As a founding member of the Chicago sketch comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Walsh has been part of the comedy circuit for decades, specializing in improv. He's been a correspondent for The Daily Show and a regular on Conan O'Brien's shows, he was all over Human Giant, and he's also played roles in several films. Now he's got a new gig on the HBO comedy Veep, where he plays Director of Communications Mike McClintock, an old-school guy who wrestles with the D.C. media. I chatted with Walsh about the show, his other projects, and cursing.
How much improv goes into shooting an episode of Veep?
Improv is very integral to the process and the actual filming. We spend about six weeks over the course of shooting, playing with the characters and putting the scripts down, trying different things, allowing the writers to see our takes on the characters and some of our input will be reflected in the drafts. On the day of filming, we also jet one or two loose things, where [show creator] Armando [Iannucci] says, "Have fun, but keep it moving."
What did you add to your character Mike?
I'm from Chicago and I think that Mike has a Chicago mentality to politics. He knows how to curry favor and have select friends in key positions and maintain those relationships. I think he's a survivor and he knows people come and go and there's a lot of hotshots that come through the office but at the end of the day he knows to play it for the long haul. He's loyal to Selina [Julia Louis-Dreyfus's vice president character], he's been with her for a long time and I think he's a bit outpaced by the new media. He came from a world where if you had four or five strong relationships with the major media outlets you could control the story. These days, you have to watch every moment of every day. He's constantly behind the story.
He has these great rivalries with Dan and Jonah. The office's new blood.
Yeah, I think he's threatened by young people. Dan is clearly the Machiavellian force, he's clearly out for himself but he's useful to the administration. He's a threat at first, but I think as the season goes I see that he'll go off to the private sector or he'll make a gaffe that will destroy him.
Where does Mike stand on the ethical scale?
I think he's extremely happy to be in the vice president's office, I think that is as high as he thought they'd ever get. He probably managed her campaign for president and then it became clear Amy [Anna Chlumsky's character] was more adept and promising so she usurped his position. He's very content, there's a bit of power there, the catering is better, the offices are nicer, we have more access to events, and we're always one step away from the best position in the world.
Before you joined Veep, were you a fan of Armando Iannucci's previous work?
I was a huge Alan Partridge fan, I love that show, that was my favorite show forever. When this project came up I realized that Armando was one of the creators of that, so I was excited just to get in the room and audition for it.
So you just got the part the old fashioned way with an audition?
Oh yeah. There was no straight offer, I think Armando didn't know who I was. He was keen on seeing whose improvising could add to the role, and I like collaborative environments and he was very keen on that.
Were you into politics before you started working on Veep?
I'd say I'm an average political fan? I keep abreast with it but I'm not obsessed with it. I have a slightly detached view of politics, and things are easier to follow if you just look at the big picture. I consider myself a moderate or progressive or something in between. I've definitely done a lot of homework and I now know more about politics than I ever thought I would. Washington, D.C. is a fascinating town. It's enormous, there's so much going on, yet also it has a bit of high school or a gossip element to it. At the end of the day, politicians care about petty things like everyone else. [I've been told] they have some things that come out during the year like "Best Dressed Intern" or "Cutest Political Aide" and they actually care to read those articles, so it's funny to see the personal sides. You know, they have to enjoy their lives. It's not all work.
There's a lot of colorful language on Veep. Who is the best curser in the cast?
Tim Simons [who plays White House liaison Jonah] is pretty good. He's pretty quick with the cursing and pretty creative with the insults. I think we can all handle ourselves, but Tim surprises me.
I just watched Veep's second episode, which airs this weekend, and there is one line you say as Jonah is leaving a room that cracked me up. "Watch your head."
[Laughs] Yep! That was an improv! I'm already thinking of more insults for Tim if we get to do a Season 2.
I understand you're also appearing in the pilot of NBC's Animal Kingdom?
Yeah, I guest-star as a man who wants to put his dog to sleep for his own convenience.
Does the dog get put down?
I don't want to ruin it. Why would you watch the pilot if you found out?
I caught your movie The High Road on Netflix streaming the other day. You wrote it, directed it, produced it, and it has an amazing cast! It must have been a blast to work on
Thank you! I wrote it with a friend of mine Josh Weiner, and it existed as a screenplay and we boiled it down to 70 scenes. I was fortunate enough to get a bunch of my friends to do it during a summer. It's something I've always wanted to do. I love improv, and I love the spontaneity and quality of performance that improv gives you.
Catch Matt in Veep, which airs Sundays at 10pm on HBO, or in The High Road, which is streaming on Netflix. You can also check out his Chicago Bears podcast, "Bear Down."