Jonah Ryan, the presidential liaison on the HBO series “Veep,” is the insufferable toady you love to hate. Over the course of the show’s first two seasons, his colleagues have coined several unaffectionate nicknames for him, including crude mashups of his first name and various parts of the male anatomy.
In one episode last season, Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) ordered him off Air Force Two, despite the fact that the plane was already taxiing down the runway, or perhaps because of it.
“As dysfunctional as Selina and her staff are,” Louis-Dreyfus said, “the one thing that binds them together is their global disdain for Jonah Ryan.”
As played by actor Timothy Simons, Jonah has become so loved and reviled that the character has attained a life of his own outside the show. In Washington, people wonder how many Jonahs are going to be at a party; online, fans make GIFs of his creepiest moments, from his lurching, drunken dance moves to come-on lines directed at the vice president’s young daughter.
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“I think one of the joys of playing a character like that is that you’re not bound by human decency in any way,” Simons said. “If somebody’s uncomfortable, you can just ignore it.”
The third season of the award-winning series, which details the misadventures of Selina and her put-upon aides, brings major changes for Jonah and more than a few plot twists that will propel his character to new heights of villainy. In the first few episodes his career is upended, allowing viewers to see more of this sycophant’s home life and making him even more unpalatable to his colleagues in the administration, not to mention dangerous.
“He’s grown from a nuisance that can be ignored to an actual political animal that has to be dealt with,” Simons said.
Simons, 35, is nothing like the character he plays on TV. He is soft-spoken, for one, his smile as congenial as his character’s is punchable.
First TV show
After laboring as a video store clerk near his hometown of Winthrop, Maine, and studying theater at the University of Maine, Simons moved to Chicago, where he appeared in theater productions with a small troupe called the Hypocrites. In 2008, the aspiring actor drove a moving truck to Los Angeles with his wife, Annie, hoping to find work in film or television. He was optimistic, even though he had neither a job nor contacts nor even a passing familiarity with the town.
Although he had never acted on TV outside of a few commercials, Simons was cast in HBO’s “Veep” in 2010. “It wasn’t just that I hadn’t been a co-star on a television show, I had never even been on a television show, ever,” he said.
Simons, now father of twins, has thrived in the role of Jonah. As first envisioned by the show’s producers (including creator Armando Iannucci), the character of Jonah was short, fat and bearded, a heavy drinker and chain smoker who “was 23 but looked 38.” On the show, Jonah is tall – Simons is 6 foot 5 – slim and clean-shaven, and has no real vices other than being, as Louis-Dreyfus describes him, a “total slimeball.”
The actress is quick to point out Simons’ real-life charms.
“He is earnest, sensitive and thoughtful, a guy who is without airs,” she said. “He has none of that doofus arrogance that he has as Jonah.”
He’s a sweetie
While there are big changes in store for Simons on the show, there are equally big things in the works for the actor outside of it. This month, he’ll appear in two films: “Draft Day,” an NFL tale starring Kevin Costner, and “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” an indie drama set in Maine. Later this year, he has roles in “Inherent Vice,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s black comedy based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, and the Seth Rogen comedy “The Interview,” in which he plays a “foulmouthed egomaniac.”
So much has gone his way in such a relatively short time, Simons hasn’t had time to think much about dream roles.
“Maybe one will come up in the future,” he said. “But if you were to ask me to write it down four years ago, I would have said, ‘Sweary political satire on HBO, with an English writing staff.’”
Is there any chance he could someday become as loathsome as his character?
“I was born in the Northeast and I have Midwestern parents,” he said. “You’re taught from a very young age that you shouldn’t get too big for your britches, so I tend to err way too much on the side of ‘Nothing means anything.’ ‘You’re not so great.’ I have trouble thinking I would ever get to the point where I could think of myself the way he thinks about himself. “