Growing up in Readfield and going to the University of Maine at Orono, Tim Simons may have made a crack or two about northern Maine. Just a few fond digs about how there isn’t anything there but potatoes and potato farmers. “Well maybe you could find something in between, in the six hours it takes to get there,” he said.
“Of course, this was calling the kettle black,” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he was doing press for the new season of the Emmy-award winning HBO comedy series “Veep” and “Draft Day,” the new Kevin Costner movie he is in. “Because, like I was some sort of big city guy, living Augusta-adjacent.”
Plus he hadn’t been there. It took moving to Los Angeles and becoming an actor – with a rapidly expanding career – to get him to see the true northern reaches of Maine. In the spring of 2012, when he and his wife had just brought their twins (a boy and a girl born prematurely) home from the hospital, he got on a red eye and flew East, landing in Presque Isle on a Friday afternoon to spend the weekend shooting a small part in an indie film set and shot in Van Buren called “Beneath the Harvest Sky.” The movie played the Toronto Film Festival last September (under the title “Blue Potato”), is at the Tribeca Film Festival (going on now) and premieres in Maine on April 25 in various theaters around the state. It’s about two teenaged boys who are desperate to get out of Maine, so much so that one of them gets roped into drug running.
Simons, 35, is in the movie for just one scene, playing the lousy boyfriend of the teenaged main character’s mother. He ambles through a room in a dirty wife beater, smoking a cigarette and oozing creepy loser from every pore.
The opportunity, small as the part was, was irresistible because the script for the movie, written and directed by the Bar Harbor-based husband and wife team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly (they also made the 2009 documentary “The Way We Get By”) was so strong. And because the woman casting that movie, Allison Jones, was the person who gave him the biggest break of his career. She hired him to play perhaps the most loathed character on television, Jonah Ryan on HBO’s wickedly funny, Emmy-winning Veep, now starting off in its third season. It was she who suggested Simons to Gaudet and Pullapilly for “Beneath the Harvest Sky.” They who were fans of “Veep.” Big fans. (it might not get the ratings of a “How I Met Your Mother” but the people who watch it are mad for it.)
THE BIG TWERP
Of course they knew who Jonah was. He is the 6-foot-5 twerp who serves as the liaison between the office of the vice president, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and the office of the never-seen president. The guy who announces himself as from the “West Wing” every chance he gets. Jonah is obsequious and obnoxiously arrogant and pathetic and hilarious all at once. When he got fired in the opening show of this season – he’s blogging now, look out – Selina greeted the news with joy and the unforgettable statement, “all my orgasms have come at once.” He’s that kind of awful. And yet you’re always happy to see him, because he is comedy gold.
Simons said he bonded immediately with Gaudet and Pullapilly over Maine; they hadn’t realized that the detestable Jonah was played by someone from Maine until they were discussing him joining “Beneath the Harvest Sky.” It drew them to each other, just as when he was acting on the Chicago stage and building sets to pay the bills, he bonded with the two other guys on his crew that also happened to be from Maine (“There were a lot of CMP jokes,” he said. “No line is safe … evah. Remember that ad?”)
“You know, whenever you find another Mainer outsider of Maine you sort of immediately bond,” he said.
The movie is gritty, beautifully acted and terribly touching, and Simons can’t say enough good things about his directors. “They are really going to do amazing things,” he said. “They are fantastic filmmakers.”
His own film career is taking off, with roles in the upcoming Seth Rogen-James Franco picture “The Interview” (slated for an October release). Another comedy from the duo who co-starred in “The Pineapple Express” and “This Is the End,” it gives Simons a chance to play a talk-show associate producer who is even worse than Jonah. “He is just a truly horrible person with an anger management problem and a really foul mouth,” Simons said.
On the dramatic side, he also has a part in the upcoming Paul Thomas Anderson film “Inherent Vice,” scheduled for December. Anderson directed such critically acclaimed movies as “The Master,” “There Will Be Blood” and “Magnolia,” and this film is a 1970s-set mystery. The third film Simons has in the pipeline, “Flock of Dudes,” doesn’t have a release date yet. Five movies: That’s a big year for guy who really didn’t get a break until “Veep.” But it was the right break.
“Every opportunity I have had has been because I am on the show,” Simons said.
He has a sort of tenderness for the character of Jonah that extends beyond appreciation for those opportunities. He understands Jonah, has built a back story for him in his head that justifies everything about him, even wardrobe, which stems from the vulnerability of being a needy misfit. No one in Washington D.C., outside of first ladies, wears much of interest; wardrobe choices there run the narrow gamut between boring and safe. He and the costume designer talked through what Jonah wears and why. The sweaters he wears under his jackets, for example. “He doesn’t have money and he doesn’t know how to get dressed,” Simons said. “If you look closely, it is all mismatched. It’s not really a suit and he wears a cardigan because he feels like it dresses it up a little.”
This year Jonah is much more casual, since he’s been kicked out of the White House and is working at home. He’s debuted an astonishingly ugly sweater with a sort of Southwestern-meets-Pendleton look. “That’s his indie rock sweater!” Simons says (see photo).
NO LONGER THE ‘WEST WING GUY’
Simons is happy that Jonah is out on his own this year, but he was nervous when he first read the script for this year’s premiere and realized that Jonah wasn’t going to be the West Wing guy anymore. “You find a good groove and the jokes land and to let that go, to have to find new ones can be scary,” he said. “But I very much welcomed it because I feel like audiences are smart, much more savvy than people give them credit for, and another year of (Jonah) popping in and saying something annoying might make them think, OK, now this is boring me.” As an actor, he doesn’t want to “coast,” he said.
It has been a thrill to work with Louis-Dreyfus, who he adored from her “Seinfeld” days (if you haven’t seen “Veep,” she’s even better in it than she was in “Seinfeld”). The “Veep” cast is tight, he said, and gets together often, but it’s not like he’s spending the weekend hanging out with movie stars. Getting to talk with Steve Buscemi at an HBO party are as exciting and “Hollywoody” as it gets for him. “Me and my friends from high school obsessed over everything that Steve Buscemi was in.”
And though he has always been drawn to cities and likes Los Angeles very much, he does feel a long way from Maine.
“I really started noticing when my wife and I had kids, because their childhood is going to be so different from mine,” he said. “We don’t have a giant backyard for them to play in and I can’t just let them stay out until the sun goes down. Through their eyes, everything they see is just kind of normal.” Not for him. “My town (Readfield) has 2,000 people, and there are probably 2,000 people within a half mile of us here.”
But his children already know Maine. Simons brings them for visits every summer, and often in the winter as well. This year, they came over New Year’s, during the Polar Vortex. “That was the first time my children ever felt cold,” he said. “They hated it.” He tends to rent places near Rockland, where his sister Lacey runs the much-loved Hello Hello Books. Walking the streets of Rockland, Simons finds he’s often recognized. But he hasn’t let it go to this head. Sure it’s being Jonah. But not just that.
“Everybody knows about it because my sister has told everyone within earshot,” he said.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or: