I want to work with Reid Scott one day, and after you read this interview, you will, too. Talking to Reid, I was struck by the level of appreciation, understanding, and respect he has not only for his craft, but also for his colleagues. I realize that’s shocking to read for all you Veep fans. Reid’s character on the show, Dan Egan, is calculating and conniving–the epitome of selfish. For that reason, Dan gets fired at least once a season. But as for the actor who plays him, the opposite qualities are what make Reid such a success. He knows how to stop thinking and be free when he’s in front of the camera. This is an imperative skill for actors; it’s what makes you laugh harder when watching Veep, it makes you love to hate Dan that much more. Want to know how he does it? Keep reading to find out.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
RS: I guess that would be in college. I went to Syracuse University. I actually made my own major that didn’t exist at the time. I think I was the first person to graduate with a Directing major as an undergrad. I had this wonderful professor who suggested if I really wanted to learn what it was I was asking of my actors that I should try it myself. So I did a couple plays and I just loved it. I just absolutely loved it. It was terrifying, but it was also really fun. I was hooked.
Were you focusing on film or theater directing?
I was focusing on both, which is why I had to make my own major. I started off in the film department. The theater department didn’t offer an undergrad degree in Directing, but they offered Directing classes and what not. I had taken so many credits of both by my junior year that the same professor who really believed in me—she changed a lot of things for me—she helped me petition the university to make my own major. They accepted, acquiesced, depending on which side you’re on [Reid laughs]. It was great because then I got to do a little bit of everything. It was a lot of work but it really set me on the right path.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career as a director and actor?
I guess initially it was my grandmother. She was an English professor; she actually taught at Syracuse University before I was born—she was at a different college when I was around. She was really instrumental in me looking at this industry as something I could actually do. I did plays in junior high and high school, I would make funny little movies and stuff. I’m from a relatively small town in upstate New York. I never really considered that this was something I could do for a living. She really encouraged that. When I went to Syracuse, which was her alma mater, she was again very encouraging. She pushed me to try it all, which is why I was so diverse in my focuses. She kind of opened my eyes to the fact that I could kind of have a shot at this.
Then, like I said, there was one particular professor at Syracuse, Geri Clark, who was just amazing. She was absolutely incredible. She was the head of the drama department. She really took me under her wing. She was the one who said, “I think you could get an agent out of this.”
I was like, “Oh man, I don’t know. That seems a little much. I like acting, but I don’t know if I could really go for it.”
And I did. I ended up getting an agent right out of college. I was very lucky. I kind of started working right away, but it was because of those two very important women in my life.
Was there anything in particular that Professor Clark taught you or you took away from your classes at Syracuse that you still use today?
Well, the Syracuse style of teaching, they had a combination of Meisner Technique, a little bit of Adler in there, Alexander Technique for breath and movement. Geri was really adamant about making it your own: “We teach you all of these techniques, you learn from all these schools of thought, but at the end of the day, you have to learn what’s right for you and fit it into what [you’re] doing.”
You know, I was a film student. I was confused as to why the film students weren’t using these actors from this great theater school [College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University, Department of Drama] for their projects. They were using their buddies, or girlfriends, people from their dorm, or whatever. I sort of said, “This is a huge resource, why aren’t we taking advantage of this,” which is how I got down to the drama department in the first place.
So, [Geri] was really instrumental in saying, “Take all of this in, but at the end of the day, you’re the one out there whether you’re on stage or in front of the camera. It’s all about what works for you. Don’t worry about anybody else. Listen to the director, listen to the writers and producers, what have you. But at the end of the day, it’s your work that’s going to be captured on film or burned into the brains of the audience at the theater.” I really loved that.
I’ve always had a real problem with authority in my life [Reid laughs]. So the idea of doing things my way really struck a chord with me. If it wasn’t for her giving me that freedom—I saw so many other students, talented students, trying so hard to do it by wrote for whatever school of thought or technique that they subscribe to. I was like, “Guys, it’s all of it all the time.” It made it really fun.
I’ve heard people with formal training talking about this thing of having to forget your training a little bit in order to actually do the job. It’s like you go through this whole program and then once you’re working you have to let it all go because then you just get stuck.
