"I've always envied the Pope, which I think is a very un-Catholic thing to say," says Anna Chlumsky over a picture perfect cheese platter at Mominette Bistro in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The 35-year-old actress has just finished a yoga class, and is heading out after this to pick up her two-and-a-half year old daughter Penelope, before heading to the Metropolitan Opera for the closing performance of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. It doesn't matter if you're on a break from filming an award-winning television show, or if you're very pregnant with your second child—when you're Anna Chlumsky, there's no time to waste.
You may know Chlumsky as the innocent and adorable Vada opposite a very sweet (and very small) Macaulay Culkin in the 1991 coming-of-age movie My Girl. But if you haven't caught up with her on HBO's Veep (in which case, hi, time to tune in), you may be in for a bit of a shock. Rarely are Chlumsky's shoulders not up to her ears in a physical manifestation of maddening frustration, and rarely is she not effortlessly stringing together multiple obscene profanities—she makes it into an art form.
Chlumsky plays Amy Brookheimer, the right-hand woman to Julia Louis-Dreyfus's exquisitely cast Selina Meyer, who in the latest season is president of the United States (she started out as the vice president, hence the title). Amy's role has changed over the course of the show's five seasons, but Chlumsky describes herself as Meyer's "trouble-shooter, problem-solver, issue-mediator, doubt-remover, conscience-examiner, thought-thinker, and all-round everything-doer," which is an appropriately all-encompassing, and extremely accurate, answer.
We sat down with Chlumsky over a few glasses of iced tea to talk about her apprehensive relationship with her explosive character, her off-screen pastimes, and the thrill of theater being brought back into the spotlight.
Congratulations on season five of Veep! After four seasons of playing Amy Brookheimer, do you still have to mentally prepare for getting back into her head?
Definitely, especially last season—this season I'm on a little bit more of a break...[pats pregnant stomach], but last year I did two plays when we weren't filming. Between the plays, TV, and film, I've done two or three different roles during hiatuses, so I make a departure and then come back to Amy with fresh eyes. I'm a big nerd and a big preparer—I have a notebook. It's all stuff from training at the Atlantic [Theater Company in New York]. You have to figure out what you're doing in this scene, you have to figure out what you want in the scene, you connect it to your own life, and then you let it fly.
Amy is possibly the most frustrated, stressed-out character currently on TV. Is it difficult to leave that negative energy behind at the end of the day?
Totally. I suppose my loved ones can tell you better, but it certainly bleeds in physically. I have to get massages because of the tension and how much she holds in! I'm sure her swearing gets in, too, but that happens with everything. Even when you do Shakespeare sometimes you find that you start speaking in iambic pentameter in your own life—this is no different, it's all muscle memory and cadence.
Even the way Amy clutches her phone must have some residual effect, right?
Oh, I noticed that! Especially after Amy's swan song at the end of last season when she blows up. Towards the end of that week I was like, "Gosh, why do my hands hurt so badly?" And I realized it was because I had been gripping her phone so hard!
"I don't suffer fools, and neither does she."—Anna Chlumsky on playing Veep's Amy Brookheimer
Do you find you're more quick to get angry after a long day on set? That's arguably Amy's most endearing quality.
I am. I mean, I'm from the west side of Chicago. So is Kevin Dunn [who plays Ben Cafferty] actually, so he and I both have that fight in us. It's been helpful being close to him because I can go, "Oh, it's not just me, it's a Chicago thing." But I think it's a chicken and egg situation: The reason they saw me as Amy was because they knew I have that fight in me. I do try to be more tactful as I age, but...I mean listen, I'm a New Yorker, too, so when you ask someone a question and they don't answer the actual question, you're like, "No, I asked you this direct question: 'Where can I get coffee?'!"
What are a few of your favorite things about Amy?
"Favorite," that's so nice of you to think of her so favorably.
Ha, OK, do you find Amy has any redeeming qualities?
It's funny, I think our writers were much more sympathetic to her this season than in the past. I like that she's smart and has a few degrees. I like that she doesn't put up with idiots, like myself: I don't suffer fools, and neither does she. I guess I actually would like to be a little more like Amy? She doesn't care what people think of her, and she's so un-self-aware that if she offends somebody, she doesn't care about that either. That's admirable. We all need a little bit more of that, I think—not that we should go around offending everybody, but it makes us all very back-footed, and she's more front-footed.
Do you like playing characters you relate to, or ones you feel no personal connection with?
I love stretching, so when I played my crazy, meth-head, goth girlfriend in Unconditional at the LAByrinth Theater, it was equally a blast as when I play people who are more similar to me. What's so much fun for an actor, especially if you like it for the actual craft, is finding the things you have in common with somebody you never thought you would. I think that's why people like playing villains so much, because then they're like, "Oh my gosh, I understand them now!" which can probably be kind of frightening if it's a really scary person—but those kinds of discoveries can be fun.
