Usman Ally of HBO’s Veep talks to Awards Daily TV about coming back for Season 6 and his groundbreaking role as Selina’s love interest.
From running mate Tom James to ex-hubby Andrew, Selina Meyer has been romantically involved with a lot of men she shouldn’t be with on Veep. But Qatari ambassador Mohammad Jaffar, played by Usman Ally, offers something completely new for the former president.
“I think they both want the same things,” says Ally. “They’re both excited about the adventures they can have. They’re political movers and shakers. I think Jaffar also offers a lifestyle to Selina that’s exciting and enjoyable. He’s rather wealthy.”
The Veep crew shot on some opulent sets for Jaffar’s environments, including a yacht.
“It’s an ambitious energy that attracts them to each other. And there’s a level of power as well, her being a former president and him being in the world of politics where he is.”
When Ally was cast in Season 5 of the HBO comedy, it was a dream come true for the actor.
“I was such a big fan of the show. It was my favorite comedy on TV for years. I dreamed of being on the show but never thought I would. I was eager to do anything on the show.”
So imagine Ally’s surprise when he learned that not only would he be coming back for Season 6, but with a beefed up role.
“It was very surprising because when I was on the show in Season 5, I had no idea that I would be returning. They apparently already knew. I spoke to David Mandel, the showrunner, and he said, ‘Oh, when you were on the show, we knew we had to have you back.’ After the second time I was on the show, they thought it would be interesting for a love story with Selina. They all knew. Then, randomly I got a call in the middle of Season 6 from my agent, who was like, ‘Oh, they want you to come back!’ Tony Hale texted me the night before their table read or something, and said, ‘You’re coming back as Selina’s love interest!’”
Representing Muslims on Television
As a Muslim actor, Ally feels a certain sense of responsibility when it comes to portraying Muslims in a positive light, and his role on the HBO comedy brought about a turning point for images in pop culture.
“I think it’s important to create a wide range and palette of emotions and types of people who are Muslim. I also think it’s really important to show a person who’s Muslim romantically involved with another person on television. I think that’s very rare. You might see it on Master of None or Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick. For me, this was kind of a breakthrough. I’m playing the love interest of an incredibly powerful white woman on television. In terms of representation of men of color, we’re often either desexualized, the nerdy geeky guy who could never get a girl, or the very other extreme, hypersexualized sexual predators, so savage that he might rape someone. There’s no middle line of being a normal person who’s sexually attractive and interesting. Also being in an interracial relationship with someone, particularly with a woman in power where she’s kind of the alpha, I think it’s groundbreaking in some ways.”
Ally didn’t really do any research when it comes to the role, but he does model Jaffar after wealthy, Oxford- and Cambridge-educated, diplomat parents of children he went to school with.
“I would meet their parents and their parents were highly educated and didn’t seem to have a worry in the world. My parents are Pakistani, and there’s also a class of people in Pakistan who are politicians who are very educated as well, with a hoity-toity Anglophile accent. I modeled the character after those types of people, not necessarily politicians, but a class of people I was aware of when I was growing up.”
On Veep, Everyone Gets It
Of course, Veep being Veep, the show makes a lot of jokes about Muslims and politics in general, but Ally sees it as fair game.
“Everybody gets it. I went into it with that perception as well. They say something that might be considered offensive to everyone on the show. Once you understand the artistic world they created, it’s easy to get on board and let go some of those sensitivities.”
And when it comes to the jokes, they fly by at a rapid pace.
“I think what was helpful for me is that my background is in the theater. As an actor, when the writing is good, it’s easy to learn those lines. When the writing is bad, it’s hard to learn those lines. With Veep, because it’s so well-written, you find yourself being ready to work with what they give you rather quickly.”
But one challenge Ally met on set was the way characters step over each other’s lines, something he hasn’t experienced on many other shows. Thankfully, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was there to walk him through it.
“Julia would say, ‘We need to make it more realistic. Talk over me. Try to interrupt me.’ Technically as an actor, [you question] how audio will pick up everything, but they don’t care. They’ll figure it out. So that’s something that you do have to get used to, overlapping and interrupting each other. She’d say, ‘This feels too much like TV. Let’s rewrite this!’ ”
There’s a definite chemistry between Jaffar and Selina that neither audiences nor the two characters themselves can deny.
“They do like each other on a core level, and I think that’s good for Selina, that she met someone that she quite likes. I think Jaffar is enamored with her lack of subtlety when it comes to insulting people and making jokes. There’s something about her energy. He’s enticed by it.”
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.