Anna Chlumsky: “She’s Competitive as Shit”

Features. Posted 4 years ago

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Actor Anna Chlumsky is punchy. Funny. Zippy. Like, you can imagine her singing Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah on a sunny morning. Musical theatrical. She makes faces. Puts on voices. Is cute. No, adorable. She is, in her everyday performance of self (or the one she performed for me), the opposite of Amy Brookheimer, her character on Veep. Amy Brookheimer, chief of staff to Vice President (and, this season, bidding Presidential candidate) Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), is stiff-jawed and stiffer-shouldered. Self-described as Selina’s, “trouble-shooter, problem-solver, issue-mediator, doubt-remover, conscience-examiner, thought-thinker and all-round everything-doer,” Amy does not relax much.

“She doesn’t let her impulses out as much as I do,” explains Chlumsky, making a series of kooky facial adjustments: a head-shake, an eye-bulge, a wide, gummy smile. Amy, “holds it all in.” Anna’s played Amy for three years now (the third season is done filming, now airing) and she says that her characters mannerisms are so rigid, she has to get regular massages and do vocal exercises to avoid getting stuck in Amy’s stiff mold.

“She’s the type of character who really likes her methods,” says Chlumsky. “That’s why we made the character choice that Amy never changes her hair.” On day one of filming, Chlumsky and the show’s stylist decided that Amy would always have a perfect blowout. “No matter what Amy’s going to blow her hair out,” Chlumsky says with a laugh (her own hair pulled back in a nonchalant bouffant). “Every morning, she’s going to blow that fucking hair out. She’s going to spin class and she’s going to Blow Her Hair Out.”

Perhaps because they are so different, Chlumsky keeps a notebook on set filled with Amy-isms for times when she needs to snap into character quickly. In that book are notes like speed chess. “Amy’s a game player,” Chlumsky clarifies, “and her game is speed chess. She’s quieter about her machinations than some of the other characters but she’s a very young chief of staff and she’s gotten there for a reason.”

“I think the thing she’s addicted to is winning,” Chlumsky continues. “She’s competitive as shit and she’s more interested in politics than she is in government. She doesn’t care about governing a populus, she cares about winning a game.” This is perhaps the starkest difference between Amy Brookheimer and Anna Chlumsky. Anna is the type of creative who works for means, not ends. It’s the process—the working with peers and connecting with audiences—that gets her going. The process is what brought her back to acting, after a near-decade long hiatus.

“As a kid, it was always about getting it right, getting the adults to like you,” the once upon an early-nineties child star confesses, “but as an adult you learn that much of the best acting is in the accidents.” Anna came to this realization when she was in her twenties and living in Manhattan. She had paused on acting in 1999 to go study internal relations at the University of Chicago. After graduating, she moved to New York where she worked as a fact checker at Zagat and then as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins. During this period, she was attending a lot of theatre and cinema. “It dawned on me then that acting is about communicating someone’s text to an audience,” Anna tells it. “I was so inspired by that I thought I have to give this a try again but for all the right reasons.” And so Anna enrolled in the Atlantic Acting School in Manhattan to brush up on her craft. She started auditioning again, acting in a number of bit roles. In 2009, she starred in director Armando Iannucci’s political comedy In the Loop. Three years later, Iannucci cast her on his HBO original series Veep.

Veep is a show that rolicks with process. There’s an exuberance to the performances that comes from a cast who loves what they do, which is play with one another. “We’re all honest, game, generous actors,” says Anna, “that’s why Arman hired us. We like to collaborate and we like to have fun.” Anna suspects as much laughter goes into the making as into a viewing. “Laughter is our litmus test: if we’re having fun while we’re doing it, that’s going to make for a good show.”

The show is heavily scripted (the writers are, as per Chlumsky, “brilliant and tireless”), but that still leaves room for physical improvisation. The fly-on-the-wall feel of the show comes from the actors’ back and forth bantering with the script material. “It’s fast paced,” gushes Anna earnestly. “We get into this frenzied band—it almost feels like The Fellowship of the Rings—we’re in, like, this fellowship of comedy: we all come from such different comedic backgrounds and we’re all banded together on this journey to get to the end of the season. Ha! I won’t take the analogy any farther.”

One of Anna’s mantras is “acting is the art of surprise.” She sees acting as an extension or amplification of human interaction: “Every conversation we have in life: we don’t know it’s going to happen. That’s what humanity is.” As an actor, Anna says, your craft is learning to live in the unknown, in surprise: “Acting is the allowance to have flaws and that to still be truth—that’s the juice, man!”

Chlumsky’s extreme positivity is of a tone I recognize as coming from someone who’s familiar with its opposite. She strikes me as wielding a willful positivity. Because, like Amy Brookheimer, Anna’s no fool and doesn’t (her words), “suffer fools easily.” She’s smart, cynical, and “very into” what she calls “Big Talk.” Big Talk being, I gathered from her usage, the discussion of ideas. “I’ll get right in there right away,” she says. “Let’s go: tell me about your mother trouble, let’s talk politics.”

In college, Anna claims she was very into talking about politics because that’s what she thought smart people talked about. As she progressed through the years, she became increasingly disenchanted with the way her American peers would adopt politics as a religion or favorite sport: “People will fight you tooth and nail over something, it won’t be debate anymore,” bemoaned the actor, “Our political spectrum is so narrow. Our parties are all the same. To pit one against the other: gang warfare is what I call it. And I’m not interested in gang warfare.”

Working on Veep has confirmed Anna’s suspicions about American politics, “which is that it doesn’t matter.” The characters on Veep are an assembly of narcissists, sycophants, and power mongers dashed with the occasionally salty altruist. The comedy of the show comes from watching self-interested people cheat and trade for their own interests; it’s all empty promises and backdoor deals. “Veep is great,” Anna proclaims, “because finally someone is showing that our political world is full of flawed individuals, some of whom are good at their jobs, some of whom are bad; some of whom are there with good intentions, some bad. There’s no reason why DC and the Beltway should be immune to the human flaws that the rest of us are.”

Chlumsky uses “being human” as an explanation for both individual’s flaws and strengths. “We’re all human,” she’ll say a few times within our hour. Regarding Armando Iannucci’s strong female characters, she points to the “humanism” in his feminism: “He’s the ultimate feminist in that he knows that we’ve all got brains and they’re all the same size.”

One can imagine that a former child star—an icon, really—would have had to grapple with simply “being human” in a way someone like myself, who grew up in a chill Canadian city, did not. Anna Chlumsky is still best known for her role as the precocious Vada Sultenfuss in My Girl. That movie came out in 1991 (Anna was eleven years old) and, over two decades later, she continues to be stopped on the street for it.

Chlumsky looks like a child star, which is to say that us who knew her as a child look at her forever with that child in mind. We measure her current looks against those of her most iconic young girl. Eyes to eyes, lips to lips, ears to ears. Child stars don’t get to exist in real time. Their faces are cued with signs of the past.

In Anna’s presence, I feel my eyes grow wider, trying to take all of her in, to see her clear from the shadow of little Vada. Like all celebrities, she’s smaller in person than you’d imagine (no matter how many tiny celebrities I meet, I still haven’t adjusted my expectations to account for their tininess). She sits with one sneakered foot on the opposite leg’s knee, bouncing her leg from the hip socket. Her jeans have paint splatters and there are fine wrinkles on her large forehead. She tells me I should read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, despite my self-important feminist skepticism, “even if just to understand where so many women you’ll be meeting now are coming from.” She muses, from the non-philosophic subject of book buying, that, “Life, as short as it is, can be long.” She jokes about how, having just given birth to her first child, “her uterus is its own character in the early episodes,” of season three of Veep. She laughs, in a few different modes, the most alarming involving a rapid snap back of the head. She utters the word “neato” and calls me “man.” I think about her acting axiom, the juice she quenches herself with: “the art of surprise… the allowance to have flaws and that to still be truth.” I think she embodies this flawlessly.

Words: Fiona Duncan
Photography: Jody Rogac
Fashion: Elle Packham

This feature was originally published in our winter 2014 issue, ‘All Our Heroes Are Weirdos’, and you can still buy a physical copy of this issue!

“She’s competitive as shit and she’s more interested in politics than she is in government. She doesn’t care about governing a populus, she cares about winning a game”
“Finally someone is showing that our political world is full of flawed individuals”
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Scanlan & Theodore dressScanlan & Theodore dress
Scanlan & Theodore dressScanlan & Theodore dress
The 'Veep' cast in season twoThe ‘Veep’ cast in season two