Scottish writer/producer/director Armando Iannucci was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay In the Loop, a political comedy, and his series The Thick of It, about a beleaguered British minister trying to cope, picked up three BAFTA awards.
His new comedy series for HBO Veep stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine) as Selina Meyer, who becomes Vice President only to discover the job is nothing like she expected it to be, but everything she was warned about.
Julia and Armando spoke with TV critics about their new venture.
How did you become involved with the Veep?
Julia: I was a fan of Armando’s work, and I was a huge fan of In the Loop. I heard he was developing a show about a Vice President, and we met before there was a script in place. We got along pretty well, and it took off from there.
Is the character based on any real person?
Julia: No, it is not.
Armando: Nope, we were very firm about that. We weren’t looking to do a take on Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton, or anybody like that.
She’s very much her own woman. She’s Selina Meyer, and we are watching to see how she copes with this new role.
Do you think this kind of show couldn’t work on network TV because it would have been dumbed down?
Julia: Yes. I think this show is perfect for HBO, as opposed to network television, because we have so much more creative latitude, and we need it in order to depict certain realities of the political environment.
Armando: That doesn’t mean to say you need to have a degree in political science to watch the show. We very much wanted to make something that appealed to the general viewer, which is why we don’t really know which party Selina is in. We never mention it.
We never name the President because it’s not about the minutia of policy. It’s all about how human beings operate in that kind of world.
Julia: But having said that, I have a degree in political science.
Armando: Which I have found invaluable.
Do you see this as almost the anti-West Wing, because these people have no core values, there’s no idealism.
Armando: It’s actually based an awful lot on what does go on in Washington. I always felt that there are two types of ways in which Washington has been portrayed before, which is very noble, everyone is good at their job and it’s for the highest ends, or else it’s a very cynical, corrupt, rather sinister world.
I actually believe the truth is somewhere in between.
I’m a big fan of The West Wing, I love that show. But at this particular point I think that portrayal of Washington as a clean and noble heartland just wouldn’t wash with the public. We’ve seen too much now.
Julia: I remember you said that in Washington there are so many good people doing the wrong things for the right reasons and the right things for wrong reasons.
Does your character have a value system, or is there anything there beyond her phony green platform?
Julia: Well, in fact, I think that platform isn’t really phony. She does have a desire to have a clean-jobs task force, as we call it. And yet she has to make some compromises to get that on board and stumbles along the way. She doesn’t have a phony set of ideals, but she wants to stay alive as a political animal.
Is there any improv in this or does it just feel that way?
Julia: There is some improv in the show, for sure, but the show is also very much brilliantly scripted. I’ll tell you what’s highly unusual about this show, we had about a month and a half of rehearsal. And I mean real rehearsal, day-in and day-out, which is unheard of in television, at least in my experience.
There were scripts in place, and we worked with them and improv’d within them and without them. And new scripts came along as a result. So it’s a very meshed process of the written word and the improv’d word.
Why didn’t you do a show about the Scottish parliament as opposed to the Vice President of the United States?
Armando: I think you’d be appealing to a very small demographic! You must go on YouTube and look at the Scottish referendum debate as done by Taiwanese television, because it’s all animated. Their depiction of a typical Scot is quite frightening and possibly criminal as well!
What do you say to people who feel you can’t write about American politics because you’re a foreigner?
Armando: You write from what you’re interested in. I’ve always been a political junkie of British and American politics. I’m fascinated by the American electoral process. Also, I think maybe you’re not aware of just how influential the American political process is internationally.
Things that happen here and decisions that are made here have profound effects around the world.
I also feel there is something helpful, in terms of being a writer, coming from outside, to being able to stand back and be objective about who these people are.
Why make it about a Vice President?
Armando: There was something in that role of Vice President that had comic potential, and not the comedy that you would initially think about. I know that the Vice President’s role is often seen as a standing joke.
People attach figures like Dan Quayle to it. But that role can change radically. Dick Cheney was a very powerful politician as Vice President.
What makes it so potentially funny to me is you’re so near and yet so far. You’re so close to power, and yet you’re removed from it. And your identity is entirely at the whim of the President. You’re not in control of your own destiny.
Veep episode one airs Sunday April 22, 2012