ANNA CHLUMSKY IN NEW YORK, MARCH 2016. PHOTOS: JAMES RYANG. STYLING: EMILY BARNES/THE WALL GROUP. HAIR: TAKAYOSHI TSUKISAWA USING BUMBLE AND BUMBLE. MAKEUP: REN NOBUKO USING TOM FORD BEAUTY. STYLING ASSISTANT: KACEY BENNETT.
This weekend, HBO’s biting White House comedy Veep returns for a fifth series. Things are not going well for sitting President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus): after a tumultuous election campaign, the results are in and Meyer is tied with her opponent. It is up to Meyer’s team, anchored by her former chief of staff Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), to pick up the pieces.
Now in 35, Anna Chlumsky first became famous as a child actor thanks to her role in the 1991 drama My Girl. After taking a break from the screen to attend the University of Chicago and work in publishing, Chlumsky returned to acting via the New York theater world. She’s been nominated for three consecutive Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmys for her work on Veep, and, during her breaks from the show, has appeared in both indie films like The End of the Tour and Broadway plays such as You Can’t Take it With You.
Here, Chlumsky talks to her friend and frequent theater co-star Julie Halston.
JULIE HALSTON: Honey, first of all, congratulations on baby number two.
ANNA CHLUMSKY: Tee-hee. Here we go.
HALSTON: How fantastic. Now we’re going to do this, we’re going to talk about ourselves. As if celebrity types need to talk about themselves more, but Anna Chlumsky is much more interesting than most of them, I’m going to say that right off the bat.
CHLUMSKY: That’s why I suggested you.
HALSTON: There you go. And I said to Interview, I’m a relentless name-dropper, so letting you know from the onset. You know, I’m old now and I know everyone.
CHLUMSKY: You’re the mayor.
HALSTON: I’m the mayor. Actually I was just with the mayor, so we’ll talk about that in a minute.
HALSTON: Yes, and Hillary Clinton was the surprise guest. It was fantastic. So we are theater buddies. That’s how we know each other. It was Love, Loss, and What I Wore where first actually met each other.
CHLUMSKY: Yup. Have you seen the Nora Ephron documentary? It’s beautiful.
HALSTON: It’s fantastic. Jacob [Bernstein] did a beautiful job. You know, she’s been described as a “pickle wrapped in whip cream” and I thought, “What a perfect description.”
CHLUMSKY: [laughs] Sweet and briney.
HALSTON: It was just perfect. Also seeing Delia [Ephron], her sister, who we worked with as well, was so fantastic. In a way they kind of played good cop-bad cop, but what was so wonderful was to work with these two great minds. They gave us these good ideas.
CHLUMSKY: They were both so generous with their time. We had a really nice situation.
HALSTON: We had a great situation. I remember thinking when I first saw you and met you, “How many notes is this girl going to take?” Because Anna, you like to take a lot of notes about your character. You were writing things down and I was like “Wow, what is she writing?”
CHLUMSKY: I’m such a nerd. That’s it. I’m just a nerd. [laughs]
HALSTON: That was my first impression of you: “She’s gorgeous” and then, “Wow, she’s really into notes.” She’s smart and maybe a little bit of a perfectionist.
CHLUMSKY: I think I let go a little bit. I think I let go of any kind of perfection since then. Actually, LaTanya was really helpful with that—LaTanya Richardson, who did a show with us. After rehearsal, she said something to the extent of, “You’re gold already”
HALSTON: Yes. You’re enough.
CHLUMSKY: I take that with me all the time now and it helps me to chill out and trust so much more. Who knew our little monologue show would teach me something I’d keep? [laughs]
HALSTON: I was always of the improv-comedy discipline, which was trust your comedic instinct, but I didn’t always do due diligence with the character. What it taught me was, yes, you can trust your instinct, but sometimes it is better to dig a little deeper. The thing that is great about someone like LaTanya Richardson, who I think we both revere—she’s an amazing actress—is because of the life she’s led and who she is, she already dug deeper in her life. She could bring that wonderful sensibility of confidence without being snarky. She carried this calm, quiet, wisdom with her and I loved it.
CHLUMSKY: It’s not every day that you get to spend that much time with really fantastic women.
HALSTON: Now tell me, on your Veep hiatus, you were able to come into You Can’t Take It With You, replacing Rose Byrne. How was that experience for you? Was it a little daunting to come into a place where people already were?
CHLUMSKY: It was daunting because I wanted to get it right; it was a well-oiled machine by the time I came in. I certainly didn’t want to step on any toes or put anything where it wasn’t. I didn’t want to throw anyone. That was where my nerves were the most —I just didn’t want to throw anyone, because we had one group rehearsal before I went on.
HALSTON: I couldn’t believe that you got only one rehearsal; it’s a huge part in a huge play on a huge stage with huge talent.
CHLUMSKY: The understudies were such a gift to me, because that’s how I learned the show, from the covers. They were going in all the time. They were so brilliant. They also taught me that it was okay to bring my own thing to the role, because they were all bringing their own thing to the roles they were covering. I started the day after we wrapped Veep that season and we had nine rehearsals.
HALSTON: Oh my lord.
CHLUMSKY: [laughs] It was an enormous gift, because Veep could be very chaotic, especially by the end—sometimes we don’t have our script until the night before or the morning of, so you’re learning to commit really quickly and learn your lines very quickly. By the time I got to You Can’t Take It With You, I thought nine rehearsals was a luxury.
HALSTON: You’re so good. You really are. But I’ll gush about you later.
CHLUMSKY: Why later? Why not now? [laughs]
HALSTON: Yes. I’ll gush now. I was actually watching you as a child doing an interview and it reminded me, child performers—because we have to acknowledge that you were a child performer—can be one of two things, which is deadly and obnoxious or rather fantastic human beings. What I saw in your interview as a child, besides the fact that you were very cute, you had a real quality, a poise and grace. It reminded me, I have to say, of a young Judy Garland. I was wondering, as a child were you smitten with a particular performer?
CHLUMSKY: I had many. I had a wall that had pictures and pictures. My neighbors had New Kids On the Block and I had Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson, Vivien Leigh.
HALSTON: I always wanted to be her when I was little! That’s already hilarious that it was Vivien Leigh and Emma Thompson.
CHLUMSKY: Judy Garland was in there. I was obsessed with Judy. I feel like I’ve seen every movie, even The Pirate. Gene Kelly, even more so, was everything to me from when I was a little child all the way up.
HALSTON: I read somewhere that you were interested in paleontology. Is that true?
CHLUMSKY: It sure was. I even kind of pursued it. I was 13 when Jurassic Park came out. It was my first grown-up book that I read, so I was obsessed with it and I wanted to be either a paleontologist or a zoologist. I actually mentioned this in an interview in the Chicago Tribune when I was a freshman in high school and the head of the fish department at the Field Museum ended up reading it. His name is Barry Chernoff and he got in touch and said, “If Anna ever wants to do an internship over the summer at the Field Museum…” Isn’t that the coolest thing? So I did that three years in a row. I also did a summer at the Brookfield Zoo just in a fast food restaurant, but I interned three years at the Field Museum and I think that had an enormous impact for me getting into the University of Chicago because Barry was a biology professor there at the grad school and he was one of my recommendations.
HALSTON: I know you as someone who is actually interested in the world so this does not really surprised me, but you also have to be pretty smart to get into University of Chicago. You could do all the internships in the world but if you’re not very bright, you might not get into the University of Chicago.
CHLUMSKY: You do, but I didn’t have the most stellar test scores. They were good, but they weren’t by any means a shoe-in at all, so I think Barry’s recommendation did help me.
HALSTON: Well that is wonderful. Let me ask you. When was it that you actually met your husband Shaun? I believe it was at college and you were studying International Relations. Was it a particular class, in a hallway, at a bar?
CHLUMSKY: I wish it were academic. We met at a dance party. [laughs] It was one of the very few that The University of Chicago holds. They’re famous for their slogan, “Where fun comes to die.” But over Memorial Day weekend, they hold a slew of parties called Spring Fling, and it starts off with a dance party on the quad. We were both there. I was supposed to go with someone else, but that person had the flu so I went by myself.
