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'Veep' Creator Armando Iannucci on Satirizing D.C.: 'They Are Terrible Gossips'

Armando Iannucci Headshot - P 2012
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The Oscar-nominated screenwriter talks to THR about his new HBO comedy, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a powerless vice president.

Hail to Veep -- the new HBO political comedy premiering this Sunday. Taking its place among a buzz-worthy 2012 slate that includes Lena Dunham’s Girls and upcoming Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom, Veep comes from the mind of Scottish-born TV wunderkind Armando Iannucci, whose 2010 political satire In the Loop earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

In the show, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, a former senator who finds herself prostrate to the system and fumbling with protocol shortly after being installed as second-in-command. 

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“The first two or three months are always where the huge, embarrassing mistakes happen, because they haven’t quite worked out the rules of engagement,” Iannucci tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Part of the journey that this first season makes is Selina being very much at the mercy of events and her staff.” If that sounds a lot like another vice-presidential aspirant recently skewered on HBO -- Sarah Palin in Game Change -- Iannucci assures that his candidate is more than familiar with the inside of a newspaper: “By the end of the season, you’ll see a much more confident Selina.”

Iannucci encourages improvisation among his actors in order to achieve the illusion that the action and dialogue are unfolding spontaneously -- think of it as “mockumentary vérité.” His inspiration is another HBO series: The Larry Sanders Show.

“That feels real,” Iannucci says of the game-changing Garry Shandling comedy. “It feels like what might genuinely happen on a nightly talk show, and yet at the same time it is a comedy.” Adds Veep co-creator Simon Blackwell, referring to the fast-paced, blistering dialogue that has become the duo’s hallmark: “It’s the language of people under pressure. The language of people thinking a million things at once.”

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Typical of Iannucci's worlds, the devil is in Veep's details. The show obsesses over the less-glamorous aspects of the political process, and peppers its plots with real-sounding buzzwords -- everything from the “widow walk” (walking head-down, to avoid interactions) to the “brush past” (a D.C. corridor version of speed-dating). Iannucci, a self-described political junkie, says gathering research in the Beltway was a total breeze: “They were happy to open up to me. You know, they are terrible gossips in Washington. They love telling what goes on there.”

When the subject turns to his star, Iannucci can’t help but gush. Not only does Louis-Dreyfus -- who, on nine seasons on Seinfeld, proved she has a remarkable knack for nailing not-particularly-sympathetic characters -- have an improv background with Chicago’s Second City, she was also familiar with the ways of D.C. society, where she spent part of her youth. And then there is the kind of experience you can only gain living the majority of your life in the public eye.

“Obviously, we needed a fantastic comic actress,” Iannucci explains. “But secondly, to play the VP you need to know what it’s like when every time you walk outside or step into a room, people are staring at you. You need to be able to handle that. Julia has a great insight into that, it being part of her every day. ... I think she was able to channel that experience into the role.“

Asked how he feels about comparisons to that other lauded political dramatist of our time – he has been called “Aaron Sorkin without the heart” – Iannucci just laughs, adding, ‘I’m a huge fan of The West Wing, and The Social Network is one of my favorite films from the last few years. So I am more than happy to be compared to the great Aaron Sorkin.”