in Catherine's young adult life is happening under their noses, not one White House staffer — including her own mother — paid any notice.

Not until Catherine displayed a rarely seen emotion: Happiness. 

"There’s this epiphany when she meets this particular person," Sutherland tells The Hollywood Reporter about Catherine's new girlfriend and Meyer's Secret Service detail Marjorie, played by Clea DuVall. "It’s going to be a bit of a blossoming and opening outward of Catherine."

Now that the big secret is out, Sutherland talked to THR about Catherine's long road to self-discovery, Selina's reaction to the news and the impact it will all have on TV's most dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship: "On the other side of Catherine’s ear, now she's getting positive feedback and someone saying: 'Those things aren’t true about you and I think you’re beautiful.'"

What was your reaction when you first found out about Catherine's storyline this season?

I’m in a unique position, having started playing Catherine at 18, because these are really formative years in her life. [At 23], she’s gone through that awkward year out of college where she doesn’t have a sense of purpose as much. I was really excited about the documentary, because I loved the idea that she’s reincorporating her passion for film and has a reason to be in those [White House] rooms — of course, the thing that she’s finally found meaning in, her mom is so dismissive about, but for Catherine, it’s affected the way she even dresses. She took on a slightly more adult wardrobe because she imagines stepping into this adult role — I think it remains to be seen whether she does or doesn’t finish it. But the thing I was most excited to play was the relationship [with Marjorie].

Her announcement that she's fallen in love with Marjorie took Selina, Gary (Tony Hale) and many fans by surprise.

Dave [Mandel, Veep showrunner] knew the trajectory from the beginning, but we talked about how it would seemingly come out of nowhere and be a surprise to the audience. As has been true of Catherine in other seasons, you see a very limited portion of her life. So it was very exciting to me to imagine how falling in love would filter through Catherine. I think that no matter what, she has so much wounding from an entire childhood of being relatively neglected and defeated and humiliated, and so as a keeper of that character, it’s really nice to see these human moments sneak through, where you see her smile or even flirt. In the way that she does and can.

She looked the happiest she's ever been in that moment. She's long been put down, invisible, sullen — is it nice to play "happy"?

It’s great because, just as Sarah stepping outside of it, it makes me really happy to think that Catherine has some joy in her life. Her development was so arrested by growing up in the way that she did, and having the parents she did and probably never actually experiencing true love. She had all these failed relationships and I don’t think that she necessarily always understood why they didn’t work. I like that there’s this epiphany when she meets this particular person and, what happens when you fall in love or have some kind of an awakening, I think it’s going to be a bit of a blossoming and opening outward of Catherine. It also helps put her mom’s behavior in perspective, because she has such a tumultuous, broken relationship with her mother and I think that being with Marjorie is a corrective emotional experience, for all intents and purposes.

A first daughter coming out on TV: How exciting is it to get that storyline out into the world and play it out in the world of Veep

It’s really beautiful and rich and meaningful that Catherine is so adamant about it not being politicized because it’s hers. In any case, whether she was a man or a woman, she’s just a young girl who’s fallen in love. It’s given a lot of meaning to her life and I think that she, probably from her upbringing, has learned to be really self-protective and guarded, but of course it’s another context in which Selina will breach that boundary in small ways. But I think she’s used to those kind of breaches of boundaries at this point.

Yet Selina’s reaction was one of open-mindedness, even telling Catherine she was happy for her. Was that the reaction Catherine expected?

What I love about it, and something that Dave made clear about from the start, is that Selina didn’t take some issue that Catherine's in love with a woman. I was relieved and glad that was the case because I think it would have really changed the connotations of it. Because the idea that that would be some kind of stigma is really outdated and would be a misstep and not reflective of what life is like now.

Do we know Selina's stance on same-sex marriage?

It’s never come up. I imagine if she had taken a stance against it, it would have been a plot point or an immediate conversation on the heels of Catherine coming out.

Her response is just very Selina — to throw in a comment about her dead mother, MeeMaw. ["I wish Mother was alive, because this definitely would have killed her," she says.]

It's brilliant because it’s a level of narcissism that is so deeply ingrained and you just see her internalize that moment without any regard or thought to what this has meant for Catherine for however many years. There’s no question of: "How long have you maybe felt this way?" Catherine’s been trying to tell her something so desperately throughout the entire episode and somehow, none of that even occurs to Selina.

Let's ask you those questions now. How do you see Catherine arriving at this point in her life?

I think that the impetus for it to be vocalized was definitely losing MeeMaw and this connection to mortality and that life is short and not caring, at least in that moment, about how her mom was going to receive it and just needing it to be heard. My backstory and impression is that Catherine always had this sort of asexuality. You can see it in other seasons, she almost dresses like a little girl, and in some ways, however mature or poised she is, she’s like an arrested adolescent. You don’t get a sense of any kind of sexuality or flirtatiousness, and so my sense is that she just always sort of thought that’s how she was and then she met this person and felt something.

How do you describe their connection?

It's nice for us to imagine the evolution of that relationship without having to see it, because it’s very much something that happens offscreen. I think there’s a certain lightheartedness in Marjorie and Catherine in the way that feelings and emotions and attractions funnel through them is very understated and matter of fact, and I think they just sort of recognized a like spirit in each other. So I think it’s something that came to be and that Catherine started to assess because of meeting her specifically and suddenly having these feelings that she hadn’t felt before.

What’s it like working with Clea DuVall?

I love working with Clea. We had a lot of fun working off of each other and improvising and kind of figuring out how these two people interact, because, it’s understood that they are in love, but it’s a very interesting thing to navigate portraying that, given their respective ... emotive limitations. (Laughs.) Working with Clea was amazing, she’s extraordinary.

