“I only surround myself with people who are intellectually stimulating,” declared Vada Sultenfuss, the 11-year-old silver-tongued protagonist of 1991’s My Girl.
While the seminal coming-of-age film is best remembered for Macaulay Culkin’s character’s untimely demise—by a swarm of bees, no less—it also introduced the world to a rising talent: Anna Chlumsky. With her pouty lips, cherub face, and teethy smile, the newcomer nailed the role of Vada, a tomboy hypochondriac, leading Newsweek to write, “Chlumsky, a quirkily beautiful 11-year-old gamine making her first movie, is a gem, the next Brooke Shields.”
After struggling to book roles through her awkward teen years, however, Chlumsky decided to walk away from acting.
“When did the work stop? T&A,” says Chlumsky over coffee with The Daily Beast. “During that awkward puberty phase, they don’t want to hire you. They think you’re too fat, that I have chubby cheeks, and at that age things aren’t proportioned, so they mistook that for being overweight. There were a series of auditions for a number of years where that was the reason given.”
Now 31, Chlumsky still has the puffy lips, piercing blue eyes, and wide smile. She’s quite petite in person and incredibly loquacious—which makes her a perfect fit for Armando Ianucci’s mile-a-minute political satire Veep, airing Sunday nights on HBO. She plays the comparatively sensible chief of staff opposite absent-minded Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and the show is getting rave reviews.
Born in Chicago, Chlumsky had her first modeling gig at 10 months old for the department store Carson Pirie Scott. More child modeling followed, and she soon got into TV commercials, booking her first at age 2. When she was 8, Chlumsky was cast as an extra in a schoolyard scene in the 1989 John Hughes film Uncle Buck. Oddly enough, she didn’t meet Culkin on the film, but after a nationwide search was cast opposite the child star as Vada in My Girl.
“We had a really good time, and he’s a lovely kid,” says Chlumsky. “You lose touch, but it almost feels like summer camp, in a way. He would like to come up with pranks on our tutor, and we thought we’d get ketchup and, since we were shooting in Florida, pretend this huge, plastic alligator killed us.”
The tearjerker grossed close to $60 million at the box office, and has since become a ‘90s classic. Chlumsky and Culkin even wound up winning Best Kiss at the 1992 MTV Movie Awards.
“I watched My Girl as an adult pretty recently, and it’s a good movie!” says Chlumsky. “I think what makes that movie resonate is that it treats kids as people. A lot of movies treat kids like idiots.”
Chlumsky would go on to star in My Girl 2, Trading Mom opposite Sissy Spacek, and 1995’s Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain, alongside Christina Ricci. But the roles dried up when puberty struck. Frustrated, she decided to quit acting and attend the University of Chicago, majoring in international studies.
“It was easy for me to leave acting for school, because I wasn’t really in it as an adolescent for fulfilling reasons,” she says. “It was to please adults, and once the fun was over, it just got ugly, so I left. In college, you write a term paper and do well, and it’s fun.”
After graduating in 2002, Chlumsky moved to Brooklyn with her then-boyfriend (now husband) Shaun So, and endured what she describes as “a pre-midlife crisis,” first working at Zagat cold-calling people for questionnaires and then as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins for science-fiction novels. In her spare time, she’d take in shows on Broadway.
“If you’re going to have a 9-to-5 job, one of the best jobs you can have is reading about princesses or goblins all day,” says Chlumsky. “But I was still really unhappy. I was asking myself every hour of every day, ‘Why am I so unhappy?’ And it’s because I wasn’t acting.”
In 2004 she connected with an agent in New York, quit her sci-fi job, and, at the advice of her agent, enrolled in a summer intensive course at the Atlantic Acting School to get some formal training. In early 2005, So, an Army reservist, was deployed to Afghanistan. Despite suffering from “random emotional breakdowns,” Chlumsky decided to dive headfirst into acting.
She appeared in 10 plays back to back and then in January 2007 guest-starred on an episode of Law & Order, playing a woman who buried a baby. Two months later, she appeared on an episode of 30 Rock as Liz Lemler, the girlfriend of Liz Lemon’s (Tina Fey) crush Floyd, played by Jason Sudeikis.
“Stuff really started to cook that season,” says Chlumsky.
After the TV gigs, Chlumsky starred in the off-Broadway play Unconditional at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s LAByrinth Theater Company. In what she describes as “a really heavy show,” she played a self-mutilating meth-head goth who was into S&M. “One scene you’re slapping each other and spitting in each other’s faces, the other scene you’re taking meth.” She laughs. “I love being balls out. Then the In the Loop audition came around, and it was like nothing compared to that.”
According to Chlumsky, the In the Loop audition was completely cold. She walked in, was told she worked for the State Department, and went for it, deciding to channel some of her fellow international-studies students at the University of Chicago. For the second round of auditions, she was paired with Zach Woods, who was reading for the role of a junior staffer in the State Department, and the duo was told to improvise insults at each other for 30 minutes. After witnessing this impressive display, writer-director Armando Ianucci knew he’d found the right woman for the role of Liza Weld, assistant to U.S. Undersecretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clark, played by Mimi Kennedy.
Ianucci’s hilarious film, with its witty, nonstop barrage of insults, was released in 2009 to critical raves, including an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. And Chlumsky managed to stand out even amid such acting talents as James Gandolfini, Steve Coogan, and Peter Capaldi.
“I think people realized this chick’s almost 30 and can hold her own,” she says. “What was even better, though, was I loved working with the people so much, and when you gel with somebody, you just want to keep working with them.”
She’s now reunited with Ianucci in another political satire, the critically lauded HBO series Veep, receiving second billing behind Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The show utilizes the same cinéma vérité style as In the Loop and stars Dreyfus as the vice president of the U.S., who’s in way over her head, with Chlumsky as her distressed chief of staff trying to reel her in.
“As far as politics goes, it’s just a big, big ‘lighten up’ moment,” says Chlumsky. “And I can’t even wrap my head around [the GOP]. Just the backwards motion. Figure out where the wind is blowing, you know?”
Chlumsky will next star in the indie comedy Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship, which will be released later this year, and in an example of art imitating life, she shot an episode of Army Wives that will air sometime in May. Currently she lives in Brooklyn with So, and now that her career has taken off again, says she has “the twinkle” to start a family of her own in the near future.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever shake the mentality of, Holy shit ... Will I get another job?” says Chlumsky, with a nervous laugh, “But I’m at this nice place right now where maybe I don’t have to audition for undesirable things and can look for quality material. It’s such a wonderful feeling.” She pauses. “Especially for someone as opinionated as me.”