Gary Cole has a knack for landing iconic roles. The suspender-wearing, middle-manager nightmare known as Lumbergh in Office Space. A bewigged, utterly charming Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch films. Will Ferrell’s scuzzy, estranged father in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. All confident men who can’t quite mask an underlying idiocy.
Cole’s appeal, whether he’s working big or dialing it back, is that he seems in on the joke – and he knows how to time a straight-faced punch line with just the right amount of deeply buried sass and bite. He might be among the most underrated comedic performers working today.
His list of TV credits is just as long, from Curb Your Enthusiasm to 30 Rock to Desperate Housewives to Entourage. Every time you look up, it seems, there’s Gary Cole.
This has been an especially strong year for him. Adding to his recurring role on CBS’ The Good Wife (as ballistics expert and Diane Lockhart love interest Kurt McVeigh), this spring he joined the second season of the HBO political satire Veep as a White House numbers cruncher able to squash the vice president’s credibility with little more than an annoyed glance – a meta-comical turning of the tables from Cole’s callow vice president (aka Bingo Bob) on The West Wing.
This summer he has been enjoying a multi-episode arc on USA’s Suits as a special prosecutor all too happy to flash a garbage-eating grin at his former protégé before shoving a few slices of humble pie in the guy’s face. The show, which airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays, is better than most on basic cable when it comes to bridging the gap between disposable, easy-to-watch antics and serialized drama.
In the next few weeks, Cole said, he’ll be back juggling work on the CBS and HBO shows. “The good news for me is that The Good Wife is in New York, and Veep is in Baltimore,” he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. That’s a two-hour train ride, so it’s just [makes a whistle sound] zip up and back and it all works.”
A good portion of the Veep scripts, Cole said, are derived from rehearsal-generated improvisations. “It’s a different animal, and it’s not where I came from,” is how he put it. “It’s not how I was trained. I don’t think I do it very well. I’m learning basically through necessity.”
He has a role in a Melissa McCarthy next movie, Tammy, due out next summer, which he describes as “basically a road trip movie with her and Susan Sarandon. Our scenes all took place either in a bar or a motel room; I was usually drunk and so was Susan Sarandon. I play a low-life, bar-crawling lech.”
Cole has a tendency to play around with facial hair choices. These days it’s a mustache for The Good Wife and Suits and a full beard for Veep.
“I’d like to say it was all planned. But the truth is, nothing was planned. It all started with boredom on my part and doing TV pilot after TV pilot that went in the tank or not even getting cast in stuff. So at one point I grew a mustache, just for grins.”
It fit the bill for The Good Wife, which returns Sept. 29, so he kept it. Later he grew a beard for a play, and the folks at Veep liked it too. Suits wanted him clean-shaven, but that didn’t jibe with his Good Wife look, so the mustache stayed.
“It’s a quality problem to have, is what I’m saying. And now I’ve got the beard again.
“I’m not anything but a hair-and-facial-hair actor,” he said, letting the dry delivery of the line do the heavy lifting, a skill he’s deployed to such wry effect throughout his career. “That’s the extent of my talent: What hair and facial hair I have.”