Actor Gary Cole On 'Veep' And Why 'Office Space' Endures The actor, who plays a political consultant on Veep, tells Fresh Air he landed his first major TV role only after a number of other actors turned it down. "It was very, very fluke-ish," Cole says.

Actor Gary Cole On 'Veep' And Why 'Office Space' Endures

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You've probably seen our guest Gary Cole in a dozen movies or TV shows, maybe without realizing it. He was the smarmy patronizing boss in the Mike Judge film "Office Space." He was in the comedies "Talladega Nights" and "Pineapple Express." He currently has roles in the PBS series "Mercy Street," the HBO series "Veep," which is now in its fifth season, and he just finished up a turn in the CBS series "The Good Wife," which aired its final episode Sunday.

Cole got his start as an actor in Chicago, where he performed with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Gary Cole. They began with his role in "Veep," which centers around an inept vice president, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and her inept staff, who are really over their heads when the president resigns and she becomes president. Cole plays Kent Davison, a senior political consultant and political polling expert who has no people skills.

Here's a scene from last season, after the vice president has become president. Kent has just conducted a poll on public perception of the president's daughter, Catherine. They're in his office, and he's about to tell her the results. Catherine is played by Sarah Sutherland.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")

GARY COLE: (As Kent Davison) This is about the brand image of Catherine Meyer, TM. I asked you in because - Catherine, America doesn't like you.

SARAH SUTHERLAND: (As Catherine Meyer) What?

COLE: (As Kent Davison) That sounded way too harsh when boiled down to a headline thought.

SUTHERLAND: (As Catherine Meyer) Let me see that.

COLE: (As Kent Davison) It's not that you are unlikable. It's that there's a perception that you are unlikable.

SUTHERLAND: (As Catherine Meyer) They hate me.

COLE: (As Kent Davison) I wouldn't say hate. You just polarize opinion with the bulk of it gravitating to this poll here. Oh my, you have sharp shoulders.

SUTHERLAND: (As Catherine Meyer) This is like high school all over again.

COLE: (As Kent Davison) Yeah, sure, kind of but much bigger. So let's talk about changing your narrative. Customary shortcuts to public affirmation, our military service or childbirth.

SUTHERLAND: (As Catherine Meyer) OK, God, no, and, oh, my God, no, in that order.

COLE: (As Kent Davison) OK. Well, then we go back to the idea of turning that frown into the inverse of a frown.

SUTHERLAND: (As Catherine Meyer) Upside down?

COLE: (As Kent Davison) If you will.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: That's our guest, Gary Cole, setting the president's daughter straight in the HBO series "Veep." Well, Gary Cole, welcome to FRESH AIR. You play Kent Davison who's this, you know, senior political consultant who knows all about polling.

COLE: Yeah. When he was first described to me by Armando Iannucci, the creator, he basically said he was a highly, highly intelligent person with virtually no people skills whatsoever, even though his whole job was to, like, measure the perceptions of people.

DAVIES: I mean, this is - you know, here's a situation where some human empathy is called for and you look in yourself and find what?

COLE: Not much. He tries. He tried to be - I mean, he could've been harsher, I guess. But he's just incapable of that kind of even false empathy that most people summon when they have to do something like that, even though they may not believe it whatsoever. He just was like, well, this has got to be done and, you know, no one should have hard feelings about it. You know, he tried to be empathetic.

You know, I mean, I love the little moment that they wrote about, you know, he actually very reluctantly tries to soothe her by touching her on the shoulder and then recoils because he says her shoulders are sharp. I mean that's just - that was just the of greatness of their - of the writers.

DAVIES: You know, the writing in this show is so terrific. I just love the pacing of it. And there's a scene - I think it's in the first episode of the new season - where the president is facing a Florida-style recount and you and a bunch of her advisers are in a room and they discover that the opposition has scored this really prestigious guy to run his recount effort.

And people go around the table and they have these emotional reactions like, you know, that are often profane. Like, oh, my God, we're screwed or, oh, this is terrible. Do you remember your two-word reaction in the script?

COLE: I don't. You'd have to remind me.

DAVIES: Not optimal.

(LAUGHTER)

COLE: There is an element of Mr. Spock all the time. We always make the jokes that, you know, Kent should have some - his ears should be pointier than they are.

