Timothy Simons On Jonah Ryan As A Presidential Candidate, And How ‘Veep’ Pushes Back On American Politics

Colleen Hayes/HBO

The rise of Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) is upon us. And after years of debasing himself and weathering (much deserved and artfully crafted) insults, America is going to pay as Ryan campaigns for the presidency. Well, the fictionalized version of America on Veep, anyway. But as with so much on the show — which begins its final season Sunday at 10:30 pm EST on HBO — Jonah’s consequence-free float to the rim of the political toilet feels painfully plausible. And that’s the point.

Heading toward its end, Veep seems like it has every intention of saying everything it wants to say, leaving the stage hoarse and breathless. The season premiere has all the Veep rhythms and absurdities that we’ve come to expect. But the setting — the winding campaign trail that both Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Jonah are stumbling through — and its proximity to both the start of the 2020 campaign and the release of the Barr synopsis of the Mueller report — feels like a boon. The show’s usually razor-sharp political commentary feels just a little bit sharper at the start of this season, perhaps owing to how everything feels like it’s coming in real time now.

Uproxx had a chance to discuss the similarities between the real world and the Veep-world in detail with Simons earlier this week. We discussed Jonah’s Trump-like ability to evade political consequences, the show’s ability to take on Washington’s blasé response to mass shootings, and the power of cynicism in storytelling. We also discussed what’s next for Simons and how the Veep experience has helped prepare him for the process of developing his own show.

What are some of your highlights from Jonah’s time on the campaign trail this season?

Jonah’s crowd-work is as unhinged as you would imagine. It’s giving Jonah sort of a bully pulpit to air out past grievances. Because, of course, the more and more popular he gets, the more and more he feels the power to just keep airing larger grievances.

And isn’t that what politics is all about now?

Yeah, it really is, it turns out it’s just supposed to be used for petty revenge.

Um, I don’t want to give too much away, but the lacrosse player comment in the first episode is a jaw-dropper. Do you have any hesitancy about saying something like that and going too far?

You know, I don’t. Because ultimately, the point of the show is supposed to be a reflection of the world that we live in, and the satirization of it. And so, I don’t really have any hesitation going for something like that because I don’t find that joke offensive as so much I find the world that made that joke realistic offensive. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does. And I think that the episode does a really nice job of portraying the cold and opportunistic kind of way that gun violence is dealt with now in the halls of power, really.

Yeah, there’s a part of me that’s like, if you’re, for any reason, going to be upset about the way that our show handles that issue, just wait until you find out how the real United States handles that issue. You’re gonna be real upset about that. So if you take any time to be upset with us for shedding light on it…I would implore people to put their time toward actually changing it.

We spoke before the last season and you had said that you thought that Selina and Jonah were equally detestable, but she was just better at being likable. Do you still agree with that or do you think that Jonah has maybe taken an edge as he’s found more power?

I still think that they’re close. Jonah doesn’t have any grace and has no ability to hide his rougher edges. She has the ability to talk people into things and to negotiate. She has an ability to sort of move in polite society in a way that Jonah doesn’t, but I still think that they are sort of equally cynical. Most of Jonah’s views are detestable and he has no integrity, but it’s not like her views are any better. And the things that she says she cares about, she doesn’t really care about. She cares about how far they can get her. Most of the things are the same, it’s just that Jonah goes so far out of bounds of what you think is acceptable in his communication of those beliefs. So I still think it’s about the same.

I don’t know if I agree at this point. Pointing to what you said before about Jonah basically kind of doing it to settle scores to a certain extent. That feels worse to me than Selina. Selina just feels like it’s about the vanity of it all.

I don’t disagree. I think there’s an argument to be had. Like if it lands on the other side of you, I think that’s perfectly reasonable. You could argue what’s worse: a politician that does the quiet thing loud or a politician who tries to say the loud thing quietly. I think that’s the difference between the two. Maybe it’s just a personal interpretation of which one is worse.

Yeah, that’s definitely a fair point. Can you tell me about the relation relationship that Jonah’s character has with Patton Oswalt’s character this season?

I mean, I think there was a lot of conversation that I had with David [Mandel, the showrunner] about Patton coming back, only because Jonah’s relationship with Patton’s character was something that was really traumatic for him. And so I wanted to make sure that Jonah wouldn’t just do that for any reason and it wouldn’t be an easy thing. So we had a lot of conversations with David about how that feels for him [Jonah]. I think that there was a really funny solution in how Jonah feels comfortable having him around and it points to this larger thing which I really think is funny that Jonah is so single-minded in his quest for power and proximity to power that he’s even willing to work with Teddy. That somebody above him has told us that Teddy’s the person to do it and Jonah will go along with that to get somewhere he wants to go. Even though the worst experience that he’s had in his life has been with Teddy Sykes. He’s still willing to go with it if it gets him where he wants to go. He has that little integrity and he’s that cynical.

Colleen Hayes/HBO

Is there any chance that we see Jonah and Selina on a debate stage at any point this season?

I will say this. You will see them both on debate stages.

