Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Timothy Simons is best known for his role as the beleaguered Jonah “Jonad” Ryan on HBO’s Veep. Since the show premiered in 2012, the improv-trained performer has seen a sizable uptick in his career, appearing in a series of movies—including 2014’s controversial The Interview and Paul Thomas Anderson’s trippy Inherent Vice—in which he’s often cast as the straitlaced all-American guy, a rule-follower who’s quick to narc out anyone who steps out of line. Simons talked to The A.V. Club about these roles, a pivotal insurance commercial, and how he came to be cast as the most cussed-at flunky in D.C.
AVC: How did you end up on Veep?
TS: I think that, if my memory serves correctly, I was the first person that auditioned for Jonah and on the first day that they had auditions. If anybody that’s reading this is in the industry, they’re going to read that and be like, “Oh, my god, you had no chance.” There was really no chance that I was going to get this job. But luckily it went well.
I was also auditioning against type. I’ve talked about this in the past, but Jonah was written for a short, fat, bearded guy. And I’m not that. So I was auditioning against type on the very first day and I was the very first person, and so I thought, “By the time they’re even close to making a decision they’re not going to remember this. They will have seen enough people that they won’t remember the first guy in.”
I remember looking at it and being like, “Oh, I know why this is funny.” Like, “This is sort of in the wheelhouse of things that I think that I’m okay at and also things that I really like.”
The first audition went well, and I was really happy with it. I wasn’t getting a lot of opportunities at that time and—this is still true with auditions—you have to forget about them immediately. You have to put them out of your head, otherwise you’re going to drive yourself crazy. You essentially have to forget it ever happened. A month or so later, around Thanksgiving, my wife and I were visiting some relatives in Oregon. We were driving through the mountains, and I got a call from the agent that I had been working with at the time saying I was going to go back and test, but the phone call was breaking up. I was essentially getting either really good news or really terrible news, but the reception was awful. We were driving through the mountains and it took, like, a half an hour to get to reasonable cell service and the whole time I was like, “I don’t know what the fuck is going on.”
I ended up going back to do a work session with Julia [Louis-Dreyfus], Armando [Iannucci], and Anna [Chlumsky], and I walked out thinking, “I’m never going to get this job,” but that went well. I felt good about how it went in the room. A couple days later, I found out I made it through that step and was going to go into HBO and test in front of all the executives. You’re in sort of their screening room, and the steps that go down are like the theater steps—they’re not one step, but they’re not two steps, so you have to do this sort of “Hi, hello” thing, where maybe 20 people are watching you awkwardly go down steps that are not too large and not too small. It’s like they’re asking you to walk in heels for the first time before actually doing any scenes. Maybe if you can just make it to the stage you’re fine.
Ever since then it’s just been such an incredible work experience. Both with all the original Brit writers and Brit directors like Armando and Simon [Blackwell] and Tony Roche, and this new creative team that’s come in. They’re incredible, across the board. I didn’t go to grad school, and I really think this is going to be the closest thing I’ll ever get to it. It’s this sort of a singular-focused, really hyperintelligent group of people that all have different strengths. Everybody’s incredible, but they all have different insights and processes, and to be able to learn from this level of performer and writer and director and creator is an out-of-this-world experience. Honestly, anything that has happened I singularly owe to the opportunity to be on this show.
AVC: If Jonah was supposed to be a short, fat guy, how did you get the audition?
TS: I think I got called in because it was cast by Allison Jones, and she has been the L.A. casting director on the show since then. She did the original pilot casting, and then there was somebody out of New York that did some casting as well, but I think I’m blanking on it. Jenna Euston, maybe?
I had been introduced to Allison Jones’s casting office and Allison, I think, six months before. She had called me in for a couple day player parts on The Office or a really small part in a movie she might’ve been doing, and I never booked a single one of them. I was introduced to her through a friend of mine who—this is kind of a convoluted story—but I was working upstairs in the House Of Blues Foundation Room as a bartender. A waiter friend of mine had a roommate who also worked there and moved to L.A. before I did, and then his roommate in L.A. is her casting assistant. When I first moved to town, we met, we got along, and then years later he showed her a commercial I was in that she thought was funny, and they started bringing me in for stuff.
I think the reason I got called in was, from my understanding, the casting directors, they’ll definitely bring in people that have the same characteristics as what the director is asking for, but they’ll also bring in some people that they might think are good for the part and not think about any physical attributes at all. Or maybe they’ll bring in somebody that the director might not be thinking about their read on the character. It’s just to show them something different so they’re just not showing them 15 short, fat, bearded guys and saying, “Choose one.” To me that’s where the artistry of casting comes in is that they want to do what the director wants, but also they want to bring in a bunch of different people just in case.
AVC: What was the commercial?
TS: I played Abraham Lincoln in a Geico commercial, and it was mostly silent. It just ended up being funny.
