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Think the Presidential Election Is Ridiculous? A Star of Veep Says the Show Is Still Crazier Than Reality

Tony Hale as Gary in Veep. Photograph by Lacey Terrell courtesy HBO.

The remaining candidates for the 2016 presidential election are a ’90s juggernaut, an angry socialist, a slightly creepy moralizer, some guy who doesn’t realize he’s lost, and an obnoxious billionaire. Every instance of Hillary Clinton contorting herself in a desperate play to appease Bernie Sanders‘s supporters, Ted Cruz sermonizing, John Kasich claiming to still have a shot, or Donald Trump doing or saying anything seems like a page lifted from the scripts of Veep. And yet, in its fifth season, HBO’s political satire still manages to out-crazy reality.

Veep begins its latest run moments after President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) winds up in an Electoral College tie with her opponent. The motions she and her staff go through—HBO has shown critics the first four episodes—are as sharp and profane as viewers are used to, which comes as a relief after the show’s creator, Armando Iannucci, quit after the fourth season. And at Meyer’s side, as always, is her henpecked, emotionally stunted assistant Gary, played by Tony Hale. Hale, who is not nearly as zipped up as his character, was in Washington on Thursday to lobby members of Congress on behalf of the International Justice Mission, a nonprofit organization that combats the $150 billion human-trafficking business, and to talk about the new season of Veep.

Hale tells Washingtonian that even with new writers and the show’s move to California after the shrinking of Maryland’s film-incentive program, Veep‘s universe is still a step or two nuttier than our own. He also talks about why he’s a cautious viewer of Game of Thrones, working with Mad Men veteran John Slattery, and the time Australian politics imitated Veep.

The new season of Veep begins Sunday at 10:30 PM, after Silicon Valley and that other show.

You have new show-runners this year. Has that changed the overall dynamic of the show?

I have to be honest, when I first heard Armando Iannucci was not returning, there was a part of me that was like “ah, I don’t like change.” You grow close to these people, you get used to their writing. But then when I heard about Dave Mandel and Dave’s relationship with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, because he worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he brought in all these writers from SNL, he brought some assurances. Initially I think we had to get to know each other’s voices, but it was very quickly we got into a rhythm again.

It feels like they get the language of the show.

They obviously write their asses off and spend a lot of time on the script, but it’s a real partnership. I can say something like, “Eh, I don’t think Gary would say that. Mike might say that.” Julia will say something feels too on the nose. Stuff like that.

The setup is a tied election and it begins with a recount in Nevada.

Of course it happens on Veep, and she is just clinging to the office, and all we’re doing is being a bunch off morons making mistake after mistake, and the stakes are really high.

So, we did a phone interview before last season—

With who?

With me.

Oh, shit. I’m so sorry.

No, you were very kind. But I remember one of the things you said, because it was the first season where she’s the President is that “the country’s in a lot of trouble.” And now we’re in an actual election where—

[laughs]

Exactly. Has the show finally bled into reality?

It’s one of those things where you look at what’s happening you think if someone had scripted that, you’d say, “Eh, that’s too broad. It’s too over-the-top.” No one would believe it. People would think we’ve jumped the shark. So that’s scary. That’s shocking. I was just telling someone it’s its own network comedy that’s on CNN.

But there’ s no Trump analog in the show.

No, and that’s something I’m particularly proud of. The writers, they never take a situation and then kind of model it in. What happens often is that a situation happens after it’s written. I don’t know if you heard the Australian thing.

No.

So [Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull] slogan was “Continuity and Change.” Which was Selena’s book, Continuity With Change. He used a slogan of Selina Meyer’s. It’s like, continuity for those who want to stay the same and change for those who don’t. It means nothing, and then this Australian prime minister does it, and it’s like, “Did you see the show?” And he hadn’t. But stuff like that happens in real life? They have to be careful with what they write.

The team on Veep in front of the camera is still totally intact though. And now you’ve got Hugh Laurie as a regular now.

Yeah, he’s the best. And he had a whole UK comedy career before he moved to the States. But people like Dan Bakkedahl. I love Dan Bakkedahl. And Lennon Parham, who plays Karen. This year we have John Slattery. He came on board, so it’s fun to work with all these people.

So what’s coming up for Gary?

