Sue Wilson doesn’t have a fake dog. She’s never used a connected boyfriend to get ahead in her career. There is no BlackBerry tethered to her wrists, no absurdly large bag perpetually strapped to her shoulder. And, perhaps most charmingly, her sole reason for living does not appear derived from the fact that she is—because of the current administration—now associated with the White House. (But oh, how we love you, Jonah.) As one of the characters in curious and sometimes moronic orbit around Vice President Selina Meyer in the hilarious HBO comedy Veep, Sue, played by the bright and affable Sufe Bradshaw (pronounced Soo-fee), is a master communicator, the character (besides the VP’s own daughter) most undaunted by the relative inconsequence of the veep’s lack of importance.
Yet Veep, created by the British comedy writer and director Armando lannucci, is taken to a new level with Bradshaw’s performance. As is so common in network and cable comedies, her race is not a quirk; she’s no more vulnerable by her lot in life than she is to snap her fingers, okay? She’s just real. And competent. So if Iannucci’s giving us commentary on the absurdity of American politics, the politics of race can be just as silly. Leave it to a Brit to lay that bare, intentionally or not.
Bradshaw’s views on her character’s race are also bit more complex than black and white. She talked about her craft with EBONY.com from Los Angeles. She dishes on the show, freedom to create her own material on camera, and a new documentary she’s working on to empower young people.
EBONY: You are pretty awesome on the show, by any standard. In what ways is this role different from the theater and stage work you’ve done?
Sufe Bradshaw: Doing this show reaches a higher demographic of people, a larger audience. Which is fantastic and why I love TV so much, you know? It can reach everyone around the world. As for theater, it’s really just in the town that it’s being performed in. That’s the great thing about the medium of television and film. We get to affect everybody around the world.
EBONY: Walk us through reading for the part and learning that you got it?
SB: Auditions took place about a month before we went to shoot it. The show is shot in Baltimore, Maryland. So my agent emailed me the audition, which is, like, standard. And I’m thinking, well, I have no idea what the show is, but I’ve been a fan of HBO forever, I love Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Armando Iannucci has a great track record [Laughs.]. So it sounded like a really great project to be a part of. And I go to the first audition, which was a Skype audition because the creators were in Baltimore scouting for locations.
A little secret about actors is that we never think we do a great job in auditions. We kind of just go in and do our work and leave sort of hoping for the best. It’s an interesting dynamic—acting is such an interesting job. You never quite know how well you do. So here I am. I tried to do as much research as I possibly could on the character. I went away not knowing how that went. The second day I got a call from my agent saying that I’d gotten a callback. I thought something must have worked out in the room! They must have liked something they saw. The next audition was also via Skype, but this time I was redirected to do the character in a different way. They wanted to see how flexible I was as an actor. After that happened, I thought, welp, I didn’t get that [Laughs]. ‘OK I’ll just put my head down here.’
I think about a week went by I got a call from my agent saying that they wanted to see me in Baltimore and have me do a chemistry test with Anna Chlumsky (My Girl), who plays Amy in the show. So I met Anna which was such a pleasure because I was a big fan of hers from My Girl [Laughs.] We read in Baltimore. They flew me out and put me up in a hotel for one day. I met everyone. And I walked out, thinking, ‘OK welp I didn’t get that [either]! [Laughs.] And then I got all packed up and out of the hotel. By the time the plane landed my agent called and told me that I got the job.
EBONY: Oh, wow. That was quick.
SB: It was such a great moment, I was screaming like a little girl [Laughs]. I was so happy because it was such a great milestone in my career and a great opportunity.
EBONY: What do you make of the fact that everyone in the office seems to encompass various levels of incompetence, except for you?
SB: [Laughs.] Well I think in all great comedies there has got to be these different prototypes. There’s always like the straight man. And then the ingénue and then the one that it centers around. That’s the genius of the writers, they wrote all of our characters like that. So they wrote Sue to be the straighter, more grounded one, who, looking at the rest of her officemates freaking out and losing their mind [doesn’t really fret]. In order for our comedy to be grounded it needed to have a character like Sue who can sort of observe the absurdities. So I think that’s why the character is written the way she is. She brings a little grounding to their otherwise normally chaotic lives.
EBONY: When your character facetiously asks Matt McLintock if he thinks you look like a kindergarten teacher, he answers yes. And then you fire back, ‘Excuse me?’ What did that illustrate to you and what are you thinking when you read that on the page?