HALSTON: Was it a little like West Side Story, where people part and you find each other?
CHLUMSKY: Without any of the cultural riffs, yeah. [laughs] I danced my butt off. He was dancing with all of his buddies. I met all of his buddies first and then he and I danced for, like, four hours. We only knew each other’s name. Then I was expecting him to walk me home or something and he was just like, “Okay, bye.” [laughs] It turns out it was because he was shy. Then we saw each other again the next day and Eminem and The Roots were playing on campus. It was when Eminem had just come out with “The Real Slim Shady,” so I was in line at that concert with my friend and I said, “There’s that guy I danced with last night,” and she’s like “What’s his name?” and I was like “Shaun.” And she says “Hey, Shaun…” and then ducked. The rest is history…
HALSTON: Well, as someone who actually knows Shaun a little, I have to say he’s truly a gentleman. He’s just such a wonderful guy. Smart and brave and courteous and so good, not only to you, but good to your friends.
CHLUMSKY: You have to earn that though. You earned that. He’s judicious with his affection.
HALSTON: Oh well I feel very honored. I do remember talking—here’s the relentless name-dropping—to Brooke Shields, who was also in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, and she said the proudest moment of her life was when she graduated from Princeton. How did you feel when you got your degree? Was it just, “Great, that’s over, now we can move”? Or was it a moment of real pride?
CHLUMSKY: I was proud but I was also really frightened. Unlike a lot of my fellow students, I never imagined graduation day. Being there was some of the most present moments of my life—I was just enjoying it so much—that I didn’t even think of the end of it. I was just like, “This is so great!” There were hard days, it was college and there were some tears, but overall I felt really safe behind the walls of academia.
HALSTON: I will tell you something, and I don’t say this lightly because you know I’m a judgmental bitch when I want to be, but you are one of those performers who can carry shades of gray. There is lots of ambiguity and clearly we see this in our daily lives, political lives, performing lives. You are one of those performers that can hold two thoughts that maybe are mutually exclusive in your hand and then translate it for us. A lot of actors can’t, and certainly a lot of comedic actors cannot—they get stuck in one thing. That’s what I think is the most extraordinary thing about you, and I think that really what you’re saying about your feelings about college makes sense. Being a child performer is already a strange way to grow up on a certain level, so you’re already holding two mutually exclusive events in your palm.
CHLUMSKY: That’s one of the things that inspires what I do. We’re telling stories and our job in telling the story is to be the person and the character, and, to me, what is so fascinating about human beings is exactly what you just said. We can behave a certain way without being aware of it. Amy does that all the time on Veep. She’s always doing stuff where she thinks she’s in control but she’s completely not, and I don’t know why she’s doing some of the stuff she does. That’s what makes it rich and fun. Even Alice [in You Can’t Take it With You] did that too. She was constantly betraying her own feelings in our show. I always feel like I’ve found gold when I find those spots in a role.
HALSTON: Right. Joe Biden’s former Chief of Staff wrote in GQ that your character on Veep, Amy Brookheimer, is a terrible chief of staff. How do you feel about that? Do you think Amy’s a terrible Chief of Staff?
CHLUMSKY: That was such a lesson for me reading that. First of all, I was source-struck, because he was somebody that I looked at a lot for the role. So the fact that he was even watching, I was like, “Oh my god!” That was during the first season and none of us knew anybody was watching yet. Then for him to be like, “A good chief of staff would never do this” or “a good chief of staff would never do that,” at first I got very defensive. I thought, “I told the writers that she shouldn’t do this! I told the writers she would of looked into this before doing that!” Then I thought, “Anna, this is a comedy. It wouldn’t be funny or interesting if she was good at what she did.” [laughs]
HALSTON: Right, because then we wouldn’t have a comedic television show. We’d have C-Span.
CHLUMSKY: Exactly. [laughs] As actors we’re supposed to be our character’s advocate, right? So for a good amount of time, I thought, “Amy should do this, Amy should be better, and they need to give Amy this.” Then after we wrapped, I pulled back. No one wants to see anybody doing their job well.
