Emmys: 'Veep's' Timothy Simons on Why D.C. Is "Hollywood for Ugly People"

Veep S04E06 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of HBO

Veep S04E06 Still - H 2015

Julia Louis-Dreyfus' favorite onscreen punching bag talks to THR about the similarities between the two cities and reveals how an unknown guy from Maine landed one of comedy's most coveted gigs.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For better or worse, Jonah Ryan, the White House lackey whom Tim Simons has played for four seasons on Veep, has become iconic.

It could be that the Maine native's height (6 foot 4) has inspired some of TV's most inspired insults ("The 60-Foot Virgin," "The Pointless Giant," "Wadzilla," to name a few). But it's more likely that Simons, 36, so perfectly captures a Beltway archetype that the real-life inspirations on whom Jonah is based have no idea they are being lampooned.

Here, the supporting-actor contender reflects on his breakthrough role and "the distinct crossover behaviors" that align D.C. so perfectly with Hollywood.

How does a guy from semirural Maine get into acting?

(Laughs.) I don't have actors in my family, but everyone is pretty artistic. My dad is a photographer, my sister's a poet, my brother is a bluegrass player. I think I'm the only one who has a steady paycheck. I didn't start acting until college, actually.

Were you drawn to comedy right away?

I explored plays in general, though I was frequently the comic relief, the tragically funny person. After school, I was planning to jump from regional theater to regional theater. I'd never really traveled. I'd only been out of the country one time to get drunk in Canada. But then I got a job in Kentucky at a children's theater, which I loved. I interned there for nine months, but after being in Kentucky for nine months, there was a part of me that was like, "I don't need to be in Kentucky." So I moved to Chicago with the idea that I would go to either coast eventually.

What was your big break in Hollywood?

The show Veep on HBO. (Laughs.) No, my first job in L.A. was actually playing an employee in a Best Buy commercial, but I played a bad employee at another store. I also worked at a commercial casting company running cameras and session directing. I did a lot of commercials, too, and [casting director] Allison Jones once called me in for the remake of the horror movie Fright Night. I did so poorly that I honestly thought I was gonna have to move out of Los Angeles. I didn't get that job, obviously, but Allison brought me in to read for Veep. HBO doesn't give a shit if you have credits. And [creator] Armando Iannucci doesn't care. All he cares about is if you make him laugh. That's his form of a meritocracy.

Wasn't Jonah initially conceived as a short guy with a beard?

Yes, but I guess they saw the possibilities in all the insults they could write for others to say to me because of my height. Also, in general, he's just a guy who, all he f—in' cares about is that he works at the White House. There's a lot to work with there either way.

How nervous were you the first day of shooting, having never done a series?

I had a lot of trouble that day. Luckily [co-star] Tony Hale was very open about talking me through it and checking in. I mean, there I was with Julia [Louis-Dreyfus], who's just absolutely legendary. I did the first take and was like, "I'm not gonna make it to lunchtime. I'm getting fired." What a great feeling when I wasn't! I felt really comfortable with the cast. Immediately, in rehearsals, everyone was trusted to put their two cents in. I do remember thinking the set was gigantic. It was 200 people moving really fast until they all stop and look at you to do something funny. So I just tried to pretend it was just six people in a room having conversations. After that, I just got super-cocky. (Laughs.)

How much cultural crossover do you see between Hollywood and D.C.?

There is that great thing of D.C. being Hollywood for ugly people. There's very distinct crossover behaviors. There are also a lot of blowhards and talentless people in power there, too. And all the young people there are Dans [Reid Scott's character]. We'll still go out and talk to politicians just to try to pick up certain phrases, and we realize every politician thinks the show is about everybody else but them. You will never meet a Jonah type because they have no idea they are a Jonah type.

Is it a good or bad thing for America that the most powerful politicians in the country think Veep offers an accurate reflection of our government?

It actually makes me sad that they all say how realistic it is. Even the president has talked about it. I don't know if he's caught up, though. He's pretty busy.