The 'VEEP' Character You Love to Hate

Everybody knows a "Jonah," except the actor who plays him.


Timothy Simons plays Jonah on HBO's 'VEEP.'

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Everybody knows a Jonah—the obnoxious, cocky, little runt of a man (though actually quite tall) that serves as White House liaison to the vice president's office on HBO's "VEEP." The comedy, a satire of dysfunctional Washington politics, returns this weekend, and so does Jonah in all his foul-mouthed, imbecilic glory. Timothy Simons—who is far more pleasant than his character—talked to U.S. News about Jonah's style evolution, meeting a real-life version of his character, and where the show came up with the term "pencil f--k."

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How did you shape your character?

I talked to somebody who worked on the Obama campaign leading up to the pilot and one of the things I talked to him about was position is capital, position is currency – your position next to power is the money that you can spend, and what would you spend it on? I think it's pretty clear what Jonah would spend it on, generally. So I just tried to think of what somebody who so wants to be considered important – even if they aren't important at all - I think he understands that, now matter how important, 'I am close to power so therefore I am powerful.' It's been fun in the second season to see who has the power throughout the season, whether it be Selina [the vice president played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus,] or Gary Cole's character [who plays a member of the president's staff ] or our other characters from the White House. You can kind of tell who has the power because Jonah is then sucking up to them or following them around or making himself subservient to them somehow. Powerless as he is, he's going to find a way to always be in a room or close to someone who has power.

Did you ever dream of working in politics?

My parents were definitely cut from that cloth of "you can do anything if you put your mind to it," so I probably said that when I was six. I look at working in politics now and absolutely not. I would never, ever want to work in politics at this point. I used to be very interested in it, in that I would follow it day-to-day, but I found that it was just flat out ruining too many of my days to stay on top of it, moment-to-moment. I want to be a part of an educated electorate, but I just thought it was ruining my days. So I'm now sort taking a larger view. I want to know generally what's going on, but not so much that I am just going to be angry, because that doesn't help anything.

What kind of research do you do?

We would take staffers out for drinks and you really got into the truth around midnight, at least four or five beers in, where all the stuff came off, all the walls came down and it's just, "You know what man, this is off the record, but this [job] f--ing sucks." You actually got some truth out of them.

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One of the things we found out in taking people out to drinks is that everybody has two phones, little prop things like that, some of the vernacular, some of the terms. We picked up "pencil f---ed" [a term used when the vice president's speech is heavily edited at literally the last minute] from that meeting. Somebody was like, "Oh yeah, a guy had a speech today, I totally pencil f---ed him." And we were like, "I'm sorry, what? I'm sorry, what?," and we wrote stuff down and that ended up making it into the pilot. The process is pretty collaborative one, so we always come in with stuff like that and we'll pitch it.

What we will learn about Jonah in the second season?

You see him in his element a little bit more. You see how other White House people respond to him. It's pretty clear that the VP's office hates him, but up until this point, you don't know how the White House staff feels about him, so you start to see that a little bit more. As comfortable as he is going into the Eisenhower [The Eisenhower Old Executive Building, which holds the VP's office] and just being a total c--k, you get see him in his element, where he is even more comfortable being a c--k.

What's been the feedback you get from people who work in politics?