Movies

Timothy Simons On Being Recognizable For Playing A Really Annoying Guy (Jonah Ryan From ‘Veep’)

There’s an odd trick Timothy Simons plays: that he’s able to remain charming, endearing even, even while he’s playing an overtly grating douchebag (that is, Jonah Ryan from Veep). Simons gives Jonah a gangly vulnerability, an over-eager little brother quality, despite Jonah being overtly the kind of person you’d never want to spend any time around.

It’s not an easy balance to maintain, but Simons, along with Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg) from Succession and Zach Woods (Jared Dunn) from Silicon Valley, makes up a triumvirate of weirdly lovable stretched-out man-children on HBO shows. Long, pale character actors are having a moment, one could say.

This month, Simons shows up in writer/director Karen Maine’s debut, Yes, God, Yes, playing Father Murphy, a priest who seems a little like the “cool pastor” even as he tells the students at his Catholic school that they will burn in hell for all eternity if they engage in non-procreative sexual activities. The Midwestern priest is a weirdly fitting role for Simons, who, having grown up in rural Maine, has the ineffable air of someone who grew up far from Hollywood.

It’s nice to see him, and hard to believe he’s only had a handful of roles since Veep. Presumably, we’ll see him a lot more once we can have new shows and movies again. I spoke to him this week about how got his start in acting, Maine, what it’s like being recognizable for playing a really annoying guy, and how he’s handling being trapped in his home for months on end.

How did you first get into acting?

How did I get into acting? Oh, God. I didn’t have any friends in college and I needed to try to meet people, and ended up auditioning for some short plays with no intention of actually pursuing it. And then it just went well. I enjoyed it, and within a couple of months I had changed majors and prescribed myself a life in the theater.

Where were you in college?

I went to the University of Maine.

Did it work out? Did you make friends after that?

I think I did. You’d probably have to confirm it with them. They’ve acted like my friends for this long, but maybe they’re just good actors. I don’t know.

Was Veep your first big role? Was that the point in your career where you realized that you could quit your day job?

Veep was definitely the biggest job that I had ever gotten at that point. Getting cast on that show was the point at which I quit most day jobs. Before that, I probably would have been able to, I don’t know. I acted in commercials and I would pick up jobs here and there. I think I made enough money that I could have not done anything else, but there was no reason to not also work my day job. My wife and I were trying to have kids, so I stuck around. Even after I got cast on the show, it was still just a pilot, and everybody that I had talked to, including Tony Hale, was like, “You’re going to film that pilot and every single day, everybody is going to be like, ‘This show is a sure thing. It’s a sure bet that it gets picked up.’ Every single pilot that I’ve ever been on has said that, and two of them have gotten picked up.” I didn’t really quit my day job until after the pilot got picked up. That’s when I was like, “Okay, I’m going to stop freelancing.”

What was your day job at that point?

I was a commercial casting camera operator and session director. I wasn’t the casting director, I would just run the sessions. The 400 people that you see for, I don’t know, whatever it was, a McDonald’s commercial or whatever, I was the one that ran those sessions. So 200 times a day I would explain, “Okay, you come in here. Pick up the burger. It’s very good. Alright, take a bite. Yeah, wow. That’s satisfying. Alright, thank you. Tell me your name?” This actually came up last year, but one of the commercials that I session directed was that Folger’s commercial where it seemed like the brother and sister were going to have sex. And they just did, I think it was GQ, did an oral history of that commercial this past year.

Did you have any idea that people were going to take that from the script?

No. Thinking back on it, I do think… Because sometimes you’re dealing with two adults, and sometimes it all becomes too familiar in the audition. It was like, “Maybe we could tone down some of this.” You know what I mean? I don’t know. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not surprised it went that way.

Did you have any embarrassing acting jobs that you took before your breakout?

Luckily, no. Nothing that really you could go and find. You can’t do too much of a deep dive, like when Julia was in that leprechaun movie [Troll, 1986]. Nothing like that, but I’m just lucky. All the embarrassing jobs I had were just not filmed.

On Veep, there are a lot of cracks about your height. Is being a tall guy kind of a useful novelty for an actor?

I don’t think so. I’m sure that it helps in some circumstances, but if I were to be completely honest, I can only imagine that it gets in my way. It definitely helped when it came to the story in Veep, but I can only imagine that it gets in my way. If you have a director that’s very concerned with what their frames are going to look like and how two people are going to appear together, if I’m 6’5 and the person next to me is 5’3, I think that makes it challenging for a director. I don’t know. I imagine it gets in my way, but maybe I’m just feeling pessimistic today.

