Questions for Anna Chlumsky

The My Girl star talks about the upcoming HBO series VEEP, her turn as Liz Lemon’s nemesis, and her life-changing encounter with a psychic.

Anna Chlumsky

Anna Chlumsky was the appealing child star of the early ‘90s tear-jerker My Girl. Good, now that we’ve gotten that bit of unavoidable info out of the way, let’s talk about all of the exciting projects that the, yes, 30-year-old actress is taking on this year. First there is an adorable TV-movie premiering on Saturday, May 7, called Three Weeks, Three Kids (Hallmark Channel, 9 p.m. ET), in which Chlumsky plays a twentysomething Petra Pan type who is forced to grow up when she unexpectedly has to take care of her sister’s children.

Chlumsky has also been cast in the new HBO comedy VEEP, a political satire from Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci, the profane genius behind the movie In the Loop. (Chlumsky had a supporting role in that film.) In VEEP, Chlumsky will play the ambitious chief-of-staff to a fictional vice president played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The series starts shooting in the fall. In the meantime, Chlumsky, a charming, self-proclaimed nerd, will be hanging out at home in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband, who is in the Army Reserve.

Slate spoke to a heavily-caffeinated Chlumsky about her past as an editorial desk monkey (she used to work in publishing), her “pre-life” crisis involving a psychic, and her turn as Liz Lemon’s nemesis on 30 Rock.

Slate: I read that you had a bunch of jobs in publishing after college—at the Zagat Survey and at HarperCollins—before you got back into acting. What made you go from acting to editorial work and back again?

Anna Chlumsky: When I graduated from college I thought I was over with show business and was pursuing other things. I was fact-checking for Zagat—that was my entry-level job. Then I stared dabbling in fiction writing, and I was getting more of an interest in books. I went to HarperCollins and edited science fiction and fantasy. I’m pretty nerdy, as you might be able to tell from my résumé—[I went to the] University of Chicago and then [edited] science fiction. I thought when I got the really great nine-to-five [job], when it’s the best in their world, then I’ll be happy. Then I got it—I was reading about goblins and princesses and graphic novels—I can’t think of a more fun nine–to-five. I was looking at comic books and was allowed to have a big-’ol Wolverine poster in my office! But I was still super unhappy.

There were a lot of signs leading up to my getting back into [the] business. I was crying on my lunch break, and a psychic was handing out her pamphlets, and she said, “Excuse me I have a question.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, get away from me.” But she followed me and poked me on the shoulder and said, “Are you the girl from My Girl?” At the time, I couldn’t go anywhere without someone recognizing me, and I wasn’t in the mood. But before that, maybe for a few weeks, I had friends who said “You need to start acting,” and I was ignoring it. I said, “Yes,” to the psychic, and she was like, “You still want to act,” and I was like, “Oh god!” And she basically … I fell hook, line and sinker. I paid her like, $40 for 10 minutes of palm reading.

I went back to work and thought why did I just do that? Spend a stupid amount of money? At the time my husband was training for the Army Reserve, and I called him and told him the story. I said, “Maybe I need to go to therapy.” And he told me, “What will anyone tell you that you can’t already tell yourself?” So I asked him, “What would you say if I gave it a go again?” and he said, “I can’t be training in the Army Reserve and tell you not to take a risk.” So that was what led up to my acting again.

Slate: So you’re not regularly calling the Psychic Friends Network, asking for career advice?

Chlumksy: There were other things happening that were pushing me towards acting. I knew I needed to pursue this dream of mine as an adult, as a thinking individual, and not as a kid. That’s what it was about. So I called my agent, and said, I’m ready. They suggested I get some training, get some chops going. So I went to the Atlantic [Theater Company] and did a real intensive course with them, and the rest is history.

Slate: In Three Weeks, Three Kids, your character is struggling to find herself careerwise, just like it seems you did. Is that why you chose the role?

Chlumsky: That was exactly why I did it. I wrote an essay back in the day for a book called Before the Mortgage, about people going through that pre-life crisis. It was a story I was familiar with and cared about, and it’s somebody I haven’t played because in theater I play a lot of teenagers. I hadn’t revisited that person yet. It was fun to revisit a 25-year-old as a burgeoning 30-year-old who has given it some thought.

Slate: Did you have anything else published besides that essay?

Chlumsky: I haven’t published any fiction, more short [essay] kind of stuff. Isn’t it the way life works. It was only after I left [the publishing] industry and got back into [the acting] industry, did the essay become good, because I had a story to tell. I spent two years trying to become a published author, and it happened when I didn’t need it.

Slate: You’re going to be working with Armando Iannucci again in a second political satire, VEEP. Is your character in this series like Liza from In the Loop?

Chlumsky: The same folks are writing it and directing and producing, so there is a style similarity. [My character] Amy is a different gal—she’s not up-and-coming, she’s chief of staff. She’s a young chief of staff for a vice president, and a female chief of staff, so certainly there will be comedy and dramatic moments in that people will want to test her a lot. She is the CEO of the company of the vice president, and she’s got a mouth on her, and she bosses people around. She takes no prisoners.

Slate: Doesn’t everyone have a mouth on them in an Iannucci project? I’m remembering the amazingly profane tirades of Peter Capaldi’s character, Malcolm, in In the Loop and The Thick of It.

Chlumsky: I don’t have any Malcolm-style tirades. I have no idea what made it into the pilot, but as we were filming there were some zingers that I liked.

Slate: Iannucci has a fundamentally cynical view of politics—do you share that view?

Chlumsky: I suppose it could be seen as cynical, but to me it just seems fair and rational. This is something that I loved about In the Loop. To me [Iannucci] is so refreshing because he confirms that politics is not a religion. A lot of people turn it into some kind of comic book, fantasy type thing where it’s about good and evil, bad guys and good guys. It’s not supernatural—it’s just people with jobs. They go to work and drink coffee. Some people are good at it and some people are bad at it. This is life, and they carry on and make decisions, and there can be a lot of absurdity involved in that. It can shed light on something that you already see is true.

Slate: But wasn’t there something futile about the way politics are conducted in In the Loop?

Chlumsky: I agree that there’s a sense of “nobody’s a hero,” so there’s a futility in that sense. Does it mean that it’s a bad thing? I don’t know. Is just is. VEEP is going to be like that. Nobody’s safe.

I get so bored when this person’s bad and this person’s good. My first litmus test when I see a piece or read a piece is: Is someone feeding me answers or did I leave with questions? That’s for me the only way to make an excellent piece.

Slate: Speaking of excellence, you were on an episode of 30 Rock as Liz Lemon’s nemesis, Liz Lemler. How was that experience?

Chlumsky: It was great! That role changed as we did it. We went in wondering, is she going to be a bitch? Or a snide person? Or this way or that way? It came out very differently than we thought it would. It makes for great comedy, we had a blast.

Slate: Finally, what’s the best thing you saw on the Internet this week?

Chlumsky: I had some good experiences this week. I enjoyed a New York Times article about Petraeus and Panetta [“Panetta and Petraeus in Line for Top Security Posts“]. Wait, I want to find something more fun … This is the most fun thing! There’s this thing that I do every once in a while, The Color Quiz—I swear to god it works. It’s kind of like reading a horoscope. It’s a psychological test. It does your psychology, based on how you felt that day.

Slate: Much like the mood ring at the center of My Girl!

Chlumsky: Except this works—mood rings don’t work. I’ve had more experiences with this quiz where I’m going, yeah, right on! This is exactly how I’m feeling! It’s an emotional pulse.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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