‘Veep’ Star Timothy Simons On Jonah Ryan’s Villainy And Which Insults Hit Hardest

With Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) out of power, HBO’s Veep has maintained a connection to the inner workings of government by way of Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), the entitled manchild pariah turned congressman who is seemingly on the cusp of attaining actual power if his ascent stays on track. And tasked with keeping him on that track is his brand new partner in romance (or frosty sex/power transaction) Shawnee Tanz (Mary Holland).

We spoke to Simons about the new woman in his character’s life, whether Jonah strikes him as a true villain, Jonah’s Ted Cruz connection, and which insults have pierced his protective coating.

Is Jonah a true villain?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s anybody on the show that’s a hero. But, I also think that Jonah’s motives, intentions, and goals are also the exact same as everybody else’s on the show. So, it’s not like he’s got some sort of dastardly plan that stands in contrast to everyone around him. He wants the same stuff. He wants political power. He wants to be well liked and well respected and remembered fondly by the masses. But, I just don’t… no, I don’t think he’s villainous.

You make a good point, but I feel like he is a much less sympathetic character than say, Selina, even though, like you said, same motives and a lot of the same characteristics.

You know, I think if you really got down to it… I wonder, and this is just me having not thought about this before. I think maybe they are equally as detestable, but she’s just better at hiding it. She’s better at being likable sometimes. Because I like that even the last couple seasons they really leaned on her on unlikeability and just how low she’s willing to go. So, I don’t know, maybe it’s just that he has no social grace and can’t even make somebody believe that they are liked for one second. Which would make them like her.

I think this season, also, with her being out of power it really seems like she’s kind of tossing aside any kind of pretense of liking people and being friendly. It almost seems like she’s going a little closer to the dark side.

Yeah, like at this point, why would she? Like, why would she even pretend? She’s pretended for a lot of years and it got her exactly nowhere.

Would you like to see Jonah rise in power?

I would like to see him rise in power only because it’s really fun. In television world, it’s fun to see somebody like him have power. In the real world, when you see somebody like Ted Cruz have power, it’s not fun at all. So, maybe it’s scratching the itch of allowing somebody like that to have power without any of the actual, real-world consequences.

Do you feel hopeful that Veep opens people’s eyes a little bit to some of the detestable and laughably evil things that can happen in Washington at times?

I think, if anything, maybe it’s just going to force politicians to be a little bit better. To be a little bit more prepared so that they don’t find themselves doing the exact same things that we parody in the show. But, here’s the thing: It has, thus far, not worked at all. Every single year, somebody has done something, like to the letter of something that has aired on the show.

Maybe they’re getting better at doing that thing that Selina does, with pretending to be likable.

I mean, I don’t know. I just, I would like to think that they would somehow learn something from it, but we’re now in the middle of the sixth season and nobody has learned from it yet.

This season has been one of change for Jonah. You’re obviously working less with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and working more with Kevin Dunn and Gary Cole. What are some of the plusses and minuses?

Dave [Mandel] has talked about wanting to always mix up the combinations of people that you see and, you saw that last year with Richard [Sam Richardson], Dan [Reid Scott], and I being together with Peter MacNicol. But then things happen and you get to the election and then immediately turn that on its head and have Dan go off to CBS, Richard gets picked up by Selina. I think I saw Gary and Kevin at table reads last year and this year I did almost every single scene with them. And so, for me, that was incredibly fun to see. I love Gary and Kevin so much and they’re incredible, incredible actors.

They’ve got tremendous chemistry.

There is something that I find so funny about these just, these are veterans. Like, these war-weary, political veterans who have nothing. Who can’t find another job. They’re so toxic after Selina that they can’t do anything else and they have to just suck it up and find themselves there until the storm blows over. Which leads to a lot of really funny, exasperated sighs from Gary Cole, which I absolutely love.
And now there’s a fourth component with Shawnee joining and taking control of Jonah a little bit. Can you talk a little bit about the influence of that addition to the show?

One of the things I love about it, number one, is Mary Holland. She’s an incredible improviser, comedian, and actress. I think it’s just a great addition to the show. I like seeing Jonah in a relationship because it’s like for all his bluster and all his talk, I think that he is — as you can see — a rather doting boyfriend. And I do think it’s kind of funny that he just immediately cedes control to somebody else because it’s generally what he’s always done.

He’s always trying to sidle up to whoever has the most power. In season two, he tried to sidle up to Kent, and as soon he started losing power he started sidling up to Ben and now this powerful woman comes in and he just sidles up next to her. He’s like one of those fish that has to live off the bacteria on the back of the larger fish.

You mentioned Ted Cruz before and I’m curious if there are politicians — past or present — that you’ve looked to for inspiration when it comes to Jonah’s unearned swagger?

When we were first starting the show, there wasn’t anybody that I was basing it on specifically. But, as it got towards this congressional storyline for him, I really did start looking at Ted Cruz more and more. Because he is somebody that really does fit in well with Jonah’s story. He is universally disliked, he is charmless, and has no sense of humor. He has fallen ass backward into some sort of national power even though he is crushingly incompetent. I think that Ted Cruz is a good template for any Jonah behavior in congress.

Some of the most impressive writing on the show generally comes at your character’s expense. Take after take, what does it feel like to get peppered by those insults?

Honestly, it very rarely sort of gets through. I think we almost have the same… As actors, we have the same response that the characters do, which I just don’t think about it. You know, like your object is to get through the scene as an actor. The object of these characters is to get what they want in that situation.

They’re just used as ammo and you just brush them off to keep going. So most of the time, I would say 99% of the time, I’m able to just brush them off. But every once in a while, one slips through the cracks that reminds you of something that somebody said in middle school and it rattles you a little bit. I will definitely say that.

Any examples?

There was one where somebody said in an episode that I had weird hips and I was like… And there was one where somebody said that I was the wrong shape. Like, those two specifically hurt a little bit. There’s one from last year… God, I’ve gotta go back. There are so many I actually forget.

It’s probably better for you to forget them.

Yeah, no it probably is.

It’s high art.

It’s really a fucking thing, isn’t it?

It is. Some of the best writing on the show is these, completely out of left field, just nut shots to you. It’s great.

[Laughs.] Yeah. Including actual ones.

Veep airs Sunday nights at 10:30pm ET on HBO.