ANNA CHLUMSKY: VEEPIN’ IT REAL

It’s a rare privilege to say, “Anna Chlumsky brightened my morning,” without referring to some work of her’s you just watched.  Last week, I had that privilege.  On our 9:30am call, I could feel her joy and passion for acting radiating through the phone; her jovial laugh and unabashed enthusiasm for what she does made me excited to start the day.  And it’s not like Chlumsky’s a newbie either.  She started acting as a child, then took a hiatus to attend University of Chicago.  After graduation, it took another two or so years for her to rediscover her passion for the craft.  But once she did, she was all in, and so were viewers.  Chlumsky currently stars as Amy Brookheimer on HBO’s hit series Veep, which returns for its sixth season this Sunday night.  The role has earned her four Emmy nominations and endless praise.  Part of the brilliance of Chlumsky’s performance is her ability to be uninhibited while playing a woman who suppresses almost all of her impulses.  Amy is always clutching her phone with a tight grip, clenching her jaw, and railing on her coworkers for being insubordinate.  She’s a ball of tension, but Chlumsky, the actor, is as free as can be.  Every time I rewatch an episode, I see something new in Amy–the ultimate testament to Chlumsky’s skill.   In this interview, discover how Chlumsky fell in love with acting again and how she’s crafted her performance as Amy the last six seasons.

MC: When did you catch the acting bug? Or maybe re-catch it as an adult?

AC: Oh yeah, after school and everything. I was not pursuing acting for probably about two years after graduating college. I was in New York. Honestly, even before those two years, I probably had the bug but I was repressing it. I remember my friend Melissa, my mother, and I went to go see The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? on Broadway. It’s by Edward Albee and Mercedes Ruehl was in it. I remember she just slayed that performance. She was so great. I stood up for it at the end. I remember even saying out loud, “I have to do that.” It kind of shook me. Even my mother heard me. The way that she was able to connect all these thoughts and all these words to me as an audience member, I felt, was so noble and so well executed that, God, I wanted to pursue that [Anna laughs].

Did anyone or anything besides that performance inspire you to pursue a career as an actor?

Sure, yeah. My whole life, I’m just trying to get close to how good Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis were—and Emma Thompson. Those are three women who are like the reason I act. A lot of people. I mean, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall, Jack Lemmon these are certainly all people I’ve always felt [inspired by]. Even growing up I always adored them. Then, as an adult after being in New York for a while I was getting to see so much good Broadway. There were some great movies coming out at the time. I remember Munich is still one of the reasons why I do this. I remember going to see Munich all by myself. It was one of those movie theaters with a big escalator. I was riding the escalator by myself down to the street and I just sent up something like a prayer: “Let me make movies like that, my God!” Deadwood was out at the time, Sopranos, Sex in the City had gotten really important and good in the latter part of their series. The actresses on that series were just so beautiful and phenomenal at their work. Deadwood I was obsessed with. It was always about truth and this unselfconscious kind of performance that would just leave [the actor] naked and grab the viewer—the audience member—and make them understand this beautiful text. That’s still what I’m after! [Anna laughs]

What were some of the benefits to starting in the New York theater scene rather than going to LA and jumping into the TV/film stuff first?

You know, everyone’s got their different way and path. I think, for me, theater was always something I did as a kid and it was always the truest most enjoyable feeling. It was that sense of the company, that sense of the troupes—being together, putting on a show, and sharing that with the audience. There’s really nothing like it. Also, here [NYC] you do eight shows a week. It’s like going to the gym. I think a lot of people feel that way who are trained [in the theater]. You get to practice this craft so much when you’re in a show. These new things can pop up for you. It really is like going to the gym. You just strengthen and strengthen, your endurance gets better, and your craft is better for it. That’s why I’m always drawn back to find a good play. Of course, you know, a bad play is never as fun as a good TV show or movie [Anna laughs]. The text is always the most important thing for me. The indicator of how much you’re going to enjoy the job is how much you enjoy the text.

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Gillian Jacobs and Anna Chlumsky onstage in The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero: Running on Empty back in 2007

That’s the other thing about theater. There’s a lot more opportunities to do some of the best texts ever written in history, like Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, stuff like that. You can find a way to do that a little more often than in the more commercial realm of television. Again, it’s one side of a really important coin. You learn how to be fast, you learn how to think on your feet, and you learn how to hone something completely new a lot of the time when you’re doing a TV show or film. So they really both have their contributions to someone’s craft. 

You trained at the Atlantic Acting School. How did that help set you up for success?

