Veep Q&A: A Conversation With Show Creator Armando Iannucci
Armando Iannucci is no stranger to skewering politics on television. Before Veep debuted on HBO last year, the Scottish writer and producer was perhaps most well-known for creating The Thick of It, a sitcom about modern British government that ran for four seasons on the BBC and also spawned a spinoff film. Now he's doing the same thing on the opposite side of the pond with Veep, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as bumbling United States Vice President Selina Meyer. The show returns for its second season this weekend, and in anticipation of Sunday's premiere, I caught up with Iannucci to discuss his approach to satirizing American politics, whether Selina is as, uh, ungraceful as she so often seems, and what's going on in the office of the vice president these days.
You've just finished filming Season 2. What's in store for Selina and her staff this year?
I suppose Season 1 was really about Selina coming to terms with the limitations of her job and us getting to know her staff, really. Season 2 is now her getting closer to power and influence, there'll be a little bit more of the White House staff there, the president's staff, and it's all about Selina and her staff coming into conflict more with the president and his staff. And also having more power, more influence, and then seeing what that does to you, personally and emotionally. As well as making the stage on which she performs even larger—she has visits overseas, trips to Helsinki, she has involvement in a military operation, she's involved in budget negotiations with the House. So it just allows us increase the range of the political subject matter, and at the same time focus more on the personal side of her staff. We see Gary's girlfriend, we see Amy's family, we encounter Selina's ex-husband, so—we're opening up a bit.
How do you choose your political subject matter? Do take any sort of "ripped from the headlines" approach? It sounds like budget reform comes into play in Season 2...
Yeah, and military strikes, taking responsibility—you know when you are in that situation where you're responsible for people putting their lives on the line, then how do you react to what becomes of the operation? Things like that, really. How do we choose the stories? I dunno it's not that it's a topical show, but I suppose we kind of respond to what we think the atmosphere is at the moment. I think for a lot of people there's a tremendous amount of frustration, where they see the House and the Senate and the White House not being able to get anything done, just gridlock. The refusal to compromise. And I think that makes people frustrated and angry, and I think we want to inject and reflect a little bit of that in the storylines. And also, you know, an administration divided is a useful thing—we open Season 2 on the night fo the midterm elections, so we see them getting a shellacking on the night of the midterms, and having to cope with a more hostile House.
Do you find yourself rooting for American politics to go one way or the other, in order to have them relate to your Veep storylines?
Well I think there's an element of wanting to see things happen, deals being made and legislation being enacted, and I think the frustrating thing is, over a few months, how you see legislation—for example, the discussions about gun control, two months ago it was going to be sweeping changes, and today it's more or less one tiny little amendment to one little qualification. So I think people are genuinely puzzled as to how that happens. So I think it's quite good of the show to demonstrate how that happens.
You've done political humor on British television, and now you're doing political humor on American television. How do you translate the humor? Do you find that it's necessary to translate it?
I think it's very accessible, I think it's universal, because everyone wants to know what goes on behind those grand, imposing buildings that they have in their capitol cities. Everyone wants to know why it is that the people who seem so intelligent and confident and able turn out not to have as good a grasp of the situation as they said they did. Whether it's government or whether it's banks or whether it's any institution, I think people are now waking up, people are less impressed by these official buildings and these grand titles. I think it's a universal thing now.
It's certainly easy to see the parallels. I just re-watched the Danny Chung episode from Season 1, where Selina makes that gaffe about how he's not even an American, and when you think of the recent election and the 47 percent comments—
Exactly. And I think the week that that episode went out, actually, Joe Biden was on Meet the Press, and he said something about supporting gay marriage that then got out, and it forced Obama to declare his views on it. When you think of the 24-hour media, and th fact that anything can be recorded on your cell phone, anywhere, means that events are accelerated much, much more than they were ten or fifteen years ago.
Are Selina and her staff ever going to learn from their mistakes in those situations?
I think as Season 1 progressed, you saw her get a little bit more steely, a little bit more hard-edged, and that carries on right from the start in Season 2. So we do see her—you really get to know and get to be able to play the system a lot more sensitively than in Season 1, I think. And that happens with any politician coming into a major office, they spend the first year or two years learning how not to do it, and learning from their mistakes, and they become much more adept at it. So we'll see that.
Do you think Selina is, I guess, as dumb as she can appear to be?
I think she would argue it's just unfortunate how she's been portrayed. She would argue that it's all being taken out of contest. And I certainly don't get that feeling in Season 2. I think in Season 2 you realize she's a smart, capable politician. But in an unfortunate situation, in a job that is frustrating, and quite often she is the person who's most at fault, she brings it on herself. But other times it's the circumstances that she's in. I mean, someone told me when we were researching the show, a chief of staff of a former vice president was telling us that the thing about being vice president is it means you're going around with a button on your jacket. America's a country where people are only interested in number one, so already you have that sense of slight awkwardness and failure about you. But people can't say it to your face because you might be number one someday, so people have to be very nice to you.
You mentioned that we'll see more interaction with the office of the president. So, more Jonah, and probably some other folks he works with?
Yes, you meet the president's chief of staff, who's played by Kevin Dunn, and Gary Cole plays the president's chief strategist—the numbers guy, the polling guy.
Will we ever meet the president?
Well we certainly get closer to the president... I'm just gonna give you that.
Not that we necessarily need to meet the president—but the reason I ask is that I'm interested in the kind of Wizard of Oz feeling, where he's this nameless, faceless guy who's kind of behind a curtain. Do you have any plans to eventually break up that facade?
Yeah, I like the idea of the off-stage— Selina always gets the feeling that the action is happening somewhere else. Occasionally we think about it, try to imagine in our mind's eye what the president would look like. But because he's just a figment of our imagination, sometimes you think possibly it's best he stays that way. We do end the season on a bit of a game-changer, so we'll see where that takes us...
Veep Season 2 premieres Sunday, April 14 at 10pm on HBO.
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