- Lacey Terrell/HBO
The name Timothy Simons may not ring a bell, but we’re pretty sure if we say “Jonah from ‘Veep,'” you know who we’re talking about.
For five years, Simons has played the dim-witted White House aid Jonah Ryan to such perfection that he’s quickly become a fan favorite thanks to his unthinkable overconfidence for being, as he was called once on the show, nothing more than “a human text message.”
Honestly, that’s one of the few insults Jonah gets on the show that isn’t laced with profanity or offensive slurs. Jonah is basically the human punching bag on “Veep,” but that’s what’s made him so fun to watch. Like most on the show, he thinks the insults (and in season four, enduring sexual harassment) are just things he has to go through until he finally rules DC. There might be truth to that: In the current season, Jonah successfully runs for Congress.
Business Insider talked to Simons about Jonah’s big storyline this season, if Donald Trump’s antics will ever make it on the show, and the worst fan experience he’s ever had.
Business Insider: When did you realize that Jonah would have a big storyline this season?
Timothy Simons: Things change so much. The first I heard of it was when we started, because we have this rehearsal process so we have maybe a month and a half to two months before we start shooting. We started shooting at the end of September, so middle of July or middle of August. It wasn’t mentioned in those first two scripts, but just in talking to the writers and siting down with [showrunner] Dave [Mandel], he gave me the idea of where he saw it going.
BI: Are you giddy or are you nervous when you hear that?
Simons: Oh no, this one was absolute giddiness. So much so that I tried to forget that they ever mentioned it because I would have been massively disappointed if it didn’t happen.
BI: So your reaction was kind of like the one Jonah has in the episode in which he’s told he’s going to run for Congress.
Simons: Yeah. I never knew Jonah was religious. [Laughs] Maybe he only is when something really good happens to him and then he doesn’t care otherwise.
BI: You guys rarely improvise, but the acting feels that way. How do you get the material to that point?
Simons: We really focus on individual scenes and make them feel lived in before getting to set. So if you’re doing something and it feels false, you feel it before you get to set, before you have 200 people all on hourly wages looking at you trying to figure out a scene that you should have figured out before. It corrects false moments or lines that are too wordy or seem written.
BI: Let’s use the example of Jonah going onstage to do his big rally in episode six. How do you use the rehearsal process to make that sequence feel natural and off-the-cuff?
Simons: I remember when we were rehearsing that one. After we were done, I had even more respect for Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] than I already had. I’ve watched her in rehearsals for five years improvise speeches and that was the first time I had to do it. I had the gist of it, but I was supposed to improvise it [in rehearsals] and fill it out and see what happens, it was so unbelievably hard to do that and do it confidently. She, on the other hand, has made that look simple. So when I got up there I was like, “Oh, I’m going to be great at this.” That is not f—ing easy to do.
One thing we worked on for the speech was how bad was he going to be in the beginning. How incompetent was he going to be in that speech. And things like him saying, “I think she’s doing a good job destroying the country all by herself,” were those going to be him systematically saying them or just organically come out in the moment. We also threw in the fist throw that also looks like a heil. We tried 20 different versions of that in rehearsal. Some were just way over-the-top, we even tried it with two hands. And then there’s the whole thing with the Tom Petty song and at the end of the speech he says, “I’m Jonah Ryan and I won’t back down.” But we also had two other songs as rallying cries but it became too much and we also thought there’s no way Jonah is smart enough to make that happen. That’s an example of it feeling a bit too written. But him saying “I won’t back down” would be believable.
BI: Are you the kind of guy who will watch the episodes every Sunday?
Simons: I am. Partly because our house always has had a “Game of Thrones” party since season one. Our show premiered on “Game of Thrones” season 2, so people have been coming over to our house every Sunday and we end up watching “Veep” after. But even if that wasn’t happening, I am someone who watches it because I do want to see what made it in the episodes. And I like to see if anything I did on set got in.
BI: What’s a bit that you came up with this season that you were excited made it to episode?
Simons: One of them was in that big speech when he’s going on about how Selina Meyer is doing awful and ruined Thanksgiving. At one point he says, “I don’t know about you, but my boyfriend’s not a billionaire.” That one was mine and they let me try it and it feels good when something you come up with right before you shoot it is in there because that means it made it through so many cuts and everyone along that line thought it was funny and it got to stay in.
BI: Do you think Trump and anything that happened this election season will influence the writers for next season?
Simons: The only things that we pull from something that happened in real life are things that happened far in the past.
BI: Like Jonah doing the Howard Dean scream.