DAVIES: If there's bad news, it's not optimal.

COLE: Right, right.

DAVIES: Yeah. The pace in these scenes is often really quick and the timing is really precise. I'm guessing there's not a lot of improvising in these situations.

COLE: Well, there is improvising, but a lot of the improvising is actually done in our rehearsal periods, which there is a considerable amount of. And usually what will happen is the writers will present their first draft. We will read the draft around the table. Then we will get up and we will take certain scenes and redo them but basically throwing the scripts to the side and kind of improvising the - whatever the action of that scene that we've just read is. And then the writers observe that and sometimes we stop and start and they suggest other things. And from that, the writers go away and come back with a whole another draft. And that process can actually take place again.

So the show is essentially a scripted show, but it's generated - a lot of the material comes out of improvisation. It's not to say that there isn't improvisation in front of the camera - there is. There is a - we do a thing where we call it's a free one or it's a freebie or one for fun after we get a take that everybody is satisfied with.

So there is a loose and spontaneous feeling in front of the camera as well and there is improvisation used, but it's used around a pretty firm script, though.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things about "Veep" is - I mean, a lot of this dialogue is profane. These are, like, deeply cynical people, but they're hilariously profane. I mean, so like creatively profane. Is that written? Is that improvised?

COLE: It's mostly written. Sometimes it can happen accidentally, but there is a lot of crafting of the F-word that goes on in the "Veep" writers room and how it can be executed. It really is a contest in terms of who can come up with, you know, maybe the most vulgar line of the day, you know. And they take it seriously. And so we're the benefactors of that.

DAVIES: I want to talk about "Office Space," which is a film - a 1999 film by Mike Judge which, you know, some of our listeners may not have seen or heard of and many others have seen many times and can repeat dialogue from. I'm in the latter group. You play the boss, Bill Lumbergh. How did you get the role?

COLE: I got a - just a - it was pretty standard - I got it from my agent and Mike Judge who's doing this script. I had not met Mike before that, I don't believe. But for Lumbergh was unusual because Lumbergh and the character of Milton that Stephen Root played were both in this little - there were two little animated shorts that Mike did a decade before he did the movie. And in them, it was Lumbergh and Milton and it was basically Milton sitting at his desk mumbling to himself and Lumbergh coming up and peeking over the cubicle and, you know, terrorizing him.

And, you know, you watch and you go, yeah, I - of course, I know that guy. I've worked for that guy. Everybody's worked for that guy. And so I didn't assume to do anything else other than that. I just said, well, I can't do it better than that animation so I'm just going to do that. I'm going to rip that off and take it off, you know, walk in there and do that the best I can.

DAVIES: All right. Well, let's listen to the classic scene which is when you as the boss, Bill Lumbergh, comes to the cubicle of this guy Peter. You're working at a software firm in the '90s, and Peter's played by Ron Livingston, and Lumbergh has a little bit of an issue to raise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OFFICE SPACE")

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) Hello, Peter. What's happening? Uh, we have sort of a problem here. Yeah, you apparently didn't put one of the new cover sheets on your TPS reports.

RON LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) Oh, yeah. I'm sorry about that. I forgot.

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) Yeah. You see, we're putting the cover sheets on all TPS reports now before they go out. Did you see the memo about this?

LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) Yeah. Yeah, yeah, I have the memo right here. I just forgot, but it's not shipping out till tomorrow so there's no problem.

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) Yeah. If you could just go ahead and make sure you do that from now on that would be great. And I'll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo, OK?

LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) Yeah - no - I have the memo...

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) Bye-bye, Peter.

LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) I've got it - it's right -

COLE: (As Bill Lumbergh) Hello, Phil. What's happening?

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Gary Cole, as Bill Lumbergh - the boss - in the movie "Office Space," which was made by Mike Judge. This was a movie that didn't exactly do well at the box office has become this cult hit on video. It's about, you know, the office culture and the things that annoy you and they're, you know, some actors pretty well-known, some not so well-known. Did it feel like something special was happening when you were making this film?

COLE: Yeah. Well, I knew when I saw the animation. I said well, that works. I mean, that just flat out works because even though it was an animation, like I said, I said I recognize that guy. I recognize his cadence. I recognize that snarky kind of passive-aggressive attitude. And that's what I went in to mimic when I auditioned for it. And when we were all doing the movie, we all recognized that Mike Judge was a very gifted writer and director and an animator as well.