Is it weird that Catherine fell for her mom’s body double, someone who was introduced as looking like Selina?

I think that’s something that would go completely unnoticed by Catherine. There’s no ignoring that as an  audience member, but I don’t think there’s any sort of conscious attraction to the idea of her being a physical match to her mother. But obviously, it’s definitely not a coincidence and I think Dave’s intention was to play on the psychological implications of that and that maybe Catherine’s relationship with her mother is being played out in this sort of alternate way. 

Will we see their relationship continue to play out?

You will. To what end and what capacity I probably can’t say! But I will say that it’s definitely a more fully formed relationship that has staying power than Catherine’s past relationships, which were more fleeting and often died on the vine. Marjorie really loves Catherine and I think that she’s giving her things that Catherine didn’t get otherwise.

Catherine has evolved so much over the years — what’s it like to see her finally coming into her own? 

You have to understand, in the first season what I read for was a guest star role for one episode. Obviously, she’s the first daughter so there’s always the potential for her to come back, but it was not a recurring character. Initially, on the page, Catherine was really different. Even in my audition she was much more combative and almost mean to her mother, she met fire with fire. And I think through the improv process what Armando [Iannucci, the creator of Veep] realized is that, Selina will always win — no matter what. Because she has this logic that always allows her to, regardless of whether she’s right or not. Over the course of the show, the humiliation of Catherine gets more brutal, I would argue, but then you also see more moments of her stepping into her own or standing up to her mother. There’s a wickedness and joy I think that people take in seeing an earnest character get kicked around a little bit. (Laughs).

Selina is certainly wicked to Catherine. What's your off-screen relationship like with Julia Louis-Dreyfus? 

We’re really close. We just immediately had this warm rapport and familiarity. The thing that’s so amazing about Julia is that she’s so generous, kind, funny and loving, but she is also so passionate and committed to the process that it’s really easy to seamlessly flip back and forth between us laughing about something in the trailer or having a nice meal with the whole cast and drinking wine, and then showing up on Monday and flipping right back into what’s a very antithetical relationship. She's so good at playing this part that it’s really easy to compartmentalize our relationship and how much affection and respect there is there, because there aren’t traces of the things I love about Julia in Selina. They’re wildly different!

When she flings insults at you like, “Catherine, why is that your hair?" — how do you not break?

I break quite a bit. Honestly, the hardest thing about my character is that she doesn’t find anything funny and that she doesn’t find the people around her, their behavior, to be amusing. So my greatest challenge is not laughing in the face of Tony Hale having these amazing, effusive, generous, wild reactions to things. In circumstances where Selina says unkind things about Catherine, the protective part of myself as an actor that empathizes with the character I’m playing doesn’t find that funny. So it’s actually the larger group scenes where there’s physical comedy that will sooner make me laugh. But when I’m in it and having to play it and I hear people laughing, it affects me the same way as Catherine where it’s like, "Why is that funny?"

Is Selina the worst mother in the world?

(Laughs) I would argue that in many ways, she is. I think what’s nice about this season is we see in the way that she talks about MeeMaw that a lot of it is passed down and that she was treated badly and she doesn’t know any better. In that sense, it makes her a more sympathetic character and you better understand where she’s coming from. What breaks my heart about Catherine is that, in spite of the fact that the most love she’s received from her mother has been in the form of sort of gnarled crumbs, she still has this undying, very small, dim hopefulness that maybe, this time will be different. 

And will the wreckage from Catherine getting MeeMaw’s estate continue to cause drama between them?

That creates a delightfully interesting tension. But I think there’s a certain degree with how oblivious Catherine is to how it triggers her mother. There are moments where I think Catherine is oblivious and then I think there are moments where, in her very subtle quiet and understated way, she is very intentionally trying to provoke her mom.

Still, there is love there.

Absolutely. Without that there wouldn’t be tension and Catherine wouldn’t be in any kind of pain. And she is clearly a very pain-riddled person: She doesn’t have a lot of joy chemicals in her brain, she’s very depressive and lethargic and I think that comes from years of disappointment. If she didn’t love Selina so much and want her approval so desperately, her opinion wouldn’t matter and she likely would be volunteering in a different country right now and getting as far away from Selina as she humanly can. 

When fans approach you, what do they say? 

What’s interesting about Catherine is that she really divides people. Some people see her as very earnest and they root for her and they empathize with her and some people attach more to the aspect that she’s perceived as unlikable or find her unlikable or difficult or prickly, and it’s really cool because she’s both, in equal measure. The way that people relate to her relationship with her mom and how she’s treated, I think, is probably pretty linked to their own experience.

The show is airing during such a contentious election season. Tony Hale just spoke to THR about how if the writers wrote some of the things Donald Trump has said, it would have felt too unrealistic.

That was a conversation we all had on set a lot, is that it’s very deeply unsettling that there are things actually happening that would have felt too absurd or over-the-top to be bought as realistic. I think that however absurd some of our characters are, I would argue that there isn’t one that quite rivals Donald Trump.

Do you ever draw from real-life political children?

No, I don’t. I wanted to craft the character based on what was on the page and what was happening in rehearsals. And even if I did want to take that angle, their public persona is very carefully crafted and access to what the day in, day out, closed doors of what their life is would probably be really hard to get  to. So it’s all imagined.

Is your dad, Kiefer Sutherland, a fan of Veep and what does he think of Catherine?

He is a fan and I think he’s immensely proud, but work isn’t truly something that we talk about very directly so it’s understood and clear and I think a lot of the time that we’re together, we talk about other things like our mutual love of music and classic rock or films we saw or books we’ve read or people we’ve met that we think the other would find funny!

Veep airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. Follow THR's weekly coverage here.

Photo: HBO/Lacey Terrell

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