Tim Simons and I met on Twitter after I tweeted: “Is it just me or is Jonah from Veep cute?” Simons plays the smarmy White House liaison Jonah Ryan on HBO’s send-up of American politics, which premieres its fourth season this Sunday, April 12. On the show, he’s universally-hated, but in real life, Jonah’s become the show’s standout villain and the weirdo crush of girls who like weirdos.
Both of us are talkers and love to argue and debate. This time, we talked about gender roles, the depressing reality of U.S. politics, his Twitter fights with anti-vaxxers, and if it’s possible to be a male feminist. (Spoiler: It is!)
Is it insulting for me, as your friend, to say I think you play creepy well?
Maybe if I wasn’t so fully aware of what my face looks like, I would take it as an insult, but I have a sort of pronounced brow that I agree would help.
No! I think there are some nice features to it but I have a heavy-lidded bone structure that would lend itself to playing creepy.
I’m supposed to ask you about politics. Do you feel qualified to answer, as a person on a show about politics?
It obviously comes up a lot. Our show tries really hard to stay true to the actual world of it so the scripts get vetted by people that work in politics. We try to make sure that, for instance, if somebody is delivering information to the president it’s not just a low-level staffer or a person who would not have access to the president. It’s not an AP Civics class, but I have actually learned about the political process just from being on the show.
And you talk to real staffers for your characters?
I remember we had a drink with these staffers one time. This woman, she was a director of communications for a Congressman and part of your day is not just trying to get your Congressperson’s message out clearly but trying to actively fuck up your opponent’s day. It’s a stunning thing. We wonder why nothing gets done. It’s that people aren’t just trying to get things done. They’re also actively trying to make sure that you don’t get anything done. It’d be like if somebody at your office in the morning was just trying to knock the papers off of your desk.
Did you know that before Veep?
I was a little bit “rose-colored glasses” when I went into it, like, “The people I support are in it for the right reasons and the people who are not are awful people.” It’s truly not that way. It’s all the exact same awful shitty spin from everybody trying to just make it through a day and keep their job. Even the people who come in like, “I’m going to change the world!” have absolutely no ability to do so. That’s a really disheartening thing.
This reminds me: I was watching House of Cards last night and…
Hold on. Were you watching House of Cards in prep for this interview?
No! Listen, don’t get a big head about it but I’ve watched all of Veep already. House of Cards and Veep are very similar shows in terms of being disheartening about the political process and who’s in charge. But House of Cards is taking it very seriously and Veep is like, “We’ll laugh so we don’t cry.”
The shows are absolutely two sides of the same coin. Nobody’s a good person in either show.
I want to talk about the use of cellphones in Veep. I have a hard time thinking of current shows that accurately portray cellphones and social media. Like, Selina becoming a meme or being mocked on SNL, which doesn’t happen on House of Cards.
That was one of the things we noticed when we first started going out to visit [staffers]: Everybody has two phones. I actually tried to bring that into the show. If you go back and watch the very first scene I’m in, I have two phones. Everyone has a personal phone and a government-issued phone because there are certain calls you can’t make on government property. You can’t make a campaign donation call from a government phone or in a government building. And if you get a campaign donor call, you have to physically exit the building and go to public property.
Just as a logistics thing as an actor, you’re carrying around two fucking cellphones which makes it hard to do anything with your hands. But they are everpresent. The woman who was Chief of Staff said she sleeps with her Blackberry in her hand under her pillow.
And she’s constantly monitoring whether the President is trending or doing a video for Buzzfeed…
Oh yeah, either side. Sometimes I feel like they are like sex addicts. If the president does anything, the other side has to say he’s disrespecting the office. They don’t even enjoy it anymore.
Like when they politicize stuff that isn’t political. I know you’re very pro-vaccine. Is that what gets you about it?
