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‘Veep’ Star Tony Hale On Playing Washington’s Most Devoted Body Man

Tony Hale as Gary Walsh on HBO’s “Veep.” CREDIT: PATRICK HARBRON/HBO
Tony Hale as Gary Walsh on HBO’s “Veep.” CREDIT: PATRICK HARBRON/HBO

Last week, Veep’s Tony Hale swapped fake D.C., where he plays Gary, the hapless, hopelessly devoted personal aide to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer, for the real one, where he lobbied Congress on behalf of the International Justice Mission and its efforts to fight modern slavery and human trafficking. It’s the kind of meaningful, substantive work that Gary would never find himself doing, as his sole mission in life is to grease the wheels of Selina’s existence. Selina, fair to say, will not be going to the mat for victims of human trafficking anytime soon.

Hale, also beloved for his role as Buster Bluth in Arrested Development, has scooped up two Emmy awards for his performance as the man both closest to and farthest from power: He is never not within spitting distance of Selina, who is — for now, technically — the President of the United States. But of the pack of conniving, hungry people scrambling for real political influence, Gary stands apart, never angling for a better job, a better title, a better anything, really. Through every gaffe, every ill-advised decision or public appearance gone deeply wrong, Gary is there, barnacled to Selina’s side, fetching every item she requires from a bag so overloaded that carrying it around all day for who knows how many years wrecks his physical well-being. Whatever Selina’s sins — and, one could argue, she has at least six of the deadliest seven and then some — Gary is devoted, guiding her every social interaction with unwavering, over-the-top adoration, like a smitten, sycophantic sherpa.

Veep, now in its fifth season, is, like the America within the show, under new management. Series creator Armando Iannucci let go of his role as showrunner after four seasons; David Mandel, a former executive producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm and writer on Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld, where he met Louis-Dreyfus, took over as a tax incentive lured the HBO series out of Baltimore and into Los Angeles. Season five finds Gary and the gang in a wonky, absurd predicament: The presidential election has ended in a tie, which leaves Selina and her underlings hustling to figure out how the electoral college actually works, even though, as Selina tells the American people, it is “a somewhat arcane institution that many scholars say we should do away with.”

Hale spoke with ThinkProgress about this season of Veep, Gary’s relationship with Selina, and what it’s like to play the right-hand man of “the last person who should be in office.”

Do people react to you differently in D.C. than they do in the rest of the country?

You know, all I got, as we were walking around talking to representatives, is that people love the show. I’ve always figured that, obviously we’re a satire, but it seems like more of an inside perspective of what’s going on. It’s not what people see in the press, but people in D.C. like it because they’ve seen the freak-outs, the meltdowns, the insecurities, the posturing, and people relate to that.

You’ve had lots of changes this season behind the scenes. A new boss, a new city. What’s the transition been like?

We moved to L.A., and I really enjoyed Baltimore; we shot there for four years, and to come back to L.A. was a real gift because we were all closer to our real families. When Dave Mandel came on board — last year when we found out Armando was going back to the U.K. to spend more time with family, and I have a huge respect for his decision. I think it’s incredibly admirable. But there’s a part of it that’s like, aww man! What’s going to happen to the show? But when I heard David Mandel was coming on, and he’d worked with Julia before on Seinfeld, and she had complete faith in Dave, so the transition was not as difficult as we thought. There were some growing pains in the beginning.

How did you react to the end of last season cliffhanger, that it was going to be this tie?

When I found out it was going to be a tie, it was just kind of a perfect way to catapult into this season. Because [Selina] is always in this in-between place. She’s president now because the other one had to step down. She’s not really, fully president, because it’s a tie, and she still has to campaign for it. She’s always hanging on, desperately trying to manipulate her way into the office, and we’re just a bunch of morons around her. She’s got this ridiculously idiotic team around her. They’re still in this very desperate place. She’s always so desperate to get attention and affirmation and she never ever gets it. And my character, of course, doesn’t understand why the office isn’t just handed to her. “She is the perfect candidate, I don’t why America hasn’t woken up to her magnificence.” And that’s really fun. Any time I see a poll, I’m just flabbergasted.

It’s amazing that Gary can see her that way. Does he have any idea how terribly she treats him?

It’s a complete domestic violence, abusive situation. She is so verbally abusive to him. And just, he just has this bounce back, codependent, incredibly dysfunctional way about him. He hears it, and he gets hurt, but then he bounces right back, and he just has rose-colored everything on: eyes, ears, everything. And I think he’s one of those guys that, very early on in his career, he doesn’t have much of an identity in himself, so he latched onto someone powerful like Selina Meyer, and her identity became his identity. He goes home, and there’s probably an incredibly disturbing altar to her. And he practices exercises on how to get stuff out of the bag as fast as possible. He has no life outside of her. In the past, he’s tried to date and all this stuff, and that hasn’t worked out, because he has his number one.

What do you think he sees in her?

She’s an absolute disaster. And she’s the last person who should be in office. But she has, I think, been spinning her way to the top. The show is really more about office politics than it is about actual politics, because it’s really everybody just trying to position themselves in a safe position to stay on top. It’s like high school: People gravitate toward the popular people to keep their position. She could care less about the nation. The nation is like number 50 on the list. It’s how she can get ahead, and anytime she gets pushed to the side or doesn’t have the attention she wants, she’ll get it and she’ll find a way to get it. She has not an empathetic bone in her body. Look at how she treats her daughter. Talk about emotional abuse.

