Stealing scenes from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale on HBO’s Veep is a tall order. Luckily, Timothy Simons towered high enough in his first high-profile gig, as ne’er-do-well Jonah Ryan, that his height was the punchline to joke after joke at the character’s expense. Jonah is an abrasive, manic id whose evolution only makes Simons look more impressive—and American politics look worse.
A Geico commercial with one line got the theater pro onto Veep, shoving the former Maine and Chicago resident into the limelight. He was a breakout who could handle the worst abuse Armando Iannucci’s squad of sharp-tongued satirists could level at him, and one who could dish it out just as spicily. Succession may have tried to get their own dopey punching bag of a tall guy, but nobody comes close to the OG.
Now that the series is ending, the world seems to be following suit: Jonah will be running for president in the final season. The massive and unpredictable arc he’s travelled raises the question, “Who is the man who can play Jonah Ryan—and what comes next?” Ahead of the final season of Veep, Simons spoke with Paste about running for president, consensual touching, and Paddington 2.
Paste: Thanks for talking to me on such a hectic day.
Timothy Simons: I feel like it’s one of those things where I’ve been led by the elbow from room to room with no idea what’s in front of you. But it’s been really fun. It’s sort of the first time we’ve seen each other as a group in a while.
Paste: How long has it been since you wrapped?
Simons: We wrapped right before the holidays, so three months.
Paste: I know the group experience was your favorite part of shooting Veep. How’s it been spending time apart after the finale?
Simons: There is a natural rhythm to it, in that we spend a lot of time together every season—obviously we spend a lot of time together—then you wrap and everything breaks apart. Then we all get back together this time of year for the premiere of the show. It definitely feels a little different knowing we’re not going to be doing it again this fall. We usually have this confidence we’ll all be back together in the fall, but every off-season, everybody keeps in touch and you end up hanging out with everybody. So I know that’s going to continue. And that’s buoying, as we transition out of the show, knowing that I’ll see everybody.
Paste: You made any yearly traditions like your old theater company’s softball game?
Simons: No man, although, all of the—well, they’ve recently been renamed The Veep Widows—the wives of me, Tony [Hale], Matt [Walsh], and Reid [Scott] all get along just as well as we did. So we’ve made a couple trips as the four couples, [and] since the group gets along so well, I think that’s something we’re gonna end up doing in the future.
Paste: That’s really sweet. But it’s certainly not going to help y’all avoid being catcalled as the Veep squad.
Simons: It really isn’t, is it? I’m hoping that opens up some doors that maybe wouldn’t be opened, though. I’m shameless enough that if somebody sees us as a group and is like, “Hey, you want to eat dinner at this great restaurant?” I’d be like, “OK.”
Paste: When did they tell you Jonah would be running for president?
Simons: It came up at the end of Season Six. The plan always was for him to get forced out, with this sort of false ending where you think he’s as low as he could possibly be, being forced out of Congress by his uncle. Kicked off the ticket, Ezra’s gonna run. That just leads to Sherman Tanz realizing if he bankrolls Jonah for president, he might get some of his more ridiculous issues onto the party platform.
Paste: Did you do any prep about this particular and intense run?
Simons: I didn’t, because in seasons past, you’d probably have to know more about the inner workings of a presidential campaign. I think if anything, the last few years have shown us that it doesn’t matter anymore. The way that you used to do it doesn’t matter. With Jonah’s campaign—which will be chaotic and untethered—it didn’t feel like it was necessary. And I’m certainly not going to be making any calls to anyone on the Trump campaign to pal around with them.
Paste: During your campaign, you hit upon one of the more topical things that Veep has ever covered, which is a #MeToo analogue. How does it feel being the face of #NotMe?
Simons: Quite literally, it’s a face that makes every one of them say, “Not me.” That was something that came up in the off-season. That was something I called [showrunner David Mandel] about around [the] time when a lot of NDA stuff was hitting. We were seeing that a lot of people were using NDAs to try to block bad behavior, but also Trump was using NDAs to keep people from telling the press about how terribly he was running his campaign and how terribly he was running the White House. So I called up Dave and pitched the beginning of the idea: “Wouldn’t it be funny if a bunch of women came in, who all had consensual relationships with Jonah, and were like ‘We just want to make sure these NDAs are honored. Look at him. It was a mistake we made.”
Of course, they took that and ran with it and made a much better storyline than I ever could’ve come up with. But it’s one thing I’m proud of. I was raking in my backyard, then just called up Dave and said, “What about this dumb thing?” And they turned it into something really great.