It’s been something I’ve been banging the drum about for a while. I’m very much in favor of vaccinations and I’ve been very vocal about that because it’s insane to forgo this. All of a sudden people on either political side said, “Well I don’t like Obama and Obama likes vaccines so…” and it’s like, “No. No. Shut up. Shut the fuck up. Not one of you, not a single one of you, don’t you fucking dare politicize this issue.” Keeping children alive and free of disease is not a political issue and cannot be put into a partisan box.
But they do it.
They do and it’s insane. And to a less scary degree, yeah, the president doing a thing for Buzzfeed with a selfie stick so okay, they just need to try to hit him for anything. Obama needs to look cool doing a video for Buzzfeed and the other side needs to say, “I can’t believe he’s disrespecting the office of the president.”
My children, twins who are three years old, they’re awful creatures right now. I of course love [them] very much, but they have a reflexive “no.” Everything is a fight with them. “No” comes out of their mouth before they’ve even considered what the question is. It’s a reflexive “Our president’s a Muslim!” As bullshitty and racist as it was when they started on that, at least they seemed to be enjoying themselves when they did it. Now, they just have to. They just shout it.
I just pictured your three-year-old answering, “Do you wanna go play on the swing?” with…
“Obama’s a Muslim!”
Do you get a lot of blowback from the anti-vaccine people?
No, not yet. It’s a hot-button topic in Los Angeles, because there are some Westside private schools with worse vaccination rates than some third world countries. I do think it’s worth changing the conversation to not be so combative and that’s something I can be better at. I love making fun of anti-vaxx people, especially the insipid ones who are grabbing at it…like, you were famous at one point, and now you’re not famous anymore and you’ve aged a bit and you’re insane, and it’s like a naked fame grab. So I love making fun of the people who latch onto anti-vaccines as their naked, aging fame grab.
The truth is, there is no link between vaccines and autism. Vaccines are incredibly important. So instead of “Should I vaccinate my kids?” “Oh, you’re a fucking idiot,” it’s gotta be a really measured, supportive and loving conversation and make sure people get the right information to steer them toward the right decision.
Hard for all of that nuance to come across on Twitter.
It can’t. And honestly sometimes it’s just fun to make a joke about the idiocy of it. But even when I do that, that’s not taking into account that even I was a nervous parent when it was first happening. We talked to people that we trusted who studied medicine for, like, ten fucking years and it came down unanimous to vaccinate and vaccinate on the schedule. Don’t talk to the Internet. Don’t talk to Rob Schnieder or Jenny McCarthy. Talk to doctors.
A friend of mine got measles. Remember, I texted you that picture of his hand?
Yeah. It’s a fucking horrifying thing.
Your New Year’s resolution was to not get so involved in Internet outrage. How is that going?
It’s going okay. It’s hard. It really does take effort. I’ll see something and you’ll get that immediate flare of anger in your heart and I’ll just run to write something about it and I’ll go “Oh fuck, stop it, stop it, stop it.”
Because that keeps the machine going?
There are definitely things worth being mad about, and worth being vocally and publicly mad about. But I went through [Slate’s] Calendar of Outrage and I clicked on certain days and was like, “Oh yeah I was mad about that and I completely forgot I was mad about it.” Then there are some days that you click on it and you’re like, “Oh yeah, the militarization of the local police forces.” That’s actually something we should be mad about. If you can give it a few days and it’s still as big of an issue in your mind then that’s when you can start talking about it.
I kind of resent the idea that it’s all just “Internet outrage” because Ferguson and Iran “Twitter outrage” really helped. And it makes it easy for critics to write off what they call “Black Twitter” because they say, “Oh that’s just Internet outrage!” I don’t think it is. I think it’s totally valuable.
Ferguson is absolutely worth every second of outrage that was given to it at the time and continues to be given to it now.
I think Internet activism is real and I hate the implication that it’s not. People don’t see a difference. They say something racist, they get called out, and then they go, “Don’t Internet shame me!” Fuck you, man.
There are different levels of it. Like, there’s been systematic oppression of women and minorities for hundreds of years, but you’re sad. Okay. That’s different.
Is anybody insane towards you online?
