Department of Offense: Timothy Simons on ‘Veep,’ Playing a Comedy Villain, and the Jonah of the NFL

With its tales of political power grabs, shifting alliances, scheming characters, and chaotic misunderstandings, HBO’s Veep — now in its fourth season — could pass for an ancient tragicomedy. Which would make Jonah Ryan, the White House liaison to the vice-president’s office, the Shakespearean fool.

Played by Timothy Simons (in his television debut), Jonah is loudmouthed, self-centered, and obnoxious — and, like a cockroach, nearly impossible to terminate. With his sneering mug and towering height, he inspires epithets that range from the biological (“Jonad,” “Jolly Green Jizz Face”) to the architectural (“a skyscraper of shit,” “an unstable piece of human scaffolding”). And for viewers, he is a despicable delight.

I recently sat down with Simons — himself an erstwhile court jester — in Los Angeles to talk about his theater roots, his feelings for Jay Cutler, and his personal distaste for some of “Jobi-Wan Kenobi”’s most unsavory lines.1

You often say that you don’t have the problem of people thinking you’re Jonah. Instead, you have the problem of people wanting to vent about the Jonahs in their lives.

It’s funny that Patton Oswalt and I were just in some scenes together, because I remember him on Kevin & Bean. He said, “I can’t remember what the actor’s name is, but he must be the world’s nicest man. Because he plays such a douche bag that if he was anything like his character, he would have been beaten to death with a hammer by now.”

So I get people commiserating because, I don’t think it matters what world you work in — there’s always gonna be somebody that is like that. There’s always gonna be the quote-unquote “Jonah in their office.”

Have you had a Jonah in your life?

Oh, yeah. Oh my god, yeah. There was a guy I worked with in a bar in Chicago. I don’t want to bag on him too hard. When you first meet him, you’re like, Oh, this kid might be cool. Then the more you talk to him, you realize this guy is making all this stuff up. These hookups he’s had, these people he knows, these films he was gonna make — all of it was garbage.

Other workplaces I’ve been to, I’ve seen some of the different shades of Jonah. The entitled go-getter. There’s always going to be the sexual harasser who doesn’t know that he doesn’t come off the right way. He sees other guys able to make jokes and whatever, and he doesn’t realize that he goes to a really awful place, like so far beyond the bounds.

You said in an interview with Uproxx that there’s a certain kind of Jonah-esque comedian. I can only imagine.

Just smug. Smug with no fucking reason. Smug with no, like, intellectual heft or knowledge to back it up. Smug with no experience or life skill.

What brought you to Chicago after college?

I had an impatience about it, I didn’t want to go to New York and wait around. I just wanted to start working. I didn’t care how big [it was], or how much I got paid. So that’s why I went — to be a part of the straight-play Storefront Theater scene. I did some shows I was really proud of, and I worked with a company I really loved. But I grew up in Maine working at a video store and found myself being pulled more and more to on-camera stuff. Ultimately, I just made the decision to move to L.A. sight unseen. It took me a while to save up some money to do it.

When you’re from Maine, is it more offensive to be mistaken for a New Hampshirite or a Vermonter?

Well, let’s not offend either one — let’s offend both of them. You don’t want someone to think you’re from New Hampshire, because who cares about New Hampshire? You’re basically just a pass-through.

With a lotta Massholes.

But I also don’t know that I would want to be mistaken for someone from Vermont. I’m not a jobless maple-syrup maker who owns a guitar but isn’t very good at playing it. I’ve met so many aggressive Vermont hippies that are, like, kinda violent and want to get in fights, but have dreadlocks?! You can either be an aggressive chillbro or you can be forgettable, and I’m not sure either is preferable. [Leans in close to recorder and speaks loudly.] But I’m sure there are great people from both states!

It’s interesting because you didn’t really get involved in theater until your second year in college. And your time in Chicago — most people would assume, “Oh, Second City improv.” But you were in a totally different realm.

I’ve met so many people who live in L.A. who were in Chicago at the same time, but we never met. I just didn’t know anybody in that world. I feel like there’s always been a part of myself that’s been, like, a contrarian fucker. The agent that I had [then] was like, “You have to take some classes at Second City.” I was like, “Fuck you, you don’t know!” Like, I’m not just gonna go do it just to cynically have it on my résumé. Ultimately, I did it just to get him off my case. So then, in a contrarian-fucker way, I got out to L.A. and didn’t really have an interest in pursuing the theater out here, but started doing improv.