Between you and Cousin Greg on Succession, it seems like the tall guy in comedy is having a bit of a moment.

Yeah. It’s me, Cousin Greg, and Zach Woods [Jared on Silicon Valley]. Just taking over Hollywood bit by bit.

In Yes, God, Yes you play a priest. Did you have any experience with priests in your life to draw upon for that?

No. My family wasn’t particularly religious. My grandmother had a picture of John F. Kennedy on the same plane on her wall as a picture of Jesus, from what I remember. So Irish Catholicism is a big part of my family’s history, and all the guilt that you would carry with you through generations, but my family growing up was not particularly religious. A lot of it was brand new to me.

Your character, he seems like he’s trying to be the “cool priest” a little bit, but then he’s also preaching the classic fire and brimstone stuff. Were you drawing on anything there? Do you remember anything from that time period [2001] that you could relate to?

I remember thinking when I was reading it, that what he believes is very strict. “If you do X, Y, Z, you are going to burn in hell for all eternity.” That’s a pretty aggressive stance. I didn’t really want him to come across as cool, but what I do think, I don’t think he’s necessarily trying to be cool. What I think he’s trying to do is to be like, “I’m a person that has found a way to connect with young people and sell them this thing.”

I think what I drew on was that sort of teen counselor thing. I’m not trying to be one of you, but I am going to talk to you about your fears. I think it’s interesting that he’s somebody who says he’s this and says he’s empathetic, but the answer is still, “You’re going to hell if you do that.” I liked that. I like that he might sound gentle and like he’s somebody who’s really trying to connect with these kids, but ultimately, the answer is the same.

What is it like being recognizable for a character who’s the obnoxious guy? Do you have any weird fan interactions day-to-day?

Not currently because you can’t go anywhere anyway.

Right.

The only people I’ve seen have been my family and my neighbor. No. One thing, and this was sort of by design, was that I try to separate, even physically, Jonah from myself as much as I could. Even just little changes. I combed my hair differently. I don’t ever dress the same. I intentionally chose things that I wouldn’t wear day-to-day so that we wouldn’t necessarily look alike. I think that, luckily, I look different enough from him when I’m out in the real world that mostly, it’s just people being like, “Hey, man. That show is really funny,” rather than like, “I hate you.”

Is that your Clark Kent thing? You have your glasses and now you’re-

Yeah. Nobody recognizes me if I don’t have a weird half-shaved head with an incredibly high widow’s peak. Or a sweater vest.

What was it like growing up in rural Maine? Did you ever consider acting before college?

No, not at all. I was in the high school play when I was a senior, but… no. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it definitely wasn’t going to be this. Growing up in rural Maine… you don’t really stray too far from home if you grow up there. There aren’t a lot of Mainers generally, and there are very few out here. Maine is a lovely place. One of the things that I’m actually writing is about Maine generally, just because it’s such a f*cking weird place. I’m working on something revolving around that.

What did your parents do when you were growing up?

My dad was a photographer. He did everything from senior portraits to L.L. Bean catalogs, and hunting and fishing catalog stuff. He was really good at that. My mom ran the business side of the business. He had a studio that was connected to our house growing up, so they… they had a separate space, but they worked from home and ran a business together, and it was great. Now, my mom, I think by the time I was a senior in high school my mom had started working in adult education at the high school that I went to, and she’s still working there. But yes, that’s what they did growing up.

Have you been off work since quarantine started?

Yeah. I was on a job that was shooting in Montreal whenever the quarantine started. I had been home. I had a two-week down period where I wasn’t shooting, so I had actually come home to Los Angeles, I think the Monday after the quarantine started was the day that I was supposed to head back to Montreal. So I was kind of at home for a couple of weeks before it started and have obviously just been home since. As far as work goes, I think everybody is in the same position of trying to figure out how and when anything might be able to happen. Luckily, I’ve had writing jobs that I have been able to work on, so that’s been good. Either things that I’m actively writing or stuff that I’m developing to pitch, and even a couple things that are in the very beginning stages of being thought out. There’s been enough to keep busy, but it’s definitely been weird, especially for somebody that’s very used to having to go out of town and go get on planes to go to work.

‘Yes, God, Yes,’ released July 24th in virtual cinemas and drive-ins, and July 28th on digital and VOD. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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