CHICAGO — Actress Anna Chlumsky fidgeted in her chair with the tenuous excitement of a girl readying to open a soda can she’s just finished shaking. Her gaze and attention focused sharply on the woman seated across from her, Sheila Nix, chief of staff to Dr. Jill Biden. Nix had just been asked — in front of a University of Chicago auditorium filled with political science students and TV fans — what people in Washington, D.C., think of HBO’s political comedy, “Veep.” On the show, Chlumsky plays Amy Brookheimer, the fictional vice president’s chief of staff.
As a real-life counterpart to Brookheimer, Nix can speak with authority on whether the show is doing the capital justice.
“People really like ‘Veep,’ ” Nix said as a wide smile swept across Chlumsky’s face. “There’s always a lot of discussion about it … There are really funny (Washington) pieces that I think the show gets just right.”
“Yay,” Chlumsky squealed with glee.
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Chlumsky has plenty to be delighted with these days.
Critical darling “Veep” has been renewed for a fourth season, and her depiction of the work-obsessed, ever-willing Brookheimer is even stronger and more nuanced this season than her Emmy-nominated performance last season.
Equally commendable is her emotional turn as Miriam Lass, a torture survivor on NBC’s ultracreepy “Hannibal.” A recent episode heavily featured Chlumsky’s dramatic chops when she had a psychotic break in the presence of the person she believed was her tormentor.
“It was amazing to see her come on (‘Hannibal,’) have a very specific performance and see something so diametrically opposed” on “Veep,” said Bryan Fuller, creator of “Hannibal.” “She’s just as genuine and honest and believable in both worlds.”
Chlumsky also recently wrapped filming “The End of the Tour,” an upcoming Jesse Eisenberg-helmed flick. And with an almost 1-year-old daughter, Penelope, she’s relishing new motherhood.
Think of this moment as Chlumsky’s second act.
The Broadview, Ill., native’s first came relatively early, at age 10, when she starred in 1991’s “My Girl.” The film broke countless hearts with its poignant take on the trials and tribulations of growing up.
Before her appearance last month at U. of C., her alma mater, Chlumsky, 33, enjoyed a cappuccino and loquaciously described her fondness for the craft of acting.
“The best acting happens when you are completely un-self-conscious,” she said. “To me, the idea that you can put all of your attention on a text or on a partner or on the present moment, that is just a really noble form of storytelling. I am still falling in love with it to that degree.”
For “My Girl” to succeed, the casting department had to find a lead actress who could hit the movie’s one-liners and linger in its heartbreaking moments, said Alan Berger, a casting assistant on the film.
“We needed a star,” he said. “We needed magic.”
One night, after weeks of watching hundreds of taped auditions, Berger stumbled upon the plucky, every-girl he’d been looking for.
“All of a sudden, I see Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Sandra Bullock, that kind of top-drawer, genuine article stuff,” he said, “and right then and there I knew without question that here is the girl.”
An unknown save for a bit part in “Uncle Buck,” Chlumsky played Vada Sultenfuss, the death-obsessed daughter of a funeral parlor owner. Even at 10, Chlumsky deftly balanced the role’s dramatic and comedic elements.
“It was a blast,” Chlumsky said. “I wasn’t aware that I was making college money. I wasn’t aware that people would see it. I was just kind of going for the ride.”
HBO’s “Veep” follows the goings-on in the dysfunctional office of fictional Vice President Selina Meyer, played by Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Although many of the characters on the show are dedicated to the “Veep,” Chlumsky’s Brookheimer goes that extra mile.
Brookheimer has pretended to have a miscarriage to take heat off the veep (who did have a miscarriage), risked her career to (unsuccessfully) control a “puff piece” featuring the veep’s ex-husband and daughter and, in a recent episode, even flushed the veep’s toilet.
Brookheimer’s dedication comes from her need to “win” at Washington’s game of power, Chlumsky said.
“She just really wants to control everything,” Chlumsky said. “She’s got an awareness of culture and stuff, but she doesn’t have any sense that there is something greater than herself. … She can almost chase her own tail just trying to find the most powerful position at any given moment.”
Brookheimer is domineering and demanding, but there’s something redeeming about Chlumsky’s portrayal. Brookheimer seems to care deeply for Selina and feels responsible for making sure her office mates stay employed.
“I think, as an audience, you feel a kind of sympathy for Amy,” said Julia Louis-Dreyfus during a phone interview. “You are kind of rooting for her and I think it speaks to (Chlumsky’s) ability to bring humanity to the role.”
Armando Iannucci created “Veep” after his movie “In the Loop,” a comedy about how the British and U.S. governments engineer a fictional war, became a film-circuit standout.
The 2009 movie marked Chlumsky’s return to the big screen, and when it came to casting “Veep,” Iannucci didn’t see anyone else for Brookheimer.
“She’s got this strength to be very real and natural and yet there is a great comic delivery as well,” Iannucci said. “She knows where to take the joke.”
Chlumsky is also a consummate team player, her colleagues attested.
She “is very interested and invested in not only her storyline, but other characters’ story lines and she’s very eager to help everybody out,” Louis-Dreyfus said.
“I will come in to a scene and use her like Wikipedia and say what happened before this,” said Matt Walsh, who plays press secretary Mike McClintock. “For a lazy actor like myself, she is a great touchstone for what is at stake in the scene.”