Which is probably a good thing, considering you’re now on a show that has elements of improv.

Matt Walsh’s school [the Upright Citizens Brigade] has helped me get every single job that I have gotten — whether directly, like I’m taking skills one-to-one from this class and applying [them] to a job, or just sometimes having the confidence to know when it’s appropriate to make a choice. So in that way, I’m glad that I got over whatever contrarian thing I had about it. I would never have been able to hold my own with those other people in the room at all.

But even then, when it came to the show, I remember I was just definitely like, “I’m gonna get fired.” My first day, I just knew I was gonna get fired.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus talked a lot at the recent Veep panel at the Paley Center about the filming process, how an hour-plus of material gets edited down into a 30-minute show. If you take a scene from the premiere — say, your first scene where you walk into the vice-president’s office — how is something like that shot? Do you do many takes, do you just do one long take, or is something like that more open and shut?

That one was maybe one of the scenes that was a little more straightforward because of the plot points. Doyle needs me to be the eyes and ears of the West Wing, and that information needs to get out. I’ve been asked over there, and Teddy hasn’t been included in that, so it has to be set up as that sort of power-grab kind of thing. But Jonah has those awful — those like, truly awful — entrance lines …

I was gonna ask. Were those answers to “How’s it hangin’?” written or ad-libbed?

Those are usually written. Because, I — they make me cringe. Personally.

I thought it was interesting how you’re this swaggering guy boasting about how it’s hangin’, and then a few minutes later, you are so rattled when you get your balls grabbed.

As it was told to me, the writers were pitching story lines. And it was like, an immediately unanimous thing that Jonah was going to get molested. They’re like, “Yeah, OK, that idea works, yeah, OK, that’ll be good, maybe we do this, OK, Jonah gets molested — YES! Next!”

We were talking about it when we were rehearsing, and I always really wanted to make sure that the weight of it never went to the side, that he understood he was being assaulted. To figure out how to make that funny without losing that.

The humanity, yeah.

We actually do pride ourselves on trying to keep it a realistic show, a grounded show. As much as you might want to cheer for him — where you want to be like, Oh my god, my heart is breaking for this guy who is going through a really awful thing in his workplace — I would like everyone to then turn around and be heartbroken by his actions. For failing to ever recognize his own dick behavior. Although, I don’t think he has ever grabbed anybody’s crotch.

I’ve seen you remark before that Jonah sees himself as a Dan. When he looks in the mirror, he sees Dan. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Twitter account had this “would you rather?”: If you had to have your sister date Jonah or Dan, which would it be? The Veep Twitter account asked as well, and called it the “toughest question you’ll ever be asked.”

They’re both pretty bad.

Many people said Dan’s hotter, but also potentially more of a creep.

Dan is a fucking creep.

It’s funny because Dan has all the exterior elements. But when something happens, he internalizes it in a way Jonah does not. Jonah doesn’t have that same shame chip.

One of the things I really like about the development of Dan and what Reid [Scott] has done with him is that, in the beginning, when this was all getting established, he was very much a force to be reckoned with. He could do everything right. And he was very much a threat to everybody in the office. But as he’s been around, you realize that as far ahead as he is in some ways, and as sharky as he is, he may have some underlying lack of skill that has kept him from advancing. He really doesn’t do a very great job as campaign manager. He has a nervous breakdown! He would never admit it, but he recognizes when he’s doing a bad job.

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OK, I have to show you something. My parents basically have a Jonah portrait of me in my house.

While you’re finding it, I’ll tell you that my mom asked if she could have that. My dad is a photographer and it’s based on a portrait of me when I was 15 that he took as a photo. Then they painted over it — they painted on the popped collar and the pink sweatshirt. My mom asked if she could have a copy of it and I said no! Because hanging that portrait of me as Jonah in the house is as crazy as Jonah’s mom hanging it in hers. Like, I get that it’s a reference to the show, and it’s funny, but it’s still just as crazy. It’s still my fucking portrait.

Well, feast your eyes on this.

Oh my god. Get the fuck out. Do you still play violin?

No. I remember wearing this outfit and thinking it was sooo cool. The blouse and jeans.

This is much more tasteful than the Jonah thing — but this is the kind of thing my dad did. And now, being a parent, I look at it and I’m like, Aww, I would love a picture of my daughter window-lit and holding a violin. Like, absolutely, sign me the fuck up!

It’s amazing how most of the Veep writers are British and they just nail America.