They had even longer programs than the one I was in. I came to them a little bit, I felt, later into my 20s and so I was like, I’m ready to go and try to get jobs. I did their summer intensive, which was like a boot camp. It was beautiful. It was a whole summer of just living and breathing plays and scenes. We learned everything from scene analysis, to movement, to kind of like meditative Meisner work. It was all in. Oh man. To this day, I still use so much of what I learned from them in what I do. I still carry the notebook that I started back then, my gosh. Whenever I see Cynthia Silver, or Anya Saffir, or Robert Bella, I’m like, “Oh you guys taught me how to act! You’re the reason I’m making a living right now” [Anna laughs].

Something you’ve said about playing Amy is you have to have an impulse and then squash it, which is sort of antithetical to what people learn in acting school. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Playing her on such a close medium like TV where things are way up in your face, and I have a lot of features, I’m theater trained, so I can get the back row pretty easily [Anna laughs]. We can go big. So for most of your training it’s about unleashing: getting rid of all the barriers and walls between your impulses and choices. That’s what acting is. As you continue, as you start to play roles professionally, you do start to go, Oh yeah, but this character doesn’t do that. This character who I see on the subway in their Tory Burch flats trying to get it all right and thinking they’ve got it all down because they’re checking things off of some list they’ve invented, that’s the opposite of letting your impulse go. It’s like, in order to play the character, you still have to have all the impulses because humans are having them everyday. Maybe they’re letting them out, or they aren’t.

Amy certainly [follows her impulses], depending on who she’s in the room with. If she’s in the room with Selina, she’s going to squash pretty much every impulse because that’s her boss and she’s not allowed to show her all the stuff she’s thinking about her [Anna laughs]. Except for one glorious scene we got to play. But of course when [Amy] was the boss of everybody for the first two seasons, when she was Chief of Staff, she could kind of let it go with her “underlings” [Anna laughs]. It becomes more and more learning about the craft—learning how to hone decisions.

Amy Going Off on Selina and Karen (Veep Season 4, Episode 5)

You mentioned that scene in season four where Amy blows up at Selina and Karen, which is possibly one of the greatest moments in TV history. You’ve talked about having to work up to that throughout the season to make sure it paid off. How did you go about that: sprinkling things in other episodes to ensure the explosion seemed warranted?

I’m so grateful that the people who were the showrunners at that time let us know what was happening in the series because it’s so important as actors to earn these kinds of moments. I was afforded that ability that season to earn that for sure. We have a lot of series regulars on our show, so in 24 minutes it’s not like everybody gets a ton of screen time. So I was really adamant that I remembered where this was headed, even in the other episodes we were filming before that scene. Otherwise, it runs the risk of looking like the actor’s doing it because the writers told her to as opposed to the character actually going through this and ringing true that this would really happen. That’s part of our job. That was such a great way to practice what I’m always learning to do, which is to ground all of this in truth. It really comes through in your choices. If I didn’t know that was where it was going, I could have probably made a different decision about how she felt in episode one or episode two. But if you do know where it’s going, you can be like, “Oh no this is actually how she feels” [Anna laughs]. “This is actually how she feels at this point.” It’s fun detective work to do.

Had you done any improv before Veep?

That is something I’m not trained in at all. I’ve never been trained in improv. Our show has become something where they use some brilliant improv actors. It was created by a guy from the UK called Armando Iannucci and his brilliant writers. His process, he was very open to improvisation. It was a little different from improv as we know it here. He would just have us play out scenes without the pressure to be funny or the pressure to have a result. It was more for exploratory purposes. It lent itself really well to those of us who were more classically trained, as well as those who are, I mean gosh, we have some of the most incredible improvisers. We have the OGs of improv in our show. The Armando Iannucci process really lent itself to all of us. We could all be included that way.

What was it like re-entering that rehearsal room space with the characters going into new professional positions?

Well the rehearsal room isn’t utilized as much anymore now that we have a new showrunner [David Mandel, who took over in season five] and writers. It was going to be interesting. We all knew it was going to be interesting. For me, I kind of got to be thrown right into the frying pan this season because I was fortunate enough to enjoy my entire maternity leave with my second baby. I actually got to film all of my scenes for the first two episodes in one day [Anna laughs]: the day I was 12-weeks postpartum. So yeah, it was right back in, which I think was really good for me. It didn’t give me a chance to question myself or question things. Just go—do it.

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Anna Chlumsky as Amy Brookheimer on Veep

What’s your advice for aspiring actors?

Persevere. Persevere. And the only way that you fail is if you give up. Even on the days that it really feels like you just can’t break through, that you can’t even pay rent, and you’re like, “What am I doing?” If you have the calling for this, it’s for a reason. It is absolutely worth pursuing when it’s true to your heart. ♦

Season 6 of Veep premieres this Sunday at 10:30pm on HBO!

Hey Veeple, be sure to read our interviews with:

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←Matt Walsh (Mike McLintock)

Reid Scott (Dan Egan)→

Photo Credit: Monique Carboni, Justin M. Lubin/HBO
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