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Interview: Kevin Dunn on the personalized insults in 'Veep'

The actor who plays Ben Cafferty says politics right now is "depressing but it makes for great comedy."

Kevin Dunn didn’t start appearing on “Veep,” as cynical/depressive/Scotch-swilling Presidential Chief of Staff Ben Cafferty, until the second season, and wasn’t a regular until the third. But his odd combination of competence and embarrassment has made him one of the characters who quietly steals the show. Dunn has long been typecast as authority figures, in things both serious (“Nixon,” “True Detective”) and comedic (“Hot Shots!”, the much nicer political satire “Dave”). And though he says he doesn’t always like watching himself, the dense and manic “Veep” is definitely one of the exceptions.

Given that so many of the writers of “Veep” are from the U.K., do you often have to advise them on American politics or culture?

Sometimes we’ll say, “I think this is too British.” But they’re pretty savvy guys. Frank Rich is on the show basically all the time, and he’s always of anything that might not scan correctly.

Ben started off a little more bumbling than he is now. How do you think he’s changed?

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He seems a little bit more focused, especially this year. But he’s fatigued. He’s like, “We’re really going to do this again?” When the current president resigned — that was his buddy in college, who he really believed in. Over the course of his presidency he’s become really disillusioned. His friends turned out not to be who he thought they were. If he really didn’t know he was a manic-depressive he certainly found out. [Laughs]

One of the most notable parts of the show, as well as “The Thick of It” and “In the Loop,” are those insults. And they’re sometimes tailor-made for the actor being insulted. How do you react when you first read them in the script?

[The writers] are just kind of fearless. They’ll attack anything. They’ll attack the way a person looks, the way a person sounds. There’s just this no holds barred taking of the piss. It’s like a really dysfunctional family that’s always choosing sides. There were six of us in my family, and it was always about who was conspiring against who. My brother would be my best friend one day and be conspiring against me with my sister the next day. It’s very much like that. It’s all about surviving.

You had a key role in “Dave” back in 1993, which is a far nicer, more Capraesque comedy about politics. It’s amazing how much political comedy has changed.

Twenty years ago we would be shocked by how far politics has devolved into fights. Some politicians are about stripping government from government. There’s a very serious war on government. But there’s so much more comedy you can mine from politics now. It’s so much easier. It’s all really there. You’re not actually reaching. There’s no longer this fraternal feeling that congress used to have — “My esteemed colleague” and so on. Now they’re yelling at and during presidential States of the Union. It makes for great comedy. It’s depressing but it makes for great comedy.

Still, it’s not as intense as it is in England. Everyone on “The Thick of It” is very hostile to each other whereas in “Veep,” because it’s America, the hostility is often cloaked in fake-politeness.

I love to watch Parliament in session because they’re just constantly heckling each other and booing each other. I kind of love that. It’s so out in the open, this hostility. Here it’s just masked, but in Britain everything is out there. Their hatred for each other is on full view. You can watch clips of David Cameron when Tony Blair was up there and he would just be screaming at him. Just crazy.

What kinds of reactions have you gotten from Washington politicians?

I think both parties always think it’s about the other guys. But we very carefully made this so it doesn’t speak about parties and affiliations. It’s about everyone, it’s all-inclusive. Everyone is essentially the same. You don’t know who they represent. You can’t put a finger on it and say, “Oh, this is a Republican” or “This is a Democrat.” They’re all kind of spineless and conniving in the same way.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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