Toast of 2017: Sam Richardson on how Richard stays the nicest guy on 'Veep'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Sam Richardson as Richard Splett in Veep (Photo: Colleen Hayes/HBO)

The conventional wisdom when it comes to long-running shows tends to be, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But Veep tossed convention out the Oval Office window in its sixth year, when the writers ejected Veep-turned-POTUS Selina Meyer and her semi-competent staff from the White House, forcing them to become political elites in exile. Along with that change of scenery came a shakeup in the established ensemble, with the different characters going their different ways. Dan Egan (Reid Scott), for example, left politics behind for a disastrous career in morning television. Meanwhile, strategists Kent Davison (Gary Cole) and Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) went from advising Selina to (temporarily) advising a new congressman, Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons). Jonah also said goodbye to his longtime aide Richard Splett (Sam Richardson), who traded the U.S. Capitol building for Selina’s South Bronx office as her chief of staff.

Far from breaking the show, Veep‘s major and minor changes gave it new life. And Richardson, in particular, swam rather than sank in his character’s new surroundings. Always a reliable source of humor, Richard emerged from Season 6 as an invaluable fixture in the Veep universe — largely because he’s the only genuinely nice person on the series. “I was a little nervous,” the actor admits to Yahoo Entertainment about returning to a very different Veep between Seasons 5 and 6. “But I had so much fun. We all know each other pretty well and speak each other’s languages, so it didn’t take a long time for us to gel. Otherwise, the episodes wouldn’t gel until Episode 8! I also feel like I know this character enough where I can make him work with anyone. He’s such a jovial person, and part of the fun is pairing him up with someone who hates everything, because he’s so overly optimistic. It’s also fun to be paired with someone who loves everything, because they’d be like two puppies in a playpen.”

If anything, Richardson is even nicer than his Veep alter ego. How nice is he? So nice that he called us on a rare sick day while recuperating from a cold and happily answered all of our questions about Richard’s crazy backstory, and what it would sound like if he were to — gasp! — insult somebody.

Anna Chlumsky, Richardson, Matt Walsh, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Tony Hale in Veep (Photo: Colleen Hayes/HBO)

I was the stage manager for an improv group in college, and I remember that one of the big rules they emphasized was the importance of listening to each other and choosing your moment. I see you doing that in Veep: You’re always aware of the conversation happening around you and pick the right moment to slip in your line.
Yeah, it’s kind of like comedy double-dutch. There’s so much going on and it really is like a game! You want your joke to land, but you don’t want it to be at the expense of anything else. It also goes to the way that Richard’s wavelength works. He’s like a coat of paint over what’s going on. It’s a different tone to whatever else is happening in the scene: He’s always a few degrees off from what they’re talking about, but he’s still part of the conversation, you know?

I enjoy how much of Richard’s history is revealed through your off-the-cuff asides. He’s got a bizarre backstory — how much of that is your own invention?
I get Richard’s backstory through jokes from the writers, and over the years, they’ve built this history where he was adopted by his grandmother, and his family is heavily into basketball and also heavily religious. Or, you know, him knowing all about jug bands! Maybe down the line, there’s a jug band thing that Richard will be a part of. I never got a character background sheet explaining all that stuff; they’ve all been splattered in there. And there are little details that may be improvised that also go to the canon of the character. I can’t think of one right now — shame on me!

Do you ever worry about keeping his mythology consistent or introducing a bit of backstory that’s contradictory?
I never really worry about that. I will bring it up [with the writers]: “Oh, he can’t do that, because he’s already said this was the case.” Again, I can’t think of any specific moments. I’m just the worst interview, I apologize. [Laughs]

In your defense, you are under the weather!
I do try and keep track of the history of Richard, because who’s tracking him more than me? Maybe there are some big-time Richard fans out there who follow every reference, but for the most part, I think I know him. So if there are little details that don’t match, like a joke that says Richard went to a different college when we know he went to Yale, I’ll speak up. I want to keep everything as true as possible for him.

(Photo: Justin M. Lubin/HBO)

You’ve often pointed out that Richard is one of the few characters in the Veep universe who’s not motivated by selfishness or greed. Was that something you brought to the role or was it already part of the character?
I think it’s a twist that I kind of brought to it — that he’s maybe the only well-meaning person in Washington who is truly guileless. That was the angle I took to kind of round him out and make him real. What if he was a regular person who watched Veep and was then put in Veep, and is also the nicest person in the world? He’s out of his element, but still really competent.

What’s your take on why he hasn’t been corrupted yet, especially since he’s surrounded by selfishness?
He’s just superpositive at processing it, because he’s an incredibly smart guy. He knows so much about veterinary medicine and law, but he doesn’t want to push that advantage. He just likes the process of learning and being part of the government, because he has this belief that government is ultimately there to do good. So when he encounters a negative attack, he can twist it in his mind and go, “There’s gotta be some kind of positivity in this!” In his mind, he thinks that all people intend to do good and he can make anything fit that narrative.

What would an angry Richard look like?
An angry Richard would probably bring up something so true, but also not something you would think of as an insult. Like, “You’re a poor decorator, meaning you probably have color blindness!” Or he’d be half-complimentary. Like, “This turkey is pretty dry. What kind of oven do you have? Can I suggest a GE?” People would be like, “Thanks? Should I be insulted?” [Laughs]

I did enjoy how attentive he was to Catherine and Marjorie this season during Catherine’s pregnancy. No one else seemed at all concerned for her.
Yup, although that’s not him being entirely altruistic because he’s the father of the child. It’s supposed to be a surrogate situation, but he’s like, “No, I’m going to be the dad.” He couldn’t separate that idea, so to him it’s like, “I’m part of this family right here.” It’s also compassion; everybody else can ignore her, but that’s not part of his DNA.

I’m sure you can’t spoil anything for Season 7, but will those fatherly feelings be an issue?
I’ll have to be very careful with my words: it’s not even like it’s a huge spoiler, but I don’t want to be the one! [Laughs] I think Richard 100 percent believes that he’s got a son. So moving forward, I can’t imagine that he’d be completely uninvolved in the child’s life. Whether they like it or not, he’s going to be around.

When did the cast know that Season 7 was going to be the last year?
We knew before we started the table reads. It’s definitely bittersweet, because you want these things to end on a high note, but it’s also a show that I love doing. I want to do this show for 40 years!

Did you have any input for how Richard’s character arc wraps up?
Without spoiling, I’m personally going to be satisfied with his end. It’s a nice finish. [Veep showrunner] Dave Mandel and the writers arc out the whole season and told me. I don’t think I could improve on anything. I’m happy and excited to be a part of it.

When did Julia Louis-Dreyfus tell the cast about her breast cancer diagnosis?
She told us prior to the table reads. It was definitely a gut punch. She’s my friend, and I love her dearly. But we’re also work friends, so you don’t want to overstep your boundaries. We did whatever positive things we could do: send cards and text messages and videos. I’m scared for her, but at the same time I know she’s so strong and positive. The first thing she did was bring attention to health care, which is amazing. What person immediately thinks of someone else when they’re going through the hardest thing imaginable?

Has it been hard for the cast to hurl insults at her in the world of the show considering what’s going on in her real life?
Well, we’re still in table reads — we haven’t started shooting yet. But I think we have the ability to disassociate ourselves from these characters. Otherwise, my goodness! The amount of vitriol that flies out of mouths at each other would be unfathomable. For Jonah alone! The list of insults that guy gets, come on. [Laughs] That’s the thing, too: You have to separate yourself from it, but it’s still based on you, you know what I mean? I don’t put on a suit and become Richard, and Timothy [Simons] doesn’t put on stilts to become Jonah. That’s us — they’re writing insults about us. But somehow you just get a thick skin and it works.

You have a lot more creative control over Detroiters, the Comedy Central series you co-created and star in. How has being part of Veep helped you make that show?
Honestly, so much, even just from following Julia’s lead on how she leads a series. She sets the tone of being very even-keeled and positive the whole time. She’s always there to do her best and be the best, and you learn from that. Also the notes process, in terms of getting notes on your performance and the script. You spend a lot of time writing scenes and, on paper, you’re like, “This is hilarious!” But then you’re on set and it’s not clicking the way you like. Instead of letting it sit, you can massage it and mold it and find what works. Being on the set of Veep gave me the confidence to do that on a level that I’m proud of.

Detroiters is coming back for another season next year. What can you tease about what’s coming up?
I feel the second season, dare I say it, is head and shoulders above the first season. We kinda knew what we were doing this time and were able to scale back on the things that we didn’t like from Season 1 and ramp up the things that we did like. You’re always trying to learn the language of a show, what works and what doesn’t work, and I think the second season really benefits from that.

Has Veep changed the kinds of opportunities that come your way as an actor?
I don’t know — I consider myself new to the game still. I’ve only been in L.A. for six years. It does affect it, but I’m certainly going to be playing a guy who’s nice. That seems to be the way it goes. And I don’t mind; I know how to do that. At my core, that’s who I am, but I wonder if people can’t picture me as anyone else. Which my friends know otherwise! Just kidding. [Laughs]

So is your dream role to play a bad guy or a more darkly comic character?
Oh yeah. I play a computer terrorist in a new movie called Game Over, Man from the Workaholics guys. But I want to play an evil person who has fun with being evil, like a comic book villain. I want to play my Joker. Not the Joker, but my Joker. Somebody who can have fun doing wrong.

You should write that role for yourself!
I’m trying to figure that out right now. We’ll see — hopefully that’s something that will pop in the coming year.   

Last question: Is there a secret part of Richard’s history that you want to explore in Veep‘s final season?
I’d like to incorporate maybe Richard’s love life or something. Some specific spin that you wouldn’t expect from him. Because we know he’s never masturbated! That’s ripe for a solid twist. [Laughs]

Veep is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now.

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