In the immortal words of Charlie Kelly, the illiterate, glue-huffing janitor of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “Every group needs a wild card.” And on HBO’s brisk and bawdy series Veep, that role has fallen on the broad shoulders of Jonah Ryan.
Last season Jonah, who’s brought to obnoxious life by Timothy Simons, went completely rogue. After he was fired during the Season 3 premiere, the gawky jerk starts a Capitol Hill gossip blog, Ryantology, issuing the following warning to his perceived rival “You know what? Fuck HuffPo. They should call if PuffHo because Arianna Huffington is a straight up ho and all they do is puff pieces.”
The baroque burn aired just three weeks prior to the 2014 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, of which Simons and his Veep cast members were invited guests, leading to a very awkward run-in with the grand doyenne of HuffPo, Arianna Huffington.
“At the Correspondents’ Dinner last year, I met Arianna Huffington and I think it was definitely remembered,” Simons says of his infamous diss. “It… came up. It was remembered. It’s a great line, but she did have a great sense of humor about it. But it stuck in a little bit, because it definitely came up.”
In Season 4, Jonah’s been brought back into the White House fold—sort of. He’s serving as White House liaison to the VP, a conduit of sorts between the Veep and POTUS Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). “Ladies be cryin’, pimps be dyin’, it’s Jonah Ryan,” he says, announcing his arrival.
“Oh my god, it’s so fucking obnoxious,” says a chuckling Simons. “Doing those intro lines, of all the awful things he does, might be the most reprehensible—that he feels the need to enter a room like that and he keeps fucking doing it even though he’s never received positive feedback.”
Episode Two, which aired Sunday night, introduced a Jonah nemesis in the form of Teddy, the Veep’s chief of staff played by Patton Oswalt. In what Simons calls “a weird power play,” Teddy taps Jonah’s balls. And he does it repeatedly—a trend that carries on over the next several episodes and has “ramifications that last the whole season.”
When asked how often Oswalt had to caress his man-purse this season, Simons delivers his signature teethy laugh. “A fair amount!” he says. “You always start with the wide shot, and then you go in for coverage. So no matter what, you’re always getting in there. For people who fake having sex on Game of Thrones, this is probably super tame to them. But nobody wants to see me in a sex scene, so I’ve never been in one, so this is all brand new. How do you navigate a coworker’s genitalia?”
He pauses, mulling over the monumentally uncomfortable scenario. “Me and Patton just ended up standing there and talking around it a little bit. I’d tell him, ‘So… Wardrobe asked me if I wanted to wear a cup,’ and then we’d silently negotiate whether or not I should wear a cup. But I didn’t end up wearing one.”
“I asked [Matt] Walsh at one point, ‘What happens? Is it just one of those things where guy or girl, gay or straight, is anyone ever offended if you get…’ and I was looking for the right word and Walsh goes, ‘a lil half-traveler?’” continues Simon. “You never know what’s going to happen. I later learned Mark Ruffalo’s take on it—a person I talked to attributed it to Mark Ruffalo—and apparently the idea is, ‘I’m sorry if I do, I’m sorry if I don’t.’”
As for Simons, he couldn’t be more different than Jonah. The thirtysomething Maine native is all smiles and nervous handshakes when he meets me in the lobby bar of the Four Seasons in New York. He’s proud of his small-town roots, and jokes about “The Maine Film Commission”—a fictional fraternity of Hollywood Mainers whose members include Anna Kendrick, filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, Masters of Sex star Caitlin FitzGerald, and The League’s Katie Aselton.
And Simons didn’t take the express route to Hollywood, or even L.A. He began doing 10-minute plays as part of the Maine Masque, the University of Maine’s theater troupe, and did summer stock. His first job out of college was as an intern at the Lexington Children’s Theatre in Kentucky, but he didn’t last long before moving to Chicago to act on stage, supplementing his income by tending bar at the House of Blues. Simons spent six years in the Windy City and even managed to land a part in the Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction as a guitar store salesman—but it was cut right before it was shot.
He eventually tired of the brutal Chicago winters and moved out to L.A., where his bartender-pal from House of Blues was living with a fella named Peter who worked for Allison Jones, a renowned TV comedy casting director who’s cast shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Arrested Development, The Office, and Parks and Recreation. Several years into his West Coast experiment, Peter sent Jones a clip of a GEICO commercial featuring Simons as Abraham Lincoln, which landed him a meeting. She happened to vacation in Maine, so the two hit it off.“She’d called me in for some day player things on The Office but I never booked one, and then she called me in for Veep,” remembers Simons. “I never thought I’d get it, but it just kept going well, despite all the odds. Looking back, I feel like I was in the world Armando was looking for, and he didn’t care that I didn’t have many credits to my name.”
The third-season finale of Veep saw Jonah, branded a “terrorist chicken fucker” and banished from the Internet, return to his childhood home licking his wounds. We’re introduced to Jonah’s overly devoted mom, as well as a hilarious portrait of Jonah hanging on her wall.
According to Simons, in order to capture the essence of Jonah, the art department asked him if he had any old photos of himself lying around. “My dad was a photographer so we had all these studio portraits of us,” Simons says. “It’s based on a very dramatic black-and-white picture that hung in my house where I’m wearing a turtleneck, but they added the popped collar and pink sweater. But the picture is very much me of that time.”
Once the episode was done shooting, the art department offered him the painting. “I said ‘no.’ If I gave it to my parents, they’d hang it in their fuckin’ house!” says Simons. “They’re very supportive people and it’s great, but it doesn’t matter if it came from the show, it’s just as crazy as Jonah’s mom hanging it in hers.”
But the painting is hanging on someone’s wall, somewhere. “My wife is a schoolteacher in L.A. and I put together a fundraiser for her school, and there were two copies of it that I contributed—and they were gigantic. So two gigantic copies are out there.”
Simons’ favorite Jonah line came from that finale episode, too, and the mere thought of it causes him to completely lose his shit.
“How do you not punch yourself in the face?” he says, laughing hysterically. “It’s just a great thing to say to your mom.”