I don’t get that whole ‘Oh, what would have happened if I hadn’t pursued acting?’ thing,” says Anna Chlumsky, forking her way through a crêpe at Chelsea’s Le Grainne, where I’d found her quietly reading The Importance of Being Earnest. “I don’t get that itch.” Which is probably because she’s been leading a normal life that most former successful child actors can only imagine living. The 31-year-old Fort Greene resident makes her premium-cable debut this week as Amy Brookheimer, the young chief of staff to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s vice-president, in HBO’s new political sitcom, Veep. It’s her most prominent role since she starred opposite Macaulay Culkin in the 1991 coming-of-age dramedy My Girl, became instantly famous at age 10, then disappeared from Hollywood’s radar almost as quickly. It wasn’t by choice: Parts dried up, she says, “when T&A started to grow,” which casting directors mistook for fat.
A more traditional post-child-stardom career might have taken her to rehab or through SUV doors sans undergarments, but after attending a Lutheran high school in Melrose Park, Illinois, and majoring in international studies at the University of Chicago, Chlumsky moved to New York and found work as a fact-checker for Zagat. She hated the job and remembers lunch breaks during which she’d “cry and then get chocolate.” Her next gig, as an editorial assistant at a fantasy imprint at HarperCollins, was more her speed. A self-admitted nerd, Chlumsky spent her free time practicing kung fu, managing fantasy-football teams, and, occasionally, publicly krumping: “There are songs where no matter how much you know you shouldn’t—like the Ying Yang Twins’ ‘Shake’—I’ll be in a dress, and I’ll krump to it. It’s horrible!”
Eventually, though, she began to miss acting. Seeing Broadway shows made her nostalgic. There were gentle nudges from friends. Once in a nail salon, Roberta Flack, of all people, told Chlumsky she needed to get back in the business. Chlumsky bristled. “I was like, ‘No, I don’t,’ but then I was like, Why would I be resentful of something Roberta Flack told me?” It wasn’t until after a long talk with her husband, Shaun, that she finally realized she wanted back in. “I can’t be the grandma with my grandkid on my knee telling them to follow their dreams and have them say, ‘Did you?’ and go, ‘No, I didn’t, but you should.’ ”
Not that it was easy. Chlumsky had to trade martial arts for Bikram yoga because she couldn’t afford insurance and was nervous about flying fists. Her new agent bluntly told her she needed training, so she enrolled at Manhattan’s Atlantic Acting School—to relearn, as she sees it, something that had come naturally the first time around. “Kids are truthful by nature,” Chlumsky explains. “When moms and dads put their kids in acting class, good luck. Because you’re just filling them with stuff they don’t need yet.”
Roles came slowly at first, but Chlumsky eventually landed a 2007 episode of 30 Rock and a part in British director Armando Iannucci’s 2009 black comedy, In the Loop, about the machinations leading up to America’s invasion of Iraq, which is the source material for Veep (Iannucci created the show, too). In Loop, a brunette Chlumsky played a zhlubbily dressed low-level State Department official. In Veep, her character is blonde, wears J.Crew and Theory suits (just one considered, careerist tick below her boss’s level of stylishness), and is higher up on the political food chain. “I kind of feel like I got promoted,” she says.
Chlumsky was the only member of Loop’s cast rehired for Veep. She’s not sure why, but says her deadpan approach to comedy provides a counterweight for the antics of the series’ wackier characters. “I never want to play for a laugh, because the second you play for a laugh, you’re not in the moment.”
She may be a subtle presence onscreen, but Chlumsky is hammy off it: She talks with big gestures and slips into a self-mocking falsetto when discussing things like her “craft.” “That’s the vaudevillian [in me],” she says, remembering a childhood audition for a production of Annie when she ended her song on one knee, Jolson style. It also seems like nervousness for someone wise enough not to get too comfortable with success. When she tells me a director she’d worked with before on the shows Cupid and White Collar had suggested her for a guest role on an upcoming episode of Army Wives, she squeals: “Oooh! Sorry, I just had a moment. Holy shit, that’s really neat!”
The best part about the repeat bookings is that they have nothing to do with My Girl. Still, she says, she understands why she’ll forever be associated with her first, most famous gig. “People look to you to replace a part in their lives that they can’t get back,” she says. “You can’t get the past back, you can’t do it. We’ve all tried.” As we pay the check, our waitress tells Chlumsky, “I gotta tell you, you look exactly the same.” She smiles politely and walks outside into a sunny spring afternoon.