This is something I have wondered for the entirety of Veep: Why does Selina even want to be president?

That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that, or thought about that. I think, early on, she probably got a taste of power and liked it, and wanted more and more and more. I think she comes from an incredibly unhealthy home, where power and money are what matters, and that’s where she puts her value, so she will do whatever it takes to get the wealth and the power. And it’s kind of been known that she was raised with money, and that’s kind of where the power and the money, that’s her value, she wants more and more, and the truth is, it’s never enough. And that’s where the show is such a delight: You see this desperation for power, and it’s never enough. She gets something and wants the next thing, or the ground crumbles beneath her, and she has to find a way to jump back on top.

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And as we see this season with Richard and Jonah swapping places, power is so precarious in this world. You can lose it or gain it in an instant.

That swap was hilarious. The thing is, when you look at these shows, if you look at the material and the story, it’s actually quite sad. It’s a very sad story of people who are walking with this tremendous fear of losing everything. They’re afraid they’re not going to have it, or they’ll lose it. But there’s so much satire there, so it’s fun to find those awkward moments. I mean, the humiliation of Selina and Gary and everybody, that is the funnest thing to play in comedy. Just sitting in that tension is the best.

Do you have any favorite Gary moments?

There was a time when Selina was drugged up on St. John’s Wort, and it was the first time she was kind to Gary, and talking about how she wanted to go to his parents’ wedding anniversary, and it was just because she was doped up on painkillers. And just to see his elation, his hope — this is the moment I’ve dreamed up my entire life! We’ll have this night together! And when she crashed off the medicine and turned right back into Cruella de Vil, and total devastation. To play that roller coaster was really fun.

And when she walked into the glass, and her face got cut up, and her face looks like something out of American Horror Story, and she turns to Gary and asks if he has a mirror and he says, “No.” And it was total protection: He did not want her to see the way that she looked. And you know he had, like, six mirrors. He’s got a full body mirror folded up in there.

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Even though, as you say, it’s more about office than electoral politics, does being in the show influence how you see our real elected officials and politicians?

Obviously, we take it to the extreme. There are people out there with good motivations who are trying to make a difference in our world or our nation. I think the people with those motivations who really want to make a difference, you’re stepping into what feels like a shitshow. It’s just a real pressure cooker. To be able to handle that kind of weight and anxiety and to categorize it and maintain it and maintain your composure and be level-headed, that’s really, it’s really admirable, it really is. And it’s a 24/7 job. You’re always, I imagine you go to bed and wake up thinking about it, the decisions and the issues that come across your desk are massive, and that’s a large weight to carry.

This season we discover that no one in the show has any clue how the electoral college works.

Except Richard! Richard is the one who fills us all in. And that’s how he gets promoted.

Did you learn anything especially wonky or weird in those scripts?

I didn’t know about that tie. My character doesn’t have to know a lot about politics. He knows nothing about politics, if we’re being honest. So when I’m on set, anytime someone is talking about politics, I’m focused more on, what’s a joke that I can say about her tailoring, how can I get her coat on and make a bit out of that? I’m focused around the situation. So when it comes to all the policy stuff, Gary knows more about the fact that the senator has a daughter in rehab.

What is very political, though, is that Gary is all about optics. But he is clueless about policy, it’s true.

He knows a representative’s favorite appetizer before he knows anything about policy.

What’s challenging about playing Gary?

It’s always a challenge to kind of get there and just make it as funny as it can be. Because we have these great scripts written for us, and we have rehearsal time to play in it, and even on set we’re looking for moments. So the challenge is, we’re always thinking. What are little things we can do, like she’ll drop a purse and I’ll catch it before it hits the ground. I think that’s the best challenge, because you’re constantly activated, thinking, where can we really pump this up?

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It’s funny because the show is famous for this Olympic-level profanity, but now that I’m thinking about it, most of Gary’s humor is really just about physicality.

Yeah, he has to hear that stuff, but he’s not going to put it out there. He’s very selective with his words. Gary is incredibly reactionary. When something is said, when she says something, he can’t really speak up, because he doesn’t really have the authority to speak up. So you just see it on his face.

Does anyone in Veep have their act together?

I think Sue’s got her act together. I think Richard has his act together. I think those are my top two.

How do you think other characters view Gary? Do you think they know he is quietly vital to the operation?

I think he’s a bit of a, as much as he’s put down, I think he’s a bit of a gateway to her. He can make it very difficult for somebody to get to Selina if they’re not nice to him, or if they push him aside. I think Gary, in a perfect world, would love to be the first lady. I think Selina — as much as she verbally abuses him — she always has him there, and you don’t want to rub him the wrong way, because I could whisper something in her ear.

Since she’s single, he kind of is the acting first lady.

Happily! And when any kind of male, love interest comes into the picture, whoa. That becomes a challenge, right there.

Do you see anything in particular for Gary’s future? Does he have dreams beyond this job?

He doesn’t evolve. He’s happy standing right by her side. I think Gary thinks that she deserves to be president, but she could be a page in D.C., and he would just be happy by her side. He doesn’t want to be anywhere else. He’s very, very content.

So in a job interview if he was asked, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”, he’d say…

Right here. Exactly where he is. I don’t want to be anywhere else. Right by her side.