I’ll get it a little bit. Maybe once a week. But I’ve seen the shit that you get. It’s a daily thing so nothing compared to what women get.
I want to make a joke right now like, “I get it, Tim, me and [author] Roxane Gay need to lay off you. It’s fine.”
One of my friends, a writer from Chicago, Megan Stielstra, she came on the other day, Roxane Gay included, as one of the new New York Times op-ed writers. She gave me the best advice for Internet outrage. She was like, “Do you want my honest opinion? I love that you’re trying to call attention to the problem but because you’re not one of the people affected by this, instead of doing this, use the people who follow you on Twitter to point to someone whose voice you agree with who is affected.”
That was some of the best advice I’ve gotten recently. Think, “Am I doing this to make hay on the Internet retweet-wise? Or am I really trying to start a good conversation?” God. I’m a sanctimonious motherfucker right now.
Good, because I’m about to trap you.
Do you think men can identify as feminist?
When I was growing up, it was a new thing for my dad to be a feminist…I think my dad would identify as one but that wasn’t a thing, men identifying as feminists. I think for a long time being a man who identified as a feminist was an important thing because you were actually seeing support for women who were fighting for equal rights…So it’s great that you identify as a male feminist but don’t expect a place at the table of women’s feminism, or to occupy a space in women’s feminism. Go be a feminist but that doesn’t mean you get to jump into their conversations.
I just did an interview where I said something similar, and there was a quote I saw that I really liked: “Being a male feminist doesn’t mean you get to be in women’s spaces, it means you get to make male spaces feminist.”
Yes! That’s exactly it. And that’s a new angle…Go make male spaces feminist. And don’t jump on Gaby Dunn on the Internet for not letting you into her club.
When I write a book, that’s gonna be on the back. “‘Don’t jump on Gaby Dunn on the Internet.’ – Tim Simons” Are you a feminist?
Yeah, I think so, yeah.
And the only reason there was hesitation was because I thought, “Well, has the definition changed?”
You have a male child and female child growing up simultaneously. Is that something you’re conscious of?
I am very aware of how people will treat my daughter differently than my son and I try to [get] away from that, but also…if my daughter wants to do something classically girly, and it gives her joy, I’m not going to stop her from that. But I am definitely aware of how other people treat my children or the things they will assume about my kids as a boy and a girl. I not only, as my daughter grows up, have to make sure to inform her of the world at large to make sure she is safe, self-defense classes or whatever that may be, I also have a responsibility to teach my son to respect women and to not be a rapist. What’s the saying?
“Stop teaching women how to not get raped, and start teaching men not to rape.”
Yes. It is exactly that. And seeing them at this age, there’s work to do on both sides of making sure my son is a respectful person and teaching him as much as I’m going to teach her.
I think I need to wrap this up.
How’s this going? I get worried about how fraught these topics are, and you say one thing and your career is over.
Yeah. We already have a shorthand for this conversation from the interview we did on my website, Elevated Train, the best ego-driven actor website.
What about Blake Lively’s website?
Oh, that dystopian fashion blog?
You need to post more photos of yourself on your site like she does.
You know I’m not gonna.
You don’t even like selfies.
Every once in a while. I actually gave careful consideration to the selfie debate. This is so dumb. I decided I will not cast the wide judgment. I don’t like doing them but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a selfie and have it work in the right form. The form has merit but you have to do it the right way, so I wanted to tell you my take on selfies.
Good, because the photo we’re using for this is a selfie.
God. I’ve definitely given you shit for [selfies] because you’re like, “Here we are! Best friends at this location!” Pointed at a wall. Turn that camera around!
If I take a picture of something you think is stupid, you always comment on the number of people who liked it.
You have the teens on your side. Listen, when I do that to you, there is a moment of jealousy that you have the teens on your side. I need the teens on my side. The #queerteens.
Well, I can include that and send the queer teens your way.
Oh god, I need that. I need that sweet queer teen meat. And there it is. That’s the career-ender.
Gaby Dunn is a writer, comedian, YouTuber, and journalist in Los Angeles. She could never run for office.