What’s it like to play a stain of a human being on TV? Timothy Simons on being the lovably “jolly green jizzface” Jonah Ryan on Veep.
In Washington, D.C., the power players inside the Beltway (or at least those who consider themselves as such) have started categorizing themselves and their colleagues based on what character from Veep they are most like. And they’re all praying that no one thinks they’re a Jonah.
They are, of course, referring Jonah Ryan, the prodigiously insufferable liaison to the president on HBO’s whiz-bang brilliant political farce. An unparalleled ego manifested as a human, who accessorizes his frat-boy privileged personality with excessive delusion and obliviousness, Jonah is absolutely the worst human you’ll ever meet, in D.C. or otherwise. And my god is he great to watch on TV.
Never before has the “love to hate” mantra been more appropriate than to describe our relationship to the deliciously despicable Jonah, played to petulant perfection by actor Timothy Simons.
Simons knows that his creation is absolutely vile. “If anyone was meeting a real Jonah, they would fucking hate him,” he tells me. He also, however, knows that there’s a certain joy the audience shares in watching someone as epically punchable as “Jonad,” as he is so lovingly referred to by the other characters on the show, get verbally assaulted by the fellow actors on the show. “He’s really not a great guy, but people on the street still greet me like we’re old friends.”
(Other choice insults that have been lobbied at Jonah by the characters on Veep: “The world’s biggest single-cell organism;” “jolly green jizzface;” and “an early draft of a man, where they just sketched out a giant, mangled skeleton but they didn’t have time to add details, like pigment or self-respect.” As Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays Vice President Selina Meyer on Veep, has said, “As dysfunctional as Selina and her staff are, the one thing that binds them together is their global disdain for Jonah Ryan.”)
So what’s it like to play such a stain of human—and be beloved for it? Ahead of Veep’s season three premiere this Sunday, we chatted with Simons about insults, cursing, and simultaneously playing the best and the worst character on TV.
How does someone grow to be as awful as Jonah? What happens to someone that they end up like that?
I’ve always gone with the idea that he was given way too much attention as a child. And just had that kind of parents that, not in the healthy and supportive way, told him that he was the best child around. That he was perfect. That he can’t do anything wrong. And I think he comes from older money in the northeast. Like, he’s a legacy kid. He’s born into a world in which he has every opportunity presented to him and therefore takes them for granted and assumes the world is going to be handed to him. I think that is a lot of what’s informed his relationships with both work and women.
Does Jonah really, in his heart, think he’s as amazing as his outward personality suggests?
I think there are moments where he kind of sees that he might not be as great as he is. But if he were actually able to see himself truly, he wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. I go into it with the idea that when he deals with those putdowns and with all of those people attacking him, he just tells himself that, “They’re not really making fun of me. They’re just jealous of my position so they’re trying to knock me down.” Once in a while he might see a flash behind that front he puts up. But mostly I do believe that he thinks he’s as good at his job as he thinks he is.
Those insults lobbied at Jonah are brilliant. Like, the most vicious, cruelest, most amazingly crafted insults ever. But I actually think Jonah’s comebacks have gotten to be just as good!
I like to think that Jonah is evolving. As his career in politics and D.C. moves forward, he is evolving, whereas in the first season he’s definitely in over his head in certain situations and masking it. It’s unfortunate that he does now have some experience under his belt that he’s able to combat the insults hurled at him. He’s heard enough that he’s not going to just be a whipping boy all the time. He’s going to throw it back. I don’t think he’s ever going to come out on top, but he will at least throw it back at them a little bit.
Do you have a favorite putdown from the show?
Oh god. A lot of times I end up really celebrating the other people’s putdowns. I think Julia just teased one the other day that somebody in this coming season gets called “Cunter S. Thompson.” I’m a big fan of that one.
Are you finding that because you’re around all these insults all the time that you’re absorbing them and getting better at telling people off in real life?
I can tell you 100 percent that I am a much better insulter in daily life than I was three years ago, before I started this show. I think maybe my insults were a little blunt before I started this show. A little hackish, things that anyone would say. But I have noticed an ability to go to the third or fourth insult and extrapolate on that against somebody, and that’s actually felt pretty good.
