Reid Scott has made something of an art out of portraying charming cads. For seven seasons of HBO’s Veep, he played the slick political operator Dan Egan, and now he’s back as the self-centered monologue writer Tom Campbell in the big-screen comedy Late Night.
“I’m making a career out of playing a privileged white prick,” he jokes, “giving voice to all those who already have one.”
Scott tells EW that the secret to playing these grossly entitled characters and still making them likable is to always find a way to undercut or redeem them. On Veep it was the former option, making Dan a sort of underdog through his continual tendency to fail at his schemes. “It brings him down to a little bit more of a human level — this Georgetown Sisyphus that he is,” Scott says.
But with Tom it’s something a bit softer, with a lot more redemption up for grabs. “It’s been fun. It’s certainly cathartic to play the dick and say all the things that you don’t want to say in your waking life,” Scott says. “Playing Tom Campbell, it was a no-brainer for me because I knew the headspace this guy was in based on my experience with Dan. But unlike Dan, who very pointedly said in season 4, ‘I have no soul,’ Tom Campbell has a soul.”
For Scott, it wasn’t about making Tom a textbook misogynist or deliberately cruel, so much as it was about having his privilege disrupted and being forced to interrogate that. “He might be in his little bubble of white privilege, but he’s unaware that he is,” the actor says. “Once it gets pointed out to him, ‘Oh, you think you’re so progressive and liberal but you’re actually not,’ he does this 180 and he actually grows. To me, playing a character that actually really has an emotional journey, that’s interesting to me.”
The role also involved getting inside the head of a late-night comedy writer, something Scott had no personal experience with but had numerous references for at his fingertips. Most immediately, he turned to the Veep writers’ room. “Veep was a very unique show in that we had a lot of access to the writers because we were very collaborative sort of show, which isn’t typically the case on many television programs,” he says. “We were invited to come by the writers’ room, the writers were invited to our rehearsals. I got to see the inner workings of a writers’ room, and a lot of our writers’ came from late-night television.”
Scott reveals that he and Late Night screenwriter/star Mindy Kaling based his character on a few of the Veep writers, smushing together some of their characteristics to create a realistic figure to head up this fictional writers’ room and serve as an antagonist to Kaling’s Molly Patel. “That was more aimed at the vernacular, the overall aesthetic, the patois with which he speaks,” Scott says of the inspiration. “It wasn’t necessarily about their individual politics; it was more how do these guys behave when they’re in the writers’ room.”
Fans of Kaling might assume that the antagonistic-turned-friendly relationship between Molly (a character inspired by Kaling’s early experiences as a “diversity hire”) and Tom is inspired by Kaling’s real-life friend and former boyfriend B.J. Novak. Scott admits it’s something he and Kaling discussed. “I think [Tom] represents several influential people that have crossed her path,” he muses. “I don’t think he’s supposed to be B.J. by any means. Mindy told me, ‘B.J. is going to see this movie and think that Reid is playing him,’ but that’s not necessarily so. He’s representative of several people.”
Besides the characters’ privilege, Tom and Dan share another fun trait: being verbally eviscerated by the women who are their bosses (Emma Thompson’s Katherine Newbury and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer). Scott says it’s a pleasure in both cases, particularly because the actresses behind the roles are so different from their characters. “These two women that are so powerful and quote-unquote intimidating are two of the warmest, kindest women that I’ve ever had the good fortune of working with,” he gushes.
And then there’s Kaling herself, making her feature film screenwriting debut with Late Night. Scott says the two of them were friends before the film, which is partly why he got involved. But his primary takeaway from working on the project with her was not only that there should be a woman like Katherine Newbury in late-night television, but that it should be Kaling herself.
“I think she really could do it,” Scott says. “She’s so funny, so smart. She’s very easy to talk to. She’s very disarming, so she gets people to get into a vulnerable space very quickly, so she’d probably give a really great interview. But every time we tease her about it, she generally comments that all late-night talk show hosts generally go insane from doing it every single night. She just doesn’t want that gig. But I think she’d be great at it.”
Late Night is in theaters now.