Veep: A Master Class In Political Satire

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HBO series wraps up seven brilliant seasons

Selina Meyer (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) leads her staff to mingle with constituents in Veep. (Photo by Colleen Hayes/HBO)

The atmosphere in our nation’s capitol is one that completely reflects the notion that truth is stranger than fiction. That is, until you immerse yourself in the world of Veep, the political satire that’s been airing on HBO and is finishing up with its seventh and final season.

Julia-Louis Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, a fictional vice president (and later president) of the United States, whose vanity, manipulative nature and self-absorption are tied up in an ego-stoked drive to leave behind a legacy, all the while playing the kinds of political games that make Washington, D.C. a real-life Game of Thrones. Aiding her is a sycophantic staff that includes Chief of Staff Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), Director of Communications Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh), Deputy Director of Communications Dan Egan (Reid Scott), civilian personal assistant Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) and personal secretary Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw).

Through the seven seasons of Veep, viewers have watched Meyer go from chafing in her position as vice president to fictional POTUS Stuart Hughes before the latter resigned and Meyer was assigned the top spot. Her own run for president results in the senate determining the outcome and Meyer’s own vice president casting the deciding vote and making her rival the victor. Last season found Meyer treading water by penning a memoir, setting up a foundation and attempting to find a presidential library before deciding to run for president again.

Among the advisors added to Meyer’s staff in season two were White House Chief of Staff Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) and political strategist Kent Davison (Gary Cole). Despite coming on board late in the game, Dunn and Cole were both impressed with how well-oiled the Veep cast and writers were given the various moving parts involved with such a large ensemble cast and the challenges that came with all of this.

“I was intimidated at first when I started to witness how the show was put together—I came from no kind of improvisation or sketch comedy background,” Cole admitted. “I was very unfamiliar. I wound up in a couple of movies with people who did that for a living. But I had never participated in it. It was always like, ‘Here I go.’ But because of the kind of tone that had been established already and the warmth and generosity of everyone in the cast, they knew what kind of tightrope people were walking on as actors for this show.”

“Some actors immediately knew what was up. I was having nightmares because I was memorizing my lines. Julia and the rest told me not to memorize and that I would get it. That’s totally counter-intuitive to what you normally do,” Dunn added. “So if you’re talking about Senator Ogelthorpe or something happening with the Ways & Means Commission—those things are going to stay in. The joy was that all of a sudden they adopted us after we came into the second season. They were great and fantastic.”

While Dunn was originally supposed to read for Cole’s Davison role, he instead wound up as the more acerbic Cafferty. As someone whose prior roles found him playing politicians both real (Sandy Berger in The Path To 9/11) and fictional (White House Communications Director Alan Reed in Dave), the Chicago native slipped into this new character easily. He also grew to appreciate the nuances given to his character by the series writing staff.

“I like that [Cafferty] was such a mess, but that he was very good at his job. And that he, in some ways, was able to be a little bit more honest with Selina than the others. He was maybe the most honest with her,” Dunn said. “And that he also wasn’t just a lush. He had his own manic depression, doubts and fears. They were very judicious, but they would pop up every once in a while. He is really messed up. I’m glad that it wasn’t him always being drunk. But he was always a guy that was usually drinking or ingesting some chemical. But they didn’t make a thing of it, because I think that just becomes the character. He was a very high-functioning alcoholic and drug addict. He was able to exist in that world and make sense of things despite being so messed up.”

Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh), Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) and Kent Davison (Gary Cole) strategize on the campaign trail. (Photo by Colleen Hayes/HBO)

Cole also has a soft spot for his Davison, a cold and robotic numbers-cruncher obsessed with polling numbers who Meyer eventually comes to value despite originally disliking him. It’s also a role Cole received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for.

“I’ve always liked characters that have limitations. Rigid limitations, and that’s maybe because I’m a lazy actor and then I don’t have to invent half of what I’m trying to do,” Cole said with a laugh. “What it does is make things much more specific immediately, and I enjoyed that about this character. It was also interesting to play somebody that wasn’t necessarily the majority of my personality.”

Given the seamless chemistry between all the characters, regardless of who is sharing a scene, it’s easy to envision Veep being improv-driven. Instead, this kind of flow resulted from hours of rehearsal that often stretched over weekends and a kinship the cast has developed over the course of seven seasons. It’s a facet of the show both Dunn and Cole are going to miss once the last episode airs this season.

“I enjoyed all of it. But what I enjoyed the most was when there were eight, nine, 10 or 12 people in the scene. As difficult as that may have been, that was being in it,” Cole said.

Clockwise, from left: Brian Huskey, Gary Cole, Tony Hale, Kevin Dunn, Julia Louis Dreyfus and Anna Chlumsky (Photo by Colleen Hayes/HBO)

“I’m going to miss working with people that you really enjoy working with—year in and year out. It was never a drag going to work,” Dunn said. “The best thing of all was the ensemble. The improvisational aspect of [the show] we really worked on a lot and Julia would say we had to make dirty. The dance was how all together, we’d be able to muddy it up enough and get it all out. You asked if we improvised all of that. But we didn’t. We just knew how to make it dirty. There’s a lot of freedom to do that and be able to work with other actors I think. Just going in and attacking a scene like that. You go in on a show, do your lines and do them as well as you can, don’t step on that line—it’s much more of a technical approach. Whereas we mastered the art of dirty acting.”

“When that works, it’s the satisfaction of people reacting and asking how you did it,” Cole added.

“You never get tired of that,” Dunn agreed. “We did crowd scenes with all these people—you’re dependent on so much going right to get it right. There’s so much shorthand communication that if I say this, the other person should step in front for this angle, and we’ll figure out where we’ll end up. It’s choreography. It makes you a better actor, at least in yourself. The satisfaction of doing it is magnifying.”

Veep airs on HBO on Sundays. Check local listings for air times.

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