When people recognize you in public, are they confusing your personality for Jonah’s insufferable one?
Not too much. Sometimes I sort of overcorrect a little bit in public just in case that’s the problem. I don’t know why people like him so much in that way. A lot of the reaction I get when I’m recognized in public is oddly positive for the guy that he is. If anyone was meeting a real Jonah, they would fucking hate him. But they see me and the reaction is completely different. And I do over correct and am too polite and too nice, just in case somebody should get confused. But it is strange, honestly, the reaction I get. He’s really not a great guy, but people on the street still greet me like we’re old friends.
He’s not someone you’d want to spend more than five minutes in a room with. So why do people love watching him?
Maybe it’s just that there’s distance from the feeling of being in that room with someone. If you were to witness somebody acting like Jonah, it would just give you a really viscerally disgusting feeling. But if you’re separated from that and have that distance between you and are just able to observe it without any commitment to the situation you’re in. I think maybe that’s what allows people to just enjoy it, because they know ultimately they have no responsibility to any of the other people in the room he’s acting terrible to.
Do people like him actually exist in Washington? I know you did research in D.C. talking to real people working in politics there before filming.
From what I understand, it’s starting to become a shorthand in D.C., describing people based on what character they’re like in the show. In the same way that people from The West Wing were. Like people in D.C. would describe their jobs like, “I’m the C.J.” or “I’m the Leo.” Or “I’m Charlie.” We’ve heard that people are starting to say, “He’s the Sue. This is the Gary. I’m the Amy.” I have heard a lot of people say that it’s becoming a thing. Like, “That guy? He’s such a fucking Jonah.” That is a thing that is happening. So they definitely exist.
Have you met one?
I have never met one personally. I think when we were doing research, we would go up to D.C. and take people out for drinks or take people out to lunch. I think if you were somebody who were going to go to that lunch and hang out with people in from L.A. to do a show about your town, there’s no way you were going to invite a “Jonah.” You hate that guy and wouldn’t want to spend another minute with that guy. And if you were the Jonah, you wouldn’t admit it. So I never actually knowingly met a Jonah. You know? I think if I have met a real Jonah, they probably would’ve said they were a Dan.
What do you think of all the cursing on the show? I imagine it’s fun to drop all those f-bombs, but how close is it to how you speak in real life?
I’ve always been a huge fan of swearing. I think that [Veep creator and writer] Armando Iannuci—a lot gets made of the swearing, especially in Armando’s work, but I know that he is very careful of there being too much. He’ll go through scripts and be like, “too much fuck.” Or “de-fuck this” is actually the phrase. Although I do love, I think that sometimes swearing is a crutch that can be leaned on rather than used for emphasis. So I know that Armando is very mindful of that. It gets to be, in some things, a little bit too much. But I do think that Armando does do a good job of being mindful of that and making sure that it’s not just a repetition of the “f-word” over and over again. And of course, from what I understand, as far as the realistic aspects of it go, D.C. is a very sweary town. Apparently it goes division by division, too. From what I understand, the Department of Defense is incredibly sweary. That’s apparently at the top. So it does stay true to the realism of the work place. But we do work hard to make sure it’s not just a non-stop cavalcade of “fucks.”
It seems like Jonah’s taking a few hits in the new season.
I think Jonah has always sort of tried to go out beyond his depth, thinking that when I get there, I’ll be fine. He’s always biting off more than he can chew, and I think that’s finally catching up to him in the first few episodes. He always goes a little bit beyond his depth, but for the first time it actually starts to catch up to him.
What was it like when you met Julia for the first time? I imagine it would be intimidating.
You know, it is. She’s an incredible person. And she’s a very open and welcoming performer and she’s an incredible castmate. It is a very nerve-wracking thing. I could not have been more nervous the first time I met her. And she could not have been sweeter, but there’s this thing that happens when you meet her that you just are immediately 40 IQ points dumber. I have to say, it has to be hard for her to meet people and every single day just be dealing with people who are 40 IQ points lower than they normally are. Like every single day she goes into CVS and people forget how to operate the register.