Veep's Tony Hale: 'We Need to Stop Putting Politicians on Pedestals'
The actor shares what he's learned about Washington from playing the veep's devoted bag man.
Behind every powerful politician is someone holding a giant man purse.
Tony Hale plays that guy on TV. For two seasons, he's appeared on HBO’s vulgar political comedy Veep as Gary Walsh, the vice president’s personal aide. Walsh is the oblivious, lovestruck sidekick to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s borderline incompetent Selina Meyer, fulfilling her every whim and snack craving with the same kind of neurotic codependence he delivered as Buster on Arrested Development.
Given the show’s history of coming up with storylines that later become real-life headlines, critics have hailed Veep as a hilarious confirmation of one of the country’s worst fears: that the federal government is indeed run by a bunch of proud, power-hungry blowhards more concerned with moving up in the ranks than doing their jobs. Yet even after playing the bumbling little guy privy to Washington’s (fictional) worst behavior, Hale says he has only become more impressed with the public servants the show sets out to skewer.
I spoke with Hale about his favorite moments from Season Two (out on DVD this week), why British comedy writers nail American politics, and what to expect when Veep returns for its third season on April 6.
We included Veep on our best television episodes of 2013 feature last December. What was your favorite episode of Season Two?
I would say it’s the episode where she walks into a glass door and she’s going on a marathon and Gary accidentally gives her a very high dose of St. John’s wort. She gets loopy and tells Gary every single thing he’s ever wanted to hear: That she’s going to his parents’ wedding anniversary, they’re going to dance, she adores him. Gary’s like, “This is happening!” And it all comes to a very sad crash.
I picked the episode where everyone goes to Finland, and Gary is a big part of what makes that episode funny. What do you remember about that episode?
Obviously working with Sally Phillips, who played the prime minister, and the awkward conversations she and Selina have made me laugh so hard. One of the hardest things about this job is to keep a straight face. I am incredibly unprofessional. I break every single time. I remember that episode, and also Dave Foley playing [Phillips’] husband, he gropes Selina—the whole thing was so extreme and ridiculous I could not keep it together.
Anytime Selina and Gary have a private conversation, it takes me having rehearsal time with Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] just so I can keep it together before we shoot. I just have to have a moment to get it out. I need to laugh, I need to get this material in my head so I don’t break on camera. And, of course, the camera rolls, and I still break. It’s worthless.
Part of what made the second season so great was its plot about a fictional government shutdown that aired months before the government actually did shut down.
I know! Isn’t that crazy?
What was it like seeing a Veep story arc become a real news story?
It’s happened a couple times. Something would happen in the press, and it hadn’t aired yet, and we were like, “Uh-oh.” It was a direct connection. That’s always strange.
Veep’s creator, Armando Iannucci, has done a lot of research in D.C., meeting with all sorts of Hill staffers and basing characters off real people. Are you part of that, or do you keep your distance from the Capitol?
I was able to meet with a guy who was a body man for a politician for two years in his 20s, and he shared with me how he had no life, he never saw his family, he was there constantly for two years, and then he moved on to something else. I think about Gary, who’s still there, in his 40s. He knows no life outside of Selina. I just thought, Oh my gosh, this two years of this guy’s life, what if that was extended into 20 years? His identity is completely this woman, which is incredibly sad.
But he’s content. Where everybody else wants to get new positions and power, Gary doesn’t want to go anywhere. He wants everything to stay the same. He wants her to get more famous so that he can keep his position and his place.
Do you think he likes the job or just likes Selina?
I think he’s obsessed with the job. I think he absolutely loves the job. When she belittles him and puts him down, he has this amazing recovery and just goes into a state of denial and pops right back up like he didn’t hear it. She’s screaming at him, and he’s seeing rainbows and unicorns. It’s just this odd, dysfunctional recovery.
Is there something that could pull him away?
I don’t think he would survive on his own. I think he would probably stalk her. I think it could get really ugly! I don’t think he knows how to survive. I think he might still show up at her house. I think he might send her an itinerary. He might sit in a car outside of her residence. I think he might be committed. I think he might be a serial killer.
Except for the serial killer part, I want to see that happen.
In a perfect world, in Gary’s world, they’re going to get married. They’re going to be at the altar together and it’s going to be nirvana.
How would you describe their relationship to someone who didn’t know the show?
If you ask each of them what their relationship is like, you would get very different answers.
If you ask Gary, they are incredibly tight. She desperately needs him. He thinks about her every minute of the day. She cannot live without him, he cannot live without her.
If you ask Selina, she might ask you what Gary’s last name is. She would go, “Oh, Gary? He’s very sweet.” And you’d be like “Selina, what’s your relationship like with Gary?” “Oh, it’s a regular working relationship; he does his job.” Or if somebody says, “What is Gary like?” she’d say, “I don’t know, me?”
What’s even sadder is that it’s going to get more uncomfortable than it has. How could it get more uncomfortable? How can it get more dysfunctional? It can. That’s what’s scary.
Do you hear from people who work in D.C. about the show?
I do, now and then. People will say how much they love the show and a couple people say, “I want a Gary in my life,” and I’m like, “No, you don’t.” Noooooo, you don’t. But even though we take it to the extreme in a satire, you see the humanity of these people, that they do fall apart, and you never see that in politics. You see the best sound bites and the best foot forward. I bet there’s something kind of nice and comforting that, yeah, we do have freakouts, we are insecure.
Veep is often lumped together with shows like House of Cards, Scandal, and Homeland that are considered a new of wave of cynical, anti-West Wing portrayals of Washington. Do you think it’s as cynical as its made out to be?
No, it’s not. This made me have more respect for people in politics. You’re walking into these intense environments, like a pressure cooker, just having to make these massive decisions. It’s not as cynical, but I think we need to stop putting these people on massive pedestals. I think we need to be giving them the humanity they deserve. They’re very intense environments. I mean, granted, we’re going to hope for the best, but these people aren’t perfect.
Anybody who wants to make a choice and place themselves in that environment, if they’re wanting to make a difference and have good motivation, my hat goes off to them.
Does Gary sneak into your life when you’re not rolling?
He does. I remember having a party at our house for people at Veep about a year ago. I found myself asking, “Everybody okay? Is everybody okay?” I am turning into Gary at this party. There’s a difference between hospitality and Gary. Gary is a twisted hospitality. He’s a very co-dependent dysfunctional hospitality.
Considering that the show is about Selina’s inner circle as much as it is about her, it seems like the group dynamic and the interactions between them will only get better the longer the show lasts.
Yeah. And what’s so fun about it is, you’re watching this and going, “Why are these people still around you?” It’s like the Keystone Cops. What’s going on here? And you realize she’s not going to let them go because they know too much. They know how messed up she is. She’s protecting herself too.
But they have reasons for staying, too. What’s Selina’s most redeeming quality?
She doesn’t crumble. Well, she crumbles and has freakouts, but when she’s got to step up or be on, she turns it on. That’s its own skill. She turns it on when she has to.
In February, The Atlantic ran a story about why so many political shows like Veep and House of Cards have British origins—that British writers, among other reasons, have a better understanding of the little guys and the smaller clashes of power that happen in national politics. What’s your take?
I think it’s pretty interesting that they’re all British writers looking into American politics. They have a very different perspective than we do on our own system. It’s a perspective that American writers probably can’t really bring to it like they can. That’s its own cool thing.
What else can we look forward to in Season Three?
We’re on the campaign trail. Looking for people to give this woman money is ugly. That its own chaos.