March is a month for brackets, so this week on The Ringer, we’re hosting The Best TV Characters of the Century—an expansive, obsessive, and unexpectedly fraught competition to determine the best fictional TV personality of the past 20 years. To help the public make informed voting decisions, The Ringer has contacted some of the people who know these characters best: the actors who played them. Check back throughout the week for more interviews, and be sure to vote for The Best TV Characters of the Century Bracket here.
Jonad. One Erection. Scrotum poll. On Veep, Jonah Ryan has just about as many nicknames as haters. And yet, in accordance with the show’s mercilessly realistic portrayal of modern politics, the lanky “Guyscraper” from New Hampshire experiences a staggering ascendance over the span of seven seasons, rising from sniveling White House liaison to fringe political blogger to bumbling New Hampshire congressman, to vice president of the United States. He gets there not on his own political wits, but with the help of the country’s broken partisan vehicles: the NRA, wealthy lobbyists, and the conservative media’s glorification of xenophobia and sexism. The fact that these are standard political strategies in Washington today makes Jonah’s role in the series all the more cathartic. He’s just so obscenely offensive, dumb, and familiar that you have no choice but to laugh.
Timothy Simons, who played Jonah, is acutely aware of his character’s unique buffoonery. The Ringer caught up with the 41-year-old actor mid-quarantine to reminisce about his fondest memories of the character, his favorite Jonah line, and how our dear Wadzilla would’ve handled this pandemic. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
As I was prepping for this interview, I was imagining how Jonah Ryan might handle a coronavirus situation. It made me shudder a little.
I did think about it yesterday when I was reading. I was just trying to imagine the inside of the Trump White House. I did imagine him for a moment both trying to prove that he was essential staff but somehow also trying to be sent home. He would not want to be sent home for being inessential. He would not stand for that. But it would be very much like what we’re seeing from the administration. Very unwilling to sacrifice themselves or to have any sort of empathy. That’s not one of his hallmarks, his empathy for any other human beings. I could see him in the White House trying to have his cake and eat it too, being deemed essential staff but also being sent home so he doesn’t have to worry about getting sick.
What was your favorite Veep episode for Jonah?
“Testimony,” Season 4, when we’re all hauled in front of a congressional hearing. And also the series finale. Those two are my favorite episodes. Which, oddly, it’s the last episode that Armando [Iannucci] directed and the last episode that Dave [Mandel] directed.
Why are those your favorites?
With the congressional hearing, just because of the absolute fucking insanity of that episode. Not only [because of] how long it was and how many pages of it we were able to shoot in one day and the experience of shooting it. I think the script was 90 pages long for a half-hour show. People who are reading this maybe don’t understand a page-count-to-minute ratio, but generally one page equals one minute. So we’re a half-hour show and we had an hour-and-a-half-long script that somehow got boiled down into 20 minutes.
Also, as performers, we weren’t allowed to see the congressional hearing room before we went in. We didn’t know how many people were going to be in there. We didn’t know who was going to be asking us questions. We weren’t allowed to see it to try to give some sort of reaction to it that was authentic in that moment.
We shot 56 pages of it in one day. Readers might not understand why that’s so crazy, but usually [for] a television production, five pages per day is considered pretty normal. I think if you do eight or nine, that’s like, “Wow. You got a lot done.” I feel like we generally averaged about 13 a day. And our record for the most we ever did was that day, which was 56.
The finale is one of my favorites just because, generally when it comes to other movies or television shows, I really don’t like it when shows let people off the hook. The writers or directors or actors have a sense of the fact that it’s ending. All of a sudden they get sentimental in the story and in the characters rather than just being sentimental about it while it’s being shot. I like the fact that the show just went darker and darker and darker until the end. That’s why I like the finale so much, because it was brutal, and it was brutal in the same way that the show was brutal the whole time.
But whenever people ask me about very specific character things ... Erik Kenward, who is a longtime Saturday Night Live writer and is still there but who would also go back and forth and write scripts in our writers room, he wrote the “I’m eating so much pussy I’m shitting clits” line—
Oh my god. I was going to ask you about that because that’s literally my favorite line of the whole series.
I’ve thanked him both in person a number of times for that one and also have mentioned it in interviews before because I think somehow, that character saying those words in front of a room full of elementary school children is sort of the perfect distillation of that character in seven words, nine words, however long that sentence is.
Do you remember what your reaction was when you first read that line?
The first time we read it was during the table read. This would happen a fair amount: There would be a certain line—a lot of times it would be like a Kent [Davison, played by Gary Cole] line because Kent lines are so specific and very coarse—but there would be moments when [a line] would just shut a read-through down, where everybody would laugh so hard and so long that whoever was timing the read-through would just have to stop because it just would add too many minutes to the read-through. And that was definitely one of those moments. Heads on desks, gasping-for-breath laughter from everybody. That happened a lot because the writers are really fucking funny.
When you actually had to act it out, did it feel weird to say it in front of all those kids?
I think they were going to try to figure out a way for me to not say it in front of the kids, but also have it look like I did. But then in rehearsal, the first rehearsal, I just said it because nobody told me not to. And then they were just like, “All right, well fuck it. Whatever.” For me, it occupies a space in my brain that is the same thing that, like, if you smoke cigarettes in a movie or a play, it doesn’t count. In the same way that if you’re working on a night shoot and you eat snacks, they don’t count. You know what I mean?
All food you eat at the airport doesn’t count.
It’s that exact thing. Saying this terrible shit in front a bunch of 9-year-olds will not affect them because we’re making a television show. But this doesn’t really overlap with my belief that there should be no child actors. I am a firm believer that all children and babies in films should be played by people 18 or older, adults, and we should all just buy into that.
What was that Clint Eastwood movie where they had the fake baby?
Oh yeah, American Sniper. But no, even that is too far. It should just be edited. I want to make sure the actor gets a job. You don’t have to pay a doll. You want to make sure an actor has a job so that should be an 18-year-old-man that he’s cradling.
This is the hottest take I’ve ever heard.
Yes. And then everybody should just agree that it is a baby.
No, I’m very, very adamant about this.
Fascinating. OK, to bring it back to Jonah Ryan: Did you add to the character? Do you draw any inspiration from real life?
There wasn’t any one person specifically that I drew from for it. I just tried to take out any sense of social grace, any sense of morality, and just have someone who is ruled by proximity to power. That is ultimately the only thing that he cared about the entire time he was on that show. But as it went on and on, I think it’s important to add human characteristics to these people. It was fun to give him enough humanity for you to feel bad for him but only if he was always able to pull the rug out from under you and make you regret feeling bad for him.
Like when he got cancer, recovered, but then continued to fake having cancer?
Yes. Exactly. He has cancer—this is a great test for whether or not you have empathy. A lot of people are like, “Oh god. Why did he have to get it? Because now I have to feel bad for him.” And he just finds a way to make you regret feeling bad for him.
Do you miss anything about playing Jonah?
No. I miss working with all those people. I miss the table reads that were a nonstop source of joy. To have that be my job for that long and to have it never really go bad. ... You hear these sort of awful stories about people that work on television shows. By the fourth season they’re not even really able to be on set cordially at all. They’re barely able to do the actual job that they’ve been hired to do.
To have it never go bad like that, I miss that immensely. But I also think that we were pretty lucky in that we had every single opportunity to do every single thing we could have ever wanted with it. And I think that’s why I don’t miss it. There’s nothing more to be looked at. You know what I mean? If it ended after Season 3, I would have been like, “Oh, shit. Probably could have done some more stuff.” But now you can’t look in any direction without being like, “Oh yeah, we kind of did it.”
To that point, is there anything you wish you could have gone back and changed about him or his trajectory in the series?
If you look at the first season compared to the last four, basically once [Selina Meyer] becomes president, the whole world of that show changes. When she’s the president, she’s important. And [there’s] a lot of stuff happening all the time, and you’re constantly in meetings. I think the only thing that I would have liked maybe was to have more time to be in quiet moments. The first season there are parts of it that I absolutely love that are just six dummies all sitting in a room, not doing anything and talking to one another. I wish we had had an extra 15 minutes an episode to just have six dummies sitting in a room together. And not have anything happening but just have them fucking be horrible.
Like, accomplish nothing but also be in the White House.
Yeah, accomplish nothing but be in the White House, yeah.
My final question is who are your personal favorite TV characters in all of television?
Shane in The Shield, played by Walton Goggins.
I’m not familiar. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
You’ve never seen The Shield?
No, I haven’t.
Oh Jesus Christ, it’s like one of the best shows that’s ever existed.
I’m writing it down on a Post-it note right now.
You really should only because that’s the show that I do think everybody sort of applies this anti-hero, terrible man that you’re rooting for in so much of modern television. And it’s an un-fucking-believably good show that’s incredibly hard to watch sometimes. It’s basically about a corrupt anti-gang task force in Los Angeles that was based off of the Rampart division.
It was an LAPD task force designed to be anti-gang but ended up in bed with the L.A. gangs. All I’m going to do is just sell you on watching The Shield.
I actually have a lot of free time recently, so.
Oh really? What’s going on? No, the entire pilot episode is that one of the guys on the anti-gang task force realizes that the main character is corrupt and is in bed with all these drug dealers and kind of letting them run free if they kiss up to him. And they fucking set this guy up and murder him in the first episode. They straight up murder him and then you root for them for seven seasons to get away with it. It is crazy.
Ovejita from Sesame Street is low key one of the funniest recurring characters on television. She’s amazing. At some point she always does the thing that Murray on the street is focusing on (dancing, pottery, gymnastics) and it’s legit the best thing.