SB: [Laughs.] Funny enough, I’m not thinking, ‘Black person,’ but where does this girl come from? Where’d she go to school? How’d she get the job in the White House? What are her morals? What are the circumstances of her life? What is she there to do? My job in this show is to make sure that the vice president gets where she’s supposed to be when she’s supposed to be there and makes all of her appointments on time. Honestly, when I’m reading the character, I’m thinking it’s not that she’s deliberately acerbic, rude or off-putting. I think she just has so much work to do that she literally does not have an ounce of time to placate Mike, for instance, or any other of those guys in the office.
And I think there is something to be said about the writers making her an African-American woman. We have that reputation. But with that said, I feel like the character Sue could have been any race, it just so happens that she’s Black, which is great. I’m really excited about those characters in entertainment this day and age. If you think about Person of Interest with Taraji P. Henson or Scandal with Kerry Washington — any of those Black women could have been any race, they just happen to be Black. And those are the characters that I’m more attracted to. It’s not so much about separation of race, but really more uniting us. I don’t know if Sue was written as a Black person. I think she was written as an acerbic person and that was attractive to me. But she certainly doesn’t have time to buy into the shenanigans of the office, as you’ve seen from the episodes.
EBONY: Do you think Sue’s race lends anything to the authenticity of the show? Because her Blackness, whatever that means, it certainly works on screen without pandering to the audience.
SB: That’s a good question, I don’t know. There’s actually been a lot of African-Americans featured as guest stars on the show this season. As well as we got picked up for a second season. And knowing my crew and the people in charge of casting, I mean, they’re just amazing. One of the themes of the show is that art is imitating life. So do I think that the angry Black woman thing is imitating life? Well no, because I think that those characters come in all shapes, sizes and colors. I think you’ve seen them at the DMV, at the airport, you know? So I think the job title as executive scheduler to the vice president lends to a certain lifestyle that the creators were going for. And I don’t think it was about race. I think it was bigger than race.
EBONY: The showrunners give a lot of freedom to see what actors can do with improvisation. Is there something we’ve seen so far that improvisational with you?
SB: That’s part of the reason why I enjoy working on Veep and why I’m really looking forward to the second season. As actors we were really given a lot of room to play around. A lot of it is improv, on the spot. In the last episode that just aired in episode four called, “Chung” some of that stuff at the end …those are my words as well as Tony Hale and Reid Scott. The direction and the writers are so fabulous with giving us room. There is a script, and if a word comes out of our mouth that’s not in the script—fine. With some shows you can’t really do that. It’s really great that we have liberty to go outside of it.
EBONY: Your documentary about young people, New Leaves, sounds intriguing. How did you become so passionate about children and teenagers?
SB: It’s really a labor of love for me. It’s a fascinating topic. I’ve always been interested in the turning point in a person’s life; are people born bad or do they turn that way? And I want to figure out if there’s a story there. Is it generational or economical? I was born on the west side of Chicago and there was quite a bit of poverty. My family and I didn’t have exactly the best, or the most optimal financial situation in my youth, but we turned out well. My mom always made sure that we got a proper education and that we dedicated ourselves to our work. Neither me, nor any of my nine siblings ended up in any kind of trouble. Then again, there were kids that I knew that ended up going to jail, selling drugs and just going down the wrong path. So my documentary is aimed at the turning point. Maybe if we can figure out the turning point in a kid’s life where they turn it around —whether it’s parenting, related to low self-esteem or their economic situation —if we can narrow it down and bring light to it then hopefully it’ll result in lowering the numbers of at-risk youth.
EBONY: What was your personal turning point?
SB: I had a great mother. I had an amazing mother. She raised nine kids practically as a single parent, which is the hardest thing in the world. Nine of us! Day in and day out. She had to make sure we all had an education and that we all felt loved. There was never really any room for a turning point for me. You were either going to college or you were going to get the hell out. She knew what she wanted for her children at a really early age and she was someone who really valued hard work and dedication. I think I’m fortunate in that sense, because I had friends who didn’t have great mothers and didn’t turn out so well. Now does that make one story or person better than another? No. It’s just influence and shows that what you practice is what you get. Practicing better living is better than practicing a lower way of life. I think it’s really an important.
Follow Sufe on Twitter @SufeBradshaw. Veep airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.