I was born in the United States and was in the public school system here. [With Americans] there’s going to be some sort of ingrained reverence for our system of government — it’s just gonna be in there. They don’t have that. There’s nothing in place to stop them from being irreverent about all of it, or cynical, or being able to satirize any part of it. And they research intensely. Outside of their own political savvy, they research so much. All the scripts are vetted by people who work in politics. Though they don’t have to search that much to find accidental idiocy in the United States government. You don’t have to dig too deep.

The theater critic and politico-cultural columnist Frank Rich is an executive producer — what are his contributions like?

He’s invaluable. He has a background in theater, so he can help with the building of realistic performances and realistic scenes. He grew up in Washington seeing Broadway plays being tried out. He saw, like, Neil Simon workshopping. And then he switched over to political writing, so he has this wealth of knowledge about politics not only behind the scenes, but also just, like, funny stories about politicians who fucked up — years and years and years of them. Like, a sideways comment that somebody made to somebody else that was off the record 15 years ago that will come in handy. So there’s really no part of the process that he hasn’t seen before.

And he’s so oddly flattering to us. His nickname is “The Butcher of Broadway” —

Is that where the “Beltway Butcher” character in Veep gets his nickname?

It was! We’ve had so many characters on the show who are men or women in their mid-fifties from New York City. They come down — and this has happened so many times — and we’ll be in rehearsal, they’ll meet everybody, they’ll have met Frank Rich. And at some point they’ll wander over and are just like, “Ahhh, I was in a play that Frank Rich closed 20 years ago. Oh, man, it was gonna be so big, and yeah, he shut it down.” That’s happened so many times!

In the HBO universe there’s a lot of cross-pollination. I’m curious what show you’d want to make a cameo on, past or present.

I don’t want this to sound like a homer thing, but I’m a huge fan of Togetherness. I think that show is fucking incredible, and it’s horrifying to watch sometimes, and it’s super fucked up and the performances are great. So there’s that one. But there is a part of me that really just thinks it would be so funny to see the Veep characters in Game of Thrones. Like, trying to have Mike in a meeting with the Lannisters. Jonah would be such a suck-up to the Lannisters. You’d see Dan trying to, like, figure out who has power, and trying to somehow always big-up whoever is in power, but also to sow the seeds just in case they get killed. I would love to see that. To see Selina as, like, Hand of the King, having all the power but still being second.

I have a mental image of you in Big Love. Just not sure if you’d be in the compound or an employee at Hendrickson’s Home Plus.

I do have kind of a creeper face. So I feel like I have a face that maybe lends itself to religious extremism.

On the topic of extremism, a frequent theme I see on your Twitter is Jay Cutler. Is this a football fan thing, or just that he’s a Chicago institution? I know you’re just a huuuuge fan of some of his views on vaccine.

Look, I was behind Jay Cutler. I was a Patriots fan growing up and still am, but I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2002 and they were like, 4-12 and they were fucking garbage and their games were boring and I was immediately a Bears fan. Just, how could you not be? There’s just something about it. I’m not a baseball fan — one of the great things about living in L.A. is I don’t have to pretend to give a fuck about either team. In Chicago you have to pretend you at least like one or the other. But I was a Bears fan immediately.

I was great with Jay Cutler because we’d hadn’t seen a quarterback this good in forever. So it was like: I know we think it’s our god-given right as Chicago sports fans to complain about every damn thing but let’s stop complaining. Maybe let’s support this guy? I didn’t care if he threw a bunch of interceptions — fine. But … oh. You’re an anti-vaxxer. Get the fuck out. Before I knew that I’m like: Oh, OK, he just made a couple of bad throws; it’s not bad decision making. Oh no, it turns out he is bad. He has a long history of bad decision making.

I like to make fun of him now. He’s got that face. He’s holding up his jersey when he gets signed, and I just love that. Jay Cutler reacts to his gigantic signing bonus. Did you ever hear that story about — where he’s in the bathroom?

A fan tries to talk to him, right, and he is like —

“DOOOOOON’T CAAAAAAARRREEEE!”

He’s almost a parody.

He could be the NFL’s Jonah. He doesn’t seem to notice or care that everybody doesn’t like him.

He brings Chicago together the way Jonah brings everyone else together.

I stuck with him for a while, but now I’ll continue to make fun of him. Wherever he goes, whenever he gets traded, I will continue to make fun of Jay Cutler.

Filed Under: TV, HBO, Timothy Simmons, Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes