‘Veep’ Star Matt Walsh on the Comedy of Politics

Matt Walsh

Veep‘s Matt Walsh talks about how the series changed his reaction to political reality and his favorite moments from season five.

Despite its White House locale, Veep‘s Matt Walsh reminded me very early in our conversation that the HBO series is still an office workplace comedy. Sure, the boss is the President of the United States, but ultimately the cast of characters are effectively typical office archetypes. As such, Matt Walsh is absolutely someone you would meet and instantly befriend in your typical office setting. He’s as easy-going a person as you’d meet. By the end of our talk, we’d already swapped vacation plans for our kids’ summer breaks (his were much better than mine). Matt Walsh is also an incredibly funny and engaging presence on Veep. His contributions to the classic ensemble should not go unnoticed. Without him, the political office world of Veep would be a sadder place indeed.

Just like that friendly and very funny guy you know in the cube down the hall from yours.

Matt Walsh
Photo courtesy of UCB.

AwardsDaily TV: Matt Walsh, it’s remarkable from the viewers perspective how little the tone of Veep has changed since the change in show runner from Armando Iannucci to David Mandel. Have there been any subtle differences that you’ve notice or had to adjust to as a cast member?

Matt Walsh: No, I would have expressed the same concern. There was a big transition, but I think getting to know people… it is a collaborate process and human beings what they are you have to sort of trust them and everyone has to be on the same page. I think in the beginning there was a “getting to know you” process, but once we were up and running I thought it went really well. After seeing the finished product, I agree with you. It doesn’t feel any different.

ADTV: Oh yeah, in fact, it just feels like the show keeps getting better and better as the show goes on. 

MW: Yes, it’s a unique process. I think there’s a learning curve for sure. I don’t know many shows that rehearse… we’ll read the table draft and then we’ll rehearse scenes without script with the writers in the room… I think it’s a unique process and everybody has to get used to it. That’s a tribute to Dave Mandel, our new showrunner, and all the new writers who came aboard. They’ve obviously had four seasons to study, and I think the characters are pretty well defined. Their intention was to make the show consistent, and they executed that exactly.

ADTV: Absolutely. So, one of the things I’ve noticed that has escalated season over season are the scenarios in which the cast gets themselves into – the botching of the recount in Nevada, the issues with China, and now Jonah Ryan’s campaign. Given the current political climate, was there a need to try and compete with similar real world political ineptitude?

MW: You know, what’s happened in this year’s election will raise the bar for the insanity that we’ll be able to do next season. Quite frankly, a lot of the stuff and storylines that we were doing in season five were already being written and conceived in the writer’s room in May/June. They’d already started cracking away at season five, but I think next season the rules are broken. We can go a little sillier. [Laughs]

ADTV: Do you ever look back and think, “Damn, we should have thought of that?”

MW: Well, every season there’s a big trip out to D.C. where the writers and Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] and the producers will go out and interview politicians and aids and directors of communications. They’ll get stories or backgrounds on what those jobs are like or what recent things in politics have happened behind the scenes. They use that as fodder to create the next season. As a character on the show, I pay attention to what’s going on in the news, but I don’t really draft my story for myself. I read what they do, and then I pitch them what I think Mike’s version of that is. Or, if I have an idea for something that I read in the news or saw, I can pitch it, but the responsibility lies with the writers.

ADTV: Given that you play Mike McLintoch, White House spokesperson on Veep, how political were you before you took this role?

MW: I think I was always an active participate in our democracy, but I’m not a pundit in any way. I think as the show has gone on, I feel like what I’ve gotten a knack for is, when I see a story break, I’m more curious about what happened behind the scenes or what the fallout is once they get off the mic. I’m more knowledgeable about the human beings or the machinations of the process of drafting legislation or drafting press quotes, points, etc. So, I think I’m more reactive as someone who can be empathetic to like “Oh boy, someone really got in trouble on that one.” Do you know what I mean?

ADTV: Definitely. My actual next question was how Veep changed your reaction to the political world? Seems like you’re reacting to the behind the scenes possibilities rather than just taking political events at face value.

MW: Yeah, I’m more empathetic. Veep is a workplace comedy. I mean, obviously, it’s a satire of our democracy, but I think it’s a workplace comedy. It’s about the people who work in D.C. You know, if I’m in an airport, I’ll get stopped by people who tell me, “I work in politics, and you guys are nailing it.” The big issues we nail. They do the research on the constitutionality, but I think also the way we portray a director of communications and what his life is like or the staff and the arguments that would happen in the room before she takes the mic or before they draft a statement. I think we’ve captured the work life of those people really well and the flowery language that happens in the halls of Congress. Apparently, they have filthy mouths in D.C.

I mean, obviously, it’s a satire of our democracy, but I think it’s a workplace comedy. It’s about the people who work in D.C. You know, if I’m in an airport, I’ll get stopped by people who tell me, “I work in politics, and you guys are nailing it.”

ADTV: They certainly do on Veep. [Laughs] Some of my personal favorite scenes are when you’re handling the press in the briefing room. I know this is a very heavily scripted show, but you come from a strong background of improvisation. Do you ever ad-lib any of those scenes?

MW: I think by the time we get the final drafts, since it goes through many rehearsals and phases, we’re pretty much acting on 90 percent as scripted. If the show is zipping along, we can do a free take where we get to mess around with it or Dave and the writers will run in with different lines to try. As you start doing it and putting it on its feet, you can sort of paraphrase what’s on the page or you can try things because you have a better feel for it now that you have the other actors in the scene. So, there’s some fluidness to the process. It’s not like an Aaron Sorkin or a David Mamet play where you have to hit every word. Most of it is on the page, but, yes, you can play with it and the writers want you to try and pitch ideas to try things in the process of it. Typically, it’s always like making more of moments that are on the page. This is a great moment. We can really milk this. We can really live in this a little longer. That’s typically our contribution as actors. Also, that press room is so big and cacophonous when they’re angry at Mike or there’s a story that he’s dying, it helps with the energy and the sort of stammering escape route that Mike has to take. I think there’s freedom with that.

ADTV: I love the scenes where you’re the lone man against the press corps, and you look so completely befuddled while trying to defend the ever-changing policies of the Selina Meyer administration. Is it a challenge to look so completely befuddled or are you just really excellent at turning off your brain?

MW: [Laughs] Well, that position is very difficult because you’re the face of the administration many times, and your job is to deny or lie or obfuscate. I think Mike ethically struggles with those moments at times. He is at conflict with what his job is at times, and, at the end of the day, he has to take a bullet. He doesn’t have a great poker face, so I think that’s really fun to lie poorly or sort of barely get out what you’re supposed to say but obviously sweat through it. I enjoy the scenarios they give me to portray. The hostility in that room, I think, represents the nation’s hostility at times with the bad choices Selina has made. He’s really on the front lines, and it’s fun to feel that.

ADTV: It is, but I have to tell you that, as a viewer, it’s a brilliant frustration because the main cast is so likable but you’re also doing horrible, inept things. I want Selina to be president for the comedy, but at the same time… No…

MW: [Laughs] Yeah, and also, historically… we’ve seen politicians who just give you sound bites that aren’t even related to the question or they just don’t say anything. I think that’s a great fallback if you’re the press secretary. Don’t give them anything or just stick to the talking points. We’ve seen that work with presidents and congressmen because that’s a way to control the conversation even though it’s obvious they’re sort of lying.

ADTV: A very funny recent episode dealt with the “C***gate” scandal. Has there ever been a story line proposed for the show that went too far?

MW: Sometimes I worry a little bit about Mike’s ineptitude or in the middle of giving a press briefing Mike is more concerned about his fit bit steps as opposed to the job. I think I worry about… I don’t lose sleep over it… but in the moment of execution I think great effort and conversation with the director and writers about will he be able to get away with this or can he do this. It always works out, but I think there are moments where there’s a comedic thing happening but Mike also has to execute his job. Those are the moments I just want to make sure that, at the end of the day, he does do his job well. He is a good press spokesman in that room. Obviously, he has capacity to be an idiot or terrible at his job, but I feel like in that room he always to be pretty good at his job. He has to be believable, and he has to do that job well for the comedy to work. Those are the moments that I work with. As far as big crazy things happening, as you know, the news bears it out that the reality is always crazier than the fiction.

ADTV: Unfortunately recently yes, that has been absolutely true which is sad… 

MW: It is sad. That’s happened consistently where we’ll do something and the conversation around that will be “Is this too crazy?” Then, six months later, somewhere in some state house or the federal government that exact thing happens.

ADTV: Right. Also, I never imagined that I would see a presidential debate where the size of someone’s member became a topic of conversation. That feels like it was written for Veep. 

MW: It is. It’s crazy. Obviously, it pushes the bounds of reality, and it’s embarrassing as a country to have a candidate like Donald Trump. It’s embarrassing that he could be our president, but it’s really a strange reality…. Let’s hope it doesn’t go there.

Matt Walsh
Photo courtesy of HBO.

ADTV: Absolutely. What’s your personal favorite Mike moment from season five?

MW: I always like when I see things that we discover in filming like a bit where Tony or Julia or I will be doing a scene, and it’s like “Wait a minute. What if we do this?” We sort of try something. There’s a couple of things like when Ben Cafferty pitches to Selina in a very safe way “You know, there was this Chinese hacking thing. Maybe the Chinese hacked your tweet, and maybe that’s how [a private joke was made public].” There’s something in there where Mike is… and they have to be very careful about their language or they could be litigated if she actively participated in this… At some point, they say “Obviously, we cannot tell anyone about this.” Mike’s sort of on the outside of the conversation and he’s like “Can? Or cannot?” He completely gets it wrong. Stuff like that makes me laugh because it’s Mike being terrible at his job, but it’s also something that we choreographed in the room that became part of the show. I really enjoyed the funeral where Selina was actually crying about her losing the popular vote and not about her mother. I really enjoyed Martin Mull coming through to play Bob Bradley. I get a kick out of playing with people like that… Brian Doyle Murray… These heavyweight legends of comedy coming through. It’s fun to see Tim running for Congress. I’m enjoying Jonah. I think Anna’s [Chlumsky] had some super filthy jokes – she’s really had some awful things to say this year. And I always enjoy when Ben [Kevin Dunn] has to fire somebody. He got to fire Diedrich Bader again. It’s always good. He’s a great hitman. I enjoy Gary Cole’s “Rain Man” like contributions during any scene. That always makes me laugh.

ADTV: I loved that throw-away second where Mike realizes the China issue will stop the adoption process.

MW: That was a great moment to play. To publicly mask… or try to, Mike’s not that good at it… but to try and get through that as best you can in a public environment.

ADTV: Yes, and considering the comedy legends as cast members and guest stars, how often do you break? How do you keep from doing that?

MW: I still break. I always break when we do limo scenes because we’re basically sitting right on top of each other staring at each other’s faces and there’s a cameraman in your lap. It’s really tight quarters. It’s sort of like trying not to laugh in church at some point. Those are always difficult to me. I still laugh, but I’ve probably gotten better at resetting quickly.

ADTV: So, outside of Veep, what else are you working on? 

MW: I have a small part in Ghostbusters, which I’m dying to see, and then I’m in a movie that comes out in October called Keeping Up with the Joneses with Zack Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, and Isla Fisher. I directed another small improv movie called A Better You that’s OnDemand. Just doing shows at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade). I do comedy once a week at my theater. That and going on vacation with the kids when they’re out of school.

Veep season five concludes on June 26. You can see Matt Walsh and cast each week on HBO at 10:30pm ET.

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