Well, nothing. Gary, bless his heart, he’s happy that nothing comes up. He’s like one big reactionary character. He loves being by her side, he never wants to leave her side, he never wants to evolve from there. He doesn’t want anything. He just wants things to stay the same for the rest of time.

There’s a great line and I don’t remember what season it was in, but she says something like, “Gary would like it if I shot him in the face.”

And if Gary heard that, he would probably nod. He’d turn around and say, “Oh, that’s harsh,” but then bounce right back. This is a woman who actually made Gary break up with her boyfriend for her, and he was like, “OK.” He just has no boundaries whatsoever.

Still the president, for now. Photograph by Lacey Terrell courtesy HBO.

You mentioned John Slattery. He’s a romantic interest—

—which Gary is never a fan of.

And second or third episode after they’ve hooked up, Gary walks into the bedroom and it’s like he just saw his mom having sex.

I would say any time she speaks to any man, he thinks that someone’s invading his territory. He’s the child she didn’t want, and he sees him as the lover she needs.

Does that mean we’re going to get an explanation for that Labor Day scene?

Dude, I am waiting for the explanation of that scene.

You don’t know?

There’s a part of me that never wants to hear it because I kind of like the darkness of it. I think something like super, super, Sopranos-like happened that is just too shocking for anyone to say. I think it involved something really dark. It has to, because she’s gone really dark. She does awful things, but that shut us both up. I like thinking how dark it could be and it kills the mystery if I knew. But I know from my and her reaction that it was unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.

HBO gets increasingly more secretive.

Are you a Game of Thrones fan?

Yeah. I’m amazed we got anything from Veep at all, because Game of Thrones is off limits to everyone.

The publicist at HBO hasn’t seen it. I haven’t seen it.

And you work there.

It’s an intense show, man.

So what’s your Game of Thrones theory?

Dude, I have to be honest. I just got into it. I watched it a few years back, and when they pushed that kid out the window in the first episode, I was like, I’m out. Children in peril? I can’t do it.

That’s like every episode.

I started easing my way back into it, but any time they pull a kid into it, I’m like, “ack.”

One of the first episodes of the season is about Selina’s mother, and she goes really dark in that one. Almost demonic. What are we to make of her at this point?

I think there’s been a genealogy of brokenness, just un-love. I think with Gary, he sees that she has had a history where it hasn’t been very healthy whether it’s been her family or relationships, and Buster—oh, God—Gary kind of takes a bit of a savior role. Like, you know what? I’m the love she needs. I can step in and fix all that. Every day he wakes up thinking, “I can be the love that she needs,” which is really sad.

To him, is that emotional love, physical?

He’d love both. Bring both on. But she’s a saint. She’s a gift to this earth, and he does not understand why nobody believes that. He has a very deep, deep love for her. There’s that one time they got in a fight and she says, “You’re a middle-aged man who sanitizes my tweezers.” That was rough for Gary. That hit a nerve, and he fought back. But then he bounced back.

You slipped a “Buster” in there. Did I just stumble into an Arrested Development scoop?

I get all my news from the internet, but it seems everyone wants to do it. It’s just a matter of everyone is off doing their own thing. We just need to find that perfect slot and time when we can come together. Everyone’s got stuff. Everyone loves the show and loves Mitch [Hurwitz’s] writing, because talk about surprises. That guy pulls surprises. I’m wondering what surprises are coming, because it ended with something happening to sweet, little Liza Minelli, and was Buster involved? I don’t know.

But getting back to Veep, it seems the new writers have nailed the language. There’s a line of Selina’s, “You’re going to cancel this recount like Anne Frank’s bat mitzvah.” The Meyer presidency is not in a good place.

Oh, god. It gets dark. It’s not in a good place, guys, but I don’t ever want it to be in a good place. That’s where the fun is. It’s not the fun in real life, but it’s the fun in playing it.

Is the show still as good of a mirror as it was early on?

Today we were walking around there were a lot of people who love the show and say “you would be surprised how real-to-life this is.” Which is a little disheartening. It’s flattering, but you hope these specific things weren’t going on. It wakes you up that behind the scenes, some of this stuff does happen, because it’s human beings. It’s human beings in pressure cookers of anxiety and stress and huge decisions. When that happens personalities are going to get stirred up and things are going to flare and emotions are going to be all over the place. That’s what I love about the show.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.