It’s very true—especially as a young actor coming out of a school or program. You cling to your training like a bible because you’re new, you’re trying to impress the powers that be, and you’re also trying to explore a little bit of your own craft finally in a professional setting. It’s hard. And obviously, if you’re an actor, by nature you’re probably kind of self-conscious and need a lot of attention [Reid laughs]. You sort of put the blinders on; you do it the way you were taught. Then, if you’re actually lucky enough to get some jobs and work, you learn—as I did anyway, I can only speak for myself I guess—you learn very quickly that the training you received sets you up to have something to fall back on: to have some sort of structure in case you need it. But man, it’s like playing a sport. It’s different in practice than it is on the field. On the field, you’ve got to improvise a bit. You’ve got to be fluid. You’ve got to be able to adapt very quickly because you might have a director that says, “Yeah, I don’t believe in that technique. Try it this way.” What are you going to do? Are you going to stay rigid or are you going to try to be fluid?”
Then again, I have in my career, hit points where I’ve been like, “Wow, it’s not feeling right. I’m missing something,” or “I’m not getting the parts that I want” or “I’m not doing with this character what I want to be doing.” So going back to your old notebooks, going back to your old training is always really important. You refresh it for yourself and make it new again. It’s really wonderful because you constantly have that experience of learning and then letting go, learning and then letting go. People use the word “organic” a lot, but it really is. At least for me, that’s how I like it to be: an alive, breathing thing that you’re constantly nurturing.
What’s it like in the Veep rehearsal room? It seems like that’s exactly what they want: this organic thing that’s completely from you guys.
It’s really unusual. It’s quite amazing that we get that luxury of rehearsal because you never get that on a television show—there’s just no time. They really set the tone early on that. It’s what makes these characters feel so natural. It’s what helps the dialogue feel so loose and off the cuff. We almost have this theater camp experience during this rehearsal process. It makes us all gel. We always help each other. It’s not just about your own scene, your own moment. Everybody’s around. Sometimes you’re just up against a wall watching someone else rehearse a scene. But we have this really great rapport with everyone where people will chime in and say, “Hey, I’m seeing something that maybe you’re not. Try it like this,” or “What if we did that?” And we apply that to the plot, as well. We discover a lot of things about the story in the rehearsal process, which is, again, unprecedented: to be let into the writing process as an actor on a TV show.
Usually, you hope you get along with your writer, directors, producers, and the whole team. But everyone tends to be pretty precious about their own department. Our show, it’s this wonderful free for all. The fact that our showrunner David Mandel and before that our show’s creator, Armando Iannucci, said, “We want your input. You guys are a valuable part of this.”
They would pull us aside in the office and say, “What do you think about this idea? Where do you want Dan to go this season? What do you think about this match up, or this line, or this scenario?” It’s incredible. It’s really special.
It definitely translates. There’s nothing else like Veep on TV. I think your whole rehearsal process ends up creating such a unique experience for the viewers.
That was the hope. Every single guest star that we’ve ever had shows up for rehearsal and you can see that they’re a deer in the headlights. And these are esteemed, accomplished actors who’ve been working for years. They’re like, “Oh my God, I forgot about rehearsal! We just don’t get that.” And here we are rehearsing for weeks and weeks, and weeks. At first everyone’s very nervous because they’re like, “Oh my God, I want to impress everybody,” or “It’s all about making people laugh.” Then you start to realize, no it’s about making the scene work. It’s about heightening the stakes.
And obviously you want to make people laugh, you want to find the comedy. But the comedy comes out of the realism of the scenario.
I remember when Kevin Dunn joined our cast. He’s become a really great friend. He’s someone who I admired for a long time. I was really excited when he came around. He’s a wickedly funny guy. He’s got a great theater background, a comedy background, and obviously he’s a very accomplished actor. In the first couple of days, he was like, “This is fucking crazy! This is insane the fact that we’re just playing, and playing, and playing.” Now he’s been with us for four seasons. He’s fantastic. He settled right into it.
The business moves so fast, you forget that rehearsal really makes it. That’s the key ingredient. We have other guest stars who come back after leaving and going off and doing other shows. They say, “Man, I got addicted to that rehearsal process. We just don’t do that on my other show.” People really love it. People want to do the show because they hear about the rehearsal process that we have. It’s become this little legendary thing in Hollywood: you do an episode of Veep and you get to play.
You would think that after the amount of Emmys you guys have won that other shows would start catching on.