Do you have a preference between stage acting and TV/film?
I don't have an enormous preference, but I really, really miss theater when I don't get to do it, because that's where I came from. However, I'll take being in a good TV show or film over a bad play any day. Every medium has qualities that you hone regardless of which one you're doing, and I like being a cross-trained actor where I can beef up on my rehearsal skills in my eight shows a week, and then I can beef up on my learning-a-line-the-night-of skills with the other. I'm loathe to choose.
Do you have any upcoming plays?
I was going to do one, but then the character really couldn't look pregnant, so we decided not to—it's all about baby right now.
Of course! When are you due?
The end of summer.
Yes! But it's scary for me—I have a half brother, but we're very far apart and we grew up in different houses, so I don't know what it's like to grow up with a sibling at all. This is completely uncharted territory for me.
Has being on Veep made you more or less interested in politics?
I've always been super into politics because my father is a political junky, so I grew up around that. I was highly political, I studied international relations, I loved everything about poli-sci, but after college my now-husband [Shaun So] enlisted in the Army Reserve. So when he went overseas during an election year and people would ask me where my boyfriend was, I would respond, "My boyfriend's in Afghanistan," and they would just get into this enormous fight and people would politicize my life. Like, "Oh, did you like being a pawn for Dick Cheney?" People say the strangest things, so I had to stop. There's an old adage where you don't talk about family, politics, or religion in public, and I was like, I'm going to try that, because this is making me sad. But it was really nice, because after that I was talking about other things like literature and poetry and philosophy—it was terrific.
"Politicians are not gods and monsters, they are normal people."
I was on a political diet for a while, and when I read the script for In the Loop [a 2009 political comedy], I loved it so much for having the exact perspective that politicians are not gods and monsters, they are normal people. What I do is I look at it all from afar, I don't get too wrapped up into it. I have a vote, I'm informed, I can hold my own if people ask me for my opinions, but I certainly don't have to get into the sport of it at all.
As farcical as Veep is, there must be a lot of truth to it too, right? Which is frightening.
All my friends in D.C. are like, "This is so right, are you bugging my office?" I think the stuff that we go through is outlandish, but really the pace and the addictive quality that the characters have is what it's all about.
Do you see any similarities between the challenges Hillary Clinton and Selina Meyer face as women in politics?
It's so fascinating to me because people are so into saying, "I don't trust Hillary," and I'm like, half the stuff you're citing is the stuff her husband did, yet he's considered one of our best presidents in recent memory! But you don't trust her? It's like, OK, maybe you're just not comfortable with a female president. Maybe that's where you're at, and this is your way of rationalizing it.
So when you're taking a break from politics and acting, what do you like to do?
I'm also constantly looking at my flashcards for Croatian. I've always envied the Pope, which I think is a very un-Catholic thing to say, because I remember being little and hearing that Pope John Paul spoke eight languages. So it became my marker—I wanted to speak eight languages. But I speak five: English, Portuguese, French, German, Croatian, and I can get by in Spanish—so six, actually. German was because I went to a Lutheran school as a kid, Portuguese was because of a guy, French was because I love it and it was far enough from Portuguese to not confuse the two, and Croatian because my family is Croatian.
"Can we just go to the ballet? Do people just go? I thought you had to be a member of Parliament to do that."
I've also been to a lot of opera lately—I've just had a voracious appetite for it, I'm loving it. I've lived in New York for 12 years, and I had never been to the Met. And then last summer my husband and I were going to have a date night, and I was like, "Oh, tomorrow's the last performance of Prokofiev's Cinderella at the American Ballet Theater." And we realized the tickets would probably be the same amount as we would end up spending on tapas and alcohol, so I was like...should we do this? And then we were like...can we do this? Can we just go to the ballet? Do people just go? I thought you had to be a member of Parliament to do that. But I highly recommend going—then this whole world opens up, and it's heaven, it's beautiful.
No one's ever said, "Man, I wish I didn't go to the opera last night."
Yeah, "I wish I didn't have that enriching experience."
Have you seen Hamilton yet?
Twice: once off Broadway, once on. I know, I'm the one percent. We're friends with Lin-Manuel Miranda [the writer and star of Hamilton], and he's so kind and humble. I mean, you have to be, to write a hip hopera about Alexander Hamilton…. But the second time we saw it, Miranda walks on stage and people are just screaming. And I'm like, this is Broadway—but it was like it was The Beatles! Or Elvis! Shaun and I were just like, what? These are musical theater nerds, don't you realize? These guys were in choir! It was incredible. So I asked Miranda about it backstage, I said, "That reception was crazy!" and he was like, "Yes, it's overwhelming, I can't." And I was like, oh good, you're still you.
Catch Anna Chlumsky on season five of HBO's Veep tonight at 10:30 PM EST.