That was sort of what I was doing at the time. I was running camera, session directing, and doing commercial casting calls. I was just trying to get put in commercials and make money and pay rent. I had a little bit of a run, and that was just one of them. It got a little bit of attention, and there was some clear comedy in that where somebody could’ve looked at it and been like, “Oh, this guy might be funny. Let’s see if he actually is funny and call him in for something.”
I think that was the one that got most attention. It also ran for fucking ever, so you couldn’t really avoid it.
AVC: That probably worked out well for you, money-wise.
TS: That’s one of those things where you never know which one is going to hit. The longer the run, it just moves the goalpost. I don’t know if that metaphor works, but it just kicks down the line when you’re going to have to get a job or when you’re actually going to be like, “All right, you’re a fucking asshole. Good job playing like you were going to do this. Now go get a job.” It just kicks that conversation further down the line. You kick it down the road so you don’t have to deal with it.
AVC: Your first credit on IMDB is Scotty Got An Office Job. What’s that?
TS: My roommate and best friend from Chicago, he and I had a show called The Big Rock Show in Chicago. The coolest I’ve ever felt, actually, was when we got interviewed for the Chicago A.V. Club, because we were playing a bunch of shows in town. The bit of the show was that it was the world’s smallest stadium rock show. We had all the tropes of the stadium rock show, but we were just two guys, and I did not sing or play an instrument. He did all the playing. I just was the roadie, and I did all of the shitty pyrotechnics and the fog machine.
We had kind of wrapped up that show. We had done a bunch of it, we had been doing it for about two years, and he ended up getting a job. I can’t remember where, but maybe at NPR or Chicago Public Radio. He discovered that with the soda machine, if he put in 50 cents for a soda, it would give him two sodas. He figured that out and started videotaping it. Because he had been a freelancer for years as a sound designer, this was his first “I get up and go to work at this time for the foreseeable future” office job. Granted, it was still in a creative field—it wasn’t like he started working for a drywall company—but he started making videos because he was into the idea of YouTube before it was really the thing it is now. In that first iteration, he was one of those guys making funny personal videos of his adjustment to working in a regular office.
He did one that was synchronized swimming, and I think I was just a voice-over to highlight his inability to have office conversation in Chicago, which is just always about sports. I’m just a guy off screen saying the word “sports” over and over again as if I’m in a regular conversation.
AVC: What’s the biggest production you’ve been in?
TS: As far as sheer people, the most I think I’ve ever been on set with is probably [on Veep] at one of those conventions or when I was doing the really terrible stand-up at the end of last season. That’s probably the most people I’ve ever been in front of.
Production-wise, the destroyed Main Street in Goosebumps was really cool to walk through during the days that we were shooting. All of the storefronts were blown up, and there were flipped-over cars and cars made to look like they had fallen from 300 feet and cratered into the asphalt.
Even though it wasn’t movie-magic impressive, the sheer logistics of the Gold shoot were out of this world. We were shooting in national forests in Thailand, so it was sort of a skeleton crew. It wasn’t a gigantic crew, and there was obviously a language barrier between the lighting crew and the DPs, so everything has a translation moment. The crew on that movie had an incredibly hard job, and they handled it super well. It was really long days, in the elements—the cam-ops would have a camera on their shoulder in a river, up to their chest in water, and then a thunderstorm, like a giant monsoon, would sweep through, making really challenging conditions for everybody. Logistically, that’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen, and they handled it all with grace.
AVC: What’s your role in that movie?
TS: I played one of a triad of New York bankers that go to check out this gold mine that [Matthew] McConaughey and Edgar Ramírez have discovered, and we’re out of our element. We are New Yorkers going on an adventure to check out this gold mine and to check out the validity of it before people invest.
AVC: You’ve played the straight man or the businessman a few times. In Inherent Vice, you’re a cop. In The Boss you’re an assistant to this guy who’s kind of a weirdo. Why are you getting cast as a serious guy?
TS: I don’t know. Maybe that’s where it’s the most true for me, I suppose. That’s a really pretentious way of putting it, but that’s just the direction that I like going with things.
I was such a goofball kid, and I look back at some of the family pictures or old home videos, and I’m just like, “Dude, calm the fuck down. Nobody needs to be putting on that much of a show.” Maybe it’s just a reaction to what a fucking idiot I was when I was younger.
I admire the people that have that sort of calm, that still-water performance. I really like that when I see it, and I think that the things that I like doing have that. This is so fucking pretentious, I hate saying it, but the truth of comedy usually comes from there for me. Maybe that’s why.
I think I get in trouble sometimes, especially when it’s like I need to be easier on [my] kids because maybe I’m a rule-follower now. I’ll look at something like the kids’ coloring or something and I’m like, “That’s not the way that marker should be used.” All imagination is gone, and it’s just like, “Here’s the proper way that we use a marker,” you know? Maybe that’s a dad thing.
AVC: Did your kids think it was cool that you were in Goosebumps?
TS: No, they haven’t seen it yet. They’re 4, so I think it’s still a little bit old for them. They probably could handle it, but there’s some stuff in there that’s a little scary for a 4-year-old. I think when they get a little bit older. There are some kids at their preschool that’ve seen it, and you can’t imagine. That’s the most famous I’ve ever been.