That’s one of the great things about HBO. I don’t mean to sound like I’m just pulling the company line or whatever, but they give us that latitude. There aren’t many other networks that have the ability to do that because their schedules are too crazy. They shoot so many episodes that there’s no time to rehearse. We only shoot 10 episodes and HBO’s been really generous in saying, “Take this extra time to rehearse and make the show as good as it can be.” It comes down from a network level. I don’t know if any other network could really pull that off.
You were on The Big C, which was a great show on Showtime—another cable network. Did you guys have similar freedom on that channel?
In some sense, yeah. Again, they didn’t really have the [long] rehearsal process…It was really nice because we shot in Connecticut, but the production was sort of out of New York. We pulled from amazing Broadway actors and actresses. Laura Linney set the tone. She’s such a brilliant actor, too. It was really important for her to get the moments just right. So there was a little more rehearsal than a traditional show, but you were also dealing with these really wonderful theater actors that knew how to just come prepared. Not that film and TV actors don’t. But when you have these wonderful Broadway actors, they really came with strong choices right out of the [gate].
Showtime was great because at the time what other network was going to do a cancer comedy. That was pretty out there at the time. Hats off to Showtime for taking a risk like that and making what I think is still one of the most beautiful shows in the last 15 years. It was really remarkable and a lot of fun, too. We got to play with the subject matter of cancer, we got to push the envelope with language and everything else. It was a really great experience. I learned so much from that show and from that cast. It was a big deal for me.
What was the most striking thing you took away from it?
Honestly, the biggest thing was Laura Linney’s work ethic. She just works so hard. Kind of like on Veep, we put in all this extra work in order to make it look so easy and fluid. That’s what she does. She has notes, upon notes, upon notes—thick binder notebooks—where she’s just dissected every single moment. Yet when she performs, you don’t see any of that work. You see the work, but you don’t see the effort, is what I mean. She’s got it so worked out. She’s such a pro. She knows every single nuance of every single moment of every single line and every single word. It’s inspiring.
At first, it was incredibly intimidating. But she’s a lovely, lovely woman. She was a very, very sweet woman to work with. But I was just sort of shaking in my boots because I was like, “Oh my God, she’s just perfect every single take. How do I do I possibly match that?” I realized, “You’re not going to match that, dude. You’re just going to try to keep up.”
It taught me, sort of like what we were talking about before, you go back to what you learned. You start from the beginning again. You bust out your old notebooks. You breakdown the script. You do what you were taught. You rely on your training. You bring it up to a certain level and then you’ve got to just trust and let it go.
Veep season 5 spoilers ahead! Beware if you’re not caught up!
I know we’re jumping around a bunch, but with the improv you do on Veep you all have to be so nasty to each other. You have all these guest stars coming on and are just hurling insults at them. What’s that like?
Yeah we get asked that a lot [Reid laughs]. Probably like the first couple episodes we apologized to each other a lot. Everyone would spit this vitriol, insults, and then they’d yell, “Cut,” and then you’d turn to the person you were yelling at and say, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I don’t really think you’re fat. I don’t really think you look like Play-Doh melting on a flagpole.” But everyone was so cool about it. It’s the characters, not us. This is the world we’re trying to create and everyone’s got thick skin. Everyone’s professional. But at first, it was different. The characters are mean. They’re all just so despicable. There’s not a good person in the bunch.
I think Mike became sympathetic this season.
Oh yeah, definitely [Reid laughs]. I love Mike. Matt Walsh’s performance is so great. You feel so bad for that guy. His six-year-old adopted daughter, everything’s just going wrong, he’s kind of terrible at his job. Also, Richard. Richard’s sort of a sweetheart, too. But, I mean at this point now after five seasons we can just fling these insults left and right. It’s all good fun.
It seems like people always ask you what it’s like to play a dick, so I’m going to spare you that. Instead, what humanizes Dan for you?
That’s a good question. It’s easy after a while, especially after multiple seasons on a show, to just flip into playing the caricature of your character. We’ve all had that challenge of, “How do you keep them human? How do you keep them real?” For me, [Dan’s] just driven. He wants to be a success. Obviously, working in Hollywood you see this all the time. Their intentions might very well be good and honorable, but they just want to be a success. They want to be the best at their job that they could possibly be. Along that road there are a lot of obstacles, you stumble and fall, and you end up slightly off the path that you started. You grip it too hard and you’re trying to bring it back towards center.
I’ve tried to make Dan the kind of guy who has a goal in mind, he wants to work in politics. He wants to be a success. At this point now, certain things have worked out. He’s determined to make be successes in the industry. So at this point now, he’s like, “I don’t care who I have to roll over. I’m gonna get mine.” I think everyone can identify with that a little bit. We might not all do that, but I think everyone knows the feeling of, “Damn it, I’m going to make things work. I’m going to make this work. Everyone else be damned because at the end of my life, I’m going to be able to look back and say, ‘I did it.’”
He sort of has the athlete mentality of, “I’m gonna win the Super Bowl. I don’t care how I get there. I’m gonna win it. If I have to play a little dirty, that’s fine, because at the end of the day, I’ll be a champion.”
We ended this season with Dan getting a job offer from CBS. I’m not sure what you know about next season, but how do you think that fits into Dan’s plan? It’s a little bit out of the political world.
Well, first of all, I’ll say that I don’t know anything about next season. They haven’t said peep. But with this, we saw a little bit at the beginning of season 5, he wants to get into broadcast journalism. He wants to be a talking head. I think he’s caught a bit of the fame bug, he obviously wants money, and we saw that during his lobbying time. He was making all this cash and he loves that. He wanted to be an operative, he wanted to be a campaign manager. He just wants to be successful in his field. Now, if he can comment on it and be a success doing that, I think he’s all for it. I think that’s his plan. Every season he has some sort of master plan of what he wants to accomplish. This whole past season he made all these moves really just to build his credentials, build his resume, so he could get this job on TV. It’s looking like it’s working, but I mean come on. In true Veep fashion I assume at some point next season Dan’s going to get fired. I think he’s been fired once a season now [Reid laughs]. That’s the fun thing about Dan. You root for him to have this great success, but it’s almost more fun to watch him fail.
You just were filming Meridian for Netflix. There’s literally no info about the project. What is it and who do you play?
It’s pretty cool actually. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be offered up for viewing, to be honest. It’s kind of an internal project, but it’s pretty interesting. Netflix, Sony, and RED the camera company are partnering up to drop kick technology to the next level…It’s really an experiment is what it is. It’s cool. They’re using these new cameras, new camera software, new processing techniques, new editing techniques, new techniques to see what the capabilities are. Rather than just shoot camera tests with boring stuff, they decided to do bit of a narrative. This wonderful DP, Curtis Clark, is directing this piece. I signed on just because I’m a fan of his. Because of my film background I’m kind of a tech nerd. I wanted to see how they would implement all of these technological aspects to it. For me, it was just really fun. Also, it’s a bit of a period piece. It takes place in 1947. It’s a Twilight Zone kind of episode that’s left very open ended. It’s very ambiguous and mind-bendy. I hope they put it up at some point because I think it’ll look really cool. But I think more of the intention is to play with the tech and play with these wonderful new toys to see what they can do.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors and directors?
In this day in age it’s create your own material. It’s such a different landscape than when I first started. I graduated in 2000 and I think the digital age was just coming out, so you started to see people generate their own content and now I think it’s absolutely paramount. As an actor, if you’re writing and trying to shoot your stuff, even if you’re not selling it, if nothing else then it’s giving you great practice. As an actor specifically, it’s one of the few art forms you can’t really do on your own. If you’re a musician you can go home and practice guitar, if you’re a dancer you can practice dance, if you’re a painter you can paint. But if you’re an actor, it’s kind of hard to go home and act by yourself. It’s a community-oriented art form. You need to work with other people. It’s very social. I think my advice would be, play as much as you can. Even if you’re not generating your own material, even if you’re not a writer, find young writers. Volunteer and say, “Put me in your piece. Let’s play.” That’s the best training you’re ever going to get, despite how great the program you’ve come through might be. There’s nothing like on the job training in this business. The same would apply to directors and writers. If you’re a writer, write as much as you can. If you’re a director, scratch together a few bucks, rent a camera, shoot something. Shoot it on your iPhone—whatever you’ve got to do. Keep working and making content because that’s a great gift that’s available right now: the fact that you can do that. 20 years ago, you couldn’t. You could try to mount a play or rent a very expensive camera and shoot it on very expensive film. Now, to have [a camera] easily accessible it’s huge. It’s absolutely huge. ♦