Simons: Yeah. That’s the most recent thing we’ll direct parody. With all the Trump stuff, I think we were actively avoiding it. We didn’t want anything to overlap with him just because then it takes the show out of its own reality. And this has happened since the first season, anything that seems like we stole it from real life, actually it was the writers in the room thinking of the dumbest thing a politician could do that hadn’t come up. They wrote it, we filmed it, and then two weeks later a really dumb politician did it. So that’s how it works. By the time it airs people think we ripped it off.
BI: In the early seasons, did you research how someone at Jonah’s level works in DC?
Simons: Yeah, the first couple of seasons. Jonah has this self-confidence without talent. I wanted to know where that confidence comes from and how it manifested itself from the people in DC.
BI: So you were able to get insight from people in DC who think they are going to take over the world but do nothing every day?
Simons: Yes. And that reminds me, there was a blog dedicated to DC summer interns that was incredible. It basically reported what the summer interns would say at parties and events. Things that their bosses said in private. And the person who wrote the blog knew these people were just interns because at the time interns wore red badges everywhere around DC. It was this bragging thing. So Jonah I think has only not worn his White House badge over five years in like two scenes.
- Lacey Terrell/HBO
BI: How have you adapted to fame over the five years? Specifically being recognized in public.
Simons: It doesn’t get in the way. People like the show, generally, so it’s usually a guy just giving me a thumbs-up. So that’s great.
BI: So you’re getting the good side of it.
Simons: Yeah. Very infrequently does someone yell obscenities at me.
BI: But it has happened.
Simons: Yeah. But I was really concerned that drunk people would think it would be real funny to grab my dick thinking it would be a callback to the show in the season when Jonah was being molested. Luckily that hasn’t happened, but it was a worry.
BI: Wait, you mean people on the show were concerned for you?
Simons: I was and a writer only told me after the season was over, he was like, “Yeah, it came in my head that might happen, but I didn’t voice it.”
BI: But we can say on the record here that no one has touched your junk.
Simons: Yeah. As of right now. In public, related specifically to the show, no one has grabbed my junk. But I do have two children. But I will say the most famous I will ever be is if I’m in a Whole Foods in Washington, DC. That is like The Beatles level of fame. Shut it down. That is where I will get recognized the most in every single aisle.
BI: What’s the craziest fan experience so far?
Simons: Out in DC, when we were shooting exteriors for this season, I visited my home district’s congressman. I went to go see her, we walked across the way to watch her vote on something. We met another congressman, and look, I’m very tall, he was a shorter guy and we stood there for a picture and right before he took the picture he grabbed my hooded sweatshirt and yanked it down as hard as he could without asking and without warning. Forcefully. I looked at him like, “What the f— was that?” And he was like, “You know, you have to crouch down a little, man.” But no heads up. That to me sort of encapsulates congressional politics, which is why someone like Jonah Ryan can end up in there. They are so obsessed with their own self-image that they would just assume that someone else would have to crouch down to make them look better.
BI: So somewhere there’s a picture in DC of you getting horse-collar tackled.
Simons: Being yanked. And the thing is it’s probably framed somewhere in an office and as soon as the show is done or not popular, he’s just going to take it down, throw it in the trash, and he’s going to hang up another political show or go back to him with C.J. Cregg on “West Wing.”
BI: As the seasons have progressed and you’ve gotten more popular during off-time between seasons, are you looking for movie roles that don’t resemble Jonah? Because I can imagine you have a stack of scripts that are just characters who are Jonah in another form.
Simons: They are. This year I had an opportunity to audition for a movie where it’s set in an office and it was the guy that everyone hated and he says sexually horrible things. So I felt I’m just already doing that.
Simons: Yeah, those movies were great.
BI: Was there an unspoken rule on set that you wouldn’t mention “Game of Thrones” to Peter?
Simons: Oh no, Kristen Bell is shamelessly the biggest “Game of Thrones” fan who has ever existed and she kind of broke the ice. She just walked in and was like, “Hi Peter, how’s it going? My name’s Kristen, very nice to meet you, we’ll be working together, tell me about ‘Game of Thrones.'” But Peter’s f—ing great and sometimes he would graciously answer questions truthfully and other times just not answer you.
BI: Will you ever get tired of Jonah?
Simons: I don’t know if that ever will exist. It might if I didn’t like the people that I work with. This job has been an incredible experience. So if it keeps going, I go with it. I’m fine with that. I love these people and the way we create it. It’s the best job I’ve ever had and I don’t know if anything will top it.
BI: So five or ten years from now, if people are coming up to you and saying “Jonah,” that’s still okay?
Simons: I think so. It means I was on a really good TV show. If it was 30 years ago it might stick with you to the point where you couldn’t exist outside of it, but I think all those walls that existed are broken down because there’s so much out there now. It doesn’t bother me.