AVC: Those kids have probably seen it 200 times.
TS: They’ve seen it so many times. I’ve been able to show them pictures of the day I was all covered in icicles or whatever, and they were pretty impressed by that.
AVC: You’re a cool L.A. dad.
TS: I’m now at that point. We just went to the Neighbors 2 premiere, and there were all these references to old people. All the girls in the sorority are saying, “The old people are trying to do this, the old people are trying to do this.” And my wife and I were talking about it on the way home. I’m not particularly old, but to someone who is 19, I’m the oldest of the fucking old. But to these kids, to 6-year-olds, I am a pretty cool old person.
AVC: When you’re growing up, you think, “Ugh, 35 is ancient. That’s over the hill.” And then you turn 35 and think, “I don’t feel old.”
TS: And our kids are even saying 20. They consider 20 years old to be old. I don’t know how to tell them, “You’re still going to be dumb as fuck when you’re 20. You’re not going to know shit.”
AVC: How did you end up in The Interview, and how did you feel about all the shit that went down around the movie?
TS: That was, I think, the first thing that I’ve ever been offered. If an actor ever says they really enjoy the auditioning process, I truly believe that they’re lying. It’s an anxiety-filled waking nightmare. It’s awful.
I was in Baltimore at the time, because I think we were shooting season three [of Veep], and I got offered the part of Malcolm. It was a no-brainer to say yes, because I had not worked with those guys before and they’re fantastic. It just so happened that the week that I needed to be in Vancouver was a week that we had off and that production was down, so I was able to go do it.
It was as fun a set as you would imagine one of their sets would be. There is laughing all the time. There are a million alts. You can follow any crazy idea. Everybody generally has a really good time. It also made me fall in love with Vancouver. Vancouver is a really amazing town, and we were shooting nights, so you’ll work until 7 a.m. or so, and then you’ll sleep until 1 and then your call is not until 7 that night, so I had a little bit of time in the afternoon to explore Vancouver, and I loved it.
I think the movie turned out super funny. I wish more people had been able to see it. I never felt any—well, of course I never felt any physical threat—but I was worried about personal information, because as soon as they released all the documents, personal information of mine was in there, so I had to take a bunch of steps to make sure that I was as safe as I could be with personal information and stuff like that. That is scary, especially because I have kids, and I want to make sure that they are protected. Not that anybody is going to come over and kidnap my kids, but I don’t want everybody to know where I live.
I think as far as it being pulled, I don’t know. I think it was a bad idea. I don’t know who it comes down to, but that’s just not our country. That’s not what we should be doing. We don’t pull books, because that’s not what we do, and if we’re going to start… I think it sets a really dangerous precedent for what a reaction of a company should be if there’s a threat. If it really is as simple as somebody making a threat, we’re never going to be able to read books or see movies some other country chooses for us. That is on the consumer as much as it is on the distributor or a bookstore. I love the theaters that were like, “Fuck you, we’re showing this movie.” And I love that people would flock to see it. That’s what as a country we have to do. We have to stand up to that. Otherwise we’re just living in fear of it, and that’s the whole fucking point.
Anyway. I was not under any direct threat. I was far enough down the call sheet that I never really had to worry about it. But outside of North Korea almost bringing down an entire studio, it was an amazing experience.
AVC: What was it like to be on Gay Of Thrones?
TS: Erin Gibson is one half of the Throwing Shade podcast and is, I think, the co-creator of Gay Of Thrones. She has been writing and still writes on it, and I have known her for a really long time. I just think she is massively funny, and so I’ve always been a fan of Gay Of Thrones. I’m a huge fan of Jonathan [Van Ness], but that was the first time that I had met him, and as soon as we sat down, it was clear that just about anything he was going to say I was going to have no idea what it meant. I mean any reference to, like, old jazz singers or essentially anything that has to do with modern gay culture, I have literally no idea, so that ended up being a really fun bit to find, like “The old man doesn’t know what kids talk about.”
We started talking about red carpets and how they’re much harder for women then they are for men. I get to wear the exact same thing every time and I stand one way. I was taught how to stand on the red carpet. Put your hand in your pocket and that’s it. That’s literally all a guy has to do.
AVC: Who taught you that?
TS: A stylist named Ashley Weston who specializes in dressing men for premieres and red carpets. She’s a menswear stylist and she taught me that.
I was talking with Jonathan about how I don’t know how people do the over the shoulder glance—show them the back of the dress, kind of sultry, smoky-eyed thing—and we started joking about it. I told him that the next red carpet I did I was going to do the stand-backwards-look-over-the-shoulder sultry look that women have to do to show off dresses on red carpets. The next red carpet I was on was the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I don’t know if they’re out there on Getty Images or whatever [They’re not. —ed.], but while I was there I stuck my hand in my pocket and then I turned around and threw the look over the shoulder and did as good a sultry look as I could. I got a solid laugh from the photo core, and then they were like, “Move on, nobody cares about you that much.”