Paste: You’re a politics guy in your real life, so combining that with a writers’ room that loves nothing more than personally attacking you seems like a perfect marriage.
Simons: It really is. When I did go out and did research—and there were things about when he was serving in Congress in Season Six—I talked to a lot of people who had worked in Congress and who had been staffers before in order to get a sense of what it really meant to be a freshman in the House of Representatives.
So then I went to the writers’ room and said, “Here are a bunch of things that I found out. I don’t know exactly what they might mean, but I feel like Jonah would really respond to this.” I wasn’t so much pitching scenes or storylines as I was saying, “This really resonates with me, when it comes to Jonah.” I thought it was really funny, this thing a guy said offhand about how much they hate any freshman congressperson that makes a big speech. All the older congressmen are just like, “This fucking asshole. Just let us go home for the weekend.” So of course that’s the first thing [Jonah] does. I love that collaboration.
Paste: That seems like something you develop with writers over many years. What’s it like moving on from that to something new, like [Simons’ assisted suicide comedy in development with HBO] Exit Plans?
Simons: There’s a big learning curve for me. I try to take what I’ve learned from those guys and try to approximate something they might do, but there’s something really lovely about being the one it comes down to. I think this thing is funny, so I’m going to translate that thing to the page myself. The other great thing about it, is if I can make that thing work and it actually ends up becoming a television show, I just get to hire them. I can’t think of anything better than that.
Paste: What stage are you at with the show? Are you putting together a pilot?
Simons: I’m currently in the process of writing the pilot.
Paste: Can you tell me about where the idea came from?
Simons: I’ve always been a fan of dark comedies. I was having a conversation with the producers I’m working with, Will Graham and Hailey Wierengo, and it came up in this meeting. I developed it while we were on break [from Veep]. I spent most of that year working on that pitch. Then when the show starting filming, on one of the hiatuses, I took it to a bunch of places over the course of one week.
Everything I’ve ever done, any hardship or terrible thing that’s ever happened to me, I’ve only ever used humor to process those things. So for me, this dovetails nicely into this story.
Paste: You don’t come from the Midwest or the Northeast to process emotions well.
Simons: No! Oh my God, not at all. I feel like that should be on a state flag.
Paste: Is this the first show you’ve gotten to this stage with a network?
Simons: No, there’ve been other pilot scripts, but this is the first one I’ve ever gotten where I’ll be the person who wrote it and will star in it. It’s the first time I’ve had it fully hung on whether or not I can execute it. So I guess no fuckin’ pressure.
Paste: Speaking of dark, Patton Oswalt’s sexual predator character Teddy Sykes is part of Jonah’s campaign team.
Simons: Because we deal with global politics, there is not a single thing that exists that the show can’t be cynical about. It was something I had lots conversations with Dave about. He was like, “Oh, yeah, Teddy’s gonna be there.” We needed to find a very specific reason for Jonah to hire him. He wouldn’t just let it happen. Jonah is still worried around him.
But if it means that person could help him win the presidency, then Jonah is open to it. It also allows that person to be chemically castrated in order to do it. I will miss being able to be that deeply cynical about everything.
Paste: HBO’s been staffing shows with intimacy coordinators, but they’ve mostly been for sex scenes. Did that ever come up with Teddy groping you?
Simons: No, it never did. I knew Patton from outside of work and he’s just a lovely mensch of a guy. Incredibly supportive and awesome. But on the first day that it was gonna happen, someone came up to me and asked, “Tim, do you want to wear a cup?” And I looked at Patton and went, “Uh… I don’t…” There’s a reason we got into comedy, and it’s probably not because we’re really good at talking about sex. Or touching, or relationships, or any of it. It’s not what comedians are good at.
Both of us wanted the conversation to be over so much that we were like, “It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.” And it ended up being totally fine! He was able to almost like, phantom grab. Like, grab the area all around, but not the, uh—I guess “penis and testicles” are the words I’m looking for. So we were able to coordinate that, but we didn’t have the Game of Thrones intimacy coordinator on set.
Paste: Last question. What was the best movie you saw last year that wasn’t Paddington 2?
Paddington 2. It’s perfect top to bottom. The performances are incredible. Both films, I openly sobbed at their endings. The scene where he takes the oranges one at a time for the marmalade? Out-of-this-world funny. They are perfectly crafted films and I don’t think we have to qualify it. They’re just perfect.
The seventh and final season of Veep premieres Sunday, March 31 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.