HALSTON: Well of course Anna Chlumsky would be a brilliant chief of staff…
CHLUMSKY: Oh no.
HALSTON: Oh, you’d be good at it.
CHLUMSKY: I may be good at it but then I would end up shooting myself after two years.
HALSTON: I hear you. Can we talk about Frank Rich? Frank Rich is someone we both know and he basically changed my life and we could also say he changed your life too. He wrote a review of Charles Bush’s play The Lady In Question when we were down on the Lower East Side. It was such a rave—he gave all of us rave reviews—and it totally legitimized our theater company. It totally changed our careers.
CHLUMSKY: And he gave raves sparingly.
HALSTON: Very sparingly. He was known as the “butcher of Broadway.” But he really encouraged us and put our theater company on the map. It was actually the first time in my life that I actually wrote to a critic, which I know you’re not supposed to do, but it was a very spare little note just saying thank you. He wrote back to me and I framed it. So tell us a little bit about what it is like to work with Frank Rich.
CHLUMSKY: Now he’s wearing this producing hat for us. He’s terribly good at finding quality. I think that’s what he did with Armando Iannucci, the creator of Veep who I had worked with on In the Loop, Frank knew how ingenious Arm was, and they collaborated along with Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] to make Veep for HBO. Frank has been a really grounding force because he grew up in D.C., he’s innunndated with that part of life in his writing world, so we’re always looking to him for our authenticity. He’s both watching us for quality and plausibility, which honestly makes the satire that much better. Because if you’re being just clowns, it doesn’t hurt. [laughs]
HALSTON: Right. It doesn’t have the bite. Now, the whole cast of Veep is amazing. It’s fabulous.
CHLUMSKY: Down to our guests. Everybody who comes on is incredible.
HALSTON: Are there certain people in the cast that you are particularly close to and that you bonded with in an even more special way?
CHLUMSKY: It’s funny, it’s kind of like a family where certain people fill certain spots that you need in the collaboration. Sam Richardson, who was the later addition to our cast, I find to be incredibly talented, but also somebody who can keep up with my ridiculous line of conversation during lunch. [laughs]
HALSTON: There you go. Is there any person that you’re dying to work with? I just worked with Elaine May. I can retire from show business now. [laughs]
CHLUMSKY: Please don’t.
HALSTON: It was amazing to watch her genius, but is there someone or a project or anything that you feel is on your list?
CHLUMSKY: There’s plenty. Mike Nichols was always on that list, but sadly that’s not an option. I’m always dying to do some kind of brilliant period miniseries. I feel like we don’t have enough Amadeus anymore. They did John Adams a few years ago and that was so excellent. I’m dying to do something like that. I want to play something where I have to ride a horse.
HALSTON: Put it out there! How is Penny doing? Is she aware that a brother or sister is maybe coming?
CHLUMSKY: She is. She’s very excited about it. She’s a very nurturing young lady. She’s very good about giving all of her stuffed animals blankets and BandAids and checking their temperature and all that, so hopefully, knock on wood, baby number two will give her a good outlet for all of her doctoring. [laughs]
HALSTON: Aw that’s so sweet. I was not that child at all I must say.
CHLUMSKY: I know. I don’t know where she gets it from.
HALSTON: I was never into dolls at all.
CHLUMSKY: I wasn’t either. I was into Barbie big time, but I was never into baby dolls, I never went over there in the toy store. I was really nervous that I wouldn’t be a good mom because I was never that person who gravitated towards babies, but once I had Penny, I couldn’t see a diaper commercial without welling up and saying “Oh, a baby!” [laughs]
HALSTON: Yeah. Isn’t that something? It’s so funny. My mom admitted to us at one time that she was very nervous about having a child. She said, “I was not maternal. I was not interested. I was not the queen babysitter on our block,” yet when she had a child she said, “I had feelings that I never knew existed.”
CHLUMSKY: It’s magic of finding more about who you are even as you’re getting older. We think that so much of us is figured out by the time we’re in our twenties but we’re still discovering so much about ourselves.
JULIE HALSTON IS AN ACTRESS AND COMEDIAN, VEEP RETURNS THIS SUNDAY, APRIL 24, ON HBO.