Telling a successful actor that you’ve gone 99.9 percent of your life without seeing her best-known film is probably not a good idea. But I’ve only been sitting across from Anna Chlumsky for about two minutes when I relay that message. “God bless you!” she responds quickly, with cheer in her voice. “I love you for that!”
It’s an irregularity, for sure, that a person would not know Chlumsky first from My Girl. But for a while, I’ve been obsessed with HBO’s Veep, in which the actress plays cunning politico Amy Brookheimer, and has already received four Emmy nominations for her efforts. The night before we met, however, I took it upon myself to watch the nostalgic favorite from 1991, wherein Chlumsky starred alongside Macaulay Culkin, and after which she, as an 11-year-old, was launched into young fame. That viewing experience is almost certainly the inverse of how it usually goes, but it seems to have opened the eyes of the actor from Chicago.
“Well, that’s awesome,” Chlumsky says, as she sips on a cappuccino at Bushwick’s Mominette Bistro. “But you know what’s nice, too? Is that it’s finally been long enough where it’s not assumed; that’s so nice!” Her attitude, on an unexpectedly decent day, in the thick of winter doldrums in early March, matches the climate: sunny, positive, and buoyantly gloom-free.
Chlumsky’s long blonde hair compliments her flowing blue dress and K-Swiss sneakers, which makes it further clear that her real-life effervescence is immensely contrary to the character she plays on TV each week. That pretend version of Chlumsky is consumed by just one thing: jockeying to advance her political career.
The real Anna, on the other hand, has many interests, and will talk about them all: How she loves her two kids and her husband; about her adoration for opera; her dream, even, to direct one some day. She’ll outline her distaste for commuting to and from Los Angeles for filming, and comment on current events—including the Best Picture fiasco at the Academy Awards, which had just occurred a few days earlier. (“I’m happy with the result but, man… what a refreshing thing, that that producer was so honest,” she says, referring to Jordan Horowitz, who conceded the wrongly-awarded Best Picture to Moonlight. “You know what I mean? I think that we’re all so cynical these days that we don’t expect someone to actually play fair like that. I thought, ‘Oh, wow! Everyone’s going to want to work for this guy now.’ Because it’s just like…what a good person!”). She also showed a particular excitement in talking about last year’s 108-year-drought-breaking World Series win for her Chicago Cubs (she called her mother on the phone when it happened; they cried together on the line).
Furthermore, this affability is, apparently, not just a show for the media. “I think it’s a compliment to her that there’s even a scent that she might be as awful as Amy is, when she really just isn’t,” said Timothy Simons, who, as the bufoonish Jonah Ryan, bickers almost constantly with Amy. “She’s a really lovely, smart, intelligent person, that is multi-faceted, compared to the beleaguered Amy, who only has one interest,” Simons tells me over the phone. He says his favorite Amy moment is from an episode in season three: In an act of bravado, she shares that she once ate hummus with a pen cap. “That is a perfect encapsulation of that character,” Simons summarizes, “and Anna is nothing like that.“
Of all of the great qualities that Chlumsky brings to her character, one in particular stands out: extreme transparency to any inner emotion, communicated through the expressions on her face. Often, Chlumsky doesn’t even have lines. She could be on the sideline, next to the commanding presence of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but through a simple grimace, or glaring of the eyes, is able to add a whole new dimension to the scene. Her face has a seemingly malleability not dissimilar to versatile performers like Jim Carrey or Keegan Michael-Key. “I just can’t hide shit on my face,” Chlumsky says with another hearty laugh. “I just can’t hide anything. It’s both my burden and my living.”
Playing Amy has been the capstone on a career renaissance. As the much-told story goes, by the time she reached her late teens, Chlumsky was out of the acting game and eventually moved to Brooklyn in 2002, where she landed at the start of a career in publishing, working first for Zagat, and then as an Editorial Assistant for the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Imprint of HarperCollins Publishing (where, as a huge fan of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, she surely felt at home.).
But, eventually, Chlumsky gave in to her childhood love and began, little by little, year by year, climbing her way back up the ladder. She took a tiny (but memorable) role as Liz Lemler, Tina Fey’s quasi-nemesis on the first season of 30 Rock. Eventually, she landed a supporting role in Armando Iannucci’s 2009 political satire, In The Loop, and that led, at last, to a role in Veep, which Iannucci also created and helmed for four years.
Chlumsky only met Sam Richardson, her co-star who plays the relentlessly positive, sweet-natured Richard Splett, at the table read for the first episode of Veep’s third season, but it didn’t take long for the pair to become close friends. At coffee, Chlumsky gives a ringing endorsement for Richardson’s other show, Comedy Central’s new Detroiters. For his part, Richardson returns the favor, describing Chlumsky in a way that has come to sound very familiar to me: as someone both “kind” and “overly caring.”
Richardson and Chlumsky’s close relationship when the cameras aren’t rolling—they talk about theater and operas constantly—allow for their on-camera relationship (in which Amy has, as Richardson describes it, “seething hatred” for Richard) to be extremely free, and more importantly, extremely funny. “Anna is the sweetest, nicest person, whereas Amy is a pure villain,” he tells me on the phone, sounding just as earnest and optimistic as his television counterpart. “She’s so vindictive, and manipulative, and self-serving, where Anna is the opposite.”
Veep’s sixth season, which debuts Sunday, puts the show, again, into uncharted territory. In the show’s first three seasons, the hook matched the title: Louis-Dreyfus was the Vice President, and it centered on that office’s misadventures and politics. Veep entered a new realm in the last two years when the gang’s fearless leader became the most powerful person on Earth. Now, after a twist at the end of the fifth season, things are changing once again. Chlumsky calls it the “identity crisis” season, in which they all follow their boss into her post-presidency years. They explore the options an ex-president is faced with when their term comes to a close—but it also makes a clear statement that Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus) didn’t exactly go out in a blaze of glory. “I think Selina, for lack of a better term, has presidential blue-balls,” Chlumsky says. “So she has to deal with that.”
Throughout our time together—at the Bistro, and continuing during the photoshoot at various locations around Bushwick—the 36-year-old former child-standout gives me neighborhood tips (I told her of my plans to potentially move there in the near future). “The train may not help you much here,” she said, smile never leaving her face. “But you can always bus it!”
I try to think of Chlumsky’s opportunistic, high-horse riding character, Amy, being so enthusiastic about a bus route, but can’t. More impressively, the enthusiasm is infectious. Suddenly, I was laughing about a bus route, too.
Check out the Season 6 debut of Veep this Sunday on HBO
Photos by Jane Bruce