Okay, that’s a satisfactory answer. I’m looking forward to that and seeing how he’ll handle any kind of close examination of his answers. It does seem like this season is being set up for him to kind of be immune to consequences. Like there’s a play on the whole Trump thing where he can kind of say whatever he wants and get away with it. Is Jonah kind of in that space?

A few years ago, you really couldn’t have somebody like Jonah actually run for president and have any sort of success only because he would knee cap his own campaign before it even starts. But we live in a different world now where the things that used to torpedo political careers are now considered a help for a political career. The real world has changed and so our political world had to reflect that. If you just look around, there are fewer consequences for actions, and in fact, his behavior would probably be looked at as a positive if he were actually going to run in real life for any sort of office. So yeah, there really aren’t any consequences for anything that he does anymore. Except for positive ones!

Were you very involved in politics or interested in politics before this show came along?

I was always interested, and I tried to stay up [on things] as much as I could. But I was pretty ignorant of how most of it worked. So this has made me…just through research and meeting people in Washington and talking to people about it and staying up on it, I think I have become a little bit more knowledgeable.

Is that a positive or a negative?

Well, I wish I could ignore it like we were able to. There are a few jokes that I think about. There’s the Mulaney thing…

The horse in the hospital thing?

There’s the horse in a hospital bit, which is amazing, but that leads to the other idea [which Simons repeats in a perfect match to Mulaney’s rhythm]: “‘Well, why didn’t you think that other guy did bad stuff?’ Yeah, but I’m lazy by nature. That other guy seemed intelligent, like he knew what he was doing.” And there was this other joke which I saw, which was not Mulaney. This idea that, “I’m going to run for president, and my platform is going to be nothing, but you won’t have to think about me every single day of your life.” And that is a place I wish we were at. And we are not. It is relentless. It is relentless these days.

[Laughs] I would quit my job and just commit myself completely to a campaign if someone had that as their catchphrase at this point, I think.

Yeah. You’d get to take a week off. You’re just going to forget about it. You’re just going to have a good time. I would do anything.

What are you going to miss most about the show?

I’m going to miss the ensemble. Not only the other actors on the show, but the writers and the directors that we had were all incredible. I’m going to miss going in to the Writer’s Room to listen to them pitch jokes because they’re all so funny. I’m going to miss the group of people, this group of performers. We are as close now as we were the first day we started. It has been an incredibly supportive and loving group of people and I’m really going to miss that. I think, professionally, when it comes to the work, I’m going to miss the collaborative atmosphere full of people you can trust. And there is a little part of me that will miss working on a show that’s allowed to be cynical about any single thing you can imagine a show is able to be cynical about and examine through that lens. I’ll miss that. That was really fun and led to some really good stories. I will miss that.

Any of that spirit of cynicism continuing on into Exit Plans [the show Simons is developing with HBO]? Because I agree, I think that cynicism is a great thing that is missing in a lot of pop culture now. I think it’s a valuable tool, as a lens.

The thing I’m working on right now doesn’t have the ability to be as cynical as this show does. Of course, it’s going to be from my point of view so there is definitely going to be cynicism in it, but the show wouldn’t work if it were as fully cynical as Veep is. I have to find a good balance of where those are going to be and how they can exist — the deep cynicism and the deep empathy. Like, how you can figure out how to work those two things together? It’s been a challenge, but it’s been really fun so far.

Did the Veep experience serve as a sort of graduate school for you, giving you lessons and the confidence to push forward into this next phase where you’re developing something on your own?

Oh, definitely. I think being a part of the show in the way that we have, like workshopping scripts and essentially being in the Writer’s Room for the first four years… And then also just inviting myself into the Writer’s Room once the showrunners switched… it has, for sure. There were things, like when we did the table read, I was like, “Oh, that works,” but then on closer examination, once you saw Julia bring up notes, like, “Oh, I would have never seen that.” I think it helped me, no doubt. It has helped me become a better writer and a better performer just seeing the way things move, and seeing the way things revolve. For sure, it has made me a better writer, a better performer, and a better overall… just better overall.

I am fascinated by the idea of this new show which sounds like it’s in the neighborhood of assisted suicide, if I read that correctly. What was it that pushed you toward that storyline?

It’s about a guy in 2019 in the United States, imagined if assisted suicide was legal nationwide a year previous. And it’s about a guy who opens up his own suicide small business and he’s great at that job, but he just sucks at everything else in his life. Whatever perspective or lesson you think you might learn by working that closely with death and dying, he can’t necessarily apply to his own life and I just think that’s really funny.

I think it’s also interesting, because people get weird about death, obviously. So, any kind of artistic examination of that, even it’s off to the side a little, sounds really promising.

Yeah, I’ve always been into dark comedies. That’s something that I really gravitate towards, so this is, for me, very much in that sort of dark comedy world, obviously because of the subject matter. But ultimately, my goal is to make sure that it’s funny. I don’t want it to be one of those things where at the end of the episode you’re like, “Oh, that was funny. I laughed once.” I do want people to laugh out loud, I just also want it to be about death and dying.

That’s not challenging at all.

Yeah, not at all.

‘Veep’ returns for the start of its final season Sunday at 10:30 pm EST on HBO.