Veep's Anna Chlumsky On Youth, Television And Tolkien
After a successful career as a child actress, starring in films such as My Girl and Trading Mom, Anna Chlumsky walked away from the big screen and went back to school. But while working as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins, she began feeling an itch. "There was a month where I was really open to [the question] 'what should I do with my life?'" Chlumsky told Ophira Eisenberg at The Bell House in Brooklyn. "And I'd get signs from the universe."
After one of those signs — a psychic advising her to get back into acting — Chlumsky enrolled in the Atlantic Acting School in Manhattan. From there, she went on to appear in 30 Rock, Law & Order, and a production of the play Unconditional at New York City's Public Theater. Most recently, she was cast in HBO's Veep, where Chlumsky plays the campaign manager to Julia Louis-Dreyfus's now-President.
"I think that we're in the next phase of expanding the repertoire for female characters," Chlumsky said. "We needed to prove that we could be smart and powerful... and now we can prove that we [are] smart, powerful and flawed. Which I think is even more honest."
Working in publishing, Chlumsky became intimately familiar with science fiction and fantasy books. So in this week's VIP game, we quizzed Anna about the one fantasy series to rule them all — The Lord of the Rings.
What Capitol Hill thinks of Veep
There's a great reception among staffers, among elected officials. They find the portrayal accurate. People say, "You have no idea how right you're getting it."
One of the things that pushed Anna Chlumsky back into acting
I was getting my nails done and Roberta Flack was there. I met her, and she knew what I had [starred in] as a kid, and she said, "You should go back in." I said, "I'm done," and she gave me this look, like, "Honey. You're done?"
Heard in Veep of the Rings
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
You're listening to ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR and WNYC. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me right now is our very important puzzler, Chief of Staff Amy Bruckheimer on the HBO series, "Veep." Please welcome Anna Chlumsky.
ANNA CHLUMSKY: Wow. Hello.
EISENBERG: Hey, Anna.
CHLUMSKY: This is neat.
EISENBERG: Would you agree that we're in the golden age of television when it comes to writing roles for women in comedy because now the characters don't have to please people? They are entitled. They're ambitious. They're snide. They're, you know, Larry David-esque.
CHLUMSKY: Yeah. I think that we're kind of in the next, maybe, phase of expanding the repertoire for female characters, where, you know, we needed to prove that we could be smart and powerful for a while, and now we can prove that we can be smart, powerful and flawed, which I think is even more honest. It's a good thing to be an actor on TV these days.
EISENBERG: And when you guys are doing these scenes, which are hilarious, I love - the process isn't so much improv during the scene, but you guys do something different. You workshop it?
CHLUMSKY: We get to workshop the episodes, yeah. That's from the Armando Iannucci kind of school of comedy where he really believes that the truthful, spontaneous moment is the funniest. And so we all get to go around and read whatever draft of the script we have, and then we get on our feet, and he kind of throws scenarios at us, and we just workshop them. And then, more often than not, you'll see what we come up with in those workshops in the final draft, so it's super. It's really - it's a really generous process.
EISENBERG: Have you had people in your roles in the U.S. government come to the set or to talk to you about the show?
CHLUMSKY: We do have - yeah, there's a great reception among staffers, among elected officials. People love the show. They - I think they - I think it's a nice thing to give people a chance to laugh at themselves in their daily...
EISENBERG: But do they find the portrayal is accurate?
EISENBERG: Oh, really?
CHLUMSKY: Yeah. Yeah, frighteningly so. I mean, that's what they say. I mean, that's, I think, what people like to say most often to us, is they're like, you have no idea how right you're getting it.
EISENBERG: So they're slinging around those great insults?
CHLUMSKY: Yeah. Well, I can only presume that they aspire to (laughter).
EISENBERG: Right, right, right, yeah, because some of the language is incredible on the show.
CHLUMSKY: Very, very floral.
EISENBERG: Now you have a kind of a - floral is perfect.
EISENBERG: Oh, my God, we should use that word on public radio constantly - floral language.
CHLUMSKY: Floral language.
EISENBERG: You have an interesting trajectory because you were a child star from the movie "My Girl," and then you...
CHLUMSKY: I wouldn't say stay. Maybe - I don't know if I got it. Yeah, but, well...
EISENBERG: I the woos say star.
CHLUMSKY: Well, thanks.
EISENBERG: I think the woos say star.
EISENBERG: Then you leave acting. You actually go into publishing....
EISENBERG: What inspired you to get back into the acting game?
CHLUMSKY: I was living in New York, and I was getting to see a lot of really great Broadway at the time. And I saw "The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?" by Edward Albee, and Mercedes Ruehl just killed it. She just was so amazing in that role. And I just - I stood up at the bows, and I was just like, I have to do that. I have to communicate that good of a text to an audience someday. Like, that's what I have to do.
EISENBERG: And I'm sure people along the way wanted you to get back into it.
CHLUMSKY: Yes. Oh, everyone. Yeah, lots of people. There was a month where I think I was really open to, oh, what should I do with my life? And that's when, you know, you would get, like, little signs from the universe or above or whatever you want to say.
EISENBERG: Like what?
CHLUMSKY: Like, I was editing a science fiction short story collection by Harlan Ellison, and he told me on the phone I should get back into it. I mean, I had no idea he knew who I was. What?
CHLUMSKY: And then I was getting my nails done at a nail salon, and Roberta Flack was there, and...
CHLUMSKY: This is New York, you know, people get their nails done. And I met her, and she knew what I had done as a kid, and so she was like, you want to - you should go back in. And I was like, I'm done. And she gave me this look like, honey, like, you're done? Come on. Like, she just gave me - and I was like, you know...
EISENBERG: She shamed you.
CHLUMSKY: Yeah, kind of.
EISENBERG: She shamed you.
CHLUMSKY: But, like, you know, in that really nice, like, encouraging way (laughter). And then the kicker was I was crying a lot at this time.
CHLUMSKY: Because I just didn't know what to do with my life, you know? I was editing science fiction and fantasy at HarperCollins, which is a really cool job, but I was still so unhappy, and I didn't know why. So I was on my lunch break, and there was this psychic who always, like, was post outside of the office building. And she followed me, and she tapped me on the shoulder. I'm like, what? And she says, you know, you're the girl from "My Girl." I'm like, yeah, big psychic. You know...
CHLUMSKY: And she says, you know, you're not done. You still want to do this. And it just kind of stirred a thing, you know, so I was like - so I paid her 40 bucks for a 10-minute palm reading.
EISENBERG: Well, we are very glad, collectively, that you went with what that psychic and Roberta Flack...
CHLUMSKY: As am I. As am I. Thank you.
EISENBERG: OK, we are going to subject you to your own ASK ME ANOTHER challenge a little later in the show.
EISENBERG: But right now, you are going to help us out with a phoner game.
EISENBERG: So our next contestant is on the line. Hello, you're on ASK ME ANOTHER.
ELLEN BIRKETT MORRIS: Hi, it's Ellen Morris from Louisville, Ky.
EISENBERG: Hello, Ellen Morris, welcome. Do you watch "Veep"?
MORRIS: Oh, I love "Veep." It's hilarious.
CHLUMSKY: Aw, thanks.
EISENBERG: Now, Ellen, you have some experience in political campaigns. You've volunteered for them?
EISENBERG: What would you say makes up the perfect candidate?
MORRIS: Well, it doesn't hurt if they're good-looking like Sarah Palin, but it's better if they don't bring the crazy.
CHLUMSKY: Oh, careful. I may - or that may be in a future season if...
CHLUMSKY: (Laughter) It's awesome.
EISENBERG: All right. So, Ellen, this game is called Random Questions with Anna Chlumsky. We have asked Anna some random questions - simple things that you wouldn't know the answer to. You just have to guess how she answered. For example, we asked her, what does she prefer, crossword puzzles or Candy Crush. What was your answer, Anna?
CHLUMSKY: Oh, I think I said crosswords.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Well, how do you truly feel?
CHLUMSKY: 'Cause I really like both of them.
EISENBERG: Oh, you do?
CHLUMSKY: Yes, it was a hard - that was the hardest one.
EISENBERG: They play with different sides of your brain, right?
CHLUMSKY: Sure. And, you know, you can do some on the train. But if you're - like, if it's a crowded train, you can do Candy Crush with one hand, but you can't bring out your pencil 'cause you could stab somebody. So you can't do a crossword.
EISENBERG: (Laughter). That's your fear with the pencil, stabbing?
CHLUMSKY: Yes (laughter). I really am.
EISENBERG: OK, so all you have to do, Ellen, is guess how you think Anna answered. And if you get enough right, you will win a special ASK ME ANOTHER prize. Are you ready?
MORRIS: I'm ready.
EISENBERG: Great. So "Veep" is famous for its creative insults. Which of these two "Veep" insults would Anna be more likely to use in real life - I don't have time to ignore you or you're mediocre, of all of the -ocres, you're the mediest?
MORRIS: (Laughter) I'm going to say, I don't have time to ignore you.
CHLUMSKY: I did waver on these as well, but I am very busy. But I did choose the second, but you are not mediocre for saying the wrong answer.
EISENBERG: Those are actually the only two insults that we could find that we could actually...
EISENBERG: ...Say on public radio.
CHLUMSKY: It happens often. It happens often.
EISENBERG: 'Cause we were talking about the very floral language.
CHLUMSKY: Floral language.
EISENBERG: When you leave the set, do you have to, like, wash out your mouth or something like that?
CHLUMSKY: You know, it's good 'cause I have a little one, right? So I - yeah, I've gotten very good at saying effing (ph) at home. I don't (laughter). I make myself laugh with the - I say bullshrimp a lot and like...
EISENBERG: Which sounds like a lovely appetizer by the way.
EISENBERG: All right, Ellen. You're doing great.
EISENBERG: Not to worry, here's your next question. Someone bumps into Anna on a crowded street. What does Anna do? Does she apologize to the bumper even though it wasn't her fault or does she bump the person back?
MORRIS: Oh, gosh. You know, I'm going to say, bumps the person back.
CHLUMSKY: I wish.
>>CHLUMSKY Oh, God, I wish I had the balls. I - yeah, no. I - more often than not, it's, you know, oh, sorry or excuse me. Or maybe a snide excuse me, like excuse me.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.
CHLUMSKY: Right? Or like, sorry. You know, that - yeah. It'll be - maybe it's an emotional bump back.
EISENBERG: An emotional (laughter) - right, in my mind, I am bumping you.
CHLUMSKY: I'm bumping you. Yeah.
EISENBERG: All right. Would Anna rather be Dr. Who's companion, Ellen, or a crew member on the starship Enterprise?
MORRIS: I'm going to go ahead and say a crew member on the starship Enterprise because she's used to being part of a team in "Veep."
CHLUMSKY: That's a great answer.
CHLUMSKY: I said Dr. Who but primarily because right now, Peter Capaldi plays Dr. Who, and he was in "In The Loop" with me, and it would be nice to have a reunion. That's all - in the future and in the past.
EISENBERG: Ellen, you would've never known that.
CHLUMSKY: (Laughter) I'm sorry.
EISENBERG: All right. Here is your final question, Ellen. Would Anna prefer her daughter to grow up to be an actress or go into politics?
MORRIS: Oh, I'm going to say actress here.
CHLUMSKY: Ding ding ding.
CHLUMSKY: Yay. That was a good finish.
EISENBERG: So even - so you were a child star but left, but you would still wish that on someone - or is it just wish that on someone more than...
CHLUMSKY: As an adult.
EISENBERG: As an...
CHLUMSKY: I mean, not - yeah.
EISENBERG: As an adult.
CHLUMSKY: No, I mean, I don't think politician is necessarily...
EISENBERG: As a child?
CHLUMSKY: ....As a child...
EISENBERG: They're getting younger.
EISENBERG: They're getting younger.
CHLUMSKY: They are and it's not - anyway. I think - yeah, I mean, they're both very, you know, careers that are very, you know, tenuous and in the public eye and difficult. It would be hard lives. But I feel like I'm just more accustomed and know show business better than I know politics. So I'd be able to hopefully guide her a little bit better. That was my thinking.
EISENBERG: Yeah. That's good.
CHLUMSKY: This is therapy.
EISENBERG: No. And Ellen got it right, which means - guess what? - you won.
EISENBERG: That's how it works here on ASK ME ANOTHER. Ellen, you won, and we are going to send you your very own anagram T-shirt, well done. Thank you so much, Anna. We will see you later in the show for your big challenge.
EISENBERG: No, it's going to be great.
EISENBERG: How about a hand for Anna Chlumsky?
EISENBERG: If you would like to be a contestant on ASK ME ANOTHER, just send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will send you a quiz and find out whether you're a commander-in-chief of trivia or just a second banana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.