And the way he shot the movie was so specific. I mean, he was a - down to the minutest of details, he knew what he wanted, you know, seemingly all the time. So we all knew that what we were working on was really good, but no one had any idea that it would have any kind of a - you know, you never know if a movie will break through or if it will have any kind of a lasting impact, but, you know, that's what happened.

DAVIES: Do people repeat these lines to you when you see them on the street?

COLE: Well, that's why we all, you know, and we all compare notes because now, because the movie's lasted - sometimes we see each other because there's been reunions and what not. A year after the movie came out - and like you said, it didn't do well in the theaters, so we thought, well, this movie died, you know. It did its five weeks and it's gone. You know, it might - maybe somebody'll see it on a shelf and rent it.

But a year after that, I was doing a play in Chicago, so I was on the street a lot. I was walking to and from the theater. I lived right by there. And people start shouting out, did you get the TPS reports? Uh, yeah. Without even stopping me - just saying the lines to me. And I was dumbfounded. I was - I thought this movie tanked, you know, what happened? That was right at the time when DVDs had started to peak and I think, you know, the way people consumed movies changed. In other words, a movie wasn't necessarily a failure if it didn't do well in the theater. It could have a life after that, and "Office Space" was one of those films.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Gary Cole. He plays the political consultant Kent Davison in the HBO series "Veep," which is now in its fifth season. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Gary Cole. He has an ongoing role in the HBO series "Veep," which is in its fifth season.

You grew up in Illinois, north of Chicago, right?

COLE: I grew up in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. That's where I grew up.

DAVIES: So what kind of a kid were you?

COLE: You know, I guess fairly normal. We had a - you know, we lived in the suburbs of Chicago. It was a fairly - at that time, they were pretty much brand-new. I remember my block had a lot of - you know, there was about five houses on the block and about 14 holes in the ground for new houses to be built. And they all went up in, like, you know, six months, and, you know, lived there until I went to college.

You know, I did regular stuff. I was a - I played Little League and my sister was two years older than me. That's how I actually got interested in performing. She was a musician, and that's the first time I went to the theater was to see her.

DAVIES: And what appealed to you about it?

COLE: I wanted to be on the stage as opposed to sitting in the audience where I was. And I had no other big plan other than that. I was a wannabe athlete in high school. But it was becoming clear quickly that (laughter) that was not going to be my huge spotlight. So I got involved.

DAVIES: Yeah, you went to Steppenwolf Theatre, the company in Chicago which has produced a lot of great talent. And I wanted to talk about your role in the miniseries "Fatal Vision." This was in 1984, and that was - you were doing theater when you got that role, right?

COLE: Right.

DAVIES: Now, this was 30-plus years ago and I saw that miniseries. I still remember scenes from this. I mean, it really left an impression. This is about a very famous and controversial murder case of an Army physician named Jeffrey MacDonald. How did you get the part?

COLE: Well, like a lot of people get their first part in Hollywood, I got it because eight people said no. It was very flukish (ph). I was in Chicago. I hadn't - the only thing I had done on camera was two weeks on a movie of the week that happened to shoot in Ohio. And that's why they had some Chicago actors in it. There was a casting director that was a friend of mine in Chicago. She knew some of the brass at NBC. I had previously went for an audition for the old '80s hit "Miami Vice."

DAVIES: Oh, yeah.

COLE: I read for Don Johnson's role. And in the meantime, they were - this miniseries was getting together and they had Karl Malden. They had Andy Griffith. They had Eva Marie Saint. They had basically everybody in place, and they were ready to go. But they didn't have this guy because they kept offering it to people. I think they offered it to Christopher Reeve and Alec Baldwin and everybody said no and I - because, you know, it wasn't really (laughter) it wasn't a very heroic character certainly.

And then somehow I wound up on the list and found myself on a plane to LA. I read for it and the next day - I was so naive that I got the part and I didn't even realize that I got it. People were measuring me for coats and stuff and I'm going, do I have the job? I can't figure it out 'cause it was all - it was all like a dream, you know? It just didn't make any sense to me how I got there. But it - sometimes that's, you know, that's the way it goes.

DAVIES: It's a four-part miniseries and it's a murder case, and everything is controversial about it, including the book "Fatal Vision," which the miniseries was based on. And it's the story of this guy Jeffrey MacDonald. He was an Army doctor at Fort Bragg - I'll just summarize this - I mean, who calls 911 one night to report a stabbing. Police come and his wife and two young daughters are beaten and stabbed to death. And he tells investigators that Manson-style hippies came in and attacked him and killed them. He - the Army was going to try him. The charges didn't quite come together. He was eventually tried and convicted many years later of the killings. He's always maintained his innocence.

COLE: Right.

DAVIES: So let's listen to a scene here. This is where you as Jeffrey MacDonald are being interviewed by Army investigators who don't quite believe your account of what happened. And we'll hear a question first played by an investigator played by Barry Corbin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FATAL VISION")

BARRY CORBIN: (As Franz Grebner) OK. We have three people here - overkilled almost - and yet they leave you alive.

COLE: (As Jeffrey MacDonald) Well, maybe they assumed that I was dead.

CORBIN: (As Franz Grebner) Let's see if we can drift back a little bit. You say in the initial assault there was screaming. Was there - was it screaming or were there...

COLE: (As Jeffrey MacDonald) Words?

SCOTT PAULIN: (As William Ivory) Like what?

COLE: (As Jeffery MacDonald) Well, I remember her - hearing my wife saying, Jeff, why are they doing this to me?

PAULIN: (As William Ivory) This is while you're still on the couch.

COLE: (As Jeffrey MacDonald) Right, I heard - I heard some screaming and then I heard Kristy - Kimmy, the older girl, saying, Daddy - saying, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. There's something I can't figure. You know, I've gone over this a hundred times in my own mind. There's just - there's so many unanswered questions.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Gary Cole, playing Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted for the murder of his wife and kids. I guess it was in 1970 at Fort Bragg. This is a fascinating story. MacDonald said he was innocent then. Still says - so he's still in prison in California. How did you decide to play him and his posture, his perception of his own role in this?

COLE: I talked about that with the director, the late David Greene, who was a great director and also (laughter) a real character, too. I decided to play him regardless of what was true or not, what were the facts. I decided to play him as a guy who's innocent, whether the audience thinks he's bluffing or lying or not. I didn't want to play a guy trying to deceive people, so I played it straightahead. The script was kind of skewed against him, I think, the way that they presented it.

DAVIES: So this was a really compelling story and a terrific miniseries to watch, at least that's my memory of it. What did it do for your career?

COLE: Well, it - you know, I was a stage actor in Chicago. That's what I was, you know, and that's - that was the ceiling of it. I was very content, but it immediately introduced me to - first of all, it introduced me to how to work in front of a camera, at least initially. And I got an invaluable baptism because I was basically in everything. I worked, you know, every day all day long. You know, and when you're working with Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint and Andy Griffith and you're 27 years old, you're - you don't believe you're supposed to be there.

And they were all very generous with their experience and their wisdom. And I - I just sucked it up like a sponge. I was just - I was beside myself, along with the director too. So it was just a - it was a great first experience. I'm sure it's not everybody's first experience, but for me, it was just invaluable. But I think I came out of that with a pretty good understanding of what what you need to go after.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Gary Cole, who co-stars in the HBO series "Veep." We'll hear more of that interview after a break. And we'll feature an onstage interview with Daniel Clowes, whose comics "Ghost World" and "Art School Confidential" were adapted into films. He has a new comic. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Gary Cole. On the HBO series "Veep," Cole plays Kent Davison, a senior political consultant and political polling expert. Cole had a recurring role on "The Good Wife," which broadcast its series finale last Sunday. Cole played the patronizing boss in the film comedy "Office Space."

DAVIES: You've had so many roles - dramatic roles and comedic roles. And I thought we'd play a scene from "Talladega Nights," directed by Adam McKay. This is the story in which Will Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, the champion stock car driver. And you play his daddy, Reese Bobby. His last name really was Bobby. You play Reese Bobby.

COLE: Right.

DAVIES: And this is a scene where Ricky Bobby's a kid in grade school. And you've been out of his life for quite a few years, but you surprise him one day by showing up at his dad's career day at school.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY")

COLE: (As Reese Bobby) Excuse me, darling, I'm Reese Bobby. I'm here for career day with my son, Ricky.

LUKE BIGHAM: (As 10-year-old Ricky) Dad.

COLE: (As Reese Bobby) Here there, boy. Man, you got big. How long's it been, three, four months?

BIGHAM: (As 10-year-old Ricky) Ten years.

COLE: (As Reese Bobby) Ten years? Man, I go to lay off the peyote.

LORRIE CRUMLEY: (As school teacher) Mr. Bobby, there's no smoking in here.

COLE: (As Reese Bobby) Oh, it's all right, darling. I'm a volunteer fireman. OK, I am a semi-professional racecar driver and an amateur tattoo artist. And the first thing you've got to learn if you're going to be a racecar driver is you don't listen to losers like your know-it-all teacher over here.

CRUMLEY: (As school teacher) OK, I think that's enough.

COLE: (As Reese Bobby) Your teacher wants you to go slow. And she's wrong 'cause it's the fastest who gets paid. And it's the fastest who gets laid.

(CHEERING)

COLE: (As Reese Bobby) Oh, yeah, you know what I'm talking about.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Gary Cole (laughter).

COLE: Father of the year, Reese Bobby.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Yeah, right? Letting the kids know what's real in "Talladega Nights." There are a bunch of funny scenes with you where you're showing, you know, Ricky Bobby the ways of the world. This must have been a lot of fun.

COLE: This was - it quite possibly could be the most fun I've had, I think. It was a combination of being with Will Ferrell, that character, who both Will and Adam McKay came up with - the character of Reese Bobby. It was just a joy. And, you know, Adam McKay - and I'm so glad that he's just on fire now 'cause he can do anything. He was so - he's like a writing machine on his feet.

I mean, like, in that scene you just played, I remember standing in front of the kids and he would just hurl, you know, one-liners at me. You're an amateur tattoo artist. I mean, he would just feed those. There's a - you know, there's an hour of other, you know, weird occupations that I stood there and, you know, rattled off while he was doing that. But, yeah, it was great fun.

It was a great spoof on a very popular, you know, sport and culture that was, you know - that I don't know that they'd really done a comedy about. And it just had - you know, it was just full of great people - John Reilly and the late Michael Duncan and, you know. It was just - it was a gas.

DAVIES: One more question - maybe a silly question. But your name is very similar to that of the late Gary Coleman, who was the successful child actor. And I wondered if - I mean, obviously, people wouldn't confuse you in person - but if in memos or casting lists you ever got confused?

COLE: Continually, and that's true. So what happened was when I came to - bascially, right after "Fatal Vision" was when I first - because the first time I came to Los Angeles, I went straight to work. I wasn't going to auditions 'cause I was, like, working already. I think I had like one audition during "Fatal Vision" on an off day. But after "Fatal Vision," wrapped, then here I was in Los Angeles all of a sudden going into casting offices.

Now, if you remember in 1984, that was, I think, like, the height of Gary Coleman on "Diff'rent Strokes." You know, and on the same network that the miniseries was on on NBC. So for the first year I was in Hollywood, when a casting director opened the door to the director and the producer sitting there, I was invariably introduced as, gentlemen, I'd like you to meet Gary Coleman.

Oh, I'm sorry, Gary Cole. And of Course, it was a nice icebreaker for, you know, a few minutes talking about, oh, no, I'm Gary Cole. And then I would proceed to, you know, stink up the room. But, yeah, that happened quite a lot because he was, you know, at that time, he was, you know, he was kind of right in the main wheelhouse there.

DAVIES: But you didn't get sent to parts for a 12-year-old?

COLE: No, we never went up for the same part, as I recall, you know. I actually had an idea once. And I wanted to run it by him, but it was - he passed away. 'Cause I had done a couple of Funny or Die things for - 'cause Will and Adam McKay, who founded Funny or Die - and I did a couple of those before.

But I had an idea that me and Gary Coleman should do one in the waiting room of a casting office and, you know, and play with that mistaken identity. But it wasn't meant to be.

DAVIES: It would've been fun. Well, Gary Cole, thanks so much for speaking with us.

COLE: Thanks very much. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Gary Cole co-stars in the HBO series "Veep." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. After we take a short break, we'll feature an onstage interview with cartoonist Daniel Clowes, whose comics "Ghost World" and "Art School Confidential" were adapted